Andrew O'Keefe: Host with the Roast
(Beef AND Chicken)

 

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It's Celebrity Theatresports time again, with the 2013 event taking place Saturday August 24 at the Enmore Theatre (buy tickets here).

I grabbed the opportunity to interview Andrew O'Keefe, a brilliant improviser I first met as an undergraduate at the University of Sydney. At the time, fronting the big band Straight No Chaser as vocalist and trumpeter was just one of many strings to the man's bow. Best to pick it up from there, pretty much.

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Dom Romeo: As an undergrad, majoring in extra curricular activities in addition do your Arts/Law degree, you led bands, acted, the usual stuff. Then you set out on the law career. Suddenly you're on the telly doing sketches in The Big Bite. Now you've been hosting Deal or No Deal for a decade. What was the initial plan? Were you aiming for television in particular? 

ANDREW O'KEEFE: To tell you the truth, ‘Game Show Host’ didn’t make the top 50 as far as career was concerned, and I say that with the greatest respect for Larry Emdur and Baby John Burgess. In fact, a career in any form of entertainment never really struck me as a viable option.  It seemed to me you needed talent for that. The plan was to be a lawyer who passionately enjoyed the life part of the ‘work-life balance’ equation. I kinda tripped over the TV thing, and it just so happened that all that extra-curricular activity at uni was the perfect training.

Dom Romeo: I can't help feeling, if you'd come through even a half generation earlier before media and television changed so radically, you'd have been a perfect fit for Packer's Nine Network, in the traditional mould of the golden age of 'triple threat' television hosts (Bert Newton, Don Lane, Graham Kennedy, Daryl Somers etc). I still hear, from time to time, of 'tonight-show' style pilots, or the impro-driven Whose Line is it Anyway?-type shows that you've fronted. Any plans/schemes/(dare I say it) deals in the pipeline? 

ANDREW O'KEEFE: No deals (and I use that phrase under licence), but plenty of ideas and pitches. The trick for me with TV is to come up with concepts that will be smart and idiosyncratic enough to satisfy my mind and my creative urge, but also broadly appealing enough to satisfy my accountant. That’s quite a difficult balancing act. I often pitch ideas that I think are fascinating, or bitingly amusing, only to be turned down for not ‘smelling like roast chicken’. And yes, that’s a real TV term.

 

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Dom Romeo: You have the additional 'fourth threat' of being able to deliver straight journalism. Are you ever torn between the two? 

ANDREW O'KEEFE: Well luckily I don’t have to rend myself asunder over that, because my weekend job allows me to turn the dial between vaudeville, editorial, interview and inquiry, journalistic story-telling, and simple conversation, for six hours of live telly each week. Having said that, I do often feel that the constraints of commercial television journalism demand that the brushstrokes are very broad, and the paints are mostly primary colours. So the trick becomes to illuminate issues with simplicity and genuine curiosity, rather than to dictate the answers. It can be a very slow process, but you have to trust in the marketplace of ideas, and in your own ability to present compelling perspectives in an accessible way.

Dom Romeo: So are you an entertainer who does journalism or a journalist who entertains? 

ANDREW O'KEEFE: Well, I’m certainly not a journalist, and I don’t have the degree to prove it. But I reject the desire to pidgeonhole anyway. Every single person has a right and a capacity to speak on matters that affect us all. Now, whether their views and opinions are of any worth doesn’t depend on their background or job title, but rather on their conscientious learning and their genuine desire to find the truth by engaging in debate with an open mind. Having said all that, I think the best journalism is always entertaining, bearing in mind that there are a thousand ways to entertain!

 

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Andrew O'Keefe as King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar.

Dom Romeo: It was a pleasure to see you as Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar - a role that seems purpose built for you to parody your other job (even though the change of Herod's characterisation, from smug know-it-all skeptic in the Jewish tradition, to smarmy game show host, via old-school high class gangster, happened in earlier UK productions). How did your involvement come about?

ANDREW O'KEEFE: Dom, it was simply a call from the blue. Sir Andrew’s people (I just like saying that) were looking for someone who could sing and dance and act and who preferably had some TV game-show experience. By a process of elimination, they found me. My natural smugness and smarminess was just an added bonus for them.

Dom Romeo: Is it the case you weren't in the Melbourne run?

ANDREW O'KEEFE: Sadly yes. I suffered a theatre injury dear boy and had to withdraw from the show.  It was during the Brisbane leg. In an odd Jewish variant of karma, I ruptured a disc in my neck as I was belittling and humiliating Christ, and had to undergo an emergency disc replacement. Yahweh smote me! Now, I would have thought that Jesus, being merciful and all, could have healed me on the spot, especially given that cripples are supposedly a specialty of his. But apparently not. Anyway, I’ve been taking the Third Commandment a lot more seriously ever since.

Dom Romeo: Does that mean you didn't get to keep the cool suit?

ANDREW O'KEEFE: That’s exactly what it means. My understudy, a charming and very talented young Brit named Leon, has the suit. I mean, I did fourteen performances in that thing, he did four, and HE keeps the suit? Oi vey! (Mind you, the suit was not cool… have you ever worn thick velveteen under arena lighting?  It’s hotter than Wasim Akram’s jock strap as he pounds down for his 30th over against India in Karachi.)

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Dom Romeo: Occasionally someone makes reference to the fact that you're the nephew of Johnny O'Keefe, the 'Wild One', Australia's king of rock'n'roll. Were there ever times in your life where you were unruly and your family acknowledged you take after him?

ANDREW O'KEEFE: Every time I make an unexpected appearance on YouTube.

Dom Romeo: The JOK connection is not something you've traded on. Is there a kind of performance legacy that affects you?

ANDREW O'KEEFE: Only in a good way. Most of the kids don’t really know much about JOK these days, but I still get a lot of love and reminiscence from the oldies I meet. I mean, my uncle was absolutely incendiary and mad as a hatter at times, but his meteoric energy and his huge warm heart were irresistible. I guess those are the qualities that draw me to him even so long after his death.

Dom Romeo: Do you ever have to make a conscious effort to not acknowledge/partake? For example, a few years back there was a reissue campaign involving excellent remastered recordings - did people try to interview you about it? (The thought did cross my mind. I'm doing it now instead.)

ANDREW O'KEEFE: Oh yes, of course. And there’s always the danger, when you have a famous family, of feeling that you’re living in their shadow. But I don’t mind that at all. The truth is that he was a pioneer, that he is a legend, and that he is a part of my own story. I feel lucky to have known him, and it gladdens me to be able to honour his achievements and honour the memories of all the people who loved him. 

Dom Romeo: I see your impro skills in action on Deal or No Deal where you can take an idea and run with it (singing Mustang Sally to a contestant called Sally, that sort of thing). How important is it/how has it served you throughout in law/entertainment/job interviews etc?

ANDREW O'KEEFE: Improvisation is really the only skill required for Deal or No Deal, because you never know who your contestant will be, what they want out of life, or what they’ll do in the glare of the spotlight. So whether I find myself dancing around the stage in imaginary lederhosen crying “Mutter! Mutter! The pretzel van is coming!”, or making up a rap on the spot using as many rhymes as possible for ‘schnitzel’ (e.g. “I just run for dem crumbs, all those tiny little bits y’all..”), or miming the eating of a frozen boa constrictor down the camera barrel (note to our hearing impaired viewers, it’s not what you think… I’m eating a snake), or trying to distill the history of the Tartar invasions of Russia into a twenty-second fable, it’s all about improvisation. And just like Theatresports, that involves two key approaches: listening hard, and saying yes to everything. Kinda like being in the bathrooms at the Logies.

Dom Romeo: Tell me about the nickname 'Beef'. Who bestowed it? When and how? Do people still use it?

ANDREW O'KEEFE: I always know when I’ve met someone by what they call me. My family calls me Drew, my legal chums call me Andrew, my TV pals call me AOK, my old colleagues from Thunder Down Under call me… um, don’t worry about that one… but my old school and uni friends all call me Beef. Beef O’Keefe. It’s not what you’re thinking, unfortunately. It was bestowed upon me in first class by my dear mate Jules Delaney, or Schultz Delaney, depending on who you ask.

 

Andrew O'Keefe
Image courtesy Impro Australia.

 

 

 

 

Fine Print:

Celebrity Theatresports: Saturday August 24 at the Enmore Theatre (buy tickets here).

Other performers include:

  • Casey Burgess (Hi-5)
  • Rob Carlton
  • Damon Herriman
  • Clint Bolton (Socceroo)
  • Ian ‘Dicko’ Dickson
  • Amelia Farrugia (Opera Star)
  • Jordan Raskopoulos
  • Adam Spencer
  • Kate Peck (MTV)
  • Dan Ilic
  • Rebecca De Unamuno

Rebecca De Unamuno

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“With improv, I can just be myself,” says Rebecca De Unamuno. “It’s where I feel the most comfortable.”

For a fine actor like Rebecca – with a comic bent and a particular love of improvising – the beauty of impro is that it grants both her and her audience immedate suspension of diselief, making it easy for her to take on any character she chooses:

“I can be a southern belle, a hooker, grandmother, even a man, or an inanimate object” she says, roles she wouldn’t always land in other situations.

“I would not be cast as the tall blonde size 8, because that is not what I am. In improv, I can be whatever I want to be. That’s absolute freedom, as opposed to, ‘No, you can’t do that, you can’t be that, you’re too this, you’re too that…’”

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Rebecca De Unamuno with Daniel Cordeaux

 

As It’s near the end of Rebecca’s Sydney Comedy Festival run, where she’s fronting The Impro Late Show with Rebecca De Unamuno – “it just makes me laugh, that that’s the name of the show,” she says, with healthy self-deprecation – where she’s had the opportunity to showcase the talents of newer comics as well as bigger name stars like Frank Woodley as special guests.

But the reason I’m catching up with her – something I’ve been meaning to do for ages – is because I had the pleasure of seeing her improvising, once again, with a crack team of similarly talented individuals, as part of the Cale Bain- directed Full Body Contact No Love Tennis currently occupying the Tuesday night improv slot at the Roxbury Hotel in Glebe.

There was a particular moment – that I won’t be able to do justice in words – in a scene she shared with another player, where she was an ‘elderly mother’ receiving a ‘home made present’ from her ‘daughter’. At a certain point early in the scene, every other improviser had the exact same idea of what the parcel, yet to be handed over, must contain, as they all contributed to the scenario. Rebecca took it a step further by ‘calling back’ to an earlier scene. It was magical to watch.

“They’re very exciting moments,” Rebecca says, “when you have that ‘shared brain’ experience on stage and you go, ‘I knew you were going to do that!’ It’s just as exciting as the moments where you go, ‘I had no idea you were going to do that!’”

That is the beauty of improv: the opportunity to “work with other people who are having a very similar, shared experience as you. And performing without that net – the trust that you put in other people, experimenting on stage and seeing what will happen. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But what a ride; what a risk: to have nothing guaranteed.”

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I’ve known Rebecca since her university days. You know her too. Even if your love of comedy is a passing dalliance, you know her better than you imagine. Because, even if you think you haven’t seen any of the short films she’s appeared in that have made the Tropfest finals (Muffled Love, finalist, 2001; Tragic Love, 2nd place, 2002; Garbage Man, finalist, 2005; The Code, finalist 2008). Tropfest Finalist, Winner of Best Short Film at the 2009 World Comedy Film Awards); if you haven’t seen any of the Theatresports finals she’s played, let alone hosted or directed; if you haven’t seen her guest in various Chaser projects; haven’t heard her on Thank God It’s Friday; haven’t seen any of the various shows she’s been in or fronted in the various festivals around the world; not seen an episode of Big Bite; not seen the Great Debate she was in at a Melbourne International Comedy Festival; not see any of the three brilliant tours with Jason Alexander and his Comedy Spectacular; not seen her in Dad & Dave Live or Spontaneous Broadway

Even then, you’ve been exposed to Rebecca’s work. You know her far better than you realise. Because you hear her voice regularly.

Between the “big acting jobs”, Rebecca does a lot of voiceover work. “I’m the one selling you products,” she says, citing current Pine-O-Clean and anti-smoking campaigns as the examples currently in high rotation. And it’s a good thing too – it’s those jobs that enable Rebecca to keep getting on the improv stage.

What I didn’t know is that initially, during Rebecca’s university days, she had her sights set on serious drama.

“I really enjoyed comedy and was into it, but I never really saw myself doing it,” she says. “I was going to be…” – adopts the voice – “… a serious actor. I auditioned for all the drama schools when I finished high school. I very much wanted to do theatre…”

It was in the pursuit of theatre – a major production by the Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) of Danton’s Death – that Rebecca began hanging out with fellow student actors who were doing this thing called ‘Theatresports’, where they’d compete in teams, playing games that involved making stuff up on the spot. They’d play professionally, at the Belvoir St Theatre, as well as during lunchtimes on the stage of Sydney Uni’s Manning Bar, in a competition hosted by Adam Spencer.

“I used to go and watch, and think, ‘I could never do what they’re doing’, but over time I’d start to think of scenarios and things to say in response to scenes,” Bec recalls. Then one of her Danton’s Death mates “dragged” her onto the Manning Bar stage.

“I said, ‘but I don’t know what I’m doing’, and he said, ‘good!’” At the beginning of each round, he’d give her just enough information for her to get through the game. Adam would announce the next round as ‘Subtitles’, say, and Rebecca would ask, ‘What’s that?’ Her mate would reply, “just speak in a funny language and I’ll translate!” Thrown in at the deep end, Rebecca realised the comedic side of things were taking over!

In time Rebecca directed the Arts Revue on campus, after which, she was ‘discovered’; she was part of a troupe put together to create sketch comedy professionally. The show was called Larfapalooza. Actually, it was first and ever-so-briefly called The Sketchy Sketch Show. The cast consisted of stand-up comics Subby Valentine, Tom Gleeson and Sarah Kendall, the latter two, having just appeared in the Arts Revue, brought their friend and director onboard. The show played the Melbourne Fringe in 1998. “That was great,” Rebeccas recalls. “That was our first exposure to a festival, as such.

I remember interviewing Sarah Kendall at the time, and was surprised to discover how much Sarah loathed improvisation. Despite working so well with Rebecca, the stand-up comic in her couldn’t take the leap of faith without the safety net of a well-scripted routine.

“I would say the same thing about what Sarah did,” Rebecca explains. “There was no way that I could get together five minutes of material and work it and re-work it and re-work it again to make it right.”

It was, Rebecca reckons, through coming from those opposite ends and meeting in the middle, that the work was so good.

The second time Rebecca was cast in a sketch show, the cast was much bigger, and she knew only one other cast member. The show was Big Bite, which she appeared in with the likes of Andrew O’Keefe (another Sydney University improvising alumnus; now hosting Deal Or No Deal), Richard Pyros (now part of the STC enseble working under artistic directors Cate Blanchette and Andrew Upton), Jake Stone (lead singer of Blue Juice), Kate McCartney (an AFI-nominated animator), Melissa Madden-Gray (nowadays known as Meow Meow) and Chris Lilley…

“Apart from Andrew and I, none of us had met,” Rebecca recalls. “We were just this random collection of people they had put together and told, ‘be funny’.” Such beginnings could prove a disaster. Instead, good things happened.

“Andrew and I were the only improvisers, as such – apart from Chris Lilley, but he didn’t really see himself as an improviser,” Rebecca says. She and O’Keefe had the ideal working relationship with the writers: they’d be given a scenario, fall into character and start riffing – sketches would be created from that. This ‘Second City’ style of sketch creation worked a treat.

“We did one that was an elderly couple; we just started putting on the voices and the scenario evolved: we were doing an audition tape for Big Brother. It was just these two bickering oldies.”

By the end of the series, everyone got on well and worked together well – which of course means the show ended after a single season. “It’s a pity the second series never happened. We’d just gotten to know each other and hit out strides with each other and knew each other’s strengths and stuff.”

 

Knowing each other’s strengths is important. So is knowing your own. There had to be a point where Rebecca realised that she could trust herself, going out on stage without anything, and knowing that she’d be fine.

“It took me a couple of years to trust myself completely,” Rebecca says, but she can pinpoint a particular moment where “everything had aligned” and she’d need not worry. It was during a Theatresports game at the Belvoir St Theatre, in which she was playing a scene with Julia Zemiro. Because it was a bigger stage than the one in Manning Bar, there was more physicality, as opposed to the need of merely being ‘talking heads’. That mean the characters could enter in silence, establishing themselves physically rather than verbally.

“It was the first time I was aware of the silence that we had in a scene,” Rebecca explains. The scene was set in an art gallery, and both Julia and she came on ‘looking at paintings’.

“I had no idea how she was reacting to the paintings, but I was having a distinct reaction and expressing it physically, and the audience was reacting positively to that,” Rebecca remembers. “That’s when I completely trusted that what I was doing was working: I didn’t have to say anything in order to create a reality. It was a shared narrative with not one word spoken. There was just that element of ‘we get this now; this is complete trust. Neither of us has to break this in order to try and say something funny’.”

That, effectively, was the moment came where Rebecca realised she could go on stage with nothing, and, if need be, create something by continuing to fill the space with nothing. The confidence and ability to hold the audience with silence is massive. It was the point she trusted herself totally in improv.

While trusting the silence is important, trusting the other bits is important too.

“When I started, I realised I would do and say things that I had no intention of being funny, and yet people would laugh at them,” Rebecca says. “I was just being the character. That happened a lot when I was starting out: I was constantly surprised that people would find things funny.”

In time, Rebecca realised that she was funny because she wasn’t trying to be. “Sometimes you can try too hard, and you just shoot yourself in the foot. Whereas, if you just stick to the story and the character, the humour will come from that.”

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The humour is present and accounted for. Does Rebecca still take on the serious roles? Well, she auditions for them. But, she says, she“always ends up getting the comedy, be it sketch or a play”. Furthermore, even when she lands a serious role, it doesn’t stay serious. Last year she played the radio MC in the Q Theatre production of Dad & Dave Live. The show was presented from the original radio scripts, on stage (as though the stage were the radio studio of the 1930s).

“I got the opportunity to put on lots of different voices, so it used all of the strings to my bow,” Rebecca says, “but my role was comedy, even though I was working opposite some really straight actors.”

Rebecca’s role, as MC, meant she had to address and interact with the audience.

“I had to break out of character – from the scripts – and still be a character and improvise with them. It gave me a chance to do everything I do. It was so much fun!”

Not least of all because it meant there could be a different, improvised bit every night:

“The demands of doing the same thingcan get a little monotonous for me. I like to shake things up a bit, so I would find ways of doing something a bit differently. When I spoke to the audience I would do something new each time.”

The she worked it was to establish a bit of a ‘crush’ on the character of the actor who plays ‘Dave’ in the radio show-within-the-play. She’d bring him forward during the ‘ad break’, when she’d engage with the audience, reading out his fanmail on stage. But the letter would always be from her, including a love poem – a different one improvised each night.

“It would always end up with me throwing myself at him, but he never knew how I would get there or what I would say.”

Being so adept at being funny while improvising, there is an essential question that has to be asked, given the success of British and American versions of Whose Line Is It Anyway. When are we gonna get an Aussie version on the box? I know Rebecca’s been involved in pilots to bring improv to the small screen.

“Absolutely,” she says. “I’ve done about four or five pilots.”

Rebecca reckons the closest we’ve come was last year, when someone local – she can’t remember who, but suspects it was Cordell Jigsaw – acquired the rights to “an Aussie Whose Line”:

“It was great: they got all these people together and they workshopped ideas, and a pilot was going to be made… but I haven’t heard anything about it.”

The difficulty of it, according to Rebecca, is the technical inexperience when it comes to capturing it for the screen. “Those in the industry haven’t seen enough improv to know how it works,” she says. The crew has to know how improv operates, and be prepared to follow the action. You can’t block out camera shots in a rehearsal; since it’s improvised, the performers may not be standing in the same place, doing the same thing. She reckons, the crews who film sporting events would be perfect for it, since they’re used to ‘following the ball’, the perfect metaphor for following improv action – and anticipating where it will go.

“It’s the immediacy of improv, when you’re in the live audience, that’s really felt. It’s quite tricky, trying to give the home audience that same feeling. That’s why, for Whose Line, they record for hours and broadcast the best bits.” They also have a formula, as Rebecca points out: “Wayne Brady will always be cast in the musical numbes, because that’s his strength; Ryan and Colin will always work together because that’s their strength. It’s not left to chance.”

I’m hoping it is Cordell Jigsaw who currently own the rights. Because they’re now Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder, the Zapruder bit being Denton’s company. I remember seeing Denton as a regular contestant in Theatresports on the telly back in the ’80s. Maybe it’ll happen…

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One of the other great live shows we need to talk about is Jason Alexander’s Comedy Spectacular, of which, Rebecca has been an essential part.

According to Rebecca, there are certain improvisors you just click with, and others, no matter how hard you try, you never really blend well with on stage. “It’s like a relationship: if it doesn’t work, you leave. If you find people you work well with, you want to stay in that relationship and you want to keep working with those people. Because you want to be inspired, and be inspiring to people.”

Jason Alexander and Rebecca De Unamuno have one of those ‘inspired and inspiring’ dynamics.

“He calls me his ‘sister from another mister’,” Rebecca says. “And I call him ‘my brother from another mother’. He started to introduce me as that on stage very early on. We’ve done three tours together now.”

Rebecca was approached to take part in the show because improv had been seen to be taking off in Australia, owing to Thank God You’re Here (although, fact is, there was very little improv in Thank God You’re Here; apart from the guest, the cast is very tightly drilled). The idea was to do something improv-based at the end of the show, that would involve all of Alexander’s guests.

The initial cast included Kitty Flanagan, Tom Gleeson and the Scared Weird Little Guys. “They were all enthusiastic, but it wasn’t what they all do, so it was a matter of trying to get something where we’d all ‘have a moment’. Jason was so supportive of that.”

By the third tour, Jason had brought his pianist with him, and wanted the big finale to be an improvised musical.

“My response was, ‘Um… are you kidding me? Do the things I love the most? With a Tony-Award winning Musical Theatre performer?’”

At the opening night, in the Regent Theatre in Melbourne, Rebecca says she had a little ‘out-of-body’ experience, where she saw herself and said, “look at what you’re doing right now!” To say it went well was an unerstatement. According to Alexander, it’s as though the pair “had been performing together for 15 years”.

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So back to Impro Late Show with Rebecca De Unamuno, the reason we’re having this little catch-up.

Rebecca was approached by Marko Mustac, the Creative Director of Impro Australia, who had put a submission in for a late-night impro show with guests, to the Sydney Comedy Festival, not knowing if the show would get up. When it did, he approached Rebecca to host it, figuring, she can, and besides, she knows a lot of comics who’d love to come on board as guests.

“I was given complete artistic freedom as to what it was”, she says. Her only misgiving is the name, which still makes her giggle. “It sounds like I’m so up myself’: ‘The Impro Late Show with Rebecca De Unamuno’. It’s quite funny!”

Since Rebecca’s career began, and has continued, being theatre-based, and she has a view to devising long-form improvised plays, she’s was quite keen to incorporate some of those elements in what is still a “good old, humour-based improv sketch show”. However, she pulls it off with smoother transitions – so it feels more like a show, than a bunch of improv bits. And she adapts it to suit the guests.

“When Frank Woodley guested, we played a scene that would normally have words in it, as a mime, because it’s his absolute forte,” she explains. “And I close the show every night with a song. I play a nightclub singer, coming to the end of the set, and I wrap up the show with a  totally improvised song.”

Bec will grab a stool and a mic and deliver a preamble over a vamping introduction, re-capping all the things the audience has seen in the show; since the show is improvised, so, too is the preamble. Then the reminiscence shifts from the night that’s unfolded, to the life lessons she’s been taught, including the advice she’ received over the years. She’ll casually ask an audience member to share some advice their mother gave them. That’s when it gets exciting. “Their answer becomes the title of the closing song, in which I deliver my parting thoughts. ‘Wear more make-up’ has been one of them. ‘Wash your face’ has been another.”

My parting thoughts? See Rebecca De Unamuno perform. Either in the Impro Late Show, or a round of Full Body Contact No Love Tennis. Or see the upcoming Theatresports grand final that she’s directing. You won’t just be amazed – you’ll be surprised at how amazed you’ll be.

 

Fine Print:

Impro Late Show with Bec De Unamuno May 11, May 12 - with special guests!

Tuesdays and Thursdays are Impro nights at the Roxbury Hotel in Glebe - Rebecca’s a regular

• Celebrity Theatresports, July - directed by Rebecca