By Nick Pilgrim
Established in 1958, Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre is one of the city’s leading independent live entertainment groups. Located in leafy Kirribilli, their harbour inlet home base is a brisk ten walk from Milson’s Point Railway Station on the North Shore Line.
One of the key selling points of this terrific repertory venue, is that every production I have attended has been an immersive one. Meaning, very little space if any, separates audience members from the actors. Similar in design to auditoriums such as Gasworks in Albert Park, Chapel Off Chapel in Prahran, the Fairfax Studio at Arts Centre Melbourne or Forty-Five Downstairs in the CBD, the theatre’s flat to the floor rectangular stage is marked by steep stadium seating on three of its four sides.
Past shows I have attended there include Relatively Speaking (2016/17) and The Norman Conquests Trilogy (2018/19) by Alan Ayckbourn and Outdated (2021) by Mark Kilmurry. The final offering for their 2022 Season, Boxing Day BBQ is a world-premiere play by rising local talent, Sam O’Sullivan.
Set in short linear episodes over one blistering afternoon, this brand-new Australian work packs tremendous punch into its one-hundred-minute running time. Like many festive events made up of disparate family members, as predicted, the tensions and temperatures always rise.
Peppered with rapid-fire dialogue and supported by strong group characterisation, O’Sullivan’s work appears to draw on notable playwrights like Ayckbourn, Ron Elisha, David Mamet, Fleur Murphy, Neil Simon, and David Williamson for inspiration.
As good fortune would have it, my ticket included a Q & A Session to immediately follow the show. A feature of the company’s creative hub, Ensemble Development, gives viewers the exciting opportunity to venture behind the red curtain. As quoted on their website:
“Ever wondered how the cast learn so many lines? Or what really resonates about the play with the director? Join us at one of our post-show Q&A sessions for an engaging conversation about the play.”
This isn’t my first time attending such an event.
Organisations like Antipodes (for their musical Passing Strange), Malthouse Theatre (for The Glass Menagerie), and Squabbalogic (for Grey Gardens) have given patrons this extra boost at selected performances as well. A big hit with audiences, I urge anyone, whether they’re training to be an actor, writer, director, technical creative, or just keen to learn more, to consider being part of the process.
In essence, that viewers’ questions direct proceedings, gives this kind of forum unexpected energy. Like the hilarious Q & A segments Carol Burnett used to conduct on her popular variety television show, you simply can’t predict or anticipate what people will ask.
Sitting face to face with the actors, we were introduced one by one to Chloe Bayliss (as Val), Danielle Carter (as Connie), Harriet Gordon-Anderson (as Jennifer), Brian Meegan (as Peter), and Jamie Oxenbould (as Morris).
Knowing how difficult it can be to ice break these set-ups, especially at 1.00pm on a workday afternoon, I drew on every ounce of courage and asked the first question.
Essentially, it was whether the actors were aware of the audience, and did how viewers react, impact their performances in any way.
Gordon-Anderson nodded with a resounding ‘Yes’.
She added, given how everyone in the first few rows share the same space, it is unavoidable. You can clearly see people’s faces, and the actors are literally playing at viewers’ feet.
Oxenbould backed that claim, stating in one of the show’s funnier moments when he spat out a mouthful of wine, noticed how one woman sitting directly in front of him, impulsively curled up her legs.
Carter joined in by mentioning the importance of pacing. Meaning, actors develop a sense of whether what they are doing is engaging viewers or not. She noted landing a certain joke early in the show, and how it got a big laugh (at that morning’s performance), meant viewers were invested in the journey with her.
We learned that for the duration of its run, Boxing Day BBQ shares the space with another holiday-themed work. By happy coincidence or in a stroke of marketing brilliance, that play is an adaptation of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.
On days when both pieces are running back-to-back, the technical crew only have fifteen minutes to switch between sets. This is no easy task, turning the wooden patio and grassy backyard of your typical suburban house into a nineteenth century English manor.
To allow for the changeover, Boxing Day BBQ runs from start to finish without an interval. On days when it is playing alone without A Christmas Carol, a twenty-minute break divides the experience in two.
With this knowledge in mind, one audience member wanted to know if the actors preferred performing with or without that break.
Once the train has left the station, you want to ride it to the finish. Backed by Carter’s interesting analogy, the consensus between the group was unanimous. While a lot of large-scale productions include a midpoint pause for set and costume changes (as well as bathroom or refreshment breaks for the audience), in this instance the actors felt it halted the momentum they were trying to build.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the Q & A involved Chloe Bayliss.
Prior to Covid-19, Ensemble rarely used standbys or understudies. Meaning, actors would do everything it took (even if it meant working with a sore throat or a head cold) to prevent having a performance cancelled.
Bayliss, as we learned, was a late substitute for another actor who had taken slightly ill with the virus. Hired to cover all the female roles, she was called up the previous Thursday to replace the part of Val.
That the team were working in a bubble to prevent any further outbreaks, meant that Bayliss did not rehearse a full run of the show with the entire team. Instead, only the segments featuring her.
What I had indeed watched, was the actor’s first full run in the play.
It was also interesting to note that Bayliss was encouraged to bring her own interpretation to the role and not a copy of someone else.
Meaning, the unfamiliar dynamic and timing she shared with the other actors gave the experience a new and different feel from the season up until that point. Gordon-Anderson admitted she didn’t even know what to expect, and simply ran with it.
Bayliss was carrying what we found out was the show’s script (which she never referenced once during the performance). Except for that small security blanket clue, it demonstrates the lengths any company will take to make sure the show must go on.
To quote the late actress, Gretchen Wyler, when she detailed a similar situation in the excellent documentary, Broadway: The Golden Age, “Understudies,” Wyler said, “need to be prepared to go on at a moment’s notice. Because that’s the kind of discipline you’ve got to have.”
Boxing Day BBQ plays until Sunday January 15.
Image: Prudence Upton