How We Do What We Do: Mike McLeish, Blazey Best and Peter Kowitz with Marika Aubrey
This is my first attempt at a group How We Do What We Do! I couldn’t pick between the embarrassment of riches that make up my current colleagues, and so instead, we sat around pre-show and nattered together about training (none of these actors have undertaken formal training), parallel non-actor lives (which would see this interview conducted with a conman, a meteorologist & a saw miller), the brave new world of singing in plays and of course, the joys and challenges of this actually quite weird job.
Blazey Best is one of Sydney’s best know actresses having had lead roles with most of our major theatre companies (STC, Bell Shakespeare, recently Belvoir’s Nora – she was Nora), and played roles on many TV series like All Saints, Rake and Janet King. Best by name, BEST by nature.
Mike McLeish is best know as Keating in the hugely successful Australian musical of the same name. You have also seen him on the acclaimed TV series Time Of Our Lives as the hapless Mickey and on Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Comedian, cabaret artist and all round excellent human being.
Peter Kowitz is notching up 42 years in the biz with an instantly recognisable face from TV’s Prime Time, Richmond Hill, Chances, Heartbreak High, Pacific Drive, Water Rats, Wildside, Farscape, Murder Call, Grass Roots, All Saints, McLeod’s Daughter’s, Janet King and Crownies. He has won two AFI awards and is also a regular on Sydney stages, with credits including Tot Mom & Blackbird for STC (the latter directed by Cate Blanchett), The Floating World for Griffin, and King Lear for Bell Shakespeare.
This is a formidable collection of artists.
Naughty University Truants All
Marika: So given that this series is called How We Do What We Do, can each of you tell me a little bit about how you do what you do – if you are able to articulate that at all. Do you have a set process? Does it stem from particular training? Is it more instinctual? Is each job different? Those sort of things.
Peter: Well I’ll start off. For me I think it’s – because I didn’t train – it’s instinctual to a certain extent, but I’ve picked up over the years just different techniques. A lot of it’s really about thoroughness, I think, to be perfectly frank. I spend a lot of time with the script.
[pull_left]I’ve picked up over the years just different techniques. A lot of it’s really about thoroughness, I think, to be perfectly frank. I spend a lot of time with the script[/pull_left]
Marika: How old were you when you started?
Peter: I started at university in the 70s. I went to university to do something else and then I got in with the drama group, which included Geoff Rush and Bille Brown.
Marika: Not shabby company.
Peter: Bille Brown in fact was the reason – in orientation week Bille handed me the flyer to the Dram Soc at Queensland University. I remember going along that night and… I thought I’d found my tribe. I’d been through boarding school and had kind of a jock style education, and suddenly there were women in nighties.
Mike: Men in nighties.
Peter: …and handsome men and ugly men, and men in nighties, yes. It was just – I can remember that night clearly now – walking in and just seeing this crazy bunch of people who seemed so witty and intelligent and bright. I thought-
Marika: -They’re my people.
Peter: I hope these can be my people.
Marika: So you don’t really have a set way of working other than you – it’s all from the script.
Peter: All from the script, absolutely. If I have any person that I think articulates my approach, it would be David Mamet. But that’s only in retrospect. I didn’t decide to do that, but now that I’ve read his books on theatre and stuff – everything is in the script. Everything is for the furthering of the story, and I don’t particularly care what happens outside of what is written on the page. I really don’t need to know about where they went to school and all that sort of crap.
Blazey: See I think you only need to know where you went to school and stuff if there’s a bit in the script that says when I was at school. I think when I was younger I used to be much more satisfied with ‘just say it’, but now as I get older I find that that kind of mental specificity helps me be relaxed.
Marika: To root it in some sort of reality…
Blazey: Yeah. I also didn’t train. But you pick up stuff, don’t you?
Marika: How did you come to into acting?
Blazey: Um…much the same as Mitchell Butel. I did ATYP plays and classes, I went to the Uni of NSW and did plays. I didn’t even finish first year. I stopped going to lectures, and then after a while I stopped going to tutes, and all I did was sit around with the drama people and drink coffee and do plays.
Marika: So because of that it is more instinct, and more gathering bits of stuff that just help surround you and make you feel legit…
Blazey: Yeah, and I’ve done some useful little bits of training. I did that Shakespeare course at RADA that’s two or three months. It was fucking great for technique in terms of speaking and things. I’m with Peter – script, script, look for clues, and assume that if it’s not refuted in the script then it’s true.
Peter: Yes, absolutely. There’s no lie.
Mike: This is going to start sounding repetitive. I started a degree at Melbourne University…
Marika: Ha! A well traveled path!
Mike: …and by about semester two I thought ‘all this university’s really getting in the way of this theatre…’ So I dropped out of the degree and then just hung around Melbourne Uni for three years just doing shows back to back.
In Another World…
Marika: What would you be doing if you weren’t an actor now?
Mike: I’d be a conman. I’d be an immensely successful conman.
Marika: You mean salesman of some sort…?!
Mike: No no, literally a confidence man.
Blazey: Actually a conman.
Mike: Like a grifter. I would be a grifter.
Marika: What would you be doing Blazey?
Blazey: Well the only other thing I’ve ever been interested in is weather.
Blazey: It was the only thing that ever caught my interest at school, so perhaps I would be a meteorologist.
Peter: It’s kind of interesting because… I think I wanted to be something other than whatever was my destiny living in the country.
Marika: You wanted to change your destiny?
Peter: Yes. Coming from a country town, the choices were probably being a school teacher or a public servant, or working at a sawmill. We came from saw-millers. It’s interesting now because one brother is a public servant and the other one is a sawmiller. That was kind of where I thought it would go.
Marika: It was something you could recognise that… you wanted something different, perhaps.
Peter: Yeah. I mean, talking about orientation week at university and stuff like that, in my first year, I joined the folk club and the creative writing club and the Drama Society, all in the first week. Any one of them could have taken. I could quite easily imagine doing something like that.
Mike: You could be Cat Stevens.
Peter: Could be Cat Stevens…
Marika: But it’s that tribe thing though that probably meant you stuck with the drama kids.
Peter: Yeah. Sure. We’re from different generations, and we’ve all got the things that are part of our generations I suppose, but certainly the 1970’s in Australia was very conservative.
Mike: I presume it must have taken a certain degree of courage and fortitude to not only have that feeling that you wanted to beat the path less trodden, but then to actually do it…
Blazey: You had to be braver in the 70’s to perhaps go – especially a country boy – to go ‘I think I want to be an actor’. Bravery.
Marika: That’s huge.
Peter: Words like bravery make it seem a little bit…I think you have to be selfish enough to want to pursue something that’s …
Peter: …artistic, yeah.
Marika: Rather than pragmatic.
Peter: Yes. It wasn’t a profession as it is now in those days. You certainly didn’t know anyone who acted. There was a little bit of television and that seemed so remote from anything else.
Hit The Heights
Marika: I’d love for each of you to talk about either a production or a colleague that you either learnt a lot from or greatly inspired you, because you’ve all had quite tremendous experiences working with some of the greatest in our biz. Perhaps there was a show or a colleague that you used to watch from the wings and think “far out, they’re a bit…”
Mike: That’s an easy one for me. Keating! the musical, which was my first professional job.
Marika: Was it? Wow.
Mike: I mean I’d done – I don’t think I’d even done a guestie on TV on anything like that. I’d done a lot of independent theatre in Melbourne. I’d played in bands, and then Casey Bennetto who I played in bands with and had done a couple of shows with, he wrote Keating! and told me about it and said we’d do it at the Comedy Festival next year. Then it just became this…
Blazey: That’s what I was going to say!
Peter: How many years did you do it for?
Mike: All up it was almost – about three and a half years all up, including the original independently-produced production that Catherine Woodfield, Casey’s partner, produced. Then Belvoir Street bought it and we started there towards the end of 2006. So it debuted at the Comedy Festival in 2005, started at Belvoir Street in 2006, then toured pretty solidly for the next – we did two full national tours.
Marika: So that was a game changer for you.
Mike: Absolutely. Even though I was Melbourne based and I had no knowledge of musical theatre. I’d done one musical at uni, strangely enough Dean Bryant was in it as well. We were both in the chorus of a production of Chess. I didn’t really like musicals and I always thought ‘I act and I sing, and never the twain shall meet’.
Mike: But then all of a sudden I was working with Neil Armfield, and Brian Thomson was designing it, and Damien Cooper was doing the lights, and I was working one on one with John O’Connell doing choreography every day. I was immensely intimidated by the prospect of the whole thing, but figured out incredibly quickly that – which is such a naïve realisation but it’s still a massive relief – that they’re just people like everyone else, and they’re just people that want to make the best thing we can do in the situation we have with the resources at hand. They’ve just got slightly more resources than others.
Marika: That’s a nice debut.
Mike: Yeah. I’d highly recommend it. Don’t bother trying to work your way up through the ensemble…
Marika: Training shmaining. Whatever. Just land the lead role in a national tour.
Mike: Have a good friend of yours write a show and put you in the lead…
Marika: Yeah, good idea.
Mike: …and for it to be really amazing.
Marika: What about you Blazey?
Blazey: I think probably I’d have to say – I did a production of Troilus and Cressida in the year 2000. It was kind of big and it had an amazing cast of actors…
Marika: Was it Bell Shakespeare?
Blazey: It was Bell Shakespeare and John Bell was in it, and it was directed by Michael Bogdanov who’s this English director. And just amazing people in it, Peter Carroll and the great Vic Rooney and Bille Brown. Bille taught me a lot about dignity. He was one of those people who would share knowledge, and so in curtain calls I was I was like…they embarrassed me. So I’d sort of just muck around. He got quite cross. He said “don’t do that, this is the audience’s time. You owe them eye contact and keep your head up. Don’t just flop around and do silly bows”.
Marika: I kind of love that.
Blazey: It was great. All that stuff. He would grab me – if I was doing a scene he would actually physically grab me and move me, “go in your light darling, in your light, talk to me”. Or if I’d done something he thought was particularly magnificent he’d throw his arms around me on stage in front of the audience, bold as brass, and say “beautiful, wonderful darling”. It was, I suppose, one of those sort of old-school experiences of being mentored by someone.
Marika: Do you have a particular production or a person that perhaps inspired you Peter?
Peter: I think what happens…this is coming up to 42 years as an actor…you think of the first people. The first director I really responded to was an Irish one called Joe MacCollum. He was…he was probably an alcoholic, certainly blurred the boundary between having a drink before a show. But to me he was fantastic because he would sometimes turn up for notes really drunk, and really rip the cast the apart. That happened in those days a little bit, you know?
Mike: Was he right, when he ripped the cast apart?
Peter: There were some people who would never probably act again after those notes sessions. But I got on very well with him. We did an Irish play called Da, and I always remember him spending nearly two weeks just breaking the script up into visual images so that every sentence was basically – had these images – the dog crossed the road to piss on the tree, so you’d have the dog, the road, piss, the tree. So you had…
Marika: With actual images…?
Peter: Yeah. You’d mark up the script so that almost everything was an image. And of course it helped us learn our lines terrifically, but the Irish see things in pictures. That’s why their language is so terrific. So I still do that. I still mark up the script every now and then if I’m having… if I want to particularly latch onto something. I don’t think it’s highly unusual. There’s various forms of it where you don’t move on to the next word until you’ve actually discovered what that word is, all that sort of stuff. But years later, when I had some measure of success, Joe would always send me letters, really nice, lovely, drunken letters about the craft and different things. He was very important to me.
How Do We Do What We Do When We Sing Too
Marika: So, it would be remiss of me not to ask about, I guess, especially for you, Peter, I think, not having done a musical before, what’s the experience been like working on one? How is it different? Is it different? Have you approached it differently? I mean I know the musical we are currently in is kind of an unusual delicate beast, it’s not very conventional, I don’t think, in terms of musical theatre as most people would think of it. I think it’s more a play that has a set context within which it feels very normal to sing.
Peter: It feels very much like a play to me. And also I’m only involved in one song.
Blazey: What a song!
Peter: The process for me has been just extraordinary. I’ve always loved the vaudeville tradition. I think most of my acting owes a great deal to the hams of the past. But watching songs come about, watching the work that was done with the choreography, there really wasn’t any room to waste time. In a play sometimes you don’t hit anything until week three. People are fumbling about. With this show (Miracle City) the first two days people are learning stuff, people are getting stuff on the floor. That’s something that’s terrifically exciting.
Marika: Some big musicals you sit down and you ‘read’, as in you sing, the whole thing on the very first day.
Peter: I did ask Max about what the process was, what would happen, because I was fairly…I was terrified.
Blazey: The only commercial musical I’d done was Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Marika: Of course.
Blazey: The other ones I’ve done have been at STC and Belvoir, you know, doing Threepenny Opera at Belvoir with Benedict Andrews is not the same. You know what I mean?
Marika: Were you ever tempted?
Blazey: Look I’ve auditioned for shows. I’ve come close to a couple and not got them, and then other ones I’m not tempted at all. Because I don’t really dance, I’m not a dancer…now that I’m getting older I think there are probably character roles that I might be able to be in contention for. But no, look, not really. I agree with you about that Peter – I sometimes wonder in rehearsals for plays if we all just sound a bit timid and precious. With acting maybe we try to make it more complicated than it is, because we’re too scared that it’s easy or something. I’m not sure. Sometimes it is hard, and I think often it’s hard if it’s not a good script. Then you’re going ‘fuck, how do I make this work?’
Blazey: But if it’s well written, then acting’s pretty fucking easy.
Peter: Yeah, I agree. I mean I think that was interesting seeing you two just bringing the same vigour to the acting as you had to do for your singing and all that other stuff. I agree, sometimes I think we are – certainly in plays – you just want to go ‘please, get on with it’.
Blazey: Yeah. And directors will say ‘I don’t want to give you a technical note’, and you say ‘Give me a fucking technical note please!’, because it’s basically all music anyway, do you know what I mean? More or less. So if you think that what’s not working about what I’m doing is that it’s not fast enough or something, then just…
Mike: Say that.
Blazey: Because that’s the easiest way round this.
Blazey: That’s my opinion.
The Good And The Bad Stuff
Marika: Finally, because we need to go and actually do a show, what is your greatest joy and your biggest challenge about your job? What do you love most about it and what do you like the least?
Mike: I love…
Marika: You love the people. I’ve heard you talk about that.
Mike: It’s such a basic tenet of what I do, but I love the fact that it’s a shared experience, not just with a cast but with an audience. To be in a room all sharing the same air – and it’s becoming more and more rarefied where people feel that sense of community. I think theatre’s crucial for that, and I just love meeting new people and working with new people. I haven’t done a show like this for years, where I’ve had to do a lot of talkie talkies, so to be around Blazey and Peter in particular has been really great. It goes back to sort of what I was saying before about the natural generosity of a lot of the people you work with. It’s so easy to sort of come to it with that sort of vigour, because when you’re around people that have that common goal, you just want to rise to it. I love that. You get this sense of satisfaction with a fairly high turnover if you’re lucky enough to be involved in good stuff.
Marika: That frisson of yummy cast companionship becomes especially important in long runs?
Mike: Yeah, well it’s a different mental approach when you’re staring down the barrel of a long run…That is the wrong turn of phrase, but there are days when it feels like that. If your voice is tired or you’ve got an injury, and you think I’ve got another seven months of this, and one day off a week isn’t enough. But there is a great feeling of solidarity. That should be the ideal scenario in every cast, that everyone is sharing and giving all they have to give.
Mike: I don’t see any point to being otherwise…
Marika: It’s awfully difficult doing what you do if you don’t have that cohesion.
Blazey: It’s actually horrible and lonely.
Mike: I think I’ve been very spoiled with the people I’ve worked with.
Blazey: Perhaps you’ve just been really lucky. I think I have been.
Marika: Is there a challenge? Is there a thing you like least?
Mike: Darren Yap. [laughter] No, I don’t know. Just basic self-critical paranoia.
Marika: We all have that.
Mike: Yeah. Just really simple base level insecurities. Am I shit? Literally just that. Am I shit? Is what I’m doing shit?
Marika: Yes. Yep.
Mike: That’s what I hate about it.
Peter: I suppose for me it is the people. I think it is one of the great joys of it, because we are such unusual creatures in a way. How often have you put the phone down after your agent has told you about the job and you’ve realised you haven’t even asked about the money…? One of the times I love most is when I get home at night and the house is quiet, and I’ve done a show and I can pour a glass of wine and have something to eat, and I don’t have to do the show again till tomorrow, and I’ve had the satisfaction of that day.
Marika: The Sunday night after the last show of the week is the best one.
Peter: Sunday night is good, but every night can be Sunday night in my home. [laughter] I love that moment. It just seems to be a complete moment for me. I love it. Then you asked about challenges. I think it’s difficult in our world financially sometimes, and I think that’s probably the biggest challenge, because it’s difficult for us to get loans – if we want a new car or…
Marika: Grown up stuff.
Peter: Yeah. We’ve basically got to have the cash. I have friends who have far less money than I do, but who take two payslips to the bank and they give them $20,000.
Mike: Yes, whereas we can’t get a loan from a loan shark…”Oh you’re an actor…”
Marika: That’s true.
Peter: So I think the financial thing is always a challenge. But if you’re doing something you love, I think that’s just worth it.
Blazey: Yes, my favourite thing is that sense of communion with your cast and the audience when you’re in a show that’s cooking. If you’re in a show that’s a dog – I’ve been in shows like that and then there’s nothing good about it – but if you’re in a show that’s really cooking, it’s that sense of going on a journey with a few hundred people and your friends. It’s so good! Challenge? I feel for me it’s like nights when, I don’t know, you’ve got your period or a fat day or something, and what you want to be doing most is to do what other people would be doing in the same situation – be on the couch under the doona eating takeaway curry and watching Mad Men, but what you have to do is get on stage in front of a few hundred people in your underpants.
Marika: So true. What a privilege guys, thank you.
Peter: Thank you Marika.