We ask Quiet Little Fox company member and Yours the Face actor, Roderick Cairns, about getting his kit off in front of his mum, and whether or not a beard is an impediment to playing a female supermodel.
QLF - So, You’ll shortly be appearing in Yours the Face, one of five new plays that comprise the up-coming Flight Festival of New Writing at Theatre Works in St Kilda. This production of the play has already played to critical acclaim and full houses in both Adelaide and Perth, but this will be the first time it’s been seen here. What will it be like to finally bring Yours the Face home to Melbourne?
RC - A little intimidating, to be honest. I’m the only person on stage for the entire 60 minutes so it’s a lot to carry. And it is no exaggeration to say it is a peculiarly challenging role, or more correctly, roles. It’s weird; my level of... you know... actor-angst has risen perceptibly with each new city we’ve played. The nudity in Yours the Face, for example, didn’t phase me at all in Adelaide, where it had its world premiere last year - I’ve never been particularly shy about getting my kit off, in fact I’ll usually do it at the slightest opportunity and the hard bit is actually getting me to put my clothes back on - but I do remember as we got closer and closer to opening in Perth back in February I suddenly began to get a bit coy. I guess because Perth is where I grew up so, potentially, people I went to school with and, you know, my Mum were going to see my “bits”. She hadn’t had to endure seeing me naked on stage since a Perth International Arts Festival show I’d done with Black Swan years ago, and that had been a lot more fleeting. She took it in her stride though. She’s a trooper. And now of course we’re bringing the show to Melbourne which is where I actually live, where most of my friends and colleagues live, which brings with it a whole new level of “don’t fuck it up” - and what’s more it’s a revamped version with some brand new writing in it, playing in a significantly larger space, with greater resources available than ever before which has brought with it retooled sound, lighting and set designs - in some ways it is once again a brand new, untested show, rather than a remount. That instantly kicks any complacency I might have had about what i’m doing straight to the curb. It makes it all incredibly exciting, but yeah... also a bit scary. As theatre should be, actually.
And I am immensely proud of this show. We got fantastic reviews in both Adelaide and Perth. They said lots of very nice things about the direction and about me - which was, you know, gratifying - and of course they waxed lyrical about Fleur (Kilpatrick)'s writing, as was to be expected. But what was even more gratifying was the buzz amongst audiences, and particularly amongst our fellow theatre-makers, particularly in Perth. I’m not sure I’ve ever been involved in something with such a rapid ground-swell of positive word of mouth. As out-of-towners lobbing in town for a festival a day or two before opening, with virtually no publicity, we went from zero to full houses in an incredibly short amount of time based entirely on that buzz.
QLF - What is Yours the Face about?
RC - Wow. Ok. Well, on the most basic level it’s a very simple story, really. Boy meets girl, I guess. An Australian photographer - Peter, and an American model - Emmy, meet in London for a photo shoot. They are attracted to each other upon first meeting, have an affair, and two days after first meeting, go their separate ways. In a nutshell, that’s the plot. But there are a couple of things that make it not quite so simple as that sounds. The first is that these are two very, very damaged people - just how damaged, and in what ways, is largely what the narrative concerns itself with slowly unravelling - and the attraction they feel for each other is based on deep, deep dysfunction. And Fleur’s exploration of that dysfunction is simultaneously both an exploration of a particular relationship and an interrogation of an entire industry. Fleur is a former model herself, so brings to the play her own experience of an industry that is, almost by definition, built on the objectification of very young women. At its worst, there is a certain dehumanisation that inevitably goes on when a complex, flesh and blood human being is reduced to a photoshopped jpeg, and when that process represents your whole working life, as it does with Peter and Emmy, it can have profound effects on the ways in which you habitually relate to other people. People can end up being seen, even by themselves, as little more than beautiful objects to be manipulated and processed for an aesthetic end.
And Fleur handles all of that with such delicate, understated grace. It’s never remotely didactic or preachy. It’s just in there, in the mix of this incredibly absorbing, and often funny, tale of two very lost people. And even when the characters are doing the most appalling things, and they do REALLY appalling things, they never for a second lose their humanity. It’s the sort of writing that is an absolute gift for an actor, because it’s so eminently playable. And what makes that even more impressive is that it’s also deeply poetic - not in a flowery way but in a way that is both stunningly beautiful but also really visceral, profane, ugly even, at times. I can only think of one other role I’ve had the opportunity to play in probably a decade that was remotely as complex, and as gorgeously playable as these, and that one was written by Eugene O’Neill! In ten year’s time, Fleur will be one of THE contemporary Australian playwrights that is getting produced all around the globe, I’m absolutely certain of it. At her best, she really is astonishingly good. And Yours the Face is her at her best.
QLF - In Yours the Face you play both roles: the man, Peter, and the woman, Emmy. Is that challenging for an actor?
RC - Um... well, yeah. Just a bit. Peter falls broadly into my comfort zone, I guess. I mean, we have the same kind of genitalia at least, give or take, and even the same accent. So, you know, not that much of a stretch, comparatively. But Emmy... Emmy is not only a woman, she’s a 19-year-old, American, elite fashion model. She is specifically described as being very, VERY physically beautiful. So yeah... putting me on stage as her is probably not exactly what you’d call type-casting.
We had this one amazing review of the show in Adelaide... I mean it was amazing in the sense that it was a good review - the reviewer loved the show and said really nice things, as did all the other Adelaide reviewers... but it was also amazing in that right at the end she kind of undermined all that with her last line, which articulated her one and only reservation about the production - “I couldn’t help wondering whether, playing a man and a woman, the illusion might have been helped if the actor had shaved his beard” - and we were like... yeah, right. Because obviously I look exactly like a 19 year old girl when I’m clean shaven! Excuse me, I’m naked in part of this show. NAKED. So... um... the penis didn’t bother you? The lack of breasts you could overlook? But the beard was a bridge too far? THAT was the deal breaker for your suspension of disbelief?
Obviously, I don’t look like a beautiful young woman. Try as I may, I could never pull that off. So I don’t try. I don’t wear a wig, I don’t speak in falsetto, there are no costume changes to signify the switches between characters. Peter and Emmy do speak with different voices - different accents even, and there are very subtle physical shifts, and the challenge for Sarah (Walker, co-director / designer), Rob (Reid, co-director) and I has been in finding ways to make those transitions - some of which are very rapid-fire - crystal clear, but also really simple and efficient. The worst thing would have been to make her A Woman Being Played By A Man, in capital letters. I wanted to stay away from anything that would seem camp, or twee. I think we’ve managed to do that. Certainly nobody has laughed at her, which was a big concern of mine going in. She holds herself differently to the way Peter holds himself, and of course that is partly because of gender, but it’s also because of all the other things that make up the totality of who they are as individuals - the journey that has brought each to this point in their life at which they now encounter the other. Gender is just one part of that puzzle. We had to make them two different people, not just two different genders. Finding each character’s physicality - and how to efficiently slip back and forth between them in scenes where the two are conversing, touching, even kissing each other, has been hugely challenging. But you know what, I think we just about pull it off. Melbourne audiences can let me know for sure if we do.
QLF - Why are both characters played by the same actor anyway?
RC - That’s actually a really interesting question. Fleur always envisaged it being performed by a single actor. She calls it “a duet for solo voice”. It’s entirely conceivable that you could do a production of Yours the Face as a two hander. I mean it would work, on one level. It would still probably be a good play, and heaps of the stuff it has to say would still be said, but as well as being formally less interesting, it would lose something really crucial in terms of thematic resonance, in terms of metaphor, I think.
In an early development reading, Fleur toyed with it being performed by a woman playing both roles, rather than a man. The problem she found with that was that the moment an actual female body is on stage, Emmy is immediately understood by the audience to be or at least to look like that body. The actor then inevitably ends up being objectified by the audience in precisely the way Peter objectifies Emmy, and judged against the descriptions of Emmy’s beauty. When both roles are played by a man, Emmy’s beauty remains an abstraction. And that’s as it should be, because in a sense Emmy - the real Emmy - should always remain just out of sight.
And this is why that complaint about my beard completely misses the point, i think. Can I convincingly play a woman, visually? Can I bring Emmy, physically, before you on stage? No, not really. I’m almost bound to fail if I even try. Because I am male. I have a male body. But here’s the thing... that very failure, that failure because I am male, is kind of the point. That’s what the play is about, at least in part. Emmy is never really allowed to be self-realised as an authentic woman. Only as a construction of woman glimpsed, refracted, through a male lens. That’s the fashion industry all over. That’s how things are in her world. That’s the version of Emmy that Peter sees, that he chooses to see, that he feels comfortable with - the controllable version that he has mediated and processed. And it’s the version of Emmy that the world has taught her is the only acceptable one.
And on stage, that male “lens”, through which Emmy is refracted, mediated, filtered, and very occasionally, maybe, genuinely glimpsed, is my male body. The audience is never going to be able to completely forget that the body they are seeing on stage, which is literally the site in which both Emmy and Peter are conjured, and meet each other, and interact, is an overtly male place. And that in and of itself sums up so much of what the play has to say about Emmy and Peter’s world, I think. So yeah, Fleur’s decision to have a man play both roles is one of those wonderful moments in theatre where form and content dovetail beautifully, and sort of resonate with each other to amplify something that both, independently of each other, are saying.
QLF - How have you enjoyed working with directors Sarah Walker and Robert Reid?
RC - It has been an absolute pleasure. Due to being the busiest person in Melbourne theatre, Rob’s time with us has been somewhat limited and so the lion’s share of the direction has tended to fall to Sarah. But Rob’s contributions have nonetheless been invaluable. The three of us work exceptionally well as a team - because we think similarly about the text and throughout the process have almost always been on the same page - no pun intended. Together, and in a very short space of time, we figured out a shape for this thing that really works.
Rob has an incredible brain that is always working at a million miles a minute. He’s very much a big picture thinker - he’s a theatre academic and a very highly regarded playwright in his own right (his plays have been produced by Melbourne Theatre Company, amongst others) and as a director tends to come from a dramaturgical angle much of the time. That really resonates with me because I guess I’m a “big picture”, dramaturgically inclined actor.
The Adelaide season of Yours the Face was Sarah’s directorial debut, but you would never guess that to see her in the rehearsal room. Her attention to detail is phenomenal. She’s a woman of countless talents and in one of her other lives she is a professional photographer - Melbourne’s leading photographer of independent theatre and a finalist in this year’s National Photographic Portrait Prize among other accomplishments. So yeah... it’s a play about a model and a photographer, written by a former model and co-directed, designed and lit by a photographer. It actually makes Sarah the perfect person for the job . And her massive amount of experience directing models as a photographer has really come to the fore, particularly when helping me to find Emmy’s physicality. It’s not something I would ever have been able to find without her.
Yours the Face plays Theatre Works in St Kilda from July 31 - August 09.
Tickets are available via the Theatre Works site here.