Steven Tandy and I haven’t sat down to talk, really talk about theatre and acting and all of that stuff since we were young actors together. I imagine we did a lot of it back then, at the parties we all went to. You know, the kind of ‘finding yourself in the kitchen in the wee hours’ kind of actor talk. Since those days – what – nearly 40 years ago, there hasn’t been time or space to do it. We worked several productions together for the QTC in the early 1970s, and our last professional meet-up was in a production of Who Was Harry Larsen? by Frank Hardy for NETC in the mid-1980s. We haven’t really seen much of each other since. We’d be ships passing at opening nights, trading a few snippets of news, and conversation, but it wasn’t a good, old-fashioned talk. Our lives had meandered in different directions, and we’d rather lost touch as one does in this busy age, something I’ve often regretted. It’s been great to see this fine actor on stage again in Queensland over the last few years.
I first met Steven Tandy in his and my first foray as professional actors for Queensland Theatre Company and the Queensland Arts Council. In 1972, along with Grant Dodwell, we were cast in a huge, schools’ tour throughout Queensland. It featured Michael Boddy and Janet Dawson’s plays, The Badly Behaved Bunyip and The Man, the Spirit Fish and the Great Rainbow Serpent. We toured thousands of miles together and spent many hours talking about where our futures might take us. ‘I remember there was a lot of yoghurt,’ Steven notes drily. Our director, Margaret Bornhorst took very seriously what must have been a self-imposed objective to get her small acting company fit. Yogurt figured strongly as did Vogel bread, as I recall. We were all very new to health food and to the theatre business: Steven and Grant were fresh out of NIDA, and I’d just come back from nearly 4 years in London. Grant was in town recently with Gwen in Purgatory – a good excuse for a catchup, but again, it was a quick ‘How the hell are you?’ chat in the Roundhouse foyer between shows on the final Saturday.
A few weeks’ ago, Queensland Theatre Company had a barbecue to welcome the When the Rain Stops Falling company – Aussie themed. Steven and I were invited along, and so the Badly Behaved Bunyip team got together, albeit without Grant. It seemed that now was the time for that sit down and talk, so we did. It began under Bessie the bottle tree in the courtyard at 78 Montague Road and continued in the Company library when the rain started falling on the party and the cricket match. When we came up for air, it was nearly 5 o’clock. The rain had stopped, we hadn’t noticed, and we’d been talking for over 2 hours. What I did manage to write down and what I do recall of our conversation appears below; it’s just a flavour of that long afternoon, and it’s taken me this long to wrangle my notes and memories. ‘It’s been quite a journey,’ as Steven told me that afternoon.
Steven Tandy has had an enduring acting career and, like that of many others, it has had its ups and downs. Over the years, he’s had one or two voluntary separations from the life that he loves, ‘the only one I know, really,’ but has always returned to acting. He’s perhaps best known for being one of the stars of the enduring and much-loved Australian network television drama The Sullivans in which he was cast when he was 5 years out of NIDA. The Sullivans ended its 6 year domination of Australian television in 1982. If you want to know what I mean by ‘domination’, check out the Logie stats for a start as well as the list of ‘Who’s Who’ directors and actors that worked the show.Steven goes on, ‘I longed to get back to theatre. I had become TV Week fodder. Everywhere you went you’d hear the sybillance of people whispering behind your back, Sullivans, Sullivans.’ He fixes me with those big, blue eyes, ‘Oh, and by the way, along with the rest of the cast of the show, we were dubbed The Royal Family of Moomba.’ He sees the look on my face, and nods seriously, ‘Yes, I was the Duke of Collins Street. We all had titles,’ and then he roars with laughter. Only in marvellous Melbourne, I think, or is that only at Moomba? I tell him that he needs to write a book about this time in his life.
In the years before and especially since The Sullivans, Steven has worked as part of the ensemble at MTC, QTC, Northside, the Ensemble, NETC as well as in the commercial theatre in Sydney, Melbourne and in Brisbane. Like many other Queensland actors, he’s also worked the attractions at Movie World and been heavily involved in independent and community theatre as actor and director. His CV runs to pages and pages and pages. Whilst, as he tells me, he has never doubted his ability to survive as an actor, it hasn’t always been easy.
Steven’s actor’s journey hit a major stumbling block in his mid-30s. As he talks, it’s clear it was a crisis of confidence. It was post-Sullivans and he was back on stage working steadily and regularly for the subsidised and commercial houses around the country. ‘I was appearing in Priestley’s When We Are Married at the time. I felt I was an impostor passing myself off as a boy. I was not quite ready to play the suits, but I was far too old to play the kids.’ What followed were years of struggle, and Steven confesses to being broke and despondent. ‘My agent, Gloria Payten, who had looked after me for 17 years had just died. I lived off the support of friends – difficult times,’ he nods. ‘I went back to the womb of my parents at Burleigh Heads. Sydney clearly wasn’t working for me.’
As these things do, something else opened up for him – the Police Academy Stunt Show at the new Movie World on the Gold Coast. ‘This gave me a new lease on life. I made new friends – stunt workers – people I’d never worked with until then. By the time I turned 40 I was earning decent money and performing live in a spectacle.’ With a grin he likens it to the days of ancient Greek drama, ‘in the daytime before a packed house.’ He tells me that once again he felt he had a ‘family.’ ‘It wasn’t competitive, and I got my dignity back.’ That lasted till 1994, when the sudden death of a stunt colleague made Steven consider his own mortality. ‘I needed to take back some control of my life.’
‘I had been inspired by some great directors over the years, and I wanted to learn more,’ and so he applied for and was accepted into the NIDA Directors’ course. It wasn’t easy at the age of 42 to be a student again, Steven tells me. ‘I had to budget very carefully so that I could afford pay-day pancakes every second Wednesday at McDonalds.’ He loved being back at NIDA, now ‘more streamlined’ and upmarket than in the old days where he’d learned the value of NIDA’s insistence on discipline and craft skills. After completing the NIDA course, Steven appeared as an actor in a successful production of Love Valour and Compassion for the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras theatre festival. ‘People loved it,’ he tells me, ‘it was huge.’ However, finding directing secondments to the subsidised companies was hard to come by, and Steven returned once again to the Gold Coast in 1996. ‘The Coast has always been a refuge of sorts for me,’ he says, ‘and I found myself returning there over the years.’ Movie World were happy to take him back after 18 months, and he then became heavily involved with the Gold Coast community theatre scene.
The insecurity returned, and he tells me that at this time he felt he had somehow ‘regressed’ – that the only theatre he could do or would ever do again was community work. ‘I did a dozen or so productions and directed others. There was never a shortage of plum roles,’ he notes, ‘ but …’ And then, one night as he sat out front of a community production of The Night of the Iguana, which he had directed, he tells me ‘I felt so – helpless. I realised that it really was acting, and not directing that I wanted.’ In 2000 the offer to do Noises Off at the Drama Theater at the Opera House came along ‘out of the blue,’ and then a role in Brisbane in Dad’s Army with producer Gail Wiltshire, and soon his association with La Boite began and then the return to productions with Queensland Theatre Company. He was back.
Being an actor is the only life I know, I want, or that I care about. I’m alive. I have one chance, and it’s wonderful.
Steven’s love of life – one that is deeply spiritual – and a commitment to his chosen path as an actor comes through in the language he uses. ‘I love the life, the people, the literature, the ways you get to work together. It’s in my blood I think. You come to it as you do to a religious ceremony, and for me, it’s something akin to a Mass in its sharing. Not reverence, more like nerve-wracking.’ He laughs. ‘You get friendship and love and you share satisfaction.’ He returns to a thread he mentions again and again, ‘… and I love theatre’s discipline.’
Not that he’s reached the end of the road though, and we talk a while about ‘senior artists’ and suddenly finding ourselves in their ranks, the ones out there doing great stuff on our stages and screens – oh to have a career that will go on into your 70s and 90s and – What’s left to do, then?
‘I want to play James Tyrone in Long Days Journey Into Night.‘ He pauses. ‘I wanted to play Othello, but I doubt that will happen,’ he laughs self-deprecatingly. On the afternoon that we spoke, Steven was playing Falstaff in the 4MBS Classical Players season of Merry Wives of Windsor. ‘Falstaff’s wonderful, funny, fat, and sad too.’ He thinks a little more, ‘I love Chekhov too, of course.’ He finishes, ‘Really, I’ve played the lot – farce to tragedy and theme parks as well – but the roles are richer now, and with age and experience comes the ability to communicate so much better with a director.’ Only connect …
We also talk as the rain falls about the way theatre has changed in Brisbane since those days in the 1970s. ‘Queensland Theatre Company is no longer the ‘homey place’ it used to be at the start; it has grown the way it should,’ Steven notes. ‘When I first came here aged 19 and fresh from NIDA, I hadn’t a clue about Brisbane culture. La Boite, now a major force, was a small amateur company, or pro-am at best, and that was about it.’ And now? ‘The downside is that actors don’t get the sort of stability in their work that we had. There are no more 3-play contracts as we used to have. It’s one show and that’s it for most. Back then, a job could come quickly. These days people are booked up well in advance, around 8-12 months.’ He continues, ‘Around July each year you find yourself in conversations where actors are saying, “Have you heard anything yet?” If you haven’t, there’s a good chance there won’t be any work with the subsidised companies for the coming season.” He continues, ‘Big casts are a rarity, and with co-pros, there’s less work for locals as the talent tends to be shared across both collaborating companies. Still, I can make a living, but it’s not easy.’
We talk for a bit about co-productions and the way they showcase the work of interstate artists on tour round the country – maybe we disagree a little about the value of this to local artists, and our conversation drifts back to the availability of work in town. Steven mentions some of the independent companies and the way they are opening up opportunities for paid work for actors. He mentions Harvest Rain where he’s performed this year as Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar, and he talks as well about the work of the other, almost unlikely combination of theatre and radio production which is the 4MBS Classical team. He tells me about Gary Thorpe, ‘the brains’ behind this independent Brisbane group which has produced a national touring production of Shaeffer’s Amadeus for the past few years, as well as the annual, free Shakespeare in Bulimba and Sandgate. Supported by Brisbane City Council, it’s becoming a popular affair for families and another source of income for Brisbane actors. ‘It’s a great experience for everyone, audiences and the professional theatre community.’
And we chatted further, and rambled on into the afternoon as you do with an old friend. The rain stopped, and it was time to go to wherever we were going.
It’s taken me a while to write this piece; I found it hard to get a handle on what it was I wanted to say. Aside from providing just a little insight into the fascinating life Steven has led as an Australian artist – and he really should write that book – I knew I wanted to say something about grace, endurance, and love of the work. As I read over my notes afterwards and as I sat listening to him share so freely and unpretentiously during that rainy afternoon, I was reminded of the true meaning of the word ‘professional.’ His life as an actor has been a ‘professing’ to the journey he is on. I feel privileged to have travelled a few steps with him along that journey, one that’s miles and miles away from finishing. It’s just great to have him back in the fold.