Dreaming Up The Vision: Interview with Leah Purcell, 11th October 2010 – LifeMusicMedia Interviews

Dreaming Up The Vision

Actor/Director Leah Purcell talks to Life Music Media about character, coming home, and the joy of performing in The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table.

In 2008 actress Leah Purcell was honoured with Australian theatre’s highest recognition the Helpmann Award (Australia’s version of the Tony Award) for her role in Wesley Enoch’s The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table. Produced in Sydney as a Hothouse Theatre/Griffin Theatre Company production and directed by Marion Potts, the play was critically acclaimed, making its mark as an important piece of contemporary Australian theatre. Now a new production, presented by QPAC and staged by Purcell’s Bungabura Productions, brings this quintessentially Queensland story home.

While deep into the plays rehearsal period, the actress, who is also directing this version, took time to answer some questions for Pepa Wolfe.

What is the play about?
Well there’re two story lines. There’s the history of the table – it was my Great-great Grandmother’s birth tree. When settlement happened on this island they cut down that birth tree and turned it into a table. As a little girl she followed the table and got a job as a cook in the house where the table ended up. And throughout the lifetimes the table has been passed down…

…To the present day story about my character Annie and her estranged son Nathan. They’ve been estranged for 25 years. She had him when she was 13 and she left because of the talk around the incident where she fell pregnant, and the lies around that. [Annie’s] mother Faith passes away, which brings Nathan and Annie back together. The surface story is to argue and discuss who gets the table, but though that discussion we learn more about each individual character.

You are directing the production this time. Is it tricky wearing both caps – actor and director, and how does this differ from directing your own material?
Not so much tricky – it’s bloody tiring. I’m glad that I’ve done a five week rehearsal. I do have a wonderful Assistant Director in Travis Dowling, and he’s been great. He’s been my third eye. And [he’s] technically savvy, in regards to using a camera to record what we do so that I can take it home at night. Or, if we’re doing a particular scene, he records it and we view it there on the spot. So that’s actually been a really really great blessing to have Trav there.

And directing my own material… well, there’s no real difference. You go through the same process whether it’s your own material or it’s new material because you have to separate yourself from your own stuff so that you get the truth out of what’s been written. You should question yourself, you know? I don’t assume to know everything. If other creatives have got some input or some questions or some suggestions, you gotta listen, because it comes from another person’s perspective, and it might add to yours. So yeah, for me it’s the same process whether it’s my own stuff or other people’s. I just dream up the vision.

Your character Annie is so visceral. Have you discovered anything new about her this second time around – anything surprising?
I probably understand her a lot more. You always do when you’ve got a second chance at something. With this production, we’ve delved and dived a lot deeper into the script, and understanding the stories. I guess as an indigenous director, connecting more personally with this indigenous story, that has allowed us to go a lot lot deeper, and find meaning within everything we say. You know, it’s been, oh gosh… what, three years since we last done it. So in that time, I guess, everyone matures.

Annie’s very raw to the bone. She’s a straight talker. She’s gusty, she’s ballsy. I think what’s great about Wesley’s story is that this is a universal story. Yes, it’s indigenous actors. Yes, it’s an indigenous writer, indigenous director, indigenous independent production company that’s putting this on in conjunction with QPAC, but it’s a universal story. Everyone has an Annie in their family. She’s either an auntie Annie or Mum Annie, but everyone can relate to it. And if anyone’s experienced anyone passing away, and material possessions have been left, there’s always a discussion to be had around if there’s no wills and so forth left behind.

And what’s great about this play is although it’s a drama it’s extremely, extremely funny. And I think that’s what’s appealing. A lot of people think they’re coming to get something serious, but it’s actually quite funny. And [it’s] very moving emotionally.

So no, nothing surprising this time [except] maybe that I’m more relaxed, I think, which has been really nice to find a lot more light and shade in her. So that’s been cool.

Brisbane audiences last saw you as Regan in Bell Shakespeare’s production of King Lear, quite a world away from Annie and Cookie’s Table. Do you thrive on the contrasts, and how does your last performance inform the next one?
Do I thrive on the contrast? Absolutely! Gosh, acting can get so boring. To be put to do the same role over and over, you know? Bless! Some actors are put in that situation. But I’m very lucky. Some of my characters have been very similar, but mate, the contrast from Regan to Annie is two ends of the scale. So that’s awesome, to get to be able to go from that, and come in to this next one.

[How] does my last performance inform the next one? Probably the fitness of what you go through, through the rehearsal process to get performance fitness. In the last show, if you’re doing back to back shows, it can really help with stamina, basically. And that you’re in that mindset of learning lines and retaining what you need to do, and [also] muscle memory in your body.

Tell us a bit about the language in this play and the style of writer Wesley Enoch.
If you mean ‘language’ as in ‘all the swear words’, yeah, it’s pretty colourful. Wesley doesn’t pull any punches. It’s pretty, pretty colourful. But that’s Annie. It’s not in there to be crude or rude, it’s just who she is. It’s her character. It’s part of her.

I like Wesley’s style of writing in this one. I think it’s some of his best writing. It’s really raw. And it’s real. It’s real. And that’s why I guess I can relate to it, because I’m an actor that can sniff out truth. And I run off instincts, so to have this script be as it is with the writing… Yeah, it’s pretty deadly. It’s pretty deadly. And especially for me, because I can relate to it. [As can] Roxy and Nathan. I guess that’s probably where [this play] differs a little bit, you know, it’s got that Black Pepper – that’s what I call it. And it is peppered through the language, there’s that indigenous flavour.

What’s your favourite line from the play?
Ha ha! I’ve got two.

Cunts. Nothin’ but right and right out cunts.

And the second one is, and it’s really awesome, and it says:

You need to make the story of your future, not let the story of the past lead you.

And I think that is really great. I think you’ve gotta have your stories of your past so you know where you’ve come from but you can’t let them dictate where you’re going. So if you’ve had a hard life or if your parents have had a hard life it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have one. It’s about creating your story for the future. And I reckon that’s pretty awesome. If we all have an opportunity to write how we want our future to be, it might help some of us to achieve some things more.

Cookie’s Table is set in Queensland. What does it mean both to you personally and to the production overall, to see it staged at QPAC?
Oh, it’s just great to come home and tell a Queensland story. I reckon everyone ought to be able to relate to this. And you feel pretty special that it’s a Queensland writer’s, we’re all Queensland actors –except for Nathan, he’s from Darwin, Queensland production house, and to be coming home and doing it with QPAC is pretty awesome. And we’ve got my company; BUNGABURA Productions have a great relationship with QPAC.

It’s pretty special to come back and do it at the Cremorne. I love performing in the Cremorne. We’re actually re-figuring the space, so that it’s really, really intimate. We’ve taken away the stage, sitting the set on the floor. We’ve got seatings on the side and it’s so close you can almost feel… If you don’t move your legs I’ll be sitting in your lap, put it that way.

Are you the type that gets a rush from performing and finds it difficult to switch off afterwards, or do you like to chill after shows?
I always get a rush from performing. You have to have that rush, otherwise you can’t go out there night after night, show after show, and do it. Especially with this play, it’s extremely emotional. We come in at a very high point emotionally and we continue to climb throughout this piece. So, you know, that’s what performing is about. If you haven’t got the rush then you retire.

Do I find it difficult to switch off? Not anymore. I’ve been doing it for 20 years so I do know how to turn off, and you know, to just sort of find myself. I can’t even chill out. Because you are working at such a high level of energy and emotion your adrenaline drops and mate, you just gotta go to bed. ‘Cause that’s the kind of show it is. It’s tough on us as an actor, but it’s a real joy, a pleasure and a privilege to perform in.

What are you hoping audiences take away from this experience?
Well, when I go to the theatre I want to be moved. I want to be emotionally engaged. I wanna experience something. I wanna go home and think about the story that I’ve just seen. A week down the track I wanna go, “Wow, that stuff is still moving me”, you know? And that’s what plays should be about. It should make you subconsciously and consciously think about that experience and why you’ve felt the way you do. So, I hope that people, if anyone’s experienced anything where families, parents have died, and there’ve been arguments over materialistic things, that maybe they might find some answers in this play. But, at the end of the day, as an actor in this, I just want my audience to be moved.

Such a versatile artist across many mediums, what is next for Leah Purcell?
I’ve been working on a feature film now for quite some years and I really wanna get moving on that. I’ve been writing it for a while, so at the end of this, I wanna take some time off and finish that. I’m a writer/director and acting, in that one. I wanna get crackin’ and bring it to fruition.

A lot more directing. I really enjoy that, whether it’s for television or theatre. And I do have some gigs with STC [Sydney Theatre Company] in Sydney directing. And I also have some acting gigs with them for next year, and Belvoir Street [Theatre].

So Leah Purcell will still be [working] across many mediums. I just keep doing what I’m doing mate, you know? I’ll direct, I’ll write, I’ll act. And spend some time with my grandson, who’s two. And I’m expecting another little prince, um… late this year or early next year. So I’m gonna have a little bit of Nana time in there as well.

The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table opens at the Cremorne theatre, QPAC on October 15th and runs until October 30th.

For more information and to book tickets head to www.qtix.com.au

by Pepa Wolfe

The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table @ QPAC, Brisbane 14-30 October 2010 – [Show details]

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