Rob Pensalfini (Interview 30)

13 August, 2012 by No Comments

Rob Pensalfini is a busy and much-travelled man. I found out just how much when I asked him (jokingly) what had brought him to Verona. He’s currently directing and appearing in Two Gentlemen of …  for the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble. He’s also QSE’s AD, and has been since its inception in 2001. He’s proud of the fact that QSE has grown and, indeed, lasted for over a decade. That’s pretty good for an independent theatre ensemble. ‘We have a committed core of artists and it now feels artistically stable and progressive.’

But first … the road from Perth (where Rob, the son of Italian migrants, was born and raised) to Brisbane – wound its way via the US and the Australian western desert country. By the way, Rob has a PhD in Theoretical Linguistics from MIT (Boston). The Boston part is important to Rob’s story. You could say that it was here that he had his theatrical epiphany or, at least, that the seeds for QSE were sown.

‘I’d always been drawn to theatre first as a kid and then at uni where it was mostly political – Orton or Fo or anything from Poland from the 1930s-50s. I had no interest at all in Shakespeare as an undergraduate. I’d been introduced to the plays from behind a desk at high school.’ He was studying political science at the time but mostly ‘partying.’ After finishing undergrad study he took off to travel the world, discovered a love of languages, tried to learn as many as he could on his travels and, as he puts it, ‘found out what I could do – and it wasn’t to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer.’ It was linguistics and, in particular, Australian Aboriginal languages that became the focus of his Honours work.

During the 1980s Rob got the opportunity to work with ‘a pretty conservative’ Italian language community theatre group where he’d become familiar with the plays of Goldoni and Pirandello and the commedia del’arte tradition. His Honours work was good enough to secure him a doctoral scholarship to study theoretical linguistics at MIT in Boston ‘At MIT ‘because I always need to be doing more than one thing, I got involved with an acting group. Whilst the group styled itself as a Shakespeare Ensemble, its training was based on a lot of the work that had come from the Second Studio’s work in Poland. It was very physical. It didn’t focus on Shakespeare’s language but it was excellent training, and I got to play a lot of cool roles – Prospero age 26 – and I got to grow my beard!’

He’d met Packer and Krausnick at this time (‘1996-ish’) when staff from Shakespeare and Co were appointed as external advisors to the student company. It was a wonderful opportunity for him, and he grabbed at the chance. He had had no training prior to this period but, by now, knew he needed it. Soon afterwards he found himself in his very first acting class with Tina Packer herself.

At this time he also signed up for a theatre history class in group theatres. He became intrigued and excited by the work that had emerged from so many of the famous ensembles of the past although, ‘Some of the work – the group-devised stuff – did seem a bit wanky,’ he laughs. Tina Packer suggested he study the work of Augusto Boal. ‘I think she was getting sick of me,’ he adds. ‘I was always interested in the politics of a play or a scene.’ After handing in his PhD research he spent a summer at Shakespeare and Co. in the gorgeous Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Here he deepened his training in and love for Shakespeare. By now, as he puts it, he had ‘got’ the language – hardly surprising for a fledgling linguist!

‘I had discovered the multiplicity of viewpoints and voices in Shakespeare’s plays. I have never found this in any other writer and I thought, that’s the vehicle for ensemble work.’ At this time as well it was the American Shakespeare acting tradition that was proving to be a revelation. ‘The Shakespeare I’d seen at home was high-Victorian in style, highbrow and all RP. American actors’ speaking in their own voices and making sense of the text seemed to matter to them, and thus to me.’

During these years of the late 1990s Rob divided his time between his job at U Chicago as a very young professor, the east coast where he continued to return to work with Kristin Linklater, the Mixed Company group back in Massachusetts, and the western desert in Australia furthering his research into indigenous languages. He returned to Australia in 1999 and took up his current position at UQ as Senior Lecturer in Linguistics. Since then he has published two books and about a dozen articles on Aboriginal languages, and half a dozen articles on theatre and actor training.

Back in Brisbane Rob found he had no real social life and didn’t know where to seek artistic connections. He puts it simply, ‘I got depressed.’ A friend advised him to audition for a student production and, three days after arriving, he found myself stomping side by side with Lyn Bradley who was then a PhD student. ‘I touched on Suzuki and Viewpoints back then and went on to train with Zen Zen Zo. I subsequently worked with them at the Brisbane Festival.’


By this stage Rob knew he wanted to ‘do’ Shakespeare. He sought a meeting with Bryan Nason, then-AD of Grin and Tonic Theatre Troupe, and was surprised when, after a long chat which had gone well Bryan responded with a firm ‘No’ when Rob asked whether he could work with him. ‘I think Bryan had a clear idea that I should pursue my own vision, and that was the advice he gave me.’ It was sage advice and another turning point for Rob. QSE was created soon afterwards.

Mean what you say and say what you mean. Character is what happens when actor and text intersect.

I ask what it is he thinks that sets QSE apart from the ways of ‘doing Shakespeare’ seen in other groups around the state. ‘We’re rooted in text, in classical theatre but combine it with an ensemble training aesthetic which is more familiar to physical companies.’

Rather than working the other way round QSE finds the plays that suit the ensemble. ‘We do one mainstage production per year and one or two others.’  QSE also offers training in voice using the Linklater approach – Rob is one of only seven certified Linklater teachers in Australia. They also offer training workshops that utilise the techniques of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. Since its inception in 2006 QSE has been engaged also in the Prison Project and have recently received a government grant to further this work.

QSE’s Mantra: Passion; Precision; Presence

And who does QSE attract, I wonder, and why? ‘Newly-graduated theatre students as well as “a subset” of early-career artists who see us as a stepping stone to somewhere else. And that’s OK; it’s nice to know that at the start of our relationship,’ he adds. And there are others – ‘ … artists who are either dissatisfied with the commercial model or who want an artistic community on a consistent basis and to be part of a company.’ Rob calls this a ‘dual-career’ mode of actor – ‘ … a bit like a dual character in those role-play games. I was a fighter and magician,’ he adds with a laugh. He develops this ‘dual-career’ idea a bit. ‘There are people who don’t want to live the lifestyle or who, maybe because of family commitments, are not in a position to seek work as actors.’

Two Gentlemen of Verona

Which brings us to QSE’s mainstage production for 2012. Why this one, I wonder? It’s a problem play, not often produced. Where did the idea come from? Rob acknowledges its genesis from thinking more about energy and style after their 2011 production of The Merchant of Venice. ‘I was thinking about the actors we had available and, because I’ve had a bit to do with Two Gents began to think about it as a possibility.’ QSE did a staged reading at the Avalon back in 2004. It was ‘set’ in the Australian outback, and Rob refers to tinkering about with the play back in MIT days where the eponymous gents were cowboys. ‘I started thinking of one of the characters (The Duke) played like John Wayne (The Duke). Then there was the Launce character which I saw as a Gabby Hayes Texan yokel. It all went on from there,’ he adds, ‘and really grew further from an inebriated conversation!’ It’s set in the frontier territory of the wild west – well, spaghetti west, anyway. The posters are intriguing.

But whatever its staging genre: Deadwood, Western Punk or Spaghetti Western – how do you deal with what follows the attempted rape – the real ‘problem’ at play’s end? As Rob lists them: the girl says nothing, it’s all forgiven too quickly. How do you make sense of that, how deal dramatically? It’s tough as Rob is quick to point out. However, he believes the moral universe of the frontier where silences speak volumes is well understood in the ‘Western’ genre. Despite its moral complexities Two Gentlemen of Verona is also a much-maligned work. ‘It’s a prototype for so many of the plays: the first love-triangle, the first cross-dressing heroine, a banishment similar to Romeo’s and, maybe it’s the first comedy. Yes, it’s a reckless play – nothing much gets sorted but it’s also funnier than many of the more raucous plays … ridiculous even.’  And then, there’s a dog.

Rob is playing Launce the clown and will be appearing beside his dog Gumnut (Crab). It’s Gumnut’s stage debut and he is, apparently, doing very well, and not just at the acting lark. ‘I’ve had him since he was 6 weeks old, raising him just as Launce tells us he raised Crab. And now he is teaching me. I just have to go with him when he decides to do something on stage. He is totally in the moment.’ I can’t wait!

Feeding the Inner Artist

How do you relax? Reading books, watching mindless television, spending time with my family and trying to keep up with my 5-year old daughter. She gets me thinking. I also love playing music with my friends.

What are you currently reading: Contested Will by James Shapiro.

What are you listening to? Cowboy music and reggae. I love reggae.

What art form, apart from theatre do you enjoy most? Sculpture and impressionist paintings

QSE’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona will play at the Roma Street Parklands amphitheatre. Check the website for details for session times and dates, and for more on QSE’s programs.