The Weight of the Cross

I hate Sydney. I’m up here touring a lesbian show for Mardi Gras, and I’m trying desperately to make peace with the city that stole whatever innocence I had left. This city with its cockroaches, rude drivers, homelessness and drunken backpackers. I’m here at a time when I should be celebrating my gayness, where the rainbow flag waves with pride in the humid breeze, where my wife and I can hold hands with confidence in the busy Newtown streets. But all I’m doing is trying not to be broken.

I lived here for a very short time more than ten years ago. I lived here to attempt to move on from my failed relationship with my ex girlfriend. To be more accurate, I lived in the Cross, in a brothel where I worked. The Cross – Kings Cross – is Sydney’s notorious red light district. It’s been cleaned up considerably since I walked its pavements and ate in its dingy restaurants. It’s still a tourist attraction, but maybe for different reasons now. In my day, there were streetwalkers every few metres, interspersed with junkies, strippers, and organised crime bosses. It’s where I witnessed an Aboriginal man, high off his head, being brutally manhandled into a paddy wagon, and when I say manhandled I mean beaten across the head with a baton and thrown – literally thrown into the van. It’s where I witnessed a woman being slashed and stabbed by whom I assumed was her pimp in an alley by the brothel where I worked. It’s where I walked passed a teenager dying from an overdose in the gutter. I saw all this, and I kept walking. I told no one. I pretended it wasn’t happening. I was too afraid. I kept walking back to the brothel where I let men pound me for $110 an hour so I could forget. The Cross is where I lost myself.

Being back here is like paying penance. Every time I come to Sydney I have a headache. It feels like a tight band around my head, just behind my eyes. My mental health deteriorates more the longer I’m here. I thought that touring here, doing something I loved here would create new, better memories. I’m all for facing my demons head on, but I think this is one dark part of my life that I can never make up for.

Sydney broke me. I realise that now. I forget the effect it had on my life until I’m back here. I was walking up Darlinghurst Rd with my producer and a few cast mates the other day, hanging up posters for our show because our theatre is just down the road in Woolloomooloo. We turned left onto Bayswater Rd and I couldn’t keep going. I couldn’t walk past a particular street. It was an odd sensation, feeling trapped in my shoes. It’s like being stuck in tar. I started to cry, the tears prickling in the corners of my eyes as the band around my head tightened. My wife asked me what it was that hurt me so. I couldn’t tell her. That fear was back, laced with a sprinkling of shame. This is the place where I learned not to care. This is the place where I hardened my heart and my soul. This is the place where I fell apart, bits of me scattering everywhere, and I still can’t put the pieces back together again.

Never before has my mental illness affected my ability to perform, but tonight it did. My head was scattered, my thoughts disappearing into black holes. Being here a week, trying to keep it together, dealing with missing my cats and my home and my ordinary love-filled life finally dealt its blow and I gave one of the worst performances of my career. I came offstage and burst into tears, so embarrassed, so mortified that I couldn’t get my shit together enough to actually do my job and act well. This place is threatening to tear me apart again. Thankfully, my cast and my producer are a tight knit group of understanding and compassionate people. They deserve a better me than the one they’re getting.

I am tired. I am beaten. The weight of my experiences and decisions is heavy on my heart.

I am trying not to be broken.

Pain For Art

Around September of last year, one of my closest friends was hit by car in Berlin. I got the call early in the morning from his boyfriend, the words crashing into my head and bouncing around inside my skull.

“What? Oh my God, what? Are you okay?” It was all I could say, over and over again, my incredulity belying my shock. This doesn’t happen. This stuff happens to other people, not to my friends. I start to cry. My friend – the boyfriend – starts to cry. The voice in my head utters one word:

“Nope.”

That’s the thing about being a close friend but not the best friend. I couldn’t do anything except ineffectually offer consoling words and lots of ‘I love yous’ to my friend’s family and partner, and sit and wait to find out if he was going to come through the coma, then the brain injury, then the rehab, then the trip back home. Other friends wanted to send care packages full of cards, letters and photos; I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound trite and disingenuous, when all I wanted to say was “don’t die, okay?”

He didn’t die, and he has recovered like a boss, the only signifiers of his accident being the corrective glasses he has to wear (because one of his eyes was knocked out of place by the car) and two scars on the back of his head. He jokes about his accident all the time. It tickles me that he got hit by a car whilst very intoxicated, running across a Berlin road to reach an after-hours bakery. He almost died for cake. My kind of guy. He can still walk, talk, be funny, and most importantly, he can still write.

I’m rehearsing one of his plays at the moment, and, as always with his work, there’s something in my character which challenges the fuck out of me. The particular challenge of this play I’ll discuss later, but there’s an important piece of information about “Carol” that really didn’t hit me with any sense of brevity until last night: she suffers a brain injury. My friend, who’s directing, gave me a note about playing a particular scene in which Carol is on her journey of recovery, and he said dryly, “as someone who has a brain injury …” I must admit I stopped listening after that because the actuality of his situation smacked me in the face with such force that my mind went blank. And I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed for being a wanky actor trying to find the authenticity of this woman’s situation, congratulating myself on being such an intuitive and sagacious artiste that I could just pluck her emotions out of thin air, and here was someone I loved who experienced this thing sitting in front of me, all matter of fact and candid and non emotive and I had no idea how he got through it all, much less how I was supposed to convey that on stage. I was awestruck, and sad, and grateful all at the same time. I was humbled. Not only did my friend survive this incredible thing, he humbled me with it – no mean feat, let me tell you.

As an actor, my job is to reconstruct, represent, recreate, interpret and narrate a story; a journey, if you will, that one character goes through. This character is a fabrication, even if it’s based on an actual person, therefore one has license to embellish, colour and adorn that character’s personality. My goal with every character is to try to find the human in the fabrication. I try to make the character relatable, if not likeable (because sometimes I play really unlikeable personas), and I’m good at it. I know that. My wife tells me I’m a little conceited about it, and she’s right, but that’s only because it’s the one thing in my life that I’m 100% certain about. I know I can do this, whereas with everything else I only have a vague, hopeful surety that I’m kind of getting it right at least 50% of the time.

Having said that, even in the face of my own arrogance, I am humbled and blessed and thankful that my friend trusted me enough to give me the assignment of representing a small part of his story. He didn’t write this character based on himself, the play is based on several other true stories, but as fate, or divine will, or just a happy accident would have it, here is another opportunity for me to delve further into the mires of the human psyche and therefore learn more about myself.

So thanks, friend, for getting hit by a car so I can know myself better.

Christ, I’m such a wanker sometimes.

My friend has a blog. It’s very good. Check it out.

https://eisforestranged.wordpress.com

Fat Chance

Once every six or seven years, I get fat. It’s not a planned thing, like I don’t sit down and work out a mind map for adding junk to my trunk, it just seems to happen. Which isn’t to say I get skinny in those intervening years, I just fluctuate from nicely slim to nicely curvy and back and forth until my body just says, “Bitch, I’ma get you all chunked up” and next thing you know I can’t fit into my jeans.

My weight’s always been a problem. I come from a family of big women on both sides, and it’s a battle I’ve fought since I hit puberty. I have been underweight too, in my early to mid 20s, so much so, I’m pretty sure my dad thought I was a junkie. I wasn’t, but I must admit, I loved being thin. I looked revolting naked, but man, I looked hot in clothes! Clothes I’d always wanted to wear but was too afraid to because of my fat bits. I was lean and limber and for a few years I actually liked what I saw in the mirror, and therefore I liked myself.

Isn’t that an awful thing to recognise about oneself? This confession that ‘I was happy when I was thin’ fills me with dismay. The years I have spent pondering the mysteries of the Universe, searching for answers to the unasked questions, and seeking enlightenment all collapse in the face of the absolute banality of that one statement:

‘I was happy when I was thin.’

How revolting.

I’m performing in a musical revue next week. This will be the first time I have sung musical theatre numbers since I was 16. It’s not a huge deal, but I’m looking forward to it. In the process of choosing a costume, I tried on a few of my slinky black dresses last night, only to find that most of them didn’t quite fit, especially over the boobage area. I struggled a bit with a sense of consternation over this fact, but given that I had had a kinesiology session earlier in the day, I was feeling quite buoyant and unwilling to give in to the fat-hating gremlin that lives in my head and whispers nasty things in my ear. Tonight, however … Well, tonight it has hit me smack in the face that yes, I am fat again. Not the “fat” where the body is a bit flabby but with the help of some carefully chosen layers and maybe some Spanx pants one can hide it and still look sleek, oh no no no. This is the “fat” where the body has actually changed shape and no amount of clever dressing or suck-me-in-knicker-wearing is going to hide the bountiful 15 kilos that have found their way onto my tall and already curvy frame.

The realisation of this made me cry. I cried because I have to get up on that stage next week and sing some quite difficult songs to an audience of my peers and I feel revolting. Revolting, repugnant, repulsive and rotund.

And I’m really, really pissed off that I feel that way. I should not feel worthless and ugly and self-conscious about my abilities as a performer because of the way I look at the moment, but I do and it angers me. I could launch into a massive diatribe about the media and its role in perpetuating the ridiculous thin ideal that gets shoved down our throats day in, day out; I could have a go at the industry I choose to work in and the pressures it puts on all of us actors to conform to a physical archetype; I could rant and rave against the injustices of a society that’s into fat-shaming and thin-worship, but you know what? This is the world we live in. This is how it is, and to be honest, I think I’ve realised I’m just a little too lazy, too old and too tired to get off my arse and commit the time and energy to achieving the kind of body that would fit in to that paradigm. Instead, I just feel shit about myself, and cry, and emotionally flagellate myself for being so crap at being thin, and life, and stuff.

It’s hard. It only gets harder the older I get. I don’t have any answers for this. Yes, I could go to the gym five days a week and cut out sugar for life, but I’d be miserable. I do need to exercise more, but since my surgery earlier this year my body has taken its time to be ready to go back to my old routine. Right now, I feel so overwhelmed with the pain of the hair shirt I’m wearing that the thought of all the things I’d have to do to kick start any weight loss is just making me feel worse.

Fuck this life sometimes. Honestly, fuck it. It’s difficult, and it hurts, and there’s no end to it. It’s at these times that the challenges must be met, however.

Spanxtacular

Spanxtacular

This is the time to maintain vigilance in the face of internal adversity.

I’m still going to sing next week, even if I do feel like I’ll be heifering it across the stage. The show must go on, and life must go on. The lesson herein, kiddies, is that sometimes one just has to adjust to the circumstances that arise for no other reason than ‘the show must go on’.

Now excuse me while I stuff myself into my Spanx. I’ve got some songs to sing.

Higher Learning

In 1997, two years after leaving high school and a year after migrating to Australia, I entered university to study performing arts. I did my research before applying for universities, auditioning for a few courses that sort of offered what I was looking for, but my first preference was Monash University’s Bachelor of Performing Arts. It was, at that time (and still is, I believe), the only university course specialising in theatre and performance. I wasn’t interested in going to uni to get any degree, I wanted to study theatre. That’s it.

In 1998, I got sick in the head so I deferred for a year. In 1999, I completed my second year of uni. In the year 2000, I got sick again, both in the head and in the cervix (I had early stage cancer). I deferred indefinitely.

Early in 2007, having spent all that time doing things other than acting, I went to see Peter Fitzpatrick who was the head of the theatre department at the time. He still remembered me six years later, calling me by name as I entered his office. I told him I wanted to come back to school. He said he’d be delighted to have me. In mid 2008, I finally completed my degree and went on to achieve First Class Honours in 2009, completing the Graduate Ensemble honours year, where I trained under Peter Oyston.

I have been working steadily as an actor since then, often with people I met through that course. I am a member of two companies – Before Shot and Quiet Little Fox – both of which with people I met through that course. My life has completely changed in that I left an industry I hated and entered into a vocation that has my heart, soul and intellect utterly committed to it. I achieved that mainly due to that course. Getting my degree pretty much saved my life.

A few days ago, I heard that Monash University may be discontinuing the Bachelor of Performing Arts (known as BPA), with no intake of new students in 2014.

My BPA peeps

My BPA peeps

Now, please remember that this is the only course of its kind in Melbourne. Some universities in Melbourne have three year acting courses, or offer theatre studies as a stream in an Arts degree, but BPA is the only degree that is specifically designed as an all-encompassing theatre and performance degree. Look, the degree has its problems, it’s not perfect. However, I am a big believer in getting whatever you can out of anything you do, and I took some amazing skills and knowledge away with me when I graduated.

Now, I’m not a director. I’m not a playwright, although I’ve written plays. I’m not a stage manager, or a lighting designer, or any of those ultra cool things that I wish I had more knowledge of (I sometimes didn’t pay attention in class because I’m slack) and can therefore do and get paid for. I’m intelligent but not particularly academic. I haven’t worked for big and impressive companies. I’m just an actor and occasional composer, but I’m a very good actor/composer who knows theatre, who understands theatre, who appreciates the craft of theatre and even film (because I studied that too) all thanks to that degree. The BPA is the only reason I went to university, and it was the best thing I could have done to change the course of my life, something that desperately needed to happen.

My Graduate Ensemble peeps

My Graduate Ensemble peeps

There seems to be a lot of focus by politicians (and university board members, let’s face it) on tertiary education that leads to employment, particularly in sectors that are lacking skilled workers. They want to put money towards training that gives money back to them. Hey, that’s great, train up them students, get ’em working, boost our economy, rah rah rah! But honestly, if you want me to either kill myself or turn into a raging alcoholic, drug-fueled misfit, train me in a skill I don’t want to make me work in a job I have no interest in which will eventually make me hate my life. We are not all wired the same way, and I think it’s dangerous to enforce in society a directive in which art is deemed unnecessary, therefore not worthy of finance, support or an education in. We must have artists, just as we must have doctors and nurses and teachers and vets and lawyers and scientists. And how about taxi drivers and postal workers and cleaners and garbage persons and other “non-skilled” professions? I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. In my ever-so-humble opinion, education is not just about making people employable. It’s not even just about making people smarter. It’s about teaching people to use their minds, to discover the world in their own heads to such a point that they’re excited about discovering the world outside their own experiences.

No, my degree did not guarantee me a job. Yes, I’m still working three jobs outside of acting to pay my rent. Yes, it will take me a while to make a living solely from acting, but I am a much more functional member of society with my degree than without it, even if it’s not tailored to an industry that is lacking skilled workers. And I am capable of such great things now that my mind has been expanded through that awesome thing called education.

I will write an email to the vice chancellor at Monash, imploring him to reconsider the decision to cut the BPA. I have no impressive achievements to offer as incentive; my resume is full to bursting, but not particularly remarkable. But I have a resume. I have training. I have a vocation and a desire to make art that will maybe change the world, or maybe just one person. That’s enough, surely.

Delving Into the Dark

I have a confession to make that may seem incongruous given what I do for a living: I don’t particularly enjoy going to the theatre. It’s not that I don’t like the theatre, I do. I like being in it, I love acting, I love creating, I love bump in and rehearsals and homework and learning lines … okay, I don’t really like learning lines, but being in the theatre; being in a show is really the only time that I’m truly happy.

But I don’t like going to see theatre, really. Often. At all. My reasoning is quite domestic, to be honest. When I’m not doing stuff, I’m essentially a lazy person, and getting up out of bed or off the couch to put on clothes and a face, leave the house and go sit on oftentimes uncomfortable chairs for one to three hours is sometimes just too much effort and I can’t be bothered. My other reasons are somewhat cynical; a lot of the theatre I see – made by people I know and those I don’t – I consider to be self-indulgent wank (hey, I’m being reeeeeally honest here), boring, or just another rehashing of stories I’ve heard before. I don’t like watching actors who suck, and I don’t like good actors being used to prove to a director how good he or she thinks she or he is. And this is across the board, folks. This is everything from independent theatre to community theatre to Fringe Festivals to MTC shows to Melbourne’s “Broadway” scene.

But here I am, ranting again, probably sounding like an arsehat who thinks that all theatre is shit unless I’m in it. I’ve seen some good theatre, yes, even excellent theatre, but it’s very rare that I’ve seen theatre that viscerally affects me, and that’s the theatre I like. That’s the theatre that engages me; where I’m not sitting in the audience thinking “I could have acted that better,” or “godsdamn it, when is this gonna end?” but rather, where my snarky little ego is quiet, and I am completely focused on what’s happening on stage.

I saw that kind of theatre last night. It was a show called Columbine, based on the high school massacre back in the late 90s and it was put on at the student theatre of my old university and it was amazing.

The writer/director (or, as he likes to call himself, the Cobbler, as in he just “cobbled together bits and pieces” as verbatim theatre usually requires its cast and crew to do) had been wanting to this show for years, and when given the opportunity to, decided to work with students (my gods, what I would give to have had an opportunity to perform in something like this when I was a younger actor! It would have shaped my understanding of my craft in ways indescribable).

The director (Cobbler), Daniel, is one of my closest friends, so I won’t gush too much about his work, but I will say this: as an artist he has never shied away from telling the difficult stories; the confronting and uncomfortable truths about human behaviour. He has been criticised, at times severely, for the subject choices of his plays in the past because they were so stark and desolate and honest about really horrific things, namely child murder, cannibalism and now, school shootings.

I have a deep fascination with the darkness of human psychology that simultaneously thrills and repels me. I want to understand what makes these people commit these acts, because I can’t imagine how anyone who is not a sociopath or a psychopath could want to murder other people. How could “ordinary” people – teenagers! – perpetrate such atrocious acts and not conceive the effect of these actions upon their own souls and on those around them.

So does my friend Daniel. He created a piece of theatre that very respectfully but firmly explored the events that led up to and took place at Columbine High School, and I came out of the theatre affected.

Affected. Not disturbed, not distressed, not horrified. Affected. Affected in a way that I can’t even really put into words. It was brave, quite simply. The student actors were courageous and engaged and committed and displayed the all attributes I look for in an actor. They were not all the best actors, granted, but I didn’t care. I was right there with every single one of them on that stage, and I felt everything they did. The show was not perfect either. It was slightly over-long and a touch clunky in some areas (issues Daniel is aware of and will fix for the remount), but again, I didn’t care. I was taken into this world and I came out of it a little altered.

That’s the theatre I want to see. Not all the time ’cause I likes to have me a good laugh at the theatre sometimes, but this is the stuff that excites me, that reminds me why I love theatre acting so much, and how it is such an immediate and powerful medium for presenting the thorny issues and raising the questions that need to be raised.

Well done, Daniel. Well done to all my friends who are brave enough to scrutinise and question and probe through this amazing instrument called theatre. I approve.

Expect the Unexpected

When I was playing Lady Macbeth last year, the actor playing my Macbeth and I would find ourselves rather unconsciously speaking like our characters in every day life. “Wife!” he would bellow. “Where have I placed my dagger?”

“Did not you preset it, my love?” I would reply.

“Ah yes, indeed it lies behind the throne,” and so on.

I was in an abysmal show earlier this year in which I played a prostitute (I know, what a stretch). My character Ophelia was sassy and funny, quick with witty banter and one-liners. Suddenly, I found myself getting my funny on all the time and the sass factor had risen threefold, particularly in dealing with the men in my life.

14975_10152422956370526_595151906_n

Heather
Acidtongue and Dollface
Photography by Alexandra Dye

Now, as I am discovering my new character, Heather, I’m not so much taking on her personality as I am her fatal flaw: expectation.

Expectation. It is the state of being expectant. It’s up there with attachment as being a primary cause of suffering. As has this year for a great many people. I think some sense of expectation is valid: we can expect to be treated with a certain level of respect by our peers; we can expect to be paid appropriately for the work we do; we can expect to get food poisoning from consuming three-day-old undercooked chicken. But then there is the expectation of other people, and of events that are beyond our control. Like, I expected to hear from the ex for my birthday; I expected to be accepted by the agent I wanted; I expected people to get that the world wasn’t going to end, just shift; I expected my bitterness towards my failed relationship to be gone.

Look, things happen that we as humans sometimes don’t understand. This year, things happened that I still don’t understand. My character doesn’t understand anything about what happened to her life. Because she, I, and all of us have an expectation that if we do the “right” things, good things will come to us. If I love with all my heart, I will be loved in return. If I approach my craft with dedication and professionalism, it’ll be noticed and I’ll get that part/agent/big break that I “deserve”. If I’m honest with the people around me, they’ll be honest with me. If I have the relationship, the job, the house, the friends, I’ll be a functioning human being and life will be sweet. Right?

Nope. Not always.

Expectation. It’s a hard habit to kick. Because we could do all the right things – and even all the wrong things – but sometimes, for reasons we don’t understand, it just doesn’t go the way we expected. And that, quite frankly, can be devastating. But, I’m really starting to get my head around the idea that it’s also an opportunity for us to get the things we want for our lives in a way we hadn’t considered before. And taking that path freely may lead us to gain other things that we didn’t even know we needed as well as the original thing we were striving for in the first place.

Easier said than done. Yes, well, it can be done. With a little practice, it can be done.

Heather will never know that as she will be stuck in the state of expectation for eternity. Such is the life of a fictional character. But – yet again – the persona I put on for my craft has reminded me of an extremely important thing:

LET GO.

Quit thinking you know how it’s going to be, because you don’t, and let’s face it, if you did it would take all the fun out of it.

And this, my friends, is why art is awesome. Happy New Year.

The Animal

If I’m honest with myself, there’s one true reason why I act. It’s not for the accolades, or the applause, or the eventual AFI award, it’s really quite a simple reason. I act so I can be someone else.

You see, I have a pet. It’s a shitty pet. It varies in size depending on the day. It stinks to high heaven. It won’t heel, sit or play dead. I can’t let it off the leash, because it just runs amok, causing havoc wherever it goes. It sniffs people’s crotches, dry-humps legs, scratches the couch, leaves ‘gifts’ on the bed, yowls all night and keeps me awake. It won’t come when it’s called, it’s not micro-chipped and it’s certainly not registered with the local council.

black dog

I can’t get rid of it. There’s no euthanising this sucker, or leaving it at the pound. I can’t give it away to a good, loving home. It’s mine. To keep.

This pet gets in the way. It sticks its stupid nose into everything, jumps up onto my lap at the most inconvenient times, and it pushes me into predicaments I can, at times, see no way out of. It can sometimes make my life a living hell. It has, in the past, made it impossible to live normally.

There are many names for this pet and I could rattle them all off now, but really they’re just words to describe an animal I acquired a long time ago through no fault of my own which is now here to stay. I have to live with it every day. Some days are easier than others. Some years it has been medicated, so it behaved itself, but it’s been drug-free for a few years now. I’ve been training it, but lately the training has slipped because I’ve been tired and busy and distracted, and a couple of weeks ago it chewed through its lead and ruined my good relationship. The one I’ve put a lot of investment in. The one that counted.

Some may call this pet an excuse. Try living with it for a while, you’ll see it’s no excuse. There’s no choice involved, no willing signing of adoption papers. It’s attached to me, and I constantly apologise for it, but it’s not going anywhere. I just have to learn better ways to live with it. Don’t feel sorry for me. The last thing I want or need is pity. I am who I am in spite of this sneaky, manipulative creature; this thing who pushes me to the edge of the world and then feigns ignorance when I fall off.

blackdogproject

So, you see dear reader, sometimes it’s just too hard to be who I am with this pet wrapping itself around my neck. So I act. Because then, at least for a while, I can forget it exists.