If Barbara Lowing is in a show, you know your night in the theatre is going to be a good one. I love her work, for which, incidentally, she’s won a stack of acting awards. I note from her C-V that she was the first Queensland graduate of WAAPA (West Australian Academy of Performing Arts). Apart from being a director-teacher and a terrific photographer, she’s also great company, so it’s good to catch up with her for lunch last week. Barb’s in Toowoomba rehearsing for the Empire Theatre Projects Company (EPC) production of April’s Fool by David Burton, directed by Lewis Jones.
This production marks a lot of firsts for the EPC: the first fully professional show, the first to tour – it opens in Oakey this week, then Chinchilla, Dalby, Ipswich and a city season in Brisbane at the Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Arts. April’s Fool is possibly also the first-ever home-grown play about a real-life event in the city, the death of a young man, Kristjan Terauds in April 2009 from the complications following illicit drug use.
Director Lewis Jones heard of the events from mutual friends of the Terauds. His bringing of the story to the stage has been done with the full cooperation of Kristjan’s parents and extended family. The play also offers the perspective of other characters in the play – friends, observers – some of whom take varying points of view. ‘It’s didactic but never melodramatic,’ Barb adds. ‘Lewis and David have structured the text so there’s no sense of lecturing ever.’
We chat about the way the EPC production team have been working on what has turned out to be a verbatim theatre piece researched and scripted by Dave Burton and which the company has created from the ground up. Material has been drawn from interviews with friends, family and others associated with the event which is not yet 18 months old. The play’s action spans the 6 days following Kristjan’s death, in which his family attempted to come to terms with that most terrible of experiences for a parent, their child’s death. Whilst some names have been altered, all characters are ‘real’ and there’s not a word in the play, Barb tells me, that hasn’t been taken from interview transcripts, or from the diary which David Terauds (Kristjan’s father) kept during the event – as his book of solace, I imagine.
I also want to know how Barb, who plays Helena Terauds (Kristjan’s mother) has come to grips with a role that is so central to this highly-charged emotional event, one that’s still fresh in the minds of the city. During the past month or so, the company have come to know the family; both parents attended during the initial creative development phase. Barb tells me they were due to see a run-through of the play a couple of days after our meeting. (That night she notes on her Facebook page that it was, for her, the most intense day ever in a rehearsal room). Barb has had to absorb and embody the role of a real-life grieving, guilt-ridden mother. ‘Initially, I was playing multiple roles, as do all the other actors in the play,’ she tells me. ‘It’s David’s story, so he had to be free to act as narrator, but it became apparent to Lewis that the role of Helena needed to be singled out. She needs to talk.’ Getting inside the skin of a character is part of the actor’s challenge. In this case it was getting to know Helena and her story that was Barb’s.
During our chat I notice her eyes fill with tears more than once. I can’t help but think that Barb, like others in the acting company are carrying an added burden (my word) of responsibility with this play. She tells me she has noticed a ‘shadow cross Dave’s (David Burton’s) eyes’ as he speaks of the events he’s chronicled. Her own challenge includes the importance of getting everything ‘right.’ I know this is about honouring the integrity of the piece, about playing real, living people, but it’s also about the demands of the verbatim form itself. ‘The tricky, grammatical randomness of the speech is hard to learn. In most regular plays, dialogue is cleaned up to a certain extent. Here, we’re dedicated to the precision of the ums, y’knows, likes that pepper verbatim speech.’ She laughs, ‘Funnily though, I’m not a bit like Helena who’s tiny and blonde.’ Externals aside, it’s about the obligation of getting the real person’s story ‘right.’ Given the obvious importance of the play’s subject matter, getting things ‘right’ is fundamental to Barb Lowing‘s work in the play.
Somewhere in our discussion – I’ve put the pen and pad aside just to talk – I ask whether or not April’s Fool is at heart a hopeful play. Barb pauses for a bit before responding. I secretly (and even cynically) wonder whether it’s possible for another horribly-familiar-by-now story of a drug-addicted, middle-class kid from a good family to make a difference ‘out there’; whether, indeed, it’s possible to understand how or why such a thing happened. And, I suppose, I do know that it’s not about things which cannot be undone but what might be done for those other families and young people. ‘The kids in the region especially, and the 16-20 year olds are the ones so at risk,’ Barb adds. If there is a ‘message’ of hope in this play it has to be that lives can be saved by accepting this problem and then committing at personal and community levels to doing something. Belief that change is possible is mandatory, I think. Perhaps, as well as hope then, April’s Fool is also about faith.
Where do we begin, though? How do we pursue our hopes and put faith to work? Barb is clear, ‘Talk, just talk. Open the channels of communication.’ One way to get the talk going is via this play, of course, to embody the story as this company are doing and this extraordinarily brave family are supporting. ‘The play is not just for kids, but also for parents. If only kids see this and talk about it or think – I don’t want my mum and dad to have to go through what this family did, then there’s hope.’ She adds, ‘but do something.’ We muse on this – teaching young people about coping mechanisms, and how to deal with stress, and then there’s parental responsibility. This is clearly something that has come up during the time the company have been working on the play.
Barb clearly admires Helena Terauds enormously; she has become close to ‘Helena’ as she plays her, and recognises that part of the real tragedy is that Kristjan’s mother will question every single day of her life whether she could have done more. ‘Helena believes that she should not have backed away. Both parents knew he was addicted, knew he was a smart kid, but were divided over how to deal with the problem. David felt that he shouldn’t be pressured, and that he would eventually come back to them.’ Barb tells me several times of Helena’s grief in the loss of Kristjan’s potential. She kept saying, ‘He could have made a difference with his life.’ It’s the age-old parental soul-searching, the part that starts, ‘What if …’ and ‘If only I had …’ ‘Kristjan was part of a good family; he didn’t have ratbag parents, and there were no drugs in the home. And he was a good kid, just lovely,’ she adds. ‘He loved Parliamentary question time, of all things, and women and girls thought he was gorgeous …’ she drifts off, ‘I’m not a mother, but a friend of mine said to me the other day that no child ever knows the fundamental link and the love a mother has for it. She knows her child 9 months before everyone else. I understand that.’
How Kristjan Terauds died is a matter of record; why he lost his life to drugs will never be known. We, as those who knew him, continue to search for clues to make sense of the senseless. Everyone has an opinion. Is it, as one of his friends noted, ‘… because if you are an intelligent person you are going to experiment with drugs?’ Barb explodes, ‘I want to say “No love, if you are intelligent you don’t experiment with this dirty, destructive stuff.’ She takes a deep breath, ‘but of course, they think they’re bullet-proof.’ She blames, in part, the fantasy world of so many television programs where bad behaviour is glamorised and rewarded. She tells me that one of Kristjan’s friends said we would probably be surprised at the ‘general disregard for human life’ in some young people. We’re both reduced to silence.
My coffee and Barb’s tea have gone cold, and it’s nearly time to get back to the rehearsal room. I ask her how she’s coping with the particular emotional burdens of this play and the usual pressure of work on a new show. She laughs, ‘I get out and walk – bushwalk, talk photos of nature and birds and other stuff.’ She pauses for a second, ‘But you know, one of the reasons I became an actor was to do something that is so deeply affecting that it can change lives. I am honoured to be part of this production.’ Perhaps, then, part of the faith and the hope lies in the power of live theatre where, telling a real story, in community, directly and in unadorned fashion can make a difference …