The last time I sat down with Jason Klarwein to talk about theatre was 10 years ago, shortly after I had been appointed to the Board at Queensland Theatre Company. At that time Jason was in the first intake of the Company’s Emerging Artists program. I followed all of the artists over the course of the year and touched base with them from time to time about the experience. I had hours of audio interviews which I subsequently had transcribed and filed away for an article which has yet to be written. (Note to self: do something about this).
There’s an old saying that goes if you’re still in theatre 10 years after you begin that you’re there for life. If it is true, then Jason – actor and now Artistic Director of Queensland’s iconic Grin and Tonic Theatre Troupe – has passed the point of no return. He laughs when I point this out. With his first professional job for Disabled Arts The Glass Cage in 1996, he agrees that he is definitely well beyond the 10 year turning point. He joins what is becoming something of a league of newly-appointed artistic directors around Australia, many of whom cite ‘actor’ or ‘designer’ or ‘producer’ before ‘director’ as their theatre ‘speciality.’
I wanted to talk with Jason about what he’s been doing in the years since we last spoke in depth and, of course, about Grin and Tonic and his vision for its future. He’s already got a 5 Year Plan under way, and I managed to winkle out some of the ideas informing the first year at least. We spent a good 45 minutes or so having a mutually enjoyable rant about theatre things. There’s a lot to talk about. As to what he’s been doing in the interim, Jason lists five career highlights.
The first was the Emerging Artists program, which has remained an important formative time. ‘We got to play two shows in rep – unheard of. It made me so jealous of English actors and their rep system. Then we were allowed to ask for any specific training we wanted – extraordinary. QTC has remained a home for me; the place is very important.’
The second came after he left Queensland in that first, important step for so many artists. He found himself performing at Belvoir Theatre in Sydney in Capricornia directed by Wesley Enoch. ‘This was a good production and also a play about Queensland – a great experience.’
And then there was the time he spent performing at the Baxter Detention Centre in SA with Grin and Tonic under Bryan Nason. We talk for a while about these 2 weeks which proved to be one of the most formative of his life. ‘It was during the height of the Vanstone-Howard era. We performed The Tale of Monkey and the Chinese people in the centre – youngsters and old people – just loved it; their faces would light up as they recognised their stories. The detainees from Iran and Iraq responded so well to The Tale of Gilgamesh. They would ask us, just amazed, “How do you know about these tales?”‘
In 2007 Jason was given the opportunity to work with 9 other actors – 5 from the UK and 4 other Australians – in the Almeida Shakespeare project, an intensive under the direction of Cicely Berry and Michael Attenborough (Almeida Theatre, London). ‘We lived at Arthur Boyd’s gift to Australia of Bundenon, his country property in NSW. In the mornings we worked with Cicely on text. In the afternoons with Michael dissecting the great plays. There was no emphasis on performance at all.’ He goes on, ‘What it did was to change my whole way of thinking about text – how it can be active and intuitive. I never wanted to leave!’
But he did, of course, and found himself working with Sydney Theatre Company in 2009 in their production of A Streetcar Named Desire directed by Liv Ullman, with Cate Blanchett. He toured with the production to Washington and NYC. ‘Watching these two extraordinary people working on the production taught me so much. Seeing how Cate would tear a part to shreds and then build it up again – the attention to detail from both of them – made me realise that what I thought of as detail was not detail at all. It was enormously reaffirming.’
I note that he’s a had a good ride in the past 10 or so years. ‘I have been lucky,’ he responds modestly. ‘I try not to get trapped by the grass is greener idea, the notion that things are better elsewhere or that you have to wait for the break to come along. Good theatre happens everywhere; bad theatre happens everywhere.’
And what of Grin and Tonic, without a doubt the origin of Queensland’s professional theatre, and the career kick-starter for so many. I ask how they have come together, and how it is that he now follows in the footsteps of Bryan Nason, the company’s founder? It turns out that Jason has worked with the company for over 10 years. ‘I actually worked with them for a continuous 10 or 11 months during this time. I got to eat, live, and do what I do now. It was a fundamental shock to my system.’ And a joyous one; I can hear it in his voice.
We talk a little about what Jason calls the ‘great amnesia in Queensland’ about companies like Grin and Tonic and its former incarnations: the College Opera and College Players who became known as Grin and Tonic in 1974. ‘Grin and Tonic was working from 1967 and then 1968 and 1969 and beyond, contributing to education and with mainstage productions like Troilus and Cressida and The Tale of Monkey.‘ I learn that it was with the company in 1967 that Jane Harders became the first professionally paid actor in the state.
‘Over the years Bryan tried to keep the company moving forward. It changed hands once, but there was no innovation, and there was a lack of energy and disconnect with what it was doing – finally, it was just untenable. Last year Grin and Tonic almost died.’ After months of discussion and lengthy conversations there was a decision to reinvent and revive the company. ‘I had this churning in the pit of my stomach – something had to be done. It was ridiculous not to.’ At that point the ‘outstretched arms were mutual’, he tells me. The question was, how to begin?
Some early thoughts about staging an event or holding readings weren’t the right way to honour the 40-50 years of the company’s history, and further discussions revolved around ‘what the company does well and doesn’t do very well.’ Whilst he’s not going to give me any details of the 5 Year Plan – we’ll just have to wait and see – it’s clear that the company’s long-standing commitment to education will remain, though a mainstage production is planned for 2012.
The old ways of TIE are dead. What we’re doing is bringing good theatre to schools.
Grin and Tonic asked teachers round the state what they wanted. The message was clear: quality pieces of theatre and don’t talk down to the kids.
Jason uses the analogy of a newspaper to explain his thinking about performing Shakespeare – the core of his company’s educational work over the years and again, now. ‘When a reader opens a newspaper, they are going to read it with interest until they find out it’s old news – they then stop reading.’ He’s curious about why this is, and it informs his approach to production. We’re talking about the fear of ‘old stuff’ and especially the language in Shakespearean text. However, what he calls ‘contemporisation – the old Shakespeare in suits’ for its own sake, doesn’t really interest him.
What he and the company are experimenting with right now is technology in the context of performance, and the use of digital equipment which today is cheap, portable and accessible. ‘I want interactive and integrated use of digital media in performance. If you had mentioned ‘A-V’ as part of a show years ago I would have responded with boredom. Now, there are X-Boxes available to kids during the show with Streetfighter loaded. The kid in the back who is failing English will come to understand something about the violence that relates directly to themes in Romeo and Juliet – part of the show.’
He talks for a bit about the way tiny cameras are used in performance – attached to an actor’s chest in Othello, for example – so you can see the extreme close-up in Desdemona’s death scene projected on to the big screens in the performance space. ‘At the same time the audience sees stars superimposed over this image – the “chaste stars” that Othello talks about. We run a lot of AV and background stuff, but a couple of handheld cameras can transmit to anywhere in the room.’ He mentions the way the young audiences respond so strongly to images – they can interpret so quickly and so readily. Images of the Cronulla riots are shown at one stage, ‘We don’t need to tell them what they are or what they mean. They already know and get it.’
The company is getting lots of feedback – face to face in talkbacks and via email – in these early stages, what Jason calls the ‘reconnecting with audiences’ phase for Grin and Tonic. They’ll play to 35,000 – 40,000 kids over the course of the year with three shows on the road, two which are Shakespearean in origin, with the other, Edward Albee’s Zoo Story, what Jason calls a ’boutique piece’ for senior students who are into theatre. ‘Zoo Story is helping young theatre goers understand the conventions of absurdism, and how theatre is about change – that mirror of life that Albee talks about.’
He reminds me several times about Grin and Tonic’s being a totally private company with no funding and relying entirely on box-office income. The actors are on contracts which will take them through to the end of the school year. It’s a big financial challenge for the company, but Jason is excited about the future. ‘I’m still stopped by people who talk about their excitement at discovering theatre through Grin and Tonic some 30 years ago. It’s still much-loved and admired in the collective theatre memory of Queenslanders.’
Jason has begun his artistic leadership by engaging ‘a team of really smart 20-somethings’ and one 18 year old fresh out of high school. ‘They get me closer to the audience I’m aiming for right now. We’re still growing, of course, and we’re also talking to writers about the future. We’re just getting on with it.’
The current Grin and Tonic creative team comprises:
General Manager Kellie Lazarus
Artistic Director Jason Klarwein
Associate Director Travis Dowling
Technical Creative Justin Harrison
Musical Consultant Markella Vergotis
Super/Natural and VS created and performed by Amelia Dowd and Rueben Witsenhuysen
The Zoo Story by Edward Albee performed by Luke Townson and Ben Warren
Jason sent me an email after our chat with a list he had begun to compile of some of the amazing people who have worked with the company over all its years: roxanne macdonald, ian stenlake, veronica neave, eugene gilfedder, jack thompson, geoffrey rush, russell dykstra, jane harders, leo wockner, don batchelor, deb mailman, jennifer flowers, matt foley, sean mee, caroline kennison, james stewart, john batchelor, andrew buchannan, hayden spencer, carita farrer, sarah kennedy, david gulpilil, donald hall, elizabeth navratil, bille brown, larissa chen, bryan nason, andrew blackman, anthony phelan, sir james killen, margi brown ash, scott maidment, cicely berry …the list goes on…