The Last Five Years at Ensemble Theatre
Two young and ambitious New Yorkers. Cathy is an actor. Jamie is a writer. They fall in love and dive head first into a relationship. What could possibly go wrong?
Brilliantly funny, playful and tender, THE LAST FIVE YEARS chronicles the couple’s passionate romance from both perspectives: Jamie from the beginning with all the optimism of young love, looking to the future; Cathy with the hurt and disappointment of its end, looking backwards. Somewhere in between their story overlaps.
Carly chats with actor Elise McCann about this Off-Broadway hit, and what we can learn from the uplifting yet heart-wrenching show. Read the full interview below:
What first appealed to you about this musical, The Last Five Years. It has become quite beloved by the hard-core musical theatre community – what is it that makes this musical special and why do you believe it holds such appeal?
I first heard The Last Five years back in 2003 when one of my friends burnt me a CD of the Original Broadway Cast recording. I swiftly became obsessed and have been dying for an opportunity to play Cathy ever since. I think what has appealed to me most about this show is the universality of the content. Every song in this show – of both characters – explores a situation or question or state of being that I have been in. Both characters have full, honest emotional lives – they are flawed but are very recognizable. And at the same time, It is a piece that is as much about what it is to be a striving young creative person as it is about the ups and downs of being in love with someone. There are no victims, no one is the inherent bad guy, both are equally responsible for the good and the bad here, it is just two people who tried as best they could but were never really able to communicate. And I would go so far as to say that the cult appeal evolves from the fact that most people can see and feel themselves in these characters and situations too.
You’ve worked with big companies before in musical theatre, including recently in Matilda the Musical, Brigadoon, Oklahoma, and prior to that in South Pacific, Mamma Mia, Fiddler on the Roof, and more. How has it been different taking on a musical with only 1 other cast member? What has the rehearsal process been like and how has it differed from the way you have approached musicals in the past?
I wouldn’t say I approach rehearsals or the work any differently from a large scale commercial musical to a two hander like this – but there is a difference in the intensity and the way all the parts of the machine play out.
In major musicals there are so many moving pieces. You need to be detailed and focused and specific about your particular job/role, but there are always a lot of other people and elements to support you. There are multiple creatives, all of whom have residents and or assistants, there are large stage management teams, company management teams, costume, wigs, make up teams, there are dozens of crew, orchestra – and on top of the sheer company size, you are surrounded by giant sets, props, multiple costumes and wigs, and playing in giant houses of anywhere from 1500 to 3000 people!
Here we have two people on stage - both of whom are almost never actually in the same place at the same time – with 6 creatives, 2 stage management and a dozen Ensemble company management and staff. We have one chair as our set and 300 people in the audience sitting right at your feet. It feels hugely vulnerable and incredibly intimate! In a piece this small and this paired back, it requires a different level of energy and playing, Christian and I have the responsibility of creating the entire world. You don’t have the same luxury of moving and working around detailed sets and orchestras and other actors. You have to be so detailed in your storytelling or else everyone is going to be bored in about two seconds. Add to that, the huge volume of material is shared between only two of us. So there is a rigorousness to the rehearsal process for a piece like this, that is unique and demanding. It is insanely fun and challenging, but you have to be switched on and problem solving the whole time.
Who is Cathy and how have you approached this character? Do you feel that bits of your characters stay with you long after the run of the show? If so, what is it about Cathy that will remain with you post closing night?
Cathy is an actress. She grew up in a small town on the east coast of America and worked really hard to get out of that town and find a place where she could fully explore and express her creativity. She made the journey to New York City but it’s been a challenge. There are so many people doing the same thing as her and throughout the piece she is fighting with the vision of what she thought she would achieve and what is actually presented to her. Which is in stark contrast to her partner Jamie who has everything he dreamed of delivered to him on a platter. She is energetic and driven and a bit neurotic, but inherently an optimist and full of hope. But she really struggles with figuring out how to balance the demands of her relationship and her career, and identity. Particularly when faced with the thief of all joy - comparison.
I definitely relate to many character traits of Cathy – and I often find that those similar traits I have to a character often can come to the forefront of my day to day life when I’m rehearsing and playing a role. That said, I think what I will carry with me most from this show, and Cathy, is the reminder that relationships and life itself will be hard, and painful and challenging – but that doesn’t mean that relationship or you are a failure. There is light and shade in every part of life and there are always lessons to learn. The ending of a chapter is not indicative of how the rest of your life will unfold.
Within the industry, you have not only performed but also produced and devised your own shows. How do you feel that taking on a variety of roles has developed you further as an artist and what advise would you give to other performers starting on their journey now? Do you feel that it is important that Australian artists are inter-disciplinary?
I can’t say if it is important for everyone, but for me personally it has definitely been important. I think it was always inevitable really. I am a very driven person and my brain likes to be working on multiple things. I am impatient and I would definitely say that my loved ones would describe me as a perfectionist or even possibly a control freak! Those attributes don’t sit calmly with waiting and having little to no control over my career and creativity. I love to work with people. I like to be involved. I like to be creating and I like to be useful – be that in writing something, performing in a cast, connecting people, running a budget or driving and producing an entire project! Whatever it is, I feel more excited and joyful in my life if I am working with others and making and creating something. Giving myself the permission and the tools to be a part of multiple projects in a variety of roles is empowering! It has increased my confidence, enabled me to be more authentic, made me more empathetic and grateful for other jobs and creators in our industry, and a champion for other people putting themselves out there and creating things. Ultimately it has made me happier.
I think my advice for young people would be – try! If you want to do something, if you want to create something, if you want to audition for a particular part – Ask! Start writing, start talking to others about your ideas, email a creative or company about that audition – just ask and try! What is the worst that is going to happen? Someone says no. Well then you are in the same position you were if you didn’t ask or try – so you may as well give it a go. You will be braver, you will be bolder and you may get a Yes!
Favourite song in the show (whether or not you sing it)?
Oofty! Such a hard question. At the moment it is Goodbye until Tomorrow. It never was before – but right now I am in love with the purity of joy and optimism and vulnerability of that first date and falling in love. It is beautiful to play.
Tell us about this story – why do you believe that 2019 audiences need to see The Last Five Years?
So much of this show is about not being able to communicate – about missing each other, two people who were never really in the same place at the same time. I think this is something that is happening more and more in today’s technological world and is a beautiful and timely mirror for us all to stare into.
But separate to the societal relevance, It is a simple and relatable, recognisable human love story. But told through some of the most beautiful, exciting and dramatically thrilling music; detailed, honest emotional characters and a unique and intriguing structure. Why would you Not come?!
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
A tie between Bridges of Madison County and the play The Ferryman. (Both on broadway)
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
Probably to Melbourne – I'm missing my boyfriend (*eyesroll)
Dream role to perform?
Too many! I want to originate a role so I'm going to deflect the question and say that!
Plays, musicals or operas?
All three. I genuinely love all three. Maybe Musicals a little more….
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
I have recently started playing tennis. I am obsessed but also terrible. I also love to cook and I love walking – it sounds lame but it’s the truth.
What’s next for you after this show?
I am going to Auckland and then Queensland to do Dahlesque throughout May with the Auckland Philarmonic Orchestra, and then at QPAC.
The Last Five Years opens at the Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli on March 29 2019. You can get your tickets here.