From the director’s chair
A collection of interviews with Aussie directors
Something is happening at the Alex Theatre, long St. Kilda’s hub of smaller-scale professional and international theatre. For one thing, they’re doing something to the entrance; where once were large, glass doors are white wooden planks, and construction sight tape. For another, Vass Productions and ascending young director Gary Abrahams are rehearsing the kind of show that one struggles to imagine would have got a footing amongst the major commercial theatre producers in normally safe-and-mediocre and/or safely-mediocre Melbourne. “Hand to God” caused such a stir off Broadway that it’s sheer notoriety catapulted it uptown into just plain Broadway. In Abrahams’ words, it’s “Anarchic, risqué, and yet still really charming.”
When I did manage to get upstairs into the foyer, I quickly realized that this no ordinary play was being staged by no ordinary director, nor was Aleksander Vass any normal producers, for our fine city. Gary Abrahams took some time out from his supercharged rehearsal schedule to have a quick word with Good Vibes Melbourne, about his upcoming spectacle, which he says “was just one of those rare instances where you get a commercial play that’s also really loveable, and when I read the script, I loved it.”
Accompanying an impressive CV, which stretches back over an impressive nine year career, it doesn’t take long in the company of Abrahams to find a devotion for an eclectic but never unprofessional mix of theatre. Having graduated VCA in 2009, with a Masters in Directing, Abrahams balances directing shows for the likes of MTC (“Buyer and Cellar”) and Red Stitch (“Roam”; “The Pride”, “Laramie. 10 Years On” and “Oh Well Never Mind Bye”, to name a few) with writing and directing shows for his own theatre company, Dirty Pretty Theatre (whose show, “Therese Raquin” embarked on a national tour) and teaming up with other independent production houses shows like “Bad Jews” or, the mother of all monsters for any director, let alone one still so early in his career, “Angels In America”. That’s both “Millenium Approaches” and “Perestroika”, by the way. Six hours. Yeah, “Hand of God” is in good hands.
Hearing all this, it’s easy to see why Abrahams and Vass are a match made in theatre. “Alex and I both love the off-Broadway style, and Alex invests a lot in that small, New York style of theatre, to bring it to Melbourne audiences,” he said. “New York style” is not a term that should be used lightly, when referring to any theatre. The massive influx of Russian immigrants to New York City towards the end of the 19th century saw an almost religious devotion to the stage, culturally intrinsic to the Russians, duplicated in the Big Apple. It’s the city that gave us Lee Stransberg and Stella Adler, their students Stanford Meisner and Elisa Kazan, and the beacon of fine theatre arts itself: The Actor’s Studio. Vass and Abrahams will need a mighty team behind them, if they are to pull off their ambitions.
“We knew we had to get recognizable faces, actors with wide appeal,” Abrahams said, before the glow of genuine fondness came over him. “I’d worked with Alison White before, and even though she was well known for her more dramatic roles, I just wanted to know what she’d think of the script. Basically, I sent it to her out of curiosity,” he continued. “She said she absolutely loved it. Perfect relief from all the heavy drama. It just so happened she was looking for a comedy…but it’s a demanding role. There are moments of high melodrama, there are moments of subtlety, it’s really quite difficult, so we’re really glad she’s excited to do be doing it.”
“It’s also quite rare that an actress who’s been around longer, has more experience, actually gets an opportunity, in a script, to have such a good, meaty role,” he added, being exceptionally polite about the ridiculous double-standards that perpetuates in both theatre and film for actresses. What happens, in movieland, to women when they turn thirty? Do they turn to dust? We’re both glad to see that “Hand to God” is a departure.
“I didn’t know Gyton,” Abrahams said, of his leading man. “I’d known his work, of course, as most Australians do, from his television roles. But I’d never met him. But reading the role, I saw that it would benefit from his unique quality, and again, it’s a super challenging role. He’s swinging from protagonist to antagonist, he’s had to learn new skills, and it’s been amazing to watch. His puppeteering has come a long way! It’s just been great to see him flesh out and become this character. It’s always amazing to see an actor take on two roles, like this, and see one, and forget that it’s the same actor doing both. Just incredible.”
Written by: Max Davine