Nick Skubij (Interview 36)

Nick Skubij is one of the artistic triumvirate that heads up the enormously successful shake and stir theatre company. Their name may be minimalist lower case but there’s nothing small-scale any more about this company that has been in business since only 2006. Its operations are compact – they work from a small office in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley and call no theatre space their own – but they’ve made a huge impact with the quality of their work, and the scale of reach throughout the state and now national touring circuit with their in-school work and their inventive, award-winning productions of classics.

I caught up with Nick via Skype – they’re in Maryborough tonight – as they approach the final leg of their  current national tour of the George Orwell classic, Animal Farm. In 2011 they took Statespeare beyond the state for the first time.  Nick has adapted Animal Farm for the stage – it premiered in Brisbane in mid-2011.  Michael Futcher has again directed the play which has seen the addition of a new cast member, Tim Dashwood. Next year they’re planning to show the rest of the country their other Orwell – 1984. Funding by Playing Australia (the only funding they’ve ever received) for three national and state-wide tours in three years is not a bad strike rate at all.  “We like being commercially independent,” Nick tells me.

I wanted to talk to him about touring, an experience that most Australian actors have tucked away in the memory bank. Some tours – whether or not the show is – are great; others can be awful. Dealing with life on the road and in close quarters with your colleagues for weeks on end can test the best of friendships. Nerves get frayed, bodies get tired. Does the work suffer? How do you cope? It turns out a good bed is the actor’s best friend on tour.

The company is going into week 12 of what will be 3 months on the road. They can smell the end now, Nick tells me. “We see the signs to Brisbane and think ‘Not long now.'” They’ve played 29 venues nationally and will do another 5 or 6 more in regional Queensland after the return season at QPAC. “Audience numbers have been fantastic on this tour with QLD, WA and NSW highlights. We played between 400 and 800 per night on average. Our biggest house was 1200 in Newcastle, and Toowoomba has over 1000 booked for this week.” Whilst every place is so different, on the whole Nick reckons this has been a huge leap up for shake and stir from their previous and first national touring production of Statespeare in 2011.

I ask if there had been any surprises whilst on the road. They’d not been to WA before, “that was new and so was Alice Springs. We had no idea what to expect.” Turns out it was the smaller places that tended to be the most interesting. “People would come out in droves probably because when you get way out into the regions there aren’t that many options in a year to see live theatre. We always had a mixed audience and seeing them all out together was wonderful. We had lots of social suppers with communities and sometimes local societies or groups would set up pizzas for everyone. It was a really heartwarming reception.”

What about the downside, though? Nick agrees: “Working together all the time is one thing but living together can be another; it can go one way or another.” However, he believes they’re lucky because he, Ross Balbuziente and Nelle Lee (the other two ADs of shake and stir) have spent so much time together that they know what to expect.

“We’ve learned that you have to respect other people’s space and time. We’ve put in a lot of road miles in cars, and when you find yourself in another hotel for the 25th and 30th time, packing and unpacking, you need to be alert to the signs that someone might have a problem.”  Spending time with new people and a recent change of crew has helped keep things fresh.” The great thing about touring in different places and different venues is that you never get complaisant or go on to autopilot. We’re always thinking of the big adventure we’re on.” Keeping a sense of humour is very important. “It’s a silly job, after all – we cover yourself with mud and jump around for people’s entertainment.”

I ask about the little comforts that have helped to keep everyone happy – the good bed tops the list. “We crawl into bed with our iPads – mine is loaded with books –  or catch up with missed television programmes and I go nowhere without our computer.”  They take care to ensure they’re ready to work in different venues and to be comfortable in them. Tim Dashwood has a play station and a “vast array” of games, he tells me.

Keeping in touch via social media has been a godsend for them. “On the road when you’re living out of the top three layers of your suitcase,  you tend to forget you have a permanent place to live back home. We have been sharing images of every venue with our followers and there is the constant stream of conversation with friends and family.”  The office back in Brisbane stays in constant touch as does a schools’ team which is currently on tour elsewhere. “We may be remote, but it’s business as usual for the company. Everything is set up and it’s really freeing to think we can remove ourselves but that it all goes smoothly.”

A typical day revolves around the show. It’s been a full-on 8 weeks with the first couple of months seeing a couple of bump-ins and outs in the one day – exhausting stuff. Other days involve travel and a bump-in and show. It’s been a busy touring schedule.

“At the beginning of the tour we had 7-8 shows a week in NSW. We’d have to get up by 9am after getting home 10.30, travel 3-4 hours and get the show on.”  He goes on, “It can be hard to wind down after a show; the adrenaline is still pumping but we make sure we meet after every show and debrief. It doesn’t get easier.”

They took some time off over Easter, and the last couple of weeks have seen performances a little more spaced out with a couple of days in the one venue. “We travel a lot and the hard-working crew is responsible for getting the shows in and out. Whilst every day may see them in a different town, their focus revolves around the show. “We’re all about connecting with audiences through social media and workshops. When we’re in a venue, whoever likes can come and participate. As far as overall organisation goes, we were also lucky that we were able to do a lot of  the trial and error work during Statespeare.”

This tour wraps up at the end of June, and they begin rehearsals immediately for Tequila Mockingbird, a contemporary retelling by Nelle Lee inspired by Harper Lee‘s novel. It will play QPAC’s Cremorne in August. They’re then into launching their 2014 in-school program. Next year, 1984 will hit the national touring circuit for for 3-4 months. “And that should take us up to the end of 2014. We’re in a two-year cycle looking ahead. We really enjoy planning tours as they  get locked in well in advance.”

There’s clearly always something happening and on the burner for shake and stir who are working on getting the name of the company out there nationally. “People are starting to recognise us around Australia. People remember Statespeare and remember it with great fondness. That’s nice.”

And what about the future, I wonder. Nick hints at international “stuff on the radar” but adds that they’re just far too busy right now. And what of moving elsewhere –  is that a possibility? “We’ll always be based in Queensland. We want to continue making work, premiering it  here and taking it out to the country. Queensland has great artists and we like being part of taking the Queensland voice to the wider audience.” Nick talks about the great working relationship shake and stir have with people and organisations here, and mentions QPAC in particular as one of their presenting partners. “We very much want to continue working the way we do now.”

Feeding the Inner Artist – on tour:

How do you spend your time off and how do you fill that time? Lots of reading. The iPad is chock-full. Watching movies. A good book works when the internet goes down. Snoozing is OK, too.

What are you listening to at the moment? Nothing exciting. iPod on random shuffle while driving – Bryan Probets has jazz which he listens to. Oh, and musicals. We often sing along in the car. Nelle is Queen of 80 mixtapes – that makes the hours pass. Remember Ace of Base? She does.

What are you reading? Obsessed with horror stories in hotel rooms at night. Not sure what that’s about …

What art form, other than theatre, is your favourite? Musical theatre is something I could listen to all day. When I was a kid my sister was studying contemporary dance so I got dragged along. I ended up doing ballet for 8-9 years, so dance is my second love. I love opera too, and anything music or dance related.

Who has been the most inspirational person in your life? That’s really so hard. I’ve collected opportunities through teachers and Sue Ellen (Maunder) and JUTE. I was raised in Cairns and my family have done what they can for me all my life. They supported me where the opportunities to do theatre was limited and there was never any, ‘Do you think you should?’ response when it was clear this is what I wanted. I’ve received all sorts of unconditional financial and emotional support from my family. So, my family – and, as cheesy as it might sound Ross and Nelle, the people I spend 95% of my time with, are also my inspiration. We have the knack of picking up one another’s energies … we just like hanging out together.