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

Bridie Connell on Theatresports

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Bridie Connell

It's that time of year again: the Cranston Cup Theatresports grand final - in which some of the best improvisers you will ever see (until next year's Cranston Cup) battle it out for the prize of best people who can make stuff up on the spot and entertain you in the process - is taking place at the Enmore Theatre tonight.

In honour of it, I interviewed Bridie Connell - not just a brilliant player and performer (she was one of the multitude of talented Sydney Uni alumni Michael Hing produced at the recent Sydney Fringe Festival) but also a teacher of Theatresports. But I'll let her tell you all about it…

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Dom Romeo: What do you do?

BRIDIE CONNELL: I teach a lot of impro, and I’m an actor and writer.

Dom Romeo: When did you come to impro?

BRIDIE CONNELL:I was very lucky; I went to one of the few primary schools that had a Theatresports club. A lot of high schools have it, but I was lucky that I got a taste quite early. I did it all through high school and I really loved it. When I went to uni there was no impro and I really missed it, but then I moved to Sydney to finish my degree, and there was such a big scene over here for it that I fell back into it after a few years of having a break.

Dom Romeo: Were you mostly educated in New Zealand?

BRIDIE CONNELL: I did all of my high school and primary school there.

Dom Romeo: I do not detect a New Zealand ‘ick-cent’.

BRIDIE CONNELL: My mum’s an Aussie so we’ve always had a mixture of accents. It’s weird because when I go home to New Zealand to see my family, they tease me for sounding like an Australian but some of my friends here still pick up on words that I say with a bit of a Kiwi accent. So no matter where I go, I get teased for my voice.

Dom Romeo: In a way it’s an advantage: to always be an outsider means you can always be making fun of something as an observer…

 BRIDIE CONNELL: Yeah, I guess so. It’s not like we speak a different language in New Zealand but when I moved to Sydney there were a few moments, even on stage, where I’d say something – a phrase that we say in New Zealand that just hadn’t made it across here – and there’d be an awkward moment where they were trying to work out what I was saying.

Dom Romeo: When you started improvising out here, you would have looked like an amazing newbie, when really you weren’t a newbie at all.

BRIDIE CONNELL: I had done it all through high school, and it was quite fun because I had had a break for a few years, studying in New Zealand. It was one of those nice things, like riding a bike: I got back into it so quickly and I had so much fun immersing myself in it again.

I was really nervous to start again though. I felt really rusty. And I hadn’t improvised with all these people at Sydney Uni before. It was scary going into my first jam, and my first time on Manning Bar stage because I just didn’t know anybody. That was actually one of the reasons I picked it up again: to meet people.

Dom Romeo: Even though New Zealand and Australia are close in many ways, are there any differences in the way we improvise and in our senses of humour?

BRIDIE CONNELL: I think, in New Zealand, a lot of our humour is sort of even more laconic than it is here. Flight of the Conchords is very typical of the sort of thing that you see a lot in New Zealand: a lot of awkward humour, a lot of laconic stuff, blokey jokes. And that definitely happens here, but more so in New Zealand. I think that because I had come from doing Theatresports at a high school level in New Zealand, it was totally different kind of standard, so when I moved to doing uni Theatresports in a different country, it was like being hit over the head: people were so much wilder and tackled topics that we never had in high school and the standard was so much better.

Content-wise, there was a bit of difference, but the main thing I noticed was that suddenly from high school to university, it was a whole new world: no holds barred, do what you will…

Dom Romeo: You also do this for a living.

BRIDIE CONNELL: I teach Theatresports and host Theatresports at Sydney Uni, and I teach at quite a few high schools – I run Theatresports clubs and co-curricular drama. So I perform a lot, and I teach even more.

Dom Romeo: Does that mean you’re always working, or always playing?

BRIDIE CONNELL: Sometimes it feels like work! But I’m quite lucky that it is so much fun that I do really enjoy it and it doesn’t feel like work most of the time. There are some students who are more trying than others, but most of the time it’s just so much fun, particularly because I work with such a wide age range. I teach five-year-olds, right up to people in their 30s I get so many different types of students so it’s always really fun, and there’s always something new every day, so it’s really nice.

Dom Romeo: And you run the University of Sydney Theatresports program?

BRIDIE CONNELL: Yeah, I took over from Steen Raskopoulos at the start of this year and I co-host with Tom Walker, who’s in my Cranston team.

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Tom Walker and Bridie Connell


Dom Romeo:
I was on campus when Rob Carlton was handing over to Adam Spencer. I think it was Gabby Millgate before them. I don’t know if there were many women in between (and apologise to anyone I’ve overlooked).

BRIDIE CONNELL: I was thinking about this recently – I know that Rebecca De Unamuno used to play, I don’t know if she hosted. Still, it’s the first time a girl’s hosted in a while, so that’s been quite fun, and a lot more women have been coming to the jams at Sydney Uni this year, so that’s been quite nice.

Dom Romeo: What’s the difference between teaching adults who are doing it for the first time at 30, and teaching kids?

BRIDIE CONNELL: The wonderful thing about teaching at uni is that everyone wants to be there; they’re there voluntarily rather than, it’s last period Friday and you had to pick an activity and you chose this. Everybody’s there because they want to be there, so they’re really passionate about it.

A lot of the time people get into it just for social reasons, or as an extra-curricular thing, to meet people – so there’s a really, really nice environment at uni with the older group. It’s almost like a friendship group hanging out and jamming every week, which is really nice. With my younger students, it’s a lot more structured and regimented. It’s still a lot of fun, but there are a lot more structures in place around what we learn.

Dom Romeo: Is it harder for adults to free up part of their brain and indeed, their body, to accept offers and to play?

BRIDIE CONNELL: You see with a lot of older people, when they start out, definitely, there’s a process. When they finally have that moment where something switches over in their brain where they really start to accept offers and understand it, it’s awesome. But there definitely can be a bit of resistance, and a little bit of holding back at first.

That’s what’s so refreshing about working with the little kids. Even though, obviously, they’re not hugely experienced and they don’t have a lot of technical skill, they don’t care: they will do scenes about anything and they’ll just take risks. I always come out of class with these amazing stories from all the kids. They have huge imaginations and just don’t care what anybody thinks, which is nice, because the older people at uni are more conscious of what people will think of them or how they’ll be perceived.

Dom Romeo: What are the differences between playing Theatresports at a professional level in competition, and just playing for fun?

BRIDIE CONNELL: That’s a good question. First and foremost, if anyone was doing this purely for the competition then I doubt that they would make it into the final because one of fundamental principles of Theatresports is that you are just mucking around, having fun. I always tell my students this when competition time rolls around: the minute you start counting your points or focussing on the competition elements, it’s a big mistake because you stop focussing on your play and you stop taking risks and being free.

The competition is definitely fun and important, and it’s a great way to learn really quickly and get feedback from judges, but I think the more relaxed you can be about it, the better. All the teams that are playing the Cranston final this weekend are approaching it from a ‘let’s just have fun on big scale’ attitude.

Dom Romeo: So you’re saying that once you start ‘competing’, looking for angles to get ahead, you’re almost losing the whole reason Theatresports exists – to play and discover new things.

BRIDIE CONNELL: Absolutely. It just interferes with your mindset. And I’ve gone through that before. I’ve done shows where you really want to make it to the final round, and you start thinking about that. But as soon as you do that, you start to get tense, and relaxation is so important in Theatresports, to be in the zone. That’s not to say that people aren’t competitive; everybody would like to win the Cranston Cup, and everybody wants to play as many rounds as they can without getting eliminated, because we all want to play. But first and foremost, we all want to have fun, and we all know from experience that the more relaxed you are the more fun you’re having and the better your score will be anyway.

Dom Romeo: One of the reasons Theatresports was developed was to get away from ‘shtick’ – the comfortable bag of tricks we all carry and fall back on. There are times, even when improvising in Theatresports, when players ‘get comfortable’ in the ways they play, sometimes to the point where you can almost certainly predict the character they’ll pull out and the way the improvised scene will play. Should they try to get away from that? And if so, how?

BRIDIE CONNELL: You definitely should get away from that because impro in its purest form would mean that we couldn’t be predictable. And that can really be frustrating for a fellow player or the audience member when you can predict the way a scene will go because you’ve seen a player bring out that character before. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy working with little kids, and one of the reasons they’re so good at Theatresports: they have such boundless imaginations that every time they do a scene it’s totally different.

I’ve been thinking about this concept of patterns and habits this year with my students. One of the things we do at high school and university level is an exercise that’s rapid-fire coming up with as many characters as you can really quickly: a set of two characters, then you change, and you change and you keep changing. You’re meant to get to bare minimum ten characters. But after about four or five characters everybody started to falter. The exercise totally exposes the fact that we have default characters. I do too: I have types of scenes that I’m more comfortable with, characters and accents that I tend to go to. But the more we’ve done that exercise, the more we’ve stretched our minds a little bit to find different types of characters to play. As well as that, there are some players who do the same sort of things physically, so we’ve really focussed them on doing different things with their voices to get them out of their comfort zone a little bit.

Dom Romeo: There are times when there are props available on stage and there are players who always look for a prop for inspiration – sometimes, I feel, to the detriment of their improvising.

BRIDIE CONNELL: I’m not really one of them. Sometimes you’ll get the perfect prop and it will really help you, but I find Theatresports is so fast-paced that when I rummage through the prop box to find something perfect for the moment, the moment’s passed. I’m not quick enough with the prop to do it. Some people just love them, particularly the physical players – they find things to help them be even bigger on stage. It works for some people, but it always just stresses me out.

Dom Romeo: Tell me about a time you did something on stage that not even you knew you were going to do – that took you by surprise, as well as the audience and the people you were playing with.

BRIDIE CONNELL: Those moments are the reason everyone keeps doing Theatresports! It’s a bit like a drug: sometimes the highs are so good – those moments when the whole team just clicks and they’re totally on the same wavelength.

I had a great experience about five years ago, in the final scene in the high school grand final. It was a plagiarism scene: all the lines, characters and settings are stolen from all the other scenes that had been played earlier that night. It’s a bit cheeky and it’s so much fun. But towards the end of the scene – it wasn’t a musical or anything but somebody started to sing a poem in a scene and everybody just got up. All the other teams got up and suddenly it was an impromptu musical. It got a great score and the audience loved it. I always remember it because to me that was the perfect summary of how important the concept of ‘the team’ is in Theatresports – everybody just supported each other and got up. It was amazing. The audience was floored that everybody in the space of about three seconds got on stage and jumped on one idea and took it to the extreme. It was so much fun.

Dom Romeo: It’s amazing when everyone gets the same idea and is on the same wavelength instantaneously.

BRIDIE CONNELL: It’s so organic, too: you can’t force it. It’s so amazing and it’s so much fun to play with people you meld with. Whether it’s because you know each other really well or you have similar styles, when that happens – when everybody just magically is on the same page and knows what’s going on – you can’t beat it. It’s so rewarding as a player and as an audience member.

Dom Romeo: If you didn’t have Theatresports in your life or as a way of life, what’s one thing that would suck in everyday life?

BRIDIE CONNELL: In high school, if I’m thinking back a bit, I was really grateful that I did Threatresports.

I actually started it because I was a debater, and I gave that up many years ago because I enjoyed Theatresports more. But I got into it because I thought it would help me with my debating, to think on my feet. And the more I did Theatresports, the better I was at thinking on my feet. So in high school, I would say the answer to that question is, I would have gotten so many more detentions. Because I could think on my feet I talked myself out of so many detentions and punishments in high school – more than anyone else in my year – which was great. But for now, the thing that I’m most grateful for in terms of what Theatresports has given me, is just general confidence and playfulness in everyday life.

My first ever Theatresports coach, when I was little, said, the people who played Theatresports were just better at life for those reasons: you’re more playful and imaginative and have more confidence. Whether or not you want to be a professional performer, I really do think that what Theatresports gives you is really valuable.

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Jon Williams and Bridie Connell

 

Fine Print:

The Cranston Cup Theatresports Grand Final is on tonight at 8pm, Enmore Theatre. Hosted by Susie Youssef. Doors open 7pm.


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

 


Sarah Kendall


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What with Sarah Kendall’s up-coming (in December) season at the Sydney Opera House Studio, I think it’s time to dip into the comedy archive and publish some old interviews with the criminally talented gorgeous and hilarious Sarah Kendall. Time flies: It’s been three years since I’ve interviewed this comic, but I caught up with her in Edinburgh last year, and look forward to seeing her live again. Even the most stern punter who has difficulty conceding that women can actually be funny always sets up a subset of women who are hilarious, and in addition to Kitty Flanagan, the list always includes Sarah Kendall. This first piece appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of Revolver.


War Veteran: Sarah Kendall dazzles them in the comic trenches

The fact that it’s been a while since we’ve seen her – possibly too long – no longer matters once she takes the stage. Her svelte and spunky form is unlaboured hip and unpretentious cool in flared jeans and a Rolling Stones logo’d t-shirt as she strides towards the microphone. Surveying, from the centre of the now expansive stage, Sydney University’s renovated Manning Bar, she reminds the audience of the “shoebox full of vomit” that it used to be when, as an undergraduate, she decided to try out for the lunchtime activity being run there, stand-up comedy.

Turned out she was a natural. A lot of time has passed since then, but she is so polished now that she looks, as always, natural. Her comedy, like her incredible, incandescent mane (which, she admits, has caused many an inhabitant of LA to mistake the back of her head for Nicole Kidman’s) dazzles ever more brilliantly than the last time she allowed it to shimmer before us. She’s got the goods. That much is clear from her ad lib’d opening gambit through the tight routines that are peppered with loose observations and associations, until the final killer line, a clever ‘call back’ to an earlier gag that appeared deceptively disarming as she cracked it. The comic’s name is Sarah Kendall, and she’s fucken funny.

“I’m based in London now,” the comic says when I catch up with her later. “If you want to do stand-up as a living, London is the place to live.” A much bigger population than Australia has, in a much smaller space than New South Wales means, according to Sarah, that “statistically, there are more rooms and more people going to see comedy.”

This means more gigs and more experience. It’s no wonder this woman is doing so well. She recently made her debut at the Montreal Comedy Festival – the traditional ‘foot in’ to the US, on account of the producers, directors and writers who swoop down upon the cream of each year’s crop – and she went down an absolute treat. The necessary courtship by the American entertainment industry naturally followed. Which left Sarah unfazed, only because the American comedy scene is ultimately no different to the Australian one. “When people like CBS say ‘we want to meet with you’, your first reaction is ‘fucking hell, it’s CBS!’” Kendall explains. “But then you realise that it is just a huge television station. It’s like Channel Ten with another fifty billion dollars on top of it. I think that once you put that into perspective you go, ‘okay, let’s talk business’.”

Sarah Kendall did talk business, but didn’t actually entere into any. “A lot of stuff that I was being offered wasn’t right for me,” she concedes, pointing out that a bigger industry must also have a bigger dose of mediocrity. She asks the rhetorical question: “Do I really want to play the crazy foreigner living upstairs who pops in occasionally to say nutty stuff?”

If someone came up with a suitable, interesting project, Kendall would approach it with an open mind. Unfortunately, nothing pitched at her seemed to fit within those parameters. “It sounds really trite,” the comic concludes, “but ‘all that glitters is not gold’. I think that’s true.” According to Kendall, evidence suggests that each of the best sitcoms has at its helm “ a comedian who had been doing stand-up for over ten years – Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, Roseanne.”

Thus, she concludes, successful sitcoms are the work of consummate professionals who have “honed their craft for over a decade”, who “know exactly what they want” and who “retain ultimate creative control”. Thus, her time on telly will only come, she says, “when I’m really on top of my shit”.

So what’s Sarah gonna do for the next ten years? Funnily enough, the answer is ‘stand-up’. “A lot of people think that stand-up has to be a means to an end,” she observes, “but that’s incredibly dismissive of the craft.” Sarah Kendall will be content spending nine out of every twelve months of the year in England, returning to an Australian summer in time to prepare shows for the Melbourne Comedy Festival. In fact, she is currently working on her second Festival show now. Entitled War, the show was inspired by her father’s reaching that “certain age” at which men decide to do family trees. “It turned out that about six of my family members died in World War I and II”, Kendall explains, and so a kind of long-term interest in war was revived. She considers the topic to be “really difficult” but insists that she has reached that point where she wants to attempt something challenging. So although she fears “falling off the horse”, she knows that she’ll be climbing right back on it – and maybe even leading the charge of the light brigade thereafter.

What does this mean for you, the punter? If you don’t know if you can wait ten years to see Sarah Kendall in a sitcom, and if you can’t wait to see her at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, you can see her in a preview season at the Roxbury Hotel. Max Sharam’s Mad’moselle Max, Tom Gleeson’s Pirate Copy and Sarah Kendall’s War will play over three nights from Thursday March 15th to Saturday March 17th, and you can buy one ticket for all three shows. If you don’t, it could be another year before you get the chance to wallow in Sarah Kendall’s brilliance.


From 4 February 1998 Issue of Revolver:

Sarah Kendall: Vulgar, Fart-Lighting Sell-Out

“I’m vulgar?” Sarah Kendall demands.

It’s as though you can’t spit over your shoulder without hitting Sarah Kendall square in the head at the moment. Barely a month ago she was plying her stand-up trade in the Comedy Hotel’s annual showcase of fresh talent, The Night of Nights. She supported Judith Lucy days later. Now she appears, several nights a week, on stage in the sketch-based Larfapalooza and on the telly presenting the ‘humorous’ story for Today Tonight. Her rise, apparently from nowhere, seems almost unfair in its rapidity. Which may explain the criticisms that I have heard leveled at her in the last couple of days. One person dismissed her stand-up as ‘vulgar’. Another, her television work as a ‘sell-out’.

Sarah’s stand-up routine makes clever reference to the Barbie Doll’s aberrant genitalia. It includes vivid reminiscence of the olfactory ecstasy derived from whiffing the inside of your recorder at school. But the corker is Sarah’s enactment of ‘the secret to landing a man’, as contained within a teenage glossy mag. The article posits ‘unpredictability’ as the key. Sarah embodies the same by letting rip with a mighty burp. The audience loves it.

Sarah, who cheerily burps on demand for me, has never considered her act to be vulgar. “I don’t know whether to be offended!” she says. Her initial look of bewilderment gives way briefly to hurt before steeling itself into resolve. “Next time I’ll light my fart,” she announces. “That’ll get my point across.”

The allegation of ‘selling out’ appears to strike to deeper chord. Assuming the melodramatic persona of a ‘wounded diva’, La Kendall exclaims, “Oh god, my public’s turning on me. Now I know how Evita felt!”

Then, as her real self:

“It’s hard to get high and mighty about your career moves when you’re at this stage. It’s a matter of, you do stand-up, you take the opportunities when they come. You don’t really know where your next job’s coming from. So for someone to go ‘that’s a sell-out’, I think – they’ve sort of got their head up their arse.”

Fair comment. And it’s not even as if Sarah is doing the bland ‘panda that can’t get an erection after the weather’ story that news always gives you, either. The news has to end with that fluff because prime-time entertainment is to follow and viewers are better advertising targets if they are not still ill-at-ease from the evening’s harrowing headlines full of fatal tragedies, horrific sports results and the likelihood of continued rain.

The task of injecting a bit of humour into a tightly timed innocuous advertorial is not easy, but Sarah rises to the occasion. Consider the ‘best café’ segment that ends with her ordering an extra strong espresso, “hold the sugar, hold the milk, hold the water”. In the final shot, Sarah shovels coffee beans into her gob and actually eats them. Readily acknowledging that the ‘human interest’ story “traditionally is not about humans, or interesting,” Sarah holds far nobler sentiments about her television work: “basically, it’s just an opportunity for some fart-arsing about.”

Sarah’s rise hasn’t really been that rapid. She’s been fart-arsing about since day one. “In every class there is a kid who will do anything,” she has said. “Someone for whom nothing is too embarrassing or undignified.” Sarah was that kid, always prepared to entertain “just as long as there were at least three people watching.”

The fart-arsing came to the fore at the University of Sydney, a campus responsibility for the likes of Adam Spencer and those wags who featured in the Uni documentary. “I’ve had a go at just about every activity that can be done on campus except maybe go to the library,” Sarah says, having covered extra-curricular majors such as stand-up, faculty revue and Theatresports.

Sarah took to stand-up immediately, landing impressive gigs like Amnesty International’s ‘Take No Prisoners’ fundraiser last year. Some of her routine found its way on FM programming courtesy of Radiowise. Theatresports, she found more daunting. “I’m shit at Theatresports,” she admits. And then elaborates. “I don’t know if I’m shit, but Theatresports terrifies me. Scares the bejeesus out of me.” The problem lies in the very nature of the game, which seeks to let improvisation take the performance into uncharted territory. It calls for a lot of faith in your own ability, which is usually at odds with the stand-up’s natural disposition of insecurity and the fear of failure. The comic walks the tightrope in the hope of landing in the safety net of good punchlines. Theatresports forces you to jump and trust that, should there be no punchlines to catch you, something else will. It is a leap of faith.

“I’m always looking for the gags in Theatresports,” Sarah admits. “I’ll still have about ten ideas flying through my head thirty seconds into the scene, and by that stage, you should have committed to one of the other team member’s offers.”

Even though Sarah finds Theatresports more difficult, the audience is much more compassionate. “Doing stand-up is like…” She begins to mime driving a heavy vehicle. “No,” she coerces it, hands glued firmly to an imaginary steering wheel, knuckles glaring white. “With me,” she insists, “with me.” Then she takes on the mindset of the punter: “Oh, you think you’re funny? You’ve got a microphone? You deserve it more than I do? I cracked a joke at work today, and I’m pretty funny.”

With a fear of the unknown and a stand-up audience to placate, it comes as no surprise to note that Sarah doesn’t leave much room for improvisation in her routine. She won’t stray from the set text “unless there is a great offer from someone in the audience.”

With Larfapalooza, Sarah gets the best of both worlds: sketch comedy is performed as part of an ensemble, and so like Theatresports depends heavily on group dynamics. Yet it is scripted, and so provides the safety of a ‘routine’, from which risks may be taken only as desired to suit the individual audience and performance. “I really enjoy writing sketch,” Sarah says. “I love the whole idea of taking a notion and hammering it out; starting with some sort of idea, and taking it tangentially. I just love the set-up.”

Talk about hammering out a notion: the ‘Mabel and Tamsen’ sketch is a scream. Sarah and Rebecca De Unamuno feature as two “ridiculously bad actors who were really into it,” like the avantgarde performers who’d subject classes of school kids time and again to that bizarre sort of theatre of the abject that only visiting thespians can create. They warm up with grotesque body stretches, they recite vocal exercises like “red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather…”

“We used to have the Hunter Valley Theatre Company come and put shows on at my school, and the shows were so fucked up,” Sarah offers as an explanation. “They were so weird. You’d see teachers up the back thinking, ‘Fuck, why did we have to book these people?’” Sarah delightfully relates memories of one such entourage whose self-penned play “about heroin, AIDS and rape” featured an actress screaming “I was just a dirty piece of cunt!”

“It just flattened Year 9 one rainy day when P.E. was called off,” she recalls.

The other two members of Larfapalooza are ‘Malcolm’ (a stage name, perhaps inspired by one of the more popular human hosts on Here’s Humphrey during the 1970s; his real name is ‘Tom’, but that is all you – or I – are privy to) and Subby Valentine, both of whom are established stand-up comedians. The four were brought together by Simon Morgan, owner of the Comedy Hotel and a long-time patron of the Sydney comedy scene. (It was in fact Simon who pitched Sarah for the Today Tonight position.)

“As a team,” Sarah says, the members of Larfapalooza “all write together well and get along well. We’re all just one big, happy family.” I’m wondering if, like all microcosms of society forced into such tight working relationships, the necessary and inevitable couplings have, well, coupled. “Yep,” Sarah reports, matter-of-factly, slightly tilting her head so as not to have to meet my gaze. “Tom and I have been sleeping together for about two weeks and we included Bec, and then there was this whole sexual jealousy thing, and… uhm… she kind of ran into Subby’s arms, because she’d never had a threesome before. That fucked her up a bit. I think she and Subby are seeing each other now.”

I try hard not to flinch, willing neither to believe (because I don’t want to look foolish) or disbelieve (you don’t get scoops like that every day, and this is the comedy industry, after all) but Sarah cracks before I do, bursting out laughing.

When the phone suddenly rings, Sarah is summoned to it and I take that as the signal that the interview is over. But as I get to the door, Sarah looks up from the phone and says,

“I just told Tom that someone’s called me a sell-out, and he said, ‘that’s fantastic! That’s really exciting! Someone’s noticed!’”

Tom’s advice to Sarah is to “tell them you didn’t sell out for nothing, you sold out for CASH!” Sarah brightens.

“I take it all back,” she says. “When I said that person can stick their head up their arse, I take it all back.”


The following piece constitutes the first time I spoke to Sarah Kendall in a professional capacity, and the last time I let The Sydney CityHub hoodwink me into handing over copy with the promise of payment that never came, sometime around late ’97.

“In every class there is a kid who will do anything,” says Sarah Kendall, “for whom nothing is too embarrassing or undignified.” The young, precocious red-headed Sarah was such a kid, always prepared to perform “just as long as there were at least three people watching.” It was this schoolgirl experience that led to the realisation that she had the potential to be funny.

Sarah honed her talent at university, through faculty revue and Theatresports. Despite her friends telling her how funny she was, it took a “kick up the bum” from established comic Adam Spencer before Sarah was ready to give stand-up a go.

When asked to cite her “numerous” inspirations, Sarah necessarily names big guns like Robyn Williams and ‘her boy’ Billy Crystal. But it was the camaraderie amongst the local Sydney circuit that proved most important. “Peter Berner, Anthony Mir, Tommy Dean, Adam Couper,” she lists. “I love their material; I think they’re brilliant. They’re also nice people.” When you’re starting out, you’re really scared and in need of support, Sarah explains; the encouragement of peers-to-be is important.

The sort of routine that seems to work best is the personal reminiscence. “Kids’ stories get the best responses because the audience can identify with you. As soon as you begin, people seem to relax and get ready to laugh.” One of her popular bits involve a barbie doll. I ask her how it goes. “I’m not going to do it for you now; it will spoil it for people who want to come and see it.”

Sarah loves stand-up because “there’s something appealing” about the autonomy of being the “writer/performer/producer”. Despite having to wear it all yourself when you “fuck up”, the success is far more rewarding. Not that she’s turned her back on ensemble work. “I still love the teamwork of theatresports,” Sarah is quick to reassure, and she’s currently appearing in the Sketchy Sketch Show at the Comedy Hotel. But “stand up,” she says, “is something that I’ll always come back to.”


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Fiona O’Loughlin:
‘What’d I Say About My Mother?’


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Having heard a whisper that Fiona O’Loughlin will be up to something a little later this year, I post this as-yet unpublished interview in anticipation of hyperlinking back to it somewhere down the track. Though unpublished until now, an edit of this was broadcast on ABC NewsRadio late last year, in time for her Sydney Opera House Studio season. You can download an MP3 version of the interview here.

The beauty of Fiona’s comedy is that it is finely observed from her everyday experience, and communicated perfectly for everyone to understand and appreciate. At the moment my favourite Fiona O’Loughlin line is her truism, that ‘if your mother tells you that she doesn’t have a favourite child, then you aren’t her favourite child’. Great stuff.


It’s December and Fiona O’Loughlin is about to open with her show Me of the Never Never at the Sydney Opera House. “It’s exhausting to think I’m forty now,” she says, when I catch up with her for an interview. “Most people at my age would be winding up. I don’t know how much longer I have to keep it up.”

Fiona O’Loughlin is a strange case study of comedy. She’s only really been around for a few years, yet amongst the rookie comics who ‘graduated’ in 2000, Fiona O’Loughlin was the annoying mature-age student who topped the class. Despite (or perhaps, because of) her being a half-generation older than most of her peers, and a mother-of-five to boot, she seemed to have a fully-formed comedic persona when for all intents and purposes she should have been sounding like everyone she’d listened to so far. More importantly, she was very funny. According to Fiona, there’s a reason why. “I’ve had two starts at this,” she confesses. “I started fifteen years ago and I gave it away. This is ‘take two’, really.”

Growing up in a “really small” country town in South Australia, Fiona relocated to Alice Springs as a newlywed. Her “hobby”, she says, was “working in town as a local MC.” It was here that she inadvertently developed her skills. “Someone said to me, ‘you’re actually doing stand-up.’ I was like, ‘oh, really?’”

There were no comedy venues in Alice Springs, so someone suggested to Fiona that she apply for an arts grant in order to go to Melbourne to see some stand-up comedians. She did. “I got a six hundred dollar grant and I caught a McCaffertys bus to Melbourne. When I first saw a stand-up I thought, ‘that’s it! That’s what I want to do’”. Then “housework and having babies” ensued. “I really didn’t understand the industry. I didn’t understand how it worked. I was busy with kids so I’d just kind of nick down to Melbourne and play clubs if I could manage it. I was sometimes only working three times a year.” Ultimately, Fiona “let everything go” in order to get on with life.

However, in 2000 she decided to give stand-up one last shot. Rather than cobbling five minutes together and slowly trying to build it through endless open mic nights, Fiona decided to recruit her actress sister Emily for a full-length show. Combining forty minutes of stand-up with twenty minutes of sketch comedy, Fiona O’Loughlin made her debut at the Adelaide Fringe Festival with a show entitled Fiona And Her Sister (And Some Weird Guy). Although the safety net afforded by the presence of sister Emily allowed Fiona “a really easy way” to ease herself into comedy, her early success is still impressive. When she took the show to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival the following year, it earned her a Barry Award as ‘Best Newcomer’.

“I’ve whinged about it in the past,” Fiona reflects, “Alice Springs being so isolated from Melbourne, where all the action of comedy is. But I think I was luckier, in a way. Not being amongst it, I developed a style that was all my own. I think that that can be really tricky for young, urban comics. If they’re watching too much of one person, they inadvertently start to sound like that person.” Despite being isolated from comedy-rich towns, Fiona exercised her humour muscles with activities like Theatresports. “I call stuff like that ‘netball practice’ for comedy,” she says.

Although Fiona no longer shares a stage with her sister, her comedy is still a family affair: most of her children appear in her material. “They don’t mind because some of the stories are quite appealing,” she says, “quite cute”. However, her eldest son has “drawn a line in the sand” and said enough’s enough. “He’s seventeen and won’t be spoken of on stage. He’s told me that, in no uncertain terms.” And there’s no chance of Fiona cutting a deal with him that makes it worth her while not talking about him. “Go clean up your room or I’ll tell everyone at the Melbourne Comedy Festival” just doesn’t strike fear into the heart of teenagers; if it did, everyone’s mum would be a stand-up comic.

Apart from the O’Loughlins’ living room, there still aren’t many comedy venues in Alice Springs. Even if there were, you’d be lucky to catch Fiona performing in one. “I’m terrified of working locally,” she confesses. “With stand-up, you’re taking a hell of a risk every time you walk onto a stage. I only do a couple of gigs here a year and I’m in a foetal position ten minutes before I begin. What if I stuff it up? My kids’ teachers are in the audience; so is the lady from the shop…”

Such performance anxiety in front of the home crowd is a hurdle all successful comics leap. Fiona has another performance-related problem, however. She is forever running out of time. “I’m not telling jokes, I’m telling stories,” she explains. “It’s like being at a dinner party with the audience. I think, ‘oh, I really want to tell you this one.’ But I usually have an hour on stage, so I’ve got to delete as I go.” It’s difficult to know when the material’s been truncated: you’re usually laughing too hard to be aware that something may be missing. Fiona’s long-term solution is to commit her best stories, in their glorious entirety, to posterity, in the form of a book. “It’s just a memoir,” she says, “but what I’m loving about it is that I have all the time in the world. I can tell every story that I want to tell.” As the kids are all at school, Fiona spends her mornings “typing away” at her leisure.

As for her stage work, each show consists of bits of paper upon which she’s scribbled down ideas during the preceding year. “This sounds so shocking,” she admits, “or lazy! But I can’t work without the pressure of it being last minute. I get all those bits of paper, generally the night before I open, and string it all together.” A strange way to work, but, surprisingly, not a lot of restructuring has to take place after opening night. Mostly, Fiona just has to “tweak it a little bit”, because her stories have already been road-tested on friends and family. “They don’t know that I’m trying stuff out,” she says, “it’s just me telling stories over a beer.”

That Fiona goes out knowing everything works is a good thing, particularly in December in Sydney, when most shows are a dry run for the Adelaide Fringe Festival, where everything is gotten absolutely right in time for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. However, Fiona insists that we’ve nothing to fear – she’s doing it “the opposite way around” this time. “I wrote this show for the last Melbourne Comedy Festival, even though it’s got a different title. This is putting it to bed, really; it’s its last hurrah. Then I’ve got to write another one for the Adelaide Fringe next year.”


Tara Moss: Facing the Fear

I’m gonna use the wedding of model and author Tara Moss, which took place March 20 2004, as an excuse to post an interview I did with her some years ago.

When I was ‘the sole dedicated comedy journalist in Australia’ – a description coined and used by comedians rather than one I devised and applied to myself – I was frequently called upon to promote Theatresports. In case you don’t know, Theatresports is essentially a series of games designed to keep actors’ improvisation muscles supple, and, ideally, should be a means to an end. However, for most Theatresports practitioners, it is an end unto itself, a kind of cult practiced by zealous fundamentalists. Every few months there is a new season with a few variations to make it different enough from the last season so as (they imagine) to be interesting to the innocent by-stander. However, by far the most exciting night for the not-so-devout is the annual ‘Celebrity Theatresports’ match, often involving genuinely famous-ish people who have never played Theatresport before, as well as people who used to play long before they were famous (and, more often than not, who can’t quite understand how they could have gotten roped into it again).

Having been asked to write a story to promote the Celebrity Theatresports match taking place May 12 2001, I cast my eye over the press release and made a simple demand: I’d write yet another story on Theatresports only on the condition that I choose the ‘celebrity’ to base the story around, and that it be Tara Moss.

I figured that I get to occupy the same rarefied atmosphere as curvaceous blonde models so infrequently that actually getting to talk to one was ample reward – particularly when writing for the sheer love it, rather than for money. (The article was for one of those free and thus exploitative ‘street’ publications that don’t pay contributors.) The publicist of this particular Theatresports event promised to check with Moss as to her availability. And within no time at all, Tara sent me an e-mail.

At the time I had a full-time publications job that, in addition to whatever other perks it offered, subsidised the writing I used to do for said free and exploitative ‘street’ publications. Thus, things like doing interviews, handing them in on time and so on were usually postponed so as to prevent them encroaching upon the day job. However, Tara Moss's e-mail informed me that she’d only be available for half an hour in two hours’ time because she had to spend the rest of her week finishing the final draft of her next novel. Clearly, there was no further discussion to enter into except “thank you; I’ll be the Allen Guinsburg-alike with the big beard and glasses”.

“Who is Allen Guinsburg?” Tara wanted to know in her next e-mail, seconds later. I so hope I wasn’t arrogant and condescending when I replied something like “Jewish beat poet who wrote Howl.” Yet, in hindsight, I can’t imagine that I behaved any different to the way Sam Seaborn behaves in that Season Two episode of The West Wing – the one in which the gorgeous blonde Republican, Ainsley Hayes, whom everyone has already dismissed on the strength of her looks and her job, proceeds to kick Sam’s butt all over the place on national television. In other words, typical ‘pride before the fall’ behaviour. “Oh, you mean Alan Ginsberg,” Tara’s next e-mail informed me. Despite the fact that Tara Moss is originally of Canadian extraction (and nowadays a naturalised Aussie!) whenever I remember that e-mail, I hear it in Ainsley Hayes’s ‘Valley Girl’ accent. I continue to remind myself, quite aptly, never, ever to judge a book by its cover.

In the couple of hours I had before the interview, I checked out Tara Moss’s homepage. A good thing, too. In addition to a photo gallery, it offered as samples of her work a couple of short stories – Psycho Magnet and Know Your ABCs – which meant that, in addition to going in somewhat less than utterly arrogant, I could go in somewhat less than utterly ignorant. Despite – or rather, irrespective of – being exceptionally beautiful, Tara Moss is a great writer. I’m happy to say I learnt some valuable lessons about myself, my prejudices and my fears, through the process of meeting and interviewing her. For the sake of balance, and because this article tends to draw accusations of ‘going in soft’, I will only add, three years later, as Tara Moss prepares to launch her books in various non English-speaking countries around the world, that she isn’t as talented a Theatresports player as she is a writer, model, MC, ambassador etc. And yet she approached it, as she does all her activities, with great gusto.

This story first appeared in Revolver in May 2001.


Facing the Fear

“I’m not afraid to make an ass of myself,” declares the rather gorgeous Tara Moss. “I’ve already moved beyond that idea of wanting to be perfect in front of people. It means nothing to me.”

The erstwhile model turned author, public speaker, light entertainment personality, MC, journalist and, most recently, celebrity Theatresports player, would have a hard time appearing as anything other than perfect before most people. That is perhaps why, when she first dared span the cross-cultural divide from catwalk to – well, virtually every other facet of the media – there was the danger of her being lumped in the same category as every soapie star who thinks it is high time to release a CD. What makes them think that they can just go ahead and do it? (See below for the answer.)

“Nobody believed I could write,” Tara admits. “They had no reason to because no-one had ever read my work.” That changed after Tara won first prize in the 1998 ‘Scarlet Stiletto Young Writer’s Competition’ with the story Psycho Magnet. Having loved “doing this thing called writing,” Tara explains that she was excited that “suddenly somebody else was acknowledging I might be good at it.” At the time, Moss was already three-quarters of the way through a novel. “I was writing it in my spare time, for me,” she says, “and no-one knew about it.” Before long five publishing houses were engaged in the bidding war that led to the 1999 publication of Fetish. It became a best seller. “This is dream-world stuff,” Tara confesses. “It just blew me out of the water.”

No surprises really, though. Prior to her modeling career, Tara was a prolific schoolgirl author. In addition to ‘novelettes’ written at age ten, Tara used to amuse classmates with horror stories inspired by Stephen King novels. Apparently, her friends looked forward to reading of their own “grizzly demise”. “They would suggest things,” Moss fondly recalls: “‘Run me over with the demonic car…’” This “childhood morbidity” still informs Moss’s writing; both Fetish and its soon-to-be-published sequel Split are serial killer whodunits that, as it happens, revolve around a supermodel psycho magnet. “It’s in our nature to want to get freaked out, to want to get scared by something,” Tara reasons. “I like to provide that through a novel.”

Moss did a staggering amount of research for Fetish: visiting the FBI Academy, reading case studies, interviewing police officers, and even befriending the world’s foremost forensic psychologist. “There are endless stories about what goes on,” she says. “Some of it is very disturbing, but some of it makes for compelling stories. I try to filter that into what I’m doing, both as a cautionary tale, and as an entertaining read.”

Moss also writes articles, having earned a Diploma in Journalism and joined various Writers’ Associations. “I find life fascinating,” she says, “and as a journalist you can go out and research life and write about it.” Tara’s other great love is public speaking, the “direct opposite” to writing. Working to a live audience, she says, is much more exhilarating than working to a moving camera. That she initially found the audience terrifying is precisely the reason why Tara pursued that vocation. “I wanted to conquer the fear,” she says.

Conquering fear is a constant theme in Moss’s work and she traces it back to her childhood. One of the books Tara loved as a child is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. “The important part about that book,” she explains, “is that the child befriended the monsters and then it was okay. First they were growling and scary, and the next thing you know he’s riding them around and having a great time.” Tara’s books are about “befriending darkness” and controlling it. “By putting it in my book, I control the ending. I give it a logic and I bring resolution.” For Tara it is important to “embrace the fear: Embrace it and learn to love it because then you become truly free.”

It is an interesting paradox that a person who has spent much of her life under bright lights and intense scrutiny should seek out darkness and fear in order to conquer it and hence be free. That she does so by writing stories and novels that, thus far, have featured main characters sharing her physical attributes and interests is an observation over which some other armchair (forensic) psychologist may ruminate. More important now is Moss’s involvement with Theatresports, for which she has undergone training both here and in Canada (place of origin of both Tara Moss and Theatresports). Thus far Tara has only performed in front of fellow students. However, her love of live audiences and her need to conquer fear has her primed for stage debut.

Having spent ten years being perceived “one-dimensionally on a page,” always having to be perfect to the point where any perceived blemish must be airbrushed out, Theatresports offers Tara the perfect antidote. “You’re out there, you’re naked, you’ve got nothing to go on,” she explains. “You’re just going ‘mold me, shape me, let’s have fun, tell me what we’re doing and I’ll get going.’ It’s fun and it’s freeing.” Although she takes life seriously, Tara’s approaches herself with a different attitude. “You’re just one little person on this planet for some brief little time, so just go out and enjoy it and have some fun.”

Postscript: The answer to ‘What makes them think that they can just go ahead and do it (release CDs, become authors, etc)?’ is irrelevant. A better question is ‘What makes you think you can’t?’ It’s easy. If you don’t believe me see for yourself when the likes of Tara Moss, Rove McManus, Peter Berner, Steve Bastoni, Adam Spencer, Wil Anderson and Julia Zemiro, to name but several, partake in Celebrity Theatresports at the Enmore Theatre, Saturday 12th May.