A Quick Chat With Ed Wightman

There’s a Pulitzer finalist play currently taking shape at the Eternity Playhouse in Sydney, the home of Darlinghurst Theatre Co. The play is Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, and actor, educator, and director Ed Wightman is in the company.

He’s done everything from Shakespeare to The Lion King, so we asked Wightman 20 questions about his varied life and career.

What was your first on-stage experience? 

Ed Wightman.
Ed Wightman.

Playing one of the King of Siam’s many children in an amateur production of The King and I. I think I was eight years old.

You’ve been a performer, director, theatre educator, and casting director – what do you think is the most beneficial thing about wearing so many “hats”?

I find there are a number of benefits. Firstly, there is the pleasure I derive from the diversity of the work. Then there is the financial benefit that comes from having several avenues for employment. And there is also the extra appreciation I’ve acquired for the craft by experiencing it from a variety of perspectives.

What has been your best (and/or worst) onstage mishap?

Any mishap feels pretty bad. I’ve fallen over, knocked down bits of the set, missed entrances, forgotten lines. It continues to amaze me what audiences don’t notice. One of my less fine moments was corpsing in the opening scene of Hamlet. Yes, Hamlet! I’m still ashamed of that one.

What has been your most thrilling stage experience as an actor?

I’m not sure I’d describe it as thrilling so much as terrifying, but I remember as a 1st year drama student being thrown into a 3rd year production of Pericles with less than 24 hours notice, after one of the cast was injured in a motorcycle accident. Not only did I have chunks of Shakespearean dialogue to recite, I also had to perform two combat routines and a period dance! It was a surreal experience – like a real life version of that dream of being on stage unprepared – but it sure was a rush!

And as a director?
I remember returning to see a production I’d directed (of Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water) late in the season, and feeling like just another member of the audience. The production had grown, the cast had made it their own, and I was able to sit back and just enjoy this slice of life being played out, almost as if it hadn’t been directed at all. That was pretty satisfying.

And as an audience member?
There are certain acting performances etched in my memory: Stephen Dillane in The Real Thing and Uncle Vanya, Cate Blanchett in Gross Und Klein, Darren Gilshenen in Bell Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, the entire company of Steppenwolf’s August: Osage County. I would crawl over broken glass to see anything staged by Robert Lapage. And I think Damien’s Ryan’s Sport For Jove productions, particularly The Taming of the Shrew, All’s Well That End’s Well and Henry V, are some of the best productions of Shakespeare I have ever seen.

What makes you laugh?
Lots of things. Both highbrow and lowbrow. But I’ll say Woody Allen. He is guaranteed to make me laugh. Even in his worst films, I’ll laugh out loud at least once.

What do you think is the most exciting thing about Australian theatre?
The passion and vigour in the independent scene is very exciting at the moment. I’d also nominate the commitment of several low or unfunded companies to paying award rates to performers, and also to those individual philanthropists who are stumping up their own dollars to fund productions and theatre companies.

What do you think is the most challenging thing about it?
Making a living and the lack of development opportunities and support for new writing.

What’s your best party trick?
Next question.

What inspires you?
Again lots of things, but in respect of theatre, I’d say performers who tackle monumentally demanding stage roles, performing them 8 shows a week.

If you could play any role (you can cast yourself against type) what would it be?
I always wanted to play Konstantin in The Seagull. But that ship has sailed.

What are some of your favourite plays?
I’m a sucker for the classics. I love Shakespeare, Chekov and Beckett. Tennessee Williams has always been a favourite. And I love pretty much everything Brian Friel has ever written.

And some of your favourite musicals?
I did City of Angels when I was at drama school and loved every minute of it. I still think it is a wonderful show. I also love Cabaret and Chicago. West Side Story. Guys and Dolls.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Be kind and tell the truth. I should follow it more often!

Tell us a little bit about the play you’re working on, Detroit.
It is a contemporary American play set in the neighbouring yards of two very different couples. One, a middle-class, unhappily married middle-aged couple, and the other a much looser, younger couple without a cent to their names and fresh out of rehab. The play explores this clash of opposites, the simultaneous attraction and aversion they feel toward each other, and focuses in on them right at a point when they are all craving reinvention. 

How do you think a story about modern Detroit relates to Sydney audiences?
The title of the play is more metaphorical than anything. The playwright has said that the title is intended to suggest the sort of anxiety the fate of that particular US city can evoke in people. The play was inspired by the global financial crisis and can be read as a stinging critique of no holds barred, neo-liberal capitalism, but ultimately it is more of a comic play about relationships. It mines a lot of laughs and poignancy from the ways in which we are alike and the ways in which we differ, and raises the question of whether we ever really know other people, even those closest to us. It’s a really interesting play – both entertaining and thought provoking.

You’re performing in the (relatively) new Eternity Theatre – what is that experience like for you?
I think Sydneysiders are very fortunate to have such a beautiful new theatre in their city. This is my first time performing there and like any new theatre space it takes some getting used to. There are some sightline and acoustic challenges, but that is true of all theatres. The space feels very warm and welcoming I think.

What has been the most rewarding rehearsal experience so far?
I don’t think an actor always notices the evolution that occurs across a rehearsal process, because it is a layering process and happens incrementally, but you really appreciate the little breakthroughs you make along the way.

When can we see Detroit?
It is playing now until 16
th August at the Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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