Black Swan State Theatre Company are all guns blazing at the moment with their innovative program. We caught up with Brendan Ewing and Natalie Holmwood during first week of rehearsals for The Eisteddfod, to see how it is all going.
Fourth Wall: You’ve both studied performance at University, did you know you were always going to be actors? How did you get into it?
Natalie Holmwood: Yeah, I think I did. I remember as a six year-old I wanted to be famous and got really angry at my mother because she wouldn’t move to L.A to pursue my career dreams! And then when I was about fifteen I started doing community theatre and then went to WAAPA so I was always on that trajectory.
Brendan Ewing: Well, I definitely enjoyed doing it in Primary School, but I played in bands for about ten years before I went to WAAPA and met Natalie and Jeffrey Jay Fowler (the director) – we were all in the same class together. [I was kind of the guru of the group, they all looked up to me, he said jokingly.]
Fourth Wall: Did you have a breakout role? You know, did you star in the school assembly and think – this is what I want to do?
Brendan: I was the Innkeeper that said no to Mary and Joseph … a pivotal role.
Natalie: I was a goth in a Terry Pratchett stage production, that was pretty good.
Brendan: I played ‘Fifi Manchu’ – Fu Manchu’s daughter, in a show – it was written by my teacher in Primary Six. It was a musical.
Natalie: So, that set you on the path?
Brendan: Kind of, yeah.
Fourth Wall: What was your first role with Black Swan State Theatre Company?
Natalie: Mine was in Female Of The Species, I think. It was a Joanna Murray-Smith work and that was great, it was quite a big role and I was quite young. So, exiting and exhilarating all at once.
Brendan: Well I was part of the ‘Hotbed Emerging Artists’ program, and I think the first show that I did, with Matt Lutton directing and it was The Visit.
Natalie: I was actually in The Visit too, now that I think about it.
Fourth Wall: How did you get involved in The Eisteddfod? Who approached who?
Natalie: Jeffrey (director) approached me and asked me to audition.
Natalie: I’d read the play before and thought it was really great and really interesting, and I’ve always really liked Lally’s works. They’re always very quirky and funny and dark so I was quite enthusiastic about doing it.
Brendan: I wasn’t actually familiar with her work but as soon as I read the play I thought it was great. It was totally my sense of humour, and my sense of darkness as well.
Fourth Wall: How was the audition process? Did you have to read parts of the script?
Brendan: I did mine with another actor, we did a few scenes together and had to take direction.
Natalie: Yeah, mine was the same, we both had monologues and also the script and worked with Jeffrey. Generally, in a nice audition they’ll work with you and give you direction and that makes it easier. It makes it not so terrible.
Brendan: They’re all terrible.
Natalie: They’re not all terrible, I’ve had a couple of good ones.
Brendan: No, they’re all terrible to me. It’s just so hard to do your best when it’s that kind of pressure. I guess they’re looking for something that they can work with as opposed to being perfect.
Fourth Wall: Is it hard not to take it personally if you don’t get the role?
Natalie: Yeah. I mean the ones that you go for and you’re like – this is not, I’m not going to fit this – if it’s a young role or a much older role and you know you’re just not right for it. But the ones that you really want, and that you don’t get, that does get to you after a while.
Brendan: And they say you’re a ‘professional auditioner’ it’s what you do. Of course, if you want something and you care about it, it’s going to affect you and you feel a bit bluesy about it. So, you just go home and write a song.
Fourth Wall: What is it about Lally Katz’ work that resonates with you?
Natalie: The Eisteddfod is, I think for someone my age, the dreams you have as a child how they can sometimes not be what you thought they would be. And then these characters just work that out for themselves, a bit because things aren’t working out how they thought. Also, the language is very poetic, it’s quite lovely in some ways but it’s incredibly dark in places, and that light and shade I find quite interesting.
Brendan: Yeah, it’s those awkward moments that are exposed, and under light they keep getting run over and over again.
Holmwood and Ewing. Image by James Grant.
Fourth Wall: The characters of Abalone and Gerture are quite unique – tell me a little about them?
Brendan: Well they’re brother and sister, we’re still working out who is older and who is younger and whether that matters or not. They’re very close, maybe too close. They have vivid imaginations, they engage in this imaginary world, role-playing different things. The brother, Abalone (the character I’m playing) has been part of seventeen eisteddfods, and has never quite won – he’s done very well, always the loudest applause from the audience, consistently. He wants to give it another go but this time he’s recruiting his sister in the role of Lady Macbeth to his Macbeth.
Fourth Wall: And how does she feel about that?
Natalie: I think Gerture’s very – at the moment, we’re only in week one of rehearsals – but she’s sort of this embodiment of what it feels like to be stuck and to not be able to do anything, she doesn’t know where she wants to go but she is someone who can’t see the light of the future or go back. So she’s kind of in this weird limbo and then Abalone invites her to be in the Eisteddfod and she does it more for him than anything, but she’s in this very crippling place of heartache and she’s feeling very trapped. I think she’s in two minds about doing it!
Brendan: It’s almost like she’s stuck in role-playing the part of ‘Mother’ whereas Abalone is playing more the part of a partner, or lover.
Fourth Wall: Of course, they lost their parents didn’t they?
Brendan: But they also do that as well, they become their parents at some points as well.
Natalie: The reality is kind of tenuous in this play! There are things that don’t sit in a conventional narrative, everything hovers around these two people as they try to entertain themselves.
Fourth Wall: Is it a non-linear narrative? Or is it linear with flashbacks?
Brendan: It’s very much, the way I think of it, it’s really how the audience will take it. Some audiences will feel that it’s a really clear narrative, and some might not feel that, you know?
Fourth Wall: Is there anything about either of the characters that you have in common?
Brendan: Maybe a little bit!
Natalie: I guess with Gerture, everyone has those moments where they feel deeply, deeply sad and it’s so de-energising and they don’t know what to do to get out of it. I think that is very common through everyone and that’s where I see Gerture.
Brendan: Well, I don’t have a sister – so in that way we’re very different. And maybe I don’t have that much ambition, but maybe I do and it’s just so much of a big deal to me that I keep it very private and secret. It almost means more then, because I pretend…
Fourth Wall: I think we’re all concerned about being exposed, that’s one of the great truths. That ties in very well with the characters’ agoraphobia – they don’t want to leave the house, do they?
Brendan: Yeah, it’s like they’ve been in this little room for millennia.
Fourth Wall: Does Abalone end up getting to the Eisteddfod or is it just something he wants to do?
Brendan: You might just have to come and see the show! That could be a spoiler!
Fourth Wall: Ok, no spoilers! It does look quite funny, I know you’re only first week in but are you making each other laugh?
Natalie: Yeah, it is very funny. It deals a lot with almost like childhood trauma and …
Brendan: You’ll probably catch yourself laughing at things and then going – ooh, did I just find that funny?
Natalie: So it’s like the humour in these absurd situations and laughter from things that the characters would find really serious and upsetting. It’s so absurd.
Fourth Wall: It looks like it’s quite introspective, so how does the smallness of the set impact on the smallness of their world?
Natalie: I think it’s very claustrophobic for the characters because they’ve been inside for so long. The set is a room but there are no windows, it doesn’t have any doors and it’s just these people who have been inside with the same objects and the same stuff for years. And they’re so sick of it, they keep trying to get enjoyment out of any part of it – it’s that real degeneration of environment and psyches and things like that, that play off each other.
Fourth Wall: How important is it that Macbeth is the play that Abalone chooses?
Brendan: I think it’s very important. There’s definitely something, it’s the play that he chooses to entice his sister back into the world that they share together. It’s a very dark piece and there’s definitely a correlation between the darkness of Macbeth and the darkness of this relationship. So I think it’s highly significant.
Fourth Wall: They’re brother and sister, but they’re playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Is that what you’re talking about with the fluidity of roles and the way that it changes?
Brendan: Absolutely, they have this closeness where they flip into these role plays and they pick up each other’s signals and have these patterns. I mean they do try to surprise each other a bit and have their own agendas within that but you also get the sense that this is something they’ve played over and over before. But this Macbeth is something new that’s come into it.
Natalie: Abalone can be quite mean, so he tries to get a rise out of Gerture.
Fourth Wall: It’s supposed to be bad luck to mention Macbeth before a play, putting it in do you think that’s a little bit of a dig at establishment on Lally Katz’ part?
Natalie: Yeah, probably. Although I read that back in the old days, they would choose Macbeth because it had a lot of swordfights in it – audiences love swordfights. So, people just continued to get injured and stabbed, and so over time it became known as the dangerous play and then the ‘cursed play.’
Brendan: And then the ‘Scottish play.’ I think it’s ok to say it within the play… or is it?
Natalie: I don’t know!
Fourth Wall: So that’s superstitions covered, do you have any pre-show rituals?
Natalie: No, I just warm up. Not really anything specific!
Brendan: I like to annoy my fellow cast members as much as possible. You know, to the limit of them actually getting angry.
Natalie: Like locking my dressing room door…
Brendan: Reminding them…
Natalie: I’ve always just liked going in and doing my warm-up, then doing my make-up, and then pacing around until first call.
Brendan: It differs for me each time but it becomes a ritual, so whatever it is for that production it ends up being like – well I need to do that thing.
Fourth Wall: So you went to university with Jeffrey Jay Fowler, what’s it like working with him as a director?
Natalie: It’s great. He’s very fun but he has very clear visions.
Brendan: He’s very detailed, I love the detail and specificity he brings to his work. It’s really challenging, it’s always good to be working on something that’s challenging.
Fourth Wall: He was very passionate about wanting to do The Eisteddfod wasn’t he?
Natalie: Yeah, he’s wanted to do it for a very long time, I think, it’s a real favourite of his so I think he’s quite excited to do the show. It’s good for him to finally let it get on its feet.
Fourth Wall: What do you think people are going to get out of the show?
Natalie: I don’t know, I think it’s sort of nostalgic the show, in a way and it looks back on childhood in both good and bad incarnations. I think people will recognise that as how growing up is very difficult and it can leave things in you that you don’t realise and major events can stay with you for a very long time and affect how you behave. I think people will see that and accept it in a way. I don’t know if this show is for everyone.
Fourth Wall: Who do you think it does appeal to?
Natlaie: I think younger and more adventurous audiences who like that kind of playful yet dark work. Some things are quite controversial in the show but all these things are part of life. This show isn’t afraid to go there, and get into the dark parts of people’s psyches.
Brendan: And people who are open to the possibility of there not being a neat resolution, or that it’s not going to drive them nuts! Who will give it a chance to breathe it in and sit back on it. And hopefully talk about it. You know, it can be something where they can discuss their different ideas and interpretations of it, and different things that resonated with them. Some people might think it’s very sad, some people might think it’s hilarious and some people might feel genuinely gutted by what’s going on.
Fourth Wall: Does it speak to a particular generation? Could this be set in any era or is it definitely a Gen Y or Gen X piece?
Brendan: I’m not sure.
Natalie: Yeah, it’s hard to know, I personally love it and it really appeals to my theatre sensibilities, but it’s so hard to pigeonhole people into groups. My grandmas go to a lot of shows and I sometimes think – they are going to hate that, and they’ll love it, so I think it’s more about what you like and what resonates.
Fourth Wall: What do you think The Eisteddfod says about the progression from childhood to adulthood?
Natalie: I think just that it’s hard. That sometimes, particularly parents can really set up people for how they look at the world and if you have a difficult childhood how can you function as a well and happy person?
Brendan: Or the myth that there is ‘growing up.’ Or that we don’t really grow up.
Fourth Wall: Well, people have been exploring this theme for generations – I’m thinking of Peter Pan. Nostalgia is quite popular at the moment, and so is this concept of arrested development, not being able to ‘adult’ it seems to be very aimed at that kind of crowd.
Natalie: Totally, and this is really about two people who haven’t been able to grow up because of the things that happened to them.
Brendan: I think that’s something that resonates with me, I’ve just realised.
Fourth Wall: It’s quite a serious piece of theatre and doesn’t have the tackiness of those kind of talent shows, despite being about an eisteddfod, how do you pay homage to the eisteddfod sensibility without mocking it too much?
Natalie: I don’t think we mock it, Abalone loves it! It’s what he lives for and it’s where he’s his happiest. Actually, a friend of mine once said to me that she used to do eisteddfods all the way through growing up and she said that it was the happiest time of her life! It was just such a joyful experience.
Brendan: It’s not really a look into that world and the kind of showbiz, tackiness. He earnestly wants it, as opposed to a look into that world which would be crazy!
Fourth Wall: That’s a whole other play, I think! On that, what is the tackiest thing you’ve ever done in theatre?
Brendan: I did an advert, that was pretty tacky.
Natalie: I was a clown for the Royal Show. That was pretty bad, I had to wear a dog cone – you know those things you put around dog’s necks to protect them from biting and scratching themselves? I had those on my ankles to protect the clown costume from the ground and I had to do it for four hours a day and these kids were just terrorising me, and I’d hide behind buildings! And one day they changed my costume and I didn’t wear the right socks, so these boots just wore away at my ankles and I was just begging ‘please can I take a break’ and the other clown was like ‘no, Natalie, you’ve been taking too many breaks!’ And when I took the things off at the end, I had all this blood in my shoes from that awful costume.
The Eisteddfod opens at the State Theatre Centre WA on 22nd June 2017.
All images credited to James Grant.