Backstage at Priscilla: Adele Parkinson in conversation with Tony Sheldon
Tap On to Australia’s most iconic bus and meet the cast riding aboard as they travel the country in 2018. Each fortnight, Priscilla cast member Adele Parkinson switches gears to interview a member of the team and share their stories and insights from behind the scenes of this fabulous Aussie musical.
Whoever says that the brain can’t remember pain hasn’t heard of muscle memory. We’re currently in our third week of Priscilla rehearsals (translation: we’re approaching 120 hours of relentlessly notebashing three part harmonies, prolonged periods of arms-in-second as we dance like paintbrushes and hours spent high kicking in shoes the shape and weight of two child-size canoes). At this stage my various muscle tissues have both the memory and enlarged appearance of an elephant. My body may forgive me enough to get itself through another day of umbrella choreography and sustained A flats on an “oh” vowel, but by the evening it is holding a serious grudge.
Though while my body plots its revenge against me, my heart is exploding with joy, for I am part of a dedicated team working tirelessly to re-create a big, glittery show about a bus. No person takes a job in theatre out of obligation; we’re all here because we want to be and we’re all trying to do work we’re proud of. That to me is the magic of theatre.
It’s from this place of deep appreciation that I wanted to write this interview series. Today we’re high kicking things off with the actor who’s been there since the beginning: Tony Sheldon.
Tony is a mainstay of Australian theatre and an authority on all things Priscilla. Having originated the role of the transgender, former starlet Bernadette in 2006, he has since packed up his Louis Vuitton and travelled the show to Auckland, London and Toronto before the production moved to New York in 2011. He won a slew of best actor awards for his performance, as well as becoming an Olivier and Tony award nominee. He has now racked up a total of 1750 performances as Bernadette and is back in the country to reprise the role in the 10th Anniversary Australian Tour.
Using simple mathematics (a challenging activity for me but I’m trying to impress you), I calculated that Tony’s milestone performance count is equivalent to 218 eight-show weeks; that’s 4.2 years. Tony has performed for a longer time as Bernadette than each of our Prime Ministers from the last decade have in their roles (and he’s a more convincing actor than the four of them combined). To fill the Regent Theatre for 1750 shows you would need to sell tickets to the entire population of Melbourne. It truly is an impressive feat, so I was fascinated to ask him how he did it.
How has your interpretation of Bernadette developed since you first started playing her over a decade ago?
Every time I do the show I try to dig deeper. I try to remember that Bernadette comes from a place of deep love. I could just play the show superficially as “bitchery, bitchery, bitchery”, however I think there’s got to be something underneath the insults. I don’t ever want Bernadette to be hurtful. She’s bereaved when we meet her but she’s in a good place in herself, and she wants this trip to work. Priscilla can easily become a drag queen camp-fest, but if everything is anchored in love the show seems to work on its highest level.
How has the response to the show changed over time and as it travelled to international audiences?
The audience response to Priscilla never changed around the world. We’re not a slick, highly choreographed, sentimental show. Priscilla has a “rat bag” quality that I think is borne from our Australian sensibility; there’s swearing, silly costumes, angular choreography. Priscilla has a secret weapon in that it’s posing as a jukebox musical then the audience gets the whammy of the beautiful story between a father and a son. The kid really surprises you. Priscilla is ultimately a story about family, both your real and chosen family. Family and love. There’s no overt political message.
Can you talk acting and about finding the meaning underneath the text:
It’s very easy to just go out and say words, but there’s always something else happening in a scene. I’s far more interesting as the actor to find the meaning underneath the text, otherwise you’re left playing the show on a superficial level. There must be something underneath the insults, they need to be motivated by something. You must know what it is you want from these people. Think about where your character has been and where it’s going and remember the circumstances in which you’re playing. This is an actor’s homework. The audience needs to sense that there’s more going on than what they can see.
How do you stay focussed and engaged during such long, repetitive runs?
When I was younger I used to mistake a fresh, energised performance for bigger and louder! When I think back, I was just getting bigger and bigger and bigger and had lost my original intention. I’ve since learned to stay in the moment. I make a conscious decision to never think ahead and always try to play exactly the moment I’m in as though I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Of course, Bernadette doesn’t know she’s going to be getting on a bus and not a plane, all she knows is that she’s got a gig in Alice Springs and her intention is to get there. Stay exactly where you are at every single given point. That is what has sustained me.
What do you see as your responsibilities as an actor?
I was brought up in the dying days of J C Williamson theatres where understudies would go on if your mother had died. It’s important to me that I don’t miss a show. I’m old-school like that. I have a responsibility, and eight shows a week really isn’t that hard in the scheme of things. Look after yourself and know where your limits are. Our job is to be there for the sake of the show. Besides, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Finally, a nugget of wisdom from Tony for emerging and established actors alike:
You are enough. You don’t need to be anybody else. Your voyage through your career is unique and your own. You already have everything within you, so use what you got!
Priscilla Queen of the Desert is playing at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre from 21 January, 2018.
For more, go to priscillathemusical.com.au