Conor Leach talks the catharsis of Fourteen

by | Apr 18, 2024

The new smash-hit Australian play, Fourteen, begins its national tour at Riverside Theatres on 3rd May. Based on Shannon Molloy’s award-winning memoir of the same name, Fourteen is the inspirational true story of growing up gay in central Queensland, adapted into a powerful must-see theatre production by Shake & Stir Theatre Co.

For actor Conor Leach, who plays Shannon, the opportunity to be involved in the project was one he just couldn’t pass up.

“It’s been the privilege of my life getting to know Shannon and inhabiting his experience,” says Leach. “I’d never played a real person before; of course as an actor you try to treat all characters as if they’re real, but ultimately the lived reality of Shannon’s story gives this work strong roots and hits home. Reading his book, I was staggered not only by what Shannon had to endure, but also his bravery and vulnerability in sharing. We’ve tried to do a similar thing in staging it: share Shannon’s story in a way that may move, change and let people see themselves. Reading the adaptation too, I lived for how it juxtaposed camp comedy / nostalgia and absolute terror. That’s the most exciting stuff to play, because that’s life. Highs and lows butting heads with one another.

Returning to Fourteen after two years, I’m thinking of it right now as a tribute to that 14-year-old boy who made it when he thought there was no way out – and the people who helped him along the way.”

A thought provoking and intimate piece, the play explores conquering adversity and oppression. Leach explains that through the lens of Shannon’s personal journey, we observe the universal human spirit. But while very personal, this story is also political; we’re examining a very Australian adversity that existed not too long ago whose poison drips through. “Shannon’s story lets us reflect on who we were, who we are and who we want to become. Themes like trauma, mental illness, family, individuality and love are ones we can all connect with in our own ways too.”

Leach also loves how the work lets queer audiences connect with their history. “I was two in 1999 and growing up experienced only glimpses of what Shannon endured. The chance to connect with the past – with what our community’s had to endure so that one day we may not – has been an honour.”

The play allows us to meet Shannon at 32 on his wedding day in Queenstown. Just married, he’s supposed to be joyous, but he’s haunted by ghosts of his past. Shannon feels he must re-encounter his story once more to put them to rest. Leach says that the audience are Shannon’s friends and confidantes; we go on the journey of his 14th year, as he moves from recounting to inhabiting his 14-year-old self.

“I most admire how loving Shannon is. Meeting him, you feel it radiating from him. The world tried to squeeze it out of him, and it couldn’t.”

Leach says the emotional territory of the work is of course challenging, but the show is built to give the audience catharsis along with Shannon. “It’s as if we hand all that to the audience and say farewell. It’s nice to feel released rather than burdened by the journey,” says Leach. “Being a memory play, there’s also the challenge of involving the audience while staying inside the dramatic situation. Alternating between adult Shannon, who’s rediscovering and reflecting, and 14-year-old Shannon, who’s experiencing it all for the first time, is also tricky, with shifts in physicality and intention.

The rehearsal room is always joyous and filled with laughs, but one beautiful moment that comes to mind is when we first worked on the climax of the show. Breaking that scene down and finding the full stop to Shannon’s journey was so moving. I could feel the air vibrating. I knew we were making something special.”

As an actor Leach likes  characters who make psychological sense to him; have contradictions and are not the same person by the end. Leach hasn’t played a villain in years and he’d love to again. “I’m rewatching Veep right now and forever I’m in awe of Julia Louis-Dreyfus because she finds the emotional drive of that character’s cruelty. Having to empathise with inhumanity is a fun challenge. ”

Leach most enjoys telling stories like Fourteen. Stories that investigate parts of ourselves we’d rather look away from. Stories that question who we are and where we’re going.

When asked what he loves the most about performing on the stage, Leach says, “A film can exist without being seen. Theatre can’t. It’s living, breathing, it’s that shared game of make-believe. That childlike impulse of “let’s turn out the lights and tell a story.” When everyone’s really invested and going there – actors and audience – there’s nothing like it. Of course, this show relies on that immediate connection between the actors and audience. Shannon lets the audience into his inner life, his reflections and realisations. They’re another scene partner to me. We’ve preserved Shannon’s authorial voice in our own way, which hopefully makes you see through his eyes. ”

Set to a nostalgic mixtape of 90s bangers from all your faves, from Shania Twain to The Spice Girls, Fourteen addresses the trials and tribulations of growing up with honesty, humour, and heart. Equal parts uplifting and heart wrenching, we follow Shannon in a year of self-discovery set amidst a backdrop of torment, bullying and betrayal – not just at the hands of his peers, but by the adults who were meant to protect him.

Says Leach, “You’ll laugh, you’ll dance, you’ll gasp, you’ll cry. Fourteen is a breathless journey that sets the weight of life to a soundtrack of late-90s bangers. Shannon’s shared his story so that we may learn, and feel, deeply. Come give that 14-year-old boy the respect he deserves!”

May 3 -4

Fourteen < Riverside Theatres (riversideparramatta.com.au)

Image Morgan Roberts

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