Sam Lavery on stage of The Exonerated. Also feat: Diana Brumen, Joseph Green, Vuyo Loko, Noelle Rego, Karla Hillam, Noray Neberay, Garikai Jani, Ben Taylor, Jordan Armstrong

Desire Under The Elms: The Size of Everything

Getting out of my own way ⎪By Samuel Lavery

I came into this production equal parts excitement and trepidation. I first met and worked with Andrei last year on The Exonerated, and many of the cast and creatives from that production were back on board. Initially I had to double check that I had the right character, and the realisation was at once thrilling and frightening. This is by far the biggest, scariest thing I have attempted on stage so far. I am still stimulated and afraid, unable to wait and dreading the day, and I hope that knife edge continues through the rest of rehearsals and through the run.

It is such an electric place to be as an actor. I would recommend it to everyone. I feel out on a limb, and I am learning every day; about the text, craft, myself. I have been comforted by Andrei’s instruction early on: approach this production with a greater will to learn rather than to succeed, and you will make me a happy director. I have repeated this to myself often. It is something that I love when working with Andrei, he asks only dedication, hard work and commitment. There is sense of ensemble he actively fosters, which creates a place to explore and play and, most importantly, fail.

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Samuel Beckett.

This play personally represents a return to my acting roots. Having felt a little lost in the creative wilderness the past few years, I had been considering revisiting the defining texts I studied when I was first starting out. Beckett, Miller, Stoppard, Pinter. The craftsmanship in their work holds and fascinates me still. I have a memory that Eugene O’Neill was among the required reading on many of my syllabus’ back then with Ice Man Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but to be honest he was not one that drew me in at the time. Truth be told, it is more than likely that I did not read the text that week and bluffed my way through the classes, skipping it in order to read something else, or possibly for beer.

But I knew of his work, and his place in the modern theatrical canon. So initially when Andrei asked for my thoughts, and I read through the text, it all came back. The structure; the punctuation; the tightly written scenes and moments; the feeling that every word, every sentence was crafted in blood and tears and hours of labour. Not a letter is out of place or wasted. I had never read, or even heard of Desire Under The Elms, but it felt like I was meeting an old friend for the first time. What drew me in was the exploration of universal concepts but of such magnitude, the stakes, the exploration of humanity under great strain, at breaking point and past breaking point. The text is based on a Greek tragedy, and contains themes of Shakespearean size.

The size of everything contained in this play is quite a daunting thing, once you put aside your initial impressions of the story and start to work on the text. It was a big question when I first started, one I continue to ask: how can we do something this big? How will it read for an audience? The funny thing is, once we have warmed up, stretched or done some floor work or games, none of this enters my mind.

‘How do you build a wall? You lay this brick as perfectly as it can be laid, and do that over and over and again, and soon enough you will have a wall.’ (to paraphrase Will Smith)

It reminds me of competition, of when I played basketball, or was lining up for cross country, that everything drops away. As I did back then, it is when I am exhausted, cranky, stressed from work and life, that is exactly when I want to be on the way to rehearsal. Rehearsal is a place to be in the moment, in flow, mindful, and often the worst days stimulate the best creative days. I relish it. It can be cleansing.

This is one of the powers of working and being present in your body, something that I am often not good at. Connecting to our bodies is something as a society I feel we forget, or even avoid. I know that I have a tendency to get caught up in my head, to my detriment as an actor. You can’t be in the moment if you are in your head. With his boxing and fitness background Andrei is particularly adept at working this way, physically. Importantly, Andrei is good at working with the bodies in front of him (which may seem a minor detail, but is very important). We work to become aware of our physical patterns and tendencies. The positioning of the head. Positioning of the feet. Maintaining space. Finding your range in relation to the other actor/s. This has opened doors, and scenes, and character, just by finding your range to the other actor. I have benefitted greatly from physical exploration, awareness and training, and it has opened up some interesting creative pathways, during this process and others in the past.

Sam Lavery during Rehearsals for DUTE

The other discovery I want to share is playing the opposite. This is an exercise that is so simple but one I have found so illuminating. I would recommend it to any artist. Play a scene (song, sketch…) completely opposite to what you think the scene requires. Even arbitrarily allocating an antithetical emotion to a scene can provide some amazing possibilities. Happy instead of sad. Seductive instead of angry. We have done this regularly through the process so far, even when we are happy with the work we have done and the direction of the scene. When we feel most secure is often this is when the best discoveries come out. Otherwise unexplored conflicting colours appear to spice the weaving of the tapestry we are cooking. It is also a great tool to unlock scenes or even specific lines that are troubling.

‘Desire Under The Elms’ opens July 7th at Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne — Book Below:

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Samuel Lavery
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