Blake Erickson’s ([title of show], A New Brain) intimate show Pearls Before Swine: An Evening With Orson Welles was a Sydney Fringe darling in 2010, with Erickson nominated for the Indepdendent Artist Prize and winning the Best Performance award for his portrayal of Orson Welles in a tell-all show documenting the celebrated icon’s rise to fame and his subsequent, spectacular, fall from grace.
Set this month for a very limited return season of just two shows at the Sidetrack Theatre in Marrickville, home to some of Sydney’s best fringe and indepedent theatre performances of the last few years, the popular show featuring only a carafe of whisky, a microphone, and Mr Wells himself (Erickson) is the story of the man behind Citizen Kane, the voice behind War of the Worlds, and a Shakespearean master — the story of an artist frustrated by the world around him, its politics, and one who yearns to use his artistic expression to better humanity. An artist in decline.
I caught up with Blake this week to talk about Pearls Before Swine, his experience as a writer/performer, and what exactly it is about Orson Welles that makes him so fascinating.
Tell me about the show. Why Orson Welles? Where did the inspiration for the show come from?
I’ve been fascinated by Orson Welles ever since High School when like so many other kids I was put in front of a TV in English class and made to watch Citizen Kane. To me, it was a revelation and I couldn’t get it out of my head. The more I read about Orson, the more I liked him. He was an actor and director who didn’t compromise, who stayed true to what he felt was artistically and technically pure. To me, he fits in very well with some of my other heroes like Steve Jobs and Ricky Gervais who I find, perhaps strangely, also fit that mould.
I’d been inspired by several one-man plays I’d seen. Prunella Scales as Queen Victoria at the Sydney Theatre back in 2004 was one in particular. I found the idea of a single performer captivating an entire audience such an extraordinary yet terrifying idea. It was only when I saw these shows that I realised that there’s nothing ‘one-man’ about it. You’re engaging with the audience the entire time, more so than in a play with many characters. It’s a conversation every night. With Pearls Before Swine, I have the luxury of communicating with the audience directly as Orson Welles. I’m almost looking forward to a mobile phone going off mid-performance!
What do you think is the appeal of that classic Hollywood scandal — why do you think it’s still fascinating today?
I think people are fascinated because the public truly believe they know these people. They feel like they are actually sitting in rehab with Lindsay, or are there in the delivery room with Beyoncé and Jay-Z. People talk about Hollywood stars like they’re their best friends. When something big happens, people crave more information. There are industries dedicated to it. Of course, it was even worse back in the golden era of Hollywood. Gossip these days gets you a TV show and a movie contract, gossip back then got you fired — or worse. The stakes were much higher.
If you could be any classic Hollywood actor (not Orson Welles) who would you be?
William Holden — not only did he manage that rarest of Hollywood feats, the lasting career come-back, but he got to make Sunset Boulevard with Billy Wilder. Doesn’t get much better than that.
What was the first thing that inspired you to become a performer?
I remember being a little kid sitting on a booster seat watching Phantom at the Theatre Royal many, many moons ago. It probably started there, although I do remember a few years later being at the now-demolished Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney and seeing all the posters from all those extraordinary shows that had played there over the years and wanting desperately to know everything about every single one of them.
What’s it like to perform something you have written as opposed to someone else’s work (even something just as consciously referential as [title of show]?)
As a text, [title of show] was glorious to perform because it honestly felt like the conversations I have with Jay James-Moody (who played the role of ‘Hunter’) every day. Broadway fan-boy-dom is universal. If you’re lucky, you do develop a sense of ownership over a script, and it can feel like a second skin. With a piece you’ve written yourself, it’s even better. You don’t have to mould to the text, it moulds to you like a well tailored suit. That said, it’s extremely important to have a good director along for the ride to keep things in check! I feel blessed to have Sarah Blackstone doing just that.
What do you like the most about fringe and independent theatre in Sydney?
I find fringe and independent theatre so exciting right now. It seems to have blossomed in the last few years and has grown very organically now to be a real staple of the arts not just in Sydney but throughout the country. You can see plays, musicals, and performance pieces of every description that you would never otherwise see, and the standard of performance is astronomically high. I’ve worked a lot with Squabbalogic which produce some amazing work here in Sydney, and it’s gratifying to see that the wider entertainment industry has taken this new industry to its heart and has embraced it.
Describe Pearls Before Swine in five words or less.
Famed Hollywood actor tells all.
Pearls Before Swine: An Evening With Orson Welles will play at the Sidetrack Theatre, Marrickville for two shows on January 20 and 21. For more information, visit www.orsonwelles.com.au. For ticket information, visit www.sidetrack.com.au