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March 6, 2021

Bush poetry is the new urban myth

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From left, Echonetdaily's S Sorrensen speaks to Max Gillies, Michala Banas and Samuel Johnson following the final performance of The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell. Photo Melissa Hargraves
From left, Echonetdaily’s S Sorrensen speaks to Max Gillies, Michala Banas and Samuel Johnson following the final performance of The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell. Photo Melissa Hargraves

Melissa Hargraves

The cast of NORPA’s final show for its 2013 season, The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell, stuck around for a Q&A with S Sorrensen after they wrapped up the final show of the tour on Saturday night.

The Straightjacket Productions play was written by Reg Cribb and featured Max Gillies, Samuel Johnson and Michala Banas.

S asked the actors about acting and the art of lying.

Samuel Johnson (SJ): Some people think that actors are just good bullshit artists and that we are professional liars. If anything we are merchants of truth. I see it as an honest trade; we are trying to find truth in a moment.

S asked Max if it was true that actors need to search for the truth using their characters.

Max Gillies (MG): What Sam has said is absolutely true but there is another side. Sam is talking internally; when you try to find the truth in what the playwright has given you, you have to imagine what would cause you in that moment to behave this way. So it is your own behaviour but it is deployed to an end that has been given to you. You need to make it plausible or the very least ‘pleasable’.

You also have to have a detached eye on it so you can be aware of what the audience is seeing. You have to find something that they will find believable at that moment. So you need to marry those two points of view.

S asked ‘why the search for truth when we live in a world of lies and non-truths?’

MG: There are lots of reasons long before the world got in the rotten state that you are portraying at the moment. Going way back to basic storytelling, it is one of the earliest and most fundamental things that we do in communities, groups, families etc; we tell stories to each other. If we are not telling a story we are keen to hear one. We enjoy having a story being told. It goes back to childhood – that is how we learn.

SJ: Even a lie is hiding the truth; the reason why someone would lie – you would find the truth behind that. If you burrow down behind deception you will find the reason that someone would be lying, or what the truth is underneath that lie. We all lie every day.

S responded that he doesn’t lie every day; he’d had a good day that day.

SJ: Well I told myself I looked fabulous this morning.

S asked about the differing approaches to acting and commented that Michala Banas was very physical with her role as Sarah Gartrell and asked if this was a response to the direction from director Lucy Freeman.

Michala Banas (MB): I approach things slightly differently; I am very full on. I started months before rehearsals started. Not that that makes me a better performer; that is how I have to do it so I can get my head around it. I did say yes to this role so I could kiss Sam every night!

People always tell me that I am pretending to be someone else. I am never pretending to be someone else! I am bringing a different part of myself forth. So Sarah Gartrell is that part of me that doesn’t like herself, that doesn’t think she is attractive and every man, woman and child feels that way somewhere and some way. It is about accessing that and bringing it out and a whole lot of external forces come into play that will bring on the physicality.

I have worked in TV a lot. This is only my second play ever and I have felt that previously I hadn’t worked well physically so I wanted to work harder on that for this play.

SJ: Michala’s work ethic is second to none: I will talk as though she is not here. Her sensory work, her physicalisation, her back stories and motivations, getting finer details of costume sorted out very early… she is methodical and precise. This is in stark contrast to how Max and I work. I would agree that we are lazier, absolutely.

MG: There are directors and there are directors. With Lucy we all feel that we are rather lucky to be working with her. Unlike a lot of other directors you do not get a sense that she wants to impose on you. She is the most sensitive and encouraging director; that is what actors need. It is a moral strength she provides that is invaluable.

S observed that the play started comedic and becomes more barbed, and asked the actors how they worked with the comedy.

SJ: If you play it for truth it will be funny, if you play it for comedy it won’t. If you go for the truth in a section, than the comedy will emerge.

MB: In one of the first shows, we were doing a scene and I was wondering why they were laughing at her: ‘why are they fucking laughing?’

MG: Michala has found the funny moments since.

SJ: It is also incumbent on you as an actor to find those moments that are not in the script as well. The great thing about this play is that it is about indigenous land rights. It is a very serious play but you won’t listen to any of it if it is shoved down your throat. It needs to be dripping in comedy otherwise it will be earnest and hard to watch.

SJ:  A great example is when Michala talks about her mum and says, ‘and she just ran away’, and says it with a smile on her face. If she had of been more emotional about it the audience wouldn’t give a flying fuck about her.

S asked if the actors could share what they thought the play was about.

MG: Will you accept multiple answers?

S responded that on the north coast we are relativists; we realise that everyone’s truth is different.

MG: I would start that this is about the death of a cultural trope if you like, a death of a cultural ideal that people my age grew up with, the Anglo-Celtic nationalist story, Australia’s story – how it was seen through this filter. This has been whittled away and supplanted substantially since. The earlier story has insisted itself so that we are aware of it; it’s very hard to hang on to the other one. This poet who can’t live in the bush but romanticises the bush is a representative of that dying culture. He is guilty and recognises that the myth is empty and he identifies with that.

To me the core is the cultural death.

MB: I agree, that is valid.

SJ: I hope that this is a story about the last kind of people like that, but I fear that it is not. I hope the old myth gets buried.

S commented that white Australia has no connection with the land, that they try to own it. S said that the play shows the bush poet myth as a myth and that he had hung out with a lot of bush poets who have never had a dog, never swum in a river, never got caught in barbed wire, and their wives never leave them. 

SJ: What we have here is predominantly white people seeing the play, written by white people, directed by a white person and starring three white people, so what fucking right do I have to talk about it.

MB: At school in NZ you learnt to speak Maori, Maori dancing, artwork, history, everything. All the suburb names and the school name was Maori so when I came to Australia I thought I would learn the same of the Aboriginal culture, but it was all colonial period forward. I couldn’t believe it.

MG: It is not that this is a complex play but there are a lot of ideas in it, a lot of confusions and conundrums that the characters are wrestling with. Daniel Gartrell is locked in his guilt of killing his tribal friend, brother, and the terror of his father but also his respect for his father’s toil.

S mentioned that Samuel Johnson co-founded Straightjacket Theatre with Lucy Freeman.

SJ: This play was the first touring production for us. We will be bringing a play back to the region in 2015 called Sex with Strangers starring me and Totti Goldsmith.

We want to put on plays that are not too long, that are local, contemporary and relevant. Essentially we are trying to peddle a dying art form. I am happy to do my bit to keep it alive. Plays like what you saw tonight are very hard to sell in rural and regional venues. Unless we have Rhonda Birchmore or Tom Burlinson there is not a huge market for drama.

I feel like most theatres took a punt on this one.

Samuel Johnson is on a quest to ride around Australia on a unicycle to raise money for breast cancer research.

SJ: I have been on the road for 244 days. I left on February 13 and I have covered 10,638km with another 4,500km to go to break the world record for longest distance travelled on a unicycle.

I am trying to raise $1 million for the Garvan Medical Research Foundation, who are the leaders in biomedical research, to help find a cure for breast cancer. This is because my sister is sick; she is young with kids and [it’s] tragic for me personally.

So I am riding around the country to remind every young mum in the land to be breast aware. If I can help trigger a conversation now with the younger women in your life, nieces, grandchildren etc about breast awareness and keeping track of lumps and bumps…

My sister is a young mum who didn’t know enough at the time. We are just on $900,000 so it looks like we are going to smash it.

My unicycle is waiting for me in Orange. I will get to Lismore in another seven weeks. Keep your eyes open and come and say g’day, I will be pedalling through.

To donate check out www.loveyoursister.org.

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    I love a sunburnt country, it’s been conditioned in my brain
    with epithial carcanomas, and searing lumbar pain.
    Of cows and Cain the sheep ingrained, all show their gratitude
    big-hat, pragmatic Marlborough man, who rhymes in platitude.
    I’ll ask for your opinion, but confirmation’s what I seek
    four anthropomorphic involutes, man he feasts on whom I meat.
    We’ll slough ’em up, them coves and coons who dare talk doom and gloom
    I love a sunburt country, dominions’ bloody lebensraum.
    Well ..absit omen Roan, though my neck is not maroon
    the Motherland’s for all the plants…with them that’s previous sown:


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