John at the Seymour Centre
The week after Thanksgiving. A bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A cheerful host. A young couple whose relationship is disintegrating. Thousands of inanimate objects. Watching…
After the huge success of The Flick, Outhouse Theatre reunites with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Annie Baker for the Sydney premiere of a rich, mysterious and haunting tour de force. Is it a ghost story? A love story? A spiritual story? Mysteries abound in this uncanny journey into the dark corners of the human soul and the divine.
Rosie spoke with performer James Bell about the appeal of Annie Baker's works and how this unique work explores human connection.
Read the full interview below:
An experienced performer, we’ve seen you on stage in many productions across Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, and Sport For Jove. Why was John the next step for you, and what drew you to this unique script?
John, like any of Annie Baker's work, is very hard to ignore as an actor. It scratches a certain itch, a certain approach to naturalism most are searching for. It gives you license to create very real and, very often, polarising moments on stage. She forces the actor to tell her story the way it’s meant to be told. At the same time, she gives you all the tools and time you need live there and feel free to breath new life into it.
My first meeting with Annie’s work was with ‘The Aliens’ at the Old Fitz Theatre with the same director, Craig Baldwin. It was the first time I felt the fourth wall crumble as the audience slowly surrendered to her world. Once you’ve been there you are ever so willing return. I had no choice.
John will be the second of Annie Baker’s works that Outhouse Theatre Company brings to Sydney stages. Why do you think her work has such appeal? What is it about Annie’s stories that cry out to be told?
It’s not often you get stories that are hyper real and have a unique, weighted normality that is so bold and captivating at the same time. The audience have to make a choice to be present or not and come to terms with what they expect from a theatre experience. It feels new and not specific to any particular generation. It challenges theatrical norms and allows a wider audience to see the beauty in the mundane. I think that is why her work has been so popular.
John is one of many stories this year that focuses on loneliness, and the pains of human connection. Why do you think this topic is so popular at the moment, and how does this work examine the human experience?
Gosh! Well, yeah! The urge to connect is one of the biggest driving forces of humanity. Loneliness is the risk we take to acquire it and we will take that risk every time if it means we might be heard. It’s intangible and, I would argue, that it has been investigated in all stories that have ever been told and will always be there.
Without loneliness there is no reference for happiness or self awareness. It’s prevalence within Annie’s work is very much sewn into the mechanisms of time and focuses on the spaces between the dialogue. The Human Experience will always be intangible. A cyclical circle to bares witnessing. Annie gives that to her audiences!
An ownership of these ideas and themes by giving them all the space in the world. I really think she understands how to plant a seed and give it over to her audience. So they can simply examine.
Including intervals, this play runs for over 3 hours, which is a feat in itself! What challenges have you faced working on such a large text? How do you aim to retain audience engagement for such an extended period of time?
With this work you really have to take your time. Learning lines is one thing. But every pause, “um”, “ah”, “huh”, “mmm” and most manneristic qualities of your character is written in the script. To really portray what she has written, Annie forces you to abandon any characteristic that aims to appeal to an audience's need to be captivated. I think Annie steers away from any urges to appeal to the sensibilities of her audience. She presumes the audience is smart! Enough not to be hand fed and steered toward a obvious logic or idea. A challenge! A question that has to be answered by you and not her. A set up! An ultimatum for her audience that has to be chosen and will make you feel really uncomfortable if you don’t have an opinion about what is happening in front of you.
In a review from Time Out London, John was described as “virtually unclassifiable.” What can audiences expect from a production that refuses to be defined? With all those dolls, are we preparing ourselves for something scary?
They can expect to find something that relates to them and only them. The themes are left out and laid so bare that everyone can find their solitary path within it. Like a doll, this play has a tendency to watch the audience as the audience watches back in silence and waits within the spaces. You can expect that it will stare right back at you.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
•Favourite production you have ever seen?
Warhorse, National theatre, London. And anything Annie Baker ;))
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
Back to Bali, i have my reasons.
Dream show to perform in?
One would be; Red by John Logan
Plays or musicals?
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
Endless need to write and perform music.
What’s next for you after this show?
Am straight back into the music with my band ‘Gaspar Sanz’
John opens at the Seymour Centre on September 19, 2019. You can get your tickets here.