Pick the odd one out: Nicole Kidman, Rose Byrne, Geoffrey Rush, Baz Lurhmann, Toni Collette and me.
Geoffrey Rush, obviously. The rest of us all spent our formative years studying acting at the Australian Theatre for Young People. And many other luminaries of the Australian stage have passed through ATYP’s doors.
I began attending classes in early high school, accompanying a friend who was a little older than me and more serious about becoming an actor. But I had ‘trod the boards’ a little as a child, with an acclaimed walk-on role as a mesmerised animal in The Magic Flute and a bit part in The Skin Of Our Teeth for which I adopted a terrible American accent.
Both of these breakthrough performances occurred in the student hall of residence where my family spent a few years in London. During that period I also played Prince Charming on the primary school stage, largely because nobody else was willing to do it.
Encouraged by a series of pats on the head from grown-ups which I now realise were motivated by kindness rather than any genuine potential, I eagerly agreed to accompany my friend. Every weekend for several years, we caught the train in to ATYP HQ at 200 Cumberland Street, right next to the Cahill Expressway in Sydney’s The Rocks.
I vividly remember the crappy space where ATYP was headquartered in the early 1990s – a disused office building with crumbling walls that had shed a thick layer of dust over every surface. It was condemned, and rightly so, but the owner eked out a few extra bucks by renting a few floors to an impoverished acting school before the wrecking ball came.
My parents were eager to encourage me, probably because I’d shifted from a co-ed primary school to a boys-only high school and they didn’t want me to entirely lose what few social skills I had around girls. And indeed, throughout my early years of high school, acting class provided me with a series of fresh crushes around whom I could practice remaining awkward and silent. It was the one performance I really mastered.
The classes were great, though. Each week, we were challenged to try something different, and become somebody else. We worked on scripts and we improvised using Theatresports games like Space Jump, where we had to join a scene and improv something new, and Expert Double Figures, where two people had to provide the arms for another pair’s characters, which was hilarious, if a little sweaty.
I remember one classmate turned every single exercise into an intense coming out drama – I hope the conversation with his parents went well when he was finally able to have it for real.
When I wasn’t coughing up an asthmatic storm because of the concrete dust everywhere, I loved it. I signed up for their school holiday programmes, and took extra classes wherever I could. One term, I signed up for a class called Corporeal Mime – I still don’t know what that is.
Another year, I joined a street theatre troupe which performed a show at such prestigious Sydney pedestrian malls as Hornsby, Chatswood and Darling Harbour.
Our show was called Episode #66, in a nod to a pulp tradition I didn’t really understand then. The heroine was Cockroach Woman, and I played her dastardly nemesis, Griller Carlos. The climax was a knife throwing scene where I tied a hapless victim to a board and threw machetes at her – which, due to ingenious stage machinery, duly popped out from the board beside her until Cockroach Woman’s heroic intervention, to the tune of her theme, ‘La Cucaracha’.
Getting cast as the villain was a recurring feature of my time at ATYP. In my final year there, in Year 10, I signed up for a series of group-devised productions which were performed at the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Two space. We may not have been serious actors ourselves, but we were performing in the very same building as people who knew what they were doing! I couldn’t have been more excited.
We split into groups and wrote a series of four plays over a few months. My recollection of the plots is sketchy, but as one of the few men involved in the productions, my role was unambiguous. In our play, Dark Clouds & Chameleons, I played a child-molesting father. In another, The Perfect Woman, I played a leering minor character in the tale of a woman who had gaffer tape over her mouth symbolising male oppression until the last scene of the play when she dramatically tore it off, free at last.
In short, we teenagers were discovering feminism, which meant that I meekly agreed to play a series of sexist villains.
Those plays led to the most exciting party of my teenage years, a party I still can’t believe my parents let me attend, and in hindsight, they definitely shouldn’t have. It took place in a groovy terrace on South Dowling St in the inner-city suburb of Surry Hills, which was much edgier back then, and didn’t have a single pub with craft beer on tap.
I’m certain I was the only person there who not only abstained from the ubiquitous ciggies and widely available harder substances, but didn’t even drink so much as one light beer, let alone indulge in some of the fumbling behind closed doors that I was blissfully oblivious to at the time, but later heard out about from the gossip network.
This formative experience led me to develop a theory that was entirely vindicated at uni – that almost everyone involved in amateur theatre is doing it for the after-parties.
Many of my classmates were talented. Some went on to international fame, while others are stalwarts of the Sydney theatre scene nowadays.
I, by contrast, was rubbish. Not that I didn’t keep trying. After six months of acting classes, I auditioned for my school’s Globe Players, and was given a walk-on role in Sheridan’s The Rivals. My job was to walk into the on-stage inn, and up the staircase. On opening night, I tripped halfway up, after which my improvising skills abandoned me.
In Year 11, I played my finest role – General Haig in Theatre Workshop’s remarkable Oh What A Lovely War. Again, I was the villain, and my role involved walking around in military uniform, shouting in a plummy English accent as I dispatched innocents to their death. The reviews were faintly positive. I was ecstatic.
Except for a brief uni experience in a production of Kafka’s The Trial that was as horrifyingly impenetrable as Joseph K’s experience of arbitrary arrest (I played a stern, shouty judge), I never acted again.
But studying at ATYP as a teenager has given me a lifelong love of great acting, and a keen appreciation of exactly how far it is from my own abilities. That said, I live in hope that someday, somebody will need a cartoonish, overacting villain, and I’ll get the chance to tread those hallowed boards again.