Tag Archives: The Acting Factory

Playing the victim

JUST ACTING Petruchio victimises Katharina, played by Gabrielle DeCelis (Photo: The Acting Factory).
JUST ACTING Petruchio victimises Katherina, played by Gabrielle DeCelis (Photo: The Acting Factory).

IN independent theatre circles, there’s long been an urban myth that if you manage to attract a casting agent to see your production, you’re in with a chance of scoring an audition for something bigger and better.

Securing the attendance of a casting agent is no mean feat.

It takes a great deal of networking (read: bothering) and a heavy dose of self belief (read: ambition).

The only time I ever managed it was during a production of The Taming of the Shrew, part of the annual Shakespeare by the River in the Penrith Valley, produced by the Acting Factory.

I’d met an assistant at an agency in the city during a previous casting. She was young, very inexperienced, and she revealed that she was from Penrith, allowing me to casually mention Shakespeare by the River…

I bothered. She came.

Maybe it was karma, but playing Petruchio, Shakespeare’s misogynist shrew-taming victimiser, somehow suggested I’d be perfect for playing a victim.

Generally in the ‘fifty-worder’ zone (roles of fifty words or less, defining them in an Equity pay bracket), victim roles are notoriously difficult to cast, because no serious (read: ambitious) actor wants to play them.

But I didn’t know any better, when I leapt at the chance of a casting session for the role of David Begg in an episode of Australia’s hottest hospital drama of the day: All Saints.

I donned my regulation neutral black T-shirt, which ensured I looked as much like my headshot as possible. I arrived slightly ahead of time to avoid the waiting room nerves, which was a good thing, because the noises coming from inside the casting room sounded like I was waiting to see a doctor at an amputation clinic: Mr Begg was the victim of a machete attack by his wife.

Listening to actors emulate the pain levels of machete attack is a little like tuning-into your neighbours having sex. When the casting agent asks for the actor to “please do it again, but make the pain levels nine out of 10” the intimacy escalates and diminishes in an amusingly familiar cadence, because, as they say, there’s a fine line between pleasure and pain.

Casting sessions and auditions are artificial situations that most actors relate as agonising. They are a chance to show that you’re a directable actor (read: you listen), and an opportunity to secure that ten-second moment in which the casting agency staff make up their minds about you, regardless of the performance you’re about to give.

I told my agent I’d gotten a casting for All Saints, and asked her to look out for a call about the result. Yes, you read correctly – I got the casting session independently of my agent, and I was willing to give her ten per cent of the fee should I get the job. If you can work out why actors always do this, you’ll make a million bucks.

A week later, she called, which meant I’d got the job. Agents never call otherwise.

HAND IT TO HIM a prosthetic hand was matched to my real one.
HAND IT TO HIM a prosthetic hand was matched to my real one.

A script followed. David Begg had five words (“Bitch cut my hand off”) and a maximum of 45 howls of pain, as he was wheeled into the Emergency ward of All Saints’ hospital, his hand-in-a-bag at his thigh, blood spraying everywhere.

At the read through early the next week, the familiar faces (read: stars) of All Saints sat on one side of the room, flanked by a wall of slightly familiar faces (read: guest stars), and a wall of nobodies (read: fifty-worders) by the door.

David Begg’s violent argument with his wife, of course, was background to looming hospital administration issues, and the sudden arrival of an emergency case was a way to see careworn and jaded hospital workers at their level best, but I spoke my lines (and expressed my pain) with the best of them.

A production assistant showed me to the props department, where my hand was matched with a latex dummy and an entire fake arm with a grisly stump wrist. The props team were having too much fun working out how to make an arterial spray.

Then the big day. Call sheets, early morning catering, quiet on the set, and plenty of waiting in the off-set zone of the studio, where I got chatting with the regular featured extras, those people you see in the background of the All Saints wards: nurses, doctors, and patients, none of them “serious” actors, but everyday people in well-paid regular work.

My call came and I was strapped onto the gurney with my good arm underneath me, in a position for which I would quickly become grateful for occasional yoga classes. The prosthetics were put into action and tested, and a nice, arterial spray was created by the props guy, cramped into the gurney below me.

No direction from the young director, then all of a sudden we were off …

Several takes of crashing through the plastic double doors resulted in a message from the director that there was “not enough blood!”. He put in a brief appearance and demonstrated to the prosthetics team, by wildly gesticulating, how he wanted the slaughter to appear.

They wheeled me back, the team tested a few angles, and we went through a few more takes.

Another message came through: my five words not being delivered clearly enough.

Now, I had my back story worked out. My imaginary wife had a name, and if you’d asked me anything about how we’d come to such a momentous argument, I’d have been able to tell you.

But, locked onto a gurney with my real arm numb below me, teams of creatives arguing about how to get the best out of the bloody stump, and me having to deliver my five words in the middle of the stars’ lines, I determined to go up a gear on the next take …

“That’s great!” the director yelled from his hidey-hole straight afterwards, “but MORE blood please!” he added.

The next take I sat up and grabbed the latex stump, aware of the proximity of the camera over the stars’ shoulders, and gave them all a liberal spraying.

“Better, but higher next time please,” was the response.

ALL STARS Some of the cast of medical drama All Saints (1998-2009).
ALL STARS Some of the cast of medical drama All Saints (1998-2009).

We had to wait while they replaced surgical gloves and cleaned-up the spray from the stars’ hospital scrubs, then, emboldened by creative ambition, and also wishing to get it right so my real arm could get real blood supplied to it as quickly as possible, I sat up higher, shouted my words to the boom, and sprayed a wall of Logie award winners with as much fake blood as they were ever likely to cop outside of a hammer horror remake of the Brides of Dracula. Acting method went out the window.

“Got it!” came the cry from behind the flats. “Thankyou to Michael,” a production assistant encouraged. The stars clapped unenthusiastically while costume attendants saw to the fake blood dripping from their brows.

Friends and family waited with great anticipation for the broadcast of my ten-second appearance weeks later. I missed it, working at my day job across town, but also because I was waiting for another call from fostering effective relations with a casting agency. Perhaps next time I’d graduate to more than 50 words?

But I’m still waiting, which is, I suppose, why serious actors never play the victim.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Being Gus

WAITING … WAITING Michael Burge and Andrew Broderick in The Acting Factory’s production of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter.

I WAS already having a bad year when my partner, Jono, died suddenly a fortnight prior to the opening of a show we were co-producing.

I’d managed to get myself sacked from my job performing a cross-dressed version of King Lear a few weeks earlier, but that’s another story …

In the midst of long, grief-stricken nights at home alone, and the increasingly difficult task of sorting through Jono’s estate while discovering that his mother and brother were denying the existence of our relationship, I got an email out of the blue from Sherreen Hennessy, a director I’d worked with before.

Thankfully devoid of overblown sympathy, except to say she’d heard the news about Jono, and, like most people, couldn’t believe it was true, Sherreen was contacting me with an offer to appear in a production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter for fledging theatre company The Acting Factory, at the Q Theatre.

It was a courageous request, considering the timing.

So I purchased a copy of Pinter’s one act masterpiece the day I collected Jono’s ashes from the funeral director.

I instantly fell in love with the role of Gus, one of a pair of hit men holed-up in some random basement.

We had our first read-through during my move back to the Blue Mountains, where I’d accepted good friends’ invitation to board for a while in their enormous house on the bush.

I attacked the read with a broad accent based on Monty Python’s Eric Idle – it seemed to fit with the text – and we (me, Sherreen and Andrew Broderick, playing Ben) agreed we’d stick to the original time period and location of the play, despite the other half to our whole – a production of Pinter’s The Lover (starring Lynne McGranger, Bill Conn, and directed by Fiona Press) – planning to locate in contemporary Australia.

My Mountains stay hit a devastating hiccup when I moved out of my friend’s place after only two nights. My shocking year changed up a gear with the realisation that I’d made one of the worst judgements of character in my life – saying yes to a constantly open door, only to find it slamming in my face, even as I reached the threshold. But that’s another story …

This set a pattern into motion, where I just began to live Gus’s life. Mine had quickly become inhabited by crooks and fakes, intent on denying the detail of my human rights, from my ownership of almost every item Jono and I shared, to my place as his spouse on his death certificate.

Being Gus was just easier than being me across that winter.

There are a thousand ways to play a Pinter character – the writer leaves so much to interpretation, while supporting the actor with strong speech rhythms (including the famous ‘Pinteresque’ pauses), which, once learnt, allowed me to explore to whatever depth I wanted.

Hiding as I was by then in a truer friend’s granny flat, I had Gus as a companion while the world got very, very surreal beyond the high fences.

He was a wonderful distraction: pedantic, freaked-out, faster at expressing his terror than the more powerful Ben. I could have left things at that, but I had the time and the need to go a lot deeper, and created for my Gus some wonderful messy qualities, and some fun contradictions.

The Dumb Waiter opens with stage directions telling us that Gus is unable to tie his shoelaces, but Pinter makes no suggestion when it comes time for him to don his tie. A man who cannot tie his laces is unlikely to be able to work a necktie, so who does it then, Ben? Perhaps, but my Gus could do it, in his own way, given enough time, which of course waiting hit men have plenty of.

GET IT? Michael Burge and Andrew Broderick in The Dumb Waiter.
WHILE YOU’RE WAITING Michael Burge and Andrew Broderick in The Dumb Waiter.

By the time we moved into the theatre the backstage half-light worked its magic.

I am a naturally tidy person, so, as Gus, I became a clean-freak’s nightmare. Every night before the house was open I’d play in Gus’s space and leave lolly wrappers, and other scraps, and I’d mess up his bed.

Andrew responded beautifully by making Ben fastidious. We never spoke about it, but whenever I’d come near Ben’s bed I’d be pulling at his blanket, strewing my stuff all over it and messing it up. Ben, meanwhile, would be straightening and trying to keep Gus at bay.

In the simplest way we found the actors’ game that is behind every scene in every play ever written for the stage.

What clinched my performance was swapping the plastic prop guns for the real thing, under a weapons wrangler’s instruction. I can still recall my first whiff of Gus’s gun. It reminded me of childhood fears around farm rifles, a primal, dirty, dangerous scent.

I put a question to the weapons guy: how would a lazy person ‘cock’ his weapon? He answered by just flicking the pistol hard to the right, clicking the barrel into place, like they did in the wild west.

In that moment I found the one thing Gus could do well and without fuss. Somewhere in there was the little boy who’d become the hit man. I was ready.

NICE ACT Lynne McGranger led the cast of The Acting Factory's Pinter double bill.
NICE ACT Lynne McGranger led the cast of The Acting Factory’s Pinter double bill.

On opening night, Lynne came into our dressing room and remarked on Jono’s photo sitting at my mirror. Bill and Andrew joined-in her brief, generous acknowledgement that my mainstay was missing on this night of nights. Jono’s rehearsal room death had by then become something whispered about amongst the showbusiness crowd.

Bill and Lynne worked the crucial live sound effects for Andrew and me, as we opened each night. Andrew and I were stage hands for Bill and Lynne when they followed, and Andrew went on as the Milkman in The Lover.

It was a supportive, well-received run and we got great notices for a tiny theatre company on the edge of the city.

Handling a gun nightly gave me a sense of power, when I was rendered powerless in the real world; speaking while people listened gave me a sense of being heard, while I was silenced in the real world; and being a single hit man on the job gave me a sense of freedom, when my whole world had collapsed.

I will possibly never be more ably equipped as an actor.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved