Clearly and simply: Andrea Moor actor, director, teacher (Interview 7)

Andrea Moor has been back in Brisbane for some years now, and she’s loving it – feeling privileged in fact.

‘The political landscape has changed so much since I was last here.  It’s a lot like Sydney felt in the early 80s – it’s such a supportive community.

The standard of acting in Brisbane is incredibly high, as good as any in the world, probably because local actors have been working constantly here and so practising their craft.

The standard of acting in Brisbane is incredibly high, as good as any in the world, probably because local actors have been working constantly here and so practising their craft.’

As an example she segues into last year’s production by Queensland Theatre Company of Arthur Miller‘s The Crucible directed by Michael Gow for which, incidentally, she won a Matilda for her portrayal of Elizabeth Proctor. ‘The big  … Crucible acting company (19) was composed of several generations, Queensland actors many of whom had gone away and come back.  It was such a harmonious and good feeling during that period, a microcosm of the theatre industry here.’  She goes on to note, ‘There’s a different focus here in Brisbane, not the preciousness and egos of those constantly being watched.  Here actors are genuinely happy to see colleagues get work, and on opening nights, it’s about the show.  Elsewhere,’ she says, ‘it’s about me – who’s out front to help me get my next job.  It’s liberating here … mind you,’ she adds drily, ‘ it’s not to say we wouldn’t like this.’

We’re talking the morning after a first run-through of Tender, Nikki Bloom‘s play which opens tonight at !Metro Arts Independents 2010.  The run was part of the month-long Free Range House Party creative development program at !Metro Arts.  In the bare-space of the Sue Benner theatre, with no set and about 10 invited people in the audience, ‘it worked wonderfully well,’ Andrea tells me.  I’ve been keen to talk to her for a long time about her work.   She’s well known and admired as actor, director and teacher – Andrea’s accredited in and regularly conducts Practical Aesthetics (PA) workshops.  I wonder what kind of director she is – as well as appearing in it, she’s also directing Tender.  Who gives her notes?  Does she bring an actor’s perspective to the role of director, and a directorial lens to her own performance?  I wonder how hard this might be.  And what’s the link in her work to Practical Aesthetics?  They’re a lot of questions and we get right down to it; along the way we divert into wish-lists, of which more later.

It turns out that with this production Andrea gets her actor’s notes from Catarina Hebbard, Tender’s assistant director – Caterina’s last production was Minefields and Miniskirts at !Metro Arts in 2009.   And then there’s Michael Gow who is mentoring Andrea in her role as director.  ‘Michael throws in ideas and is fine-tuning the work.  Really, it’s been a most enjoyable and stimulating experience,’ she tells me.  And the PA approach to acting?’

I’m very much against a director’s employing a particular technique to acting. PA has informed my own aesthetics – being clear and simple, which is just good acting, I think

I’m very much against a director’s employing a particular technique to acting.’ she answers.  ‘PA has informed my own aesthetics – being clear and simple, which is just good acting I think.’  Clear and simple returns as we discuss the way she approached working on this production. As actor, director and teacher Andrea seeks clarity and simplicity; she brings an analytical approach to her work, and it starts with text analysis.

‘I went in not knowing the answers, but I knew I wanted people to question how they love – it’s the core of our being after all.  I was challenged when confronted by the nature of Tender.  I found myself asking how do I love, how am I available, how closeted with others – my husband, my child?’  And she notes of her minimalist approach to the work, ‘I don’t like sentimentality, and my approach is to strip away, strip away to get to the unembellished core of the play.  In more serious work I try to do less; over the last 30 years I’ve learned to simplify.  I also wanted to find the musicality that’s in the text and make it available – to make what is an unusual way of speaking appear natural.’  Clear and simple … .  ‘I know I wanted our approach to be clear to everyone from the get-go, and that it would come from an understanding of the text.’  She adds, ‘I’ve been very lucky in having designers that I trust (Ross Wallace and Jason Glenwright).  I asked them to imagine and then show me what you get.  We had a conversation about the focus, and that was it.’   She’s quick to note the importance of trust, ‘As director you do your best work when actors trust you.’  This equation works in reverse, of course; actors do their best work with a trusting director – she cites mentor Michael Gow here. ‘I took a leaf out of his book.’

And what about casting; how do you know who you want at the outset, whether you can trust them, work with them?   She doesn’t hesitate, ‘When I was rehearsing with Kathryn Marquet last year for The Crucible I remember how one day she took a mighty leap into the next level of work, and I thought – she’s my girl!  So I just asked her, and she said yes.  I auditioned Peter Cook and he was magic working with Kathryn.  I had coffee with Peter Knapman one day, and it just felt right.’  She switches to the practical –  ‘Of course, this production is also a co-op.  It’s a big ask – 5 weeks of solid rehearsal round everyone’s availability.  Whilst I’m conscious of people doing the work for a reason, ultimately they do it because they want to, nevertheless, there has to be something in it for the actors.  Maybe it’s the chance for the show to tour, but It’s vital to ensure that everyone leaves with something.’  She means money here, of course.

Tender’s production costs of $10 000 or so were raised up front through PA workshops run by Andrea earlier this year, by raffles and selling chocolates – self-subsidy – that’s the way of it in indie theatre. And a good box-office return is a vital, if unknown, part of the success of a co-operative indie project.  Andrea continues, ‘Of course, !Metro Arts Independents pay for the marketing and advertising, and I’ve had the input of experts in the field: QTC has lent me stuff, and ABAF (Australian Business Arts Foundation) have enabled tax-free donations from anyone who cares to support us.’  She’s emphatic about how great !Metro Arts is, ‘… a fabulous resource, and Liz Burcham is doing a great job.  They’re choosier than they used to be about the projects they take on, but they are wonderfully supportive.’  She also notes the MAPS initiative through Arts Queensland and the Australia Council as ‘another terrific resource to help independent artists.’

And that brings us to the play itself.  Why choose Tender, I ask her.  She talks of the ‘astonishing’ work by playwright Nikki Bloom – a ‘writing star’ who began as a poet and who, at 22 years of age, wrote the play for its first production at Belvoir Downstairs Theatre in Sydney.  ‘It’s ridiculously sophisticated,’ she adds.  ‘It’s rare to read a play and just know that you want to do it.’  And so here it is, in Brisbane.

And the wish-list for the theatre community here?  She shoots back, ‘I keep fantasising, if I won the lottery, then I’d … employ more actors.’  She goes on, ‘Look at the numbers – La Boite and QTC are down this year.  If companies don’t employ more, then artists cannot develop and grow as performers, or be challenged by writers and directors – and we need more of them too,’ she adds.

Look at the numbers – La Boite and QTC are down this year.  If companies don’t employ more, then artists cannot develop and grow as performers, or be challenged by writers and directors – and we need more of them too

‘It’s hard to keep optimistic if the work isn’t there.’  What she adds surprises me, ‘ If you can get just one gig a year, you feel – OK, then I’ll teach and I’ll direct, and feel good about myself.  It helps to keep the ego in place.’  I note that one gig a year is a pretty terrible strike rate for an actor, but then, that’s the current reality of a city where there are more highly skilled, trained and talented artists than opportunities for paid work.  Andrea goes on to hope that La Boite’s next year will employ more local actors in their season, and that Queensland Theatre Company – under new Artistic Director Wesley Enoch – will provide new opportunities for growth.

There’s no doubt that the independent theatre sector in Brisbane is doing marvellously well.  ‘Every show this year at !Metro Arts has been sold out,’ Andrea points out to me.  In reality this can mean that a sold-out, independent production will be seen by only  500 or so people, so it’s even more telling – and indicative of the appetite for good theatre – when you learn that audience attendances at the big two in town, Queensland Theatre Company and La Boite are also regularly hanging out the ‘House Full’ signs so far this year.  No ‘cultural desert’ this it would seem.

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