Posted by Thom Smyth, August 23rd, 2013
Peter O’Brien is well known for his roles in Australian TV dramas – Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, White Collar Blue (Silver Logie 2003), The Flying Doctors, Underbelly and The Bill, to name a few. Next month he is heading to Perth to perform in the stage adaptation of Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy – a co-production by Barking Gecko Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company. Set in South Australia, Storm Boy follows a young boy’s friendship with an orphaned pelican. It opens on 21 September at the Heath Ledger Theatre at the State Theatre Centre of WA.
Interview: Rebecca Baumann (RB) and Peter O’Brien (PO)
This is an edited transcript of a phone conversation.
RB: Over the year’s you’ve been a main feature in numerous well-known TV dramas. What drew you to be involved in an Australian stage show such as Storm Boy?
PO: I like the story because it deals with genuine issues that occur in people’s lives, and doesn’t shy away from dealing with the reality of these things. It doesn’t gloss over it for the sake of being aimed at children. We access this story through the eyes of a child really, but it deals with genuine, adult contemporary emotions, and it doesn’t draw an easy conclusion, and that’s what I liked about it. That’s what the book did, that’s what the film to a certain extent did, and that’s what this does. In many ways the play does it more than the film, and I think that’s good, and that’s what drew me to it.
RB: What can you tell us about your character of ‘Hideaway Tom’ in the show?
PO: Well it kind of says it all – ‘Hideaway Tom’ [laughs] – he’s not ‘Revealing Jack’, he’s Hideaway Tom. Look, he’s a man, there are some atypical male qualities about him you know, he’s withdrawn, he doesn’t handle grief particularly well, he has a hard time dealing with it, pushing people away, and as a consequence I suppose has a blinkered view of life. Now, what he does, some males choose to ignore I suppose, is to really deal with these things. He withdraws, and he withdraws from emotionally facing himself, in having to process a lot of things. But also it saves having to deal with the grief that a child has experienced, so he removes himself to an environment where he doesn’t have to confront with that. Ultimately, selfishly, (but that certainly isn’t his intention, at all), it is to deal with the decision that he made, because he thinks it is the best thing to do at the time, and through circumstances he becomes-he awakens to the fact that this is not the right thing to do.
RB: Storm Boy features all male characters, each dealing with their own grief and loss. How do you feel men deal with grief in Australia today?
PO: Better than what we used to, but look…I don’t think men have that problem anymore, but I still think that, it is sometimes perceived as a show of weakness, and I think that’s a very very naïve… and it’s not necessarily to do with the fact the person doesn’t want to do that, it’s the fear of how they would be perceived by their peers, that affects that. And that’s really naïve because ultimately, I think I have more respect for people who can show how they feel, then try to hide it. If we were all impassioned a little bit more with those things the world would be a better place.
RB: What can Perth audiences expect from the show?
PO: There’s a lot of humour in it, and certainly emotions. It’s a story which doesn’t stop from the moment the show starts, you go through it – you can’t hop off it at all. And it’s racing towards an inevitability I suppose, and you get that sense right from the start.
The puppets are amazing in it, as well, they are very entertaining, they’re also genuine characters in the show, and that’s great. They are wonderful, people fall in love with them. You know there are just really good characters that are in it, across the board, and that emotionally engages. You feel you want them to progress by the end, which is good.
RB: Do you have any pre-show rituals before you get on stage?
PO: No, not really… You’ve got to be ready for setup, and once it starts you’ve got to change things, fix things up as they go, as seamlessly as possible. No rituals, we get together, sometimes you run lines, sometimes we do a vocal warm-up, just depending on how much time there is. There’s no special ritual really, we just talk about the show, and what we have to work on, focus on, and that’s it.
RB: What has the collaboration been like between Barking Gecko and Sydney Theatre Company?
PO: From my point of view, it seems to be really good. I’d suppose you’d have to ask the respective companies, but from my end it’s been great. Both of them have been really willing to help, financially, and artistically which has been great.
You know, it’s a show which they both really support – I was amazed that no one had touched this before, but I can see what people shied away from, which may have been as I said, the coast, the outdoor setting and real pelicans, but now seeing as you can address those pretty easily, so as soon as you do that you think ‘why haven’t they done this before?’ And everyone was really excited to see it happen.
RB: What is life like as an independent performer right now?
PO: Well for me, it’s fits and starts at the moment. Honestly, the more mobile you are, the more you can move around, the better chance you have I think …but yeah, that’s the only way I can really describe it. The more mobile you are, the better you can be, the greater your opportunities are.
RB: Do you have any tips for WA based independents wanting a career in the performing arts?
PO: If there’s work, you go for it- you just have to be able to be mobile. Because of various things, some places tend to run hot at times with arts productions, and some places don’t. It’s obviously always great if you can stay in your home state and work, and if you’ve got it going, and if you can do it, do it! But for the majority of people I know at least, they just have to be really mobile.
RB: What has made you stay in this industry? What drives you to keep performing?
PO: I think it fundamentally comes from a need to be creative. There’s no logical reason!
RB: What’s the most challenging role you’ve played in your career?
PO: They all offer different challenges, but I did a play years ago, where I had to play a women, and I had to convince the audience that I was. And that from a craft sense… that was really challenging. But then this one [Storm Boy], there is such a massive responsibility in being a parent, and in being something for the story to rally against, and ultimately change. And the script is really sparse, there’s not a lot of dialogue, so it’s finding those trigger points and being able to move on them as seamlessly and quickly as possible. And that has its challenges….But apart from that, I don’t know, there’s always challenges.
RB: Have you got any more stage shows coming up?
PO: Not that I know of at the moment. I actually don’t know what I’m doing next, but I would imagine that this show will probably have a life after this season somewhere. I hope to be involved with that somewhere….but it’s not up to me!
State Theatre Centre of Western Australia
21 September – 5 October 2013
Book at Ticketek