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.

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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

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.

Of cats and chocolate

Photography by Phoebe Taylor

Photography by Phoebe Taylor

You shouldn’t feed chocolate to cats. It’s bad for their hearts and teeth. I don’t know this from experience, just simple common sense. Also, leaving chocolate in a hot car for 5 hours reduces it to goop. Tasty, tasty goop, but goop nonetheless.

These are my two favourite things at the moment: my cats, and chocolate. I’m supposed to be learning lines for my next show – A Reading List for the Outback Housewife – but what I am doing is playing with my fluff-ball princess powder puff cat named Persephone, and eating chocolate that’s been left in a hot car for 5 hours.

You see, Mallory – that’s my character – is a bitch. A 38-year-old dyed in the wool Catholic who lives in 1940s outback Australia and who hates sex. I’m finding it difficult to relate to her. It’s also the third insane bitch character I’ve played this year, which leads me to believe that I play nasty and mad very well. You gotta do what you’re good at.

Mallory  "A Reading List for the Outback Housewife" Written and directed by Christopher Bryant Photography by Sarah Walker

Mallory
“A Reading List for the Outback Housewife”
Written and directed by Christopher Bryant
Photography by Sarah Walker

I have a story, dear reader. A few chapters have already been scripted and performed to the world via the awesome world of theatre, and yet there is still more. There is my story, and there are other stories that are waiting to be told and vented all over anyone who cares to listen. If you will permit me, in the weeks, months, even years to come, I would like to vent on you.

Tastefully.

With chocolate.