“Who se line is it anyway?” is a rhetorical question that most pay TV subscribers have agonised over since the hit improv showpiece burst through our small square screens back in the 1990s. The show’s main protagonists were of course roly-poly referee Drew Carey and his trio of professional exhibitionists Ryan Stiles, Wayne Brady and Colin Mochrie alongside a team of semi-regular favourites including perennial Mr Cool GREG PROOPS
“I auditioned in San Francisco and got to go to the UK,” says Proops. “It changed my life and probably yours as well.”
The audacious American is best known to Australian audiences through, but Proops manages many successful strings in his bow. “By doing many different jobs indifferently,” he says, including being an actor, TV compère, comedian and improv artist. “The Ancient Greeks invented acting. Then I invented stand-up, then Ryan Stiles invented improve,” says Proops. “Doing improv gave me the confidence to fail in two different comedy milieus.”
With his dandy demeano ur and sharp wardrobe, Proops is the sassy Johnny Cash of American comedy. He has exhibited his famous coiffure to comedy buffs all over the world. “Poms like puns. Seppos yell more,” he adds, and like all crazy egomaniacal stand-up performers he has had to trade impudence with a few revellers who had probably enjoyed a bit too much of the house wine with their illegal pain medication.
“You mean drunk disruptive asshats who seek to destroy my rapport with the masses and hinder my poetic wanderings? [It doesn’t happen] that often,” he says. “A guy was asleep in New York last week. In the front row. I spent a half hour exploring his inner thoughts. Then he woke up and knew the capital of Ecuador. Rough justice. No one gets Western with the Proopdog.”
Back in the States he hosts his own live talk show at the famous Hollywood nightspot Largo, which has a long list of previous ‘drop ins’ including Jason Schwartzman, Russell Brand, Jack Black, Dave Grohl, Patton Oswalt and Sarah Silverman. In the short hours he isn’t on stage or comparing expensive pullovers with world famous celebrities, Proops is in the recording studio saying things into a microphone; you might remember his saucy accent from something called Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and to a lesser extent from Pamela Anderson’s and the Bob the Builder animated TV series. “I could use some depth,” he says.
By some unimaginable turn of events, Proops has shifted time and space to allow his Australian fans a chance to get up and close with the Proopdog in a series of stand up shows across the country in April, and he is looking forward to coming back. “Like a breath of fresh air. I love the food, the wine, the weed and the people. Very much so [and] I left eight dollars in Melbourne in my hotel room.”
Greg Proops will perform at the Canberra Theatre Centre on Friday April 15. Tickets are available through the venue’s website.
Directed by Emilia Chavez, the ten-person CREOLE CHOIR OF CUBA (known as Desandann in Cuba) brings to life the songs and history of their Haitian descendants.
Their recently released album (which translates as ‘Listen’) tells the stories of the choir’s Haitian ancestors who were brought to Cuba to work in almost slave conditions in the coffee and sugar plantations. Choir spokesperson, Eugenia Alfonso, describes each song as “a narrative about Haiti, but also about universal topics, such as strength in numbers and people trying to get to a better place in life”.
The group has recently completed a very busy, very cold tour of the United Kingdom, during which they experienced intense reactions from audiences. Alfonso says “there were nights after performances where people came up to the choir with tears in their eyes. People were hugging them and crying”.
Despite so many performances, the choir still finds performing their songs an emotional experience. “They went to Haiti straight after the earthquake”, says Alfonso, “so each time they sing they are transported back not just to the hardships of their ancestors, but also to the time and place after the disaster”. The moving music makes it difficult to forget the message they are relaying.
The Haitian culture has a significant oral tradition, a remnant of the West African heritage of the Haitian people, and it is through this oral tradition that the choir learnt the songs they perform. Being classically trained singers, however, the choir adds “something extra” to the songs, converting them from historic tales passed quietly from generation to generation, to impressive numbers that can be performed to large audiences. While doing this though, “they go to extraordinary lengths to maintain authenticity in the songs and respect all the original structures” says Alfonso.
The choir has received rave reviews in Britain and Australia, and its members are celebrities in their home country. Fidel Castro is said to have enjoyed their show and described it as “a showcase for what Cuba is in terms of the fusion of cultures and the significant part the Haitian presence plays in that fusion”.
Founded at a difficult time in Cuba’s history – at the end of the USSR and of Soviet support for the revolution, it was the Choir’s determination that got them started and kept them going. Alfonso describes how “music was their life and soul, and as a group they strongly believed in what they were doing”. This belief that what they were doing was important was solidified when they were nominated for a Grammy and is confirmed when they see the reactions to their performances.
The Creole Choir of Cuba is performing at the Southern Cross Club in Woden on Friday 8 April. Tickets are $44, and available through the Southern Cross Club website at .
There’s a list of Rules of Farce on the Malthouse Theatre website, on the page listing for A COMMERCIAL FARCE, touring to the Canberra Theatre in April. “1: The banana peel is not your enemy. Your mind is your enemy. Trust in the peel and ignore your instincts. 2: The audience want to laugh. If they don’t laugh at the joke, try violence. Violence is funny.” It’s a given in farce that doors will be slammed (in people’s faces), furniture will be run into, and characters will do irremediable violence to themselves or others. And the audience loves it.
“As the Australian critic said – ‘nothing is as funny as another person’s pain’… Until of course the other person is you,” says Peter Houghton, writer and lead actor of the show. Houghton plays Bill, a middle-aged theatre veteran investing his savings in a make-or-break production of a classic farce, who is having a few difficulties with his co-star, Jules (Tim Potter). Jules is the star of a hit TV crime show and the one driving ticket sales. But Jules won’t play nice. Insisting on finding his ‘character’, he does not understand the rules of farce. So, with less than 24 hours to go before curtain up, and suffering from the nervous tension every theatre luvvy recognises, Bill attempts to teach Jules a lesson in farce.
If this sounds familiar, it should. There are plenty of works of farce which are intimately concerned with the theatre – Michael Frayn’s Noises Off being the most notable example. Perhaps it’s because performing a play, especially a comedy, is so mechanical.
“Theatre is a technical medium,” says Houghton. “The best theatre actors master technique… the mechanism of the play. And then they bring themselves to it, their own charm or charisma. But it’s a workout,” says Houghton. Actors are required to perform the same thing over and over again, bringing the same energy or emotion to it every night. They have to walk the same paths over and over again; the slightest deviation can spell utter devastation to the performance. Knock-on dangers are even more amplified in farce, where everything (especially characters) is more thing than human.
“It’s a tightrope walk between being in the moment with the other actor and sticking to the form. I think perhaps all good art works on that tension.”
In this instance, it’s Jules’ desire to be ‘in the moment’ more than necessary that unhinges so much in Bill. And this is perhaps as much to do with generational difference as with the fact that, as A Commercial Farce’s Rule No. 3 states, “an idiot can never play an idiot”.
“Jules is initially quite unlikeable but his motivation becomes apparent. And the play revolves around two generations of men in a pitched battle. In a way Jules is emblematic of all the perceived worst features of Gen Y and Bill, of Gen X or even Boomers.
“The initial portrait of Jules is the cliché Gen Y. Morally free, unhindered by the harsh politics of the ‘60s and ‘70s – the cold war, feminism, understandings of racial politics. [... But] Bill is also emblematic of his generation – angst ridden and trapped in an unhappy relationship, he is driven by greed and duty,” says Houghton. Bill and Jules’s inability to see eye to eye (and their utter conformity to the clichés of their respective generations) makes them perfect fodder for farce. But, just because they’re clichés doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of truth to their relationship, says Houghton.
“I wanted to tick all the boxes of comedy, but I also wanted to show that behind comedy there’s always something else. A laugh only occurs out of recognition. In the moment of laughter the truth has been told. I love that. Drama can take ages to reach a truth. Comedy is like a laser, it finds it quickly and leaves it quickly.
“Good comedy is underlined by real pain. Fawlty Towers is funny to look at and the jokes are brilliant as are the situations and the characters. But behind Basil is a tragic relationship, unfulfilled and lonely…. And that leads to Basil’s desperation. Because it’s comedy he perseveres. He keeps going whatever happens.”
Which brings us to Rule No. 4: “Good drama is like a good meal. Good farce is like breaking wind. Relax and let go.” It’s the farce character’s inability to let go (or their inability to control what happens when they do) that leads to much of the humour. It is a humour based, as Houghton says, in experienced pain, in violence, and in blindly and mechanically persevering even in the face of utter chaos.
“My character Bill is like that. He’s so out of his depth but he never surrenders, which is touching and very funny.
“I suppose we laugh at violence in farce because the victim is rarely badly hurt, which makes it different to life,” says Houghton. But here, Houghton says, A Commercial Farce subverts the tradition. As Rule No. 5 states, “Drama is how life could be. Farce is how it is.” Making devastating alterations to an existing model is one of the standard techniques of comedy. Farce, in a way, invites it.
“Satire and parody in particular but really most comedy needs a blueprint,” says Houghton. “The play they’re rehearsing here is a standard English bedroom farce. [...] So yes, we sort of know the jokes. So it’s the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ that we’re interested in. And this play actually pulls apart some of those old jokes. And then puts them back together. They’re indestructible, most of them.”
Malthouse Theatre presents A Commercial Farce at the Canberra Theatre Centre April 14-16. Tickets through Canberra Ticketing.
Sam Holcroft Canberra Festival, Gorman House Arts Centre Wednesday March 8 – Saturday March 19
“ What are you - a herd of cats?” So asks Beth, the lone adult in a room of wayward teens who struggle with each other and a looming war in Sam Holcroft’s. And they are- an unruly pack barely contained by the stage in this Canberra Youth Theatre Company (CYTC) production.
is a play about evolution, war and being young. The five schoolkids trapped in an after-school detention are balls of confusion and angsty energy. It’s a dystopian future scenario where the big question is who is the cockroach? Who will survive?
Holcroft’s play is worthy but wayward. Too many of the ideas are drawn too obviously to resonate. We learn in that war is bad, that boys often veer between charming idiocy and inarticulate violence, and that girls are given a rough time by the expectation that they’re to scrub up nice and propagate the species. Not exactly groundbreaking. This production is also let down by a physicality which is clumsy and overdone. The scenes where violence is enacted upon the women of the cast were pointlessly heavy.
What redeemed the piece, and indeed elevated it above these quibbles, was the strength of the performances. Particularly good was Olivia Hewson, whose Danielle effortlessly inspires empathy. Just as good was Morgan Thomas as Beth, whose eventual collapse was powerfully rendered.
There were many great performances, in fact - Ethan Gibson skilfully charted the fine line between charmingly boyish cad and hungry animal, while Casey Elder turned in a lovely, slow-burning performance, as her Mmoma slides from the outcast to the top of the pile. Laura Pearce handled Leah, the most outwardly hysterical character, with good grace, while Humphrey Goldstein gave us a character so brutish it was almost unwatchable. It was a solid, if sometimes cartoonish performance.
The CYTC could have taken a few more satisfactory routes in staging. Loudness and physicality do not necessarily equate to intensity. But what they have in their six principles are a collection of young performers who, in grappling with this uneven text, show that little is beyond them. It was their performances that made an ultimately rewarding night at the theatre.
I’m excited. In April, there is a show coming to Canberra that sounds like it has all the right ingredients. It has a talented cast, high production values, an original story and strong characters all served up with a healthy dose of history, politics and passion. And it features, by all accounts, an amazing band live on stage.
CAFÉ REBETIKA featuring the band Rebetiki. It takes the audience on a journey into the utopian rebetes subculture of 1930s Athens. It is set in a teke, or hash den, where outcasts, refugees, musicians, addicts, anarchists, communists and prostitutes come together to escape the unhappy reality of their lives and sing passionate Greek rebetika music: the soul music of survival. Don’t be concerned if you haven’t heard of the rebetes subculture or you can’t hum a rebetika tune, I certainly hadn’t and can’t. You’ll pick it up – that’s the history bit of the show. But listening to Tony Nikolakopoulous (Head On, Underbelly, City Homicide, East West 101), lead actor, talk about Café Rebetika I am convinced of the universal appeal that something of this quality will have.
Tony plays Stavrakas, the owner of the teke. He is a manga; a charismatic, self contained man of style and substance. Sporting a clipped moustache and pointed shoes, he lives according to his own code. This is a code of “acceptance”, explains Tony. “He accepts people for who they are as long as they don’t hurt anybody.” But sadly “Stavrakas also doesn’t believe in marriage or what marriage brings to a relationship,” explains Tony and when this belief clashes with the ideas of his lover, Areti (played by music theatre star Jenny Vuletic), tragedy befalls them.
Tony describes Stavrakas as “a deeply psychological and philosophical character.” He talks about the emotional effort it takes to bring him to stage each night. Tony “feels every bit of him, there is no way to fake it.”
All but two of the actors in this production are Greek. Tony describes “the passion and sense of pride the cast have in bringing this particular slice of history to the stage with so much dignity.” Tony himself was born in Australia of Greek parents but didn’t discover what he describes as his “Hellenic spirit” until his early 20s. But this spirit produced the “tears I had to hold back when playing to a sold out Melbourne Arts Centre, with 200 Greeks joining in the singing of the rebetes songs,” Tony recounts.
Tony keeps repeating the word “filmic” when describing Café Rebetika. He talks about “immersing the audience in this other world” and “the songs and dialogue overlapping each other.” It sounds stunning, and if I can be there on the night when 200 Canberran-Greeks sing along with the rebetes songs I think it will be really something!
Café Rebetika is playing at The Street Theatre from Thursday-Saturday April 7-16. Tickets are available from the venue’s website.