Act One

 

When I was 14 I wanted to be an actor. When I was 7 I wanted to be an actor-slash-singer, but somewhere along the way (*appalling rendition of Somewhere Out There from An American Tail at Goondiwindi Eisteddfod circa 1998) I lost my voice. Trouble was, in my town there were few outlets to perform. I briefly attended a drama class outside school hours and though I loved my teacher, Auntie Jane, her advice never quite extended beyond “Project your voice, Peter! Let your words hit the wall”. In fact, she said this so much it became something of a catchphrase  – her very own “Sing out, Louise!”. Two long St George summers passed and Jane was gone too and as much as I wanted to believe shouting at walls would make me the next Pacino, I sought something more intensive. In mid-2003, a pamphlet arrived at our school announcing The National Institute of Dramatic Arts were running short courses on the Gold Coast during the September school holidays. I applied for a week-long short course in Introduction to Screen Acting, already mastering stage work, after performing in three whole sketches, including one at a church function. I was set.

Having spent most school holidays there, I thought I was pretty familiar with the Gold Coast. I’d seen all the big sights – Australia Fair Birch, Carroll & Coyle, the Southport Aquatic Centre, the Hungry Jacks outside Australia Fair Birch, Carroll & Coyle – however the short course was held at a private school on a side of town I’d never been before. The school was easily the most impressive place I’d witnessed up close – sandstone buildings that looked grander than our Shire Council headquarters, an oval with lush, green grass, a theatre with an actual stage instead of just a corner with an off-cut of grey carpet placed atop milk crates. The school canteen was catering the short course and I’d been sent a special form asking if I had any special dietary requirements. At St George SHS if you were vegetarian it meant you ordered a sausage roll and just picked at the pastry. It was my dream school. It was like a high school out of an American film, which could only mean two things – I was either going to have the time of my life or I was going to be covered in pig’s blood and murder everyone with my eyes.

I filed into the room with an A4 sheet stuck to the door – “NIDA- Introduction to Screen Acting”. Most of my classmates were already inside, casually chatting, eyes darting toward the door when anyone new pushed their way in. I found a spare chair near the window and tried to look confident in a way that said “I have friends, they just aren’t here right now”. How did people do that before the iPhone? How did people busy themselves in those awkward, tense moments to appear nonchalant? I tried to configure a pose, appearing deep in thought when my mind was completely vacant – just like James Franco does in his films and also in his real life. ‘The Thinker’ was soon broken by the arrival of our teacher and our first instruction was to get into groups of two and perform an improvised scene that would introduce us to the group. Not a beat had gone by and I looked around only to notice everyone had already found partners. How did that happen? Sure, some seemed like old friends already but others must have just grabbed the wrist of whoever was closest, fearing they’d be the odd number. The odd number sitting like a statue near the window. Luckily I was paired with a late arrival – a shy girl named Emma who smiled at me in a way that said she was just as nervous as I was. It put me at ease. For our scene Emma and I chose to do a chat show segment in which I insulted her and she acted offended. It was a fortunate coincidence that I’d been cosplaying the role of mean smart-arse for 14 years prior. Lumps in our throats, we got up and killed it. Sort-of. People actually laughed at our gags. Emma told the class she wanted to win an Oscar. I also wanted to win an Oscar. I sat down and Emma told me I was funny – “just like Rove!”.

Introductions took up our entire first period and I was starting to wonder if NIDA actually had anything else planned for us. Didn’t they know what to do with a group of young actors when they couldn’t tell them to take off their clothes? In any case, I wanted it to continue for as long as possible. Lunch was approaching and it filled me with anxiety. Where would I sit? Was the library even open and, if so, would they allow me to eat an egg and lettuce sandwich in there while reading the Courier Mail classifieds? The bell rang and I looked across the room to find Emma, who’d already been claimed by a group of three, fashion-forward girls. They looked like the cast of Sex and the City and I looked like I was in the cast of a show that HBO never picked up because the test audience fell asleep during the first screening. Maybe I could find a toilet stall to have lunch in? I knew the school would have awesome toilets. Emma eventually caught my eye and as I prepared to look away, she waved me over. “Come have lunch with us!” she said. The girls nodded and so we all looked for a shady knoll. “You were really funny,” one turned and said. “Like Rove!”

The girls weren’t Heather clones. They we’re all different shapes and sizes, but when arranged just right, formed a tight, unbreakable Tetris block. Toni was tall and wore a faded denim Kangol, with one long, chestnut braid hanging out the back. Quiet and wise, she was like the mother of the group. And Mama liked her City Beach. Lish, on the other hand, was Toni’s offsider, best friend and, for all intents and purposes, could have played her rebellious teenage daughter in a telemovie should the opportunity arise during the course of the week. Lish was short in stature but had huge white teeth permanently in a grin, eyes that blinked behind mascara and took all her style cues from Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes and hey, who didn’t? Bigger than the rest of the girls but never less confident, Mel had chemically-straight jet black hair and long jelly nails. She was older than the rest of us but boasted that she was technically still a virgin, having only allowed an anonymous young man to make love to her cleavage at a party. We looked up to her. Emma, my rescuer, was the youngest and she had blonde hair that she capped with a fuzzy pink felt beret. She’d modelled in a Big W catalogue but had always thought of herself more as an actress. Her acting hero was Kirsten Dunst and her favourite film was a sexy dull Dunst-vehicle called Crazy/Beautiful. Emma signed her name with the tag “Almost Famous”. Being famous was very important to us all. In a few days time we’d all buy disposable cameras and pose in front of a fountain near the entrance of the school, recreating a scene from ‘90s classic Clueless. It was very, very cool and so were we.

When we weren’t taking photos (and it did take up a lot of our time, spending days winding that little plastic wheel to find the next print) we were doing what every group of young teens do – making fun of everyone who wasn’t us quiet enough so none of them would hear. Our teacher earned our ire straight away. We called him Bitch Tits, because he had muscular pectorals. Achieving to be both mildly homophobic and sexist at the same time, before you dob me in to Jezebel please consider the nickname was a group effort, we were all fourteen years old at the time and therefore legally horrendous and I would call him by his real name in this story, if I only I could remember what it was. Bitch Tits, aside from his upper body bag of meat flaunted daily in low-slung v-necks and patterned dress shirts with liberally loosened buttons, was mid-to-late thirties with thick black-rimmed glasses and dirty blonde hair desperately clinging on against the natural order of things. He spoke with a lisp and was nasal, but each word somehow formed perfectly in the air, crisp and clear as it fell upon us. He’d found the most camp way to be intimidating and demanded respect. Are you imagining Christoph Waltz in a remake of La Cage Aux Folles? Good, keep with it. Bitch Tits spoke to us not like children, but as peers. He’d never talk about his personal life though. It wasn’t uncommon – he was a teacher after all and we’d only be spending five days together so what was the point? Two of the girls saw him one night after class. They were late night shopping at Pacific Fair when they noticed him in Myer, picking through some more low-cut floral dress shirts and possibly surgically removing the top buttons. “So anyways, we saw him like...shopping for shirts! Can you believe that? And we were like ‘Hey sir!’ and he just like, froze and looked at us.” “And then what happened?” I asked. “Oh, we just like, went back shopping or some shit.” We weren’t actors. We were storytellers.

But Bitch Tits really got our good side. Most of the hate-fire was reserved for a classmate - Katrina. Katrina was beautiful and talented and quiet and therefore, quite obviously a moll and fair up-herself. She wore all black and her long blonde hair tied up in a neat ponytail. I’d never seen someone so effortlessly graceful. I imagined she woke up like that. Not in a normal bed like the rest of us peasants, but in a bed on the set of a Revlon commercial. In class, she’d sit, absorbed by all the wisdom Bitch Tits was willing to impart. She’d occasionally lose eye contact, if only to grab an HB pencil and a pair of half-glasses from her bag to take notes. Was this girl for real? Katrina’s only friend was a Lindsay Lohan type, all freckles and sass and raspy-voiced, right before Herbie got Fully Loaded. We didn’t learn her name and we certainly didn’t mess with her. She had the crazy Musical Theatre eyes.

In  case you were wondering, there were three boys in my course. There was the tiny, whisper of a boy who, on the first day, introduced himself as Darth Vader and was never heard from again. The was another named Daniel who attended a local Gold Coast high school and was shy and very, very talented in an understated way and therefore may as well have been a part of the furniture, such was he noticed. And then there was me - Rove.

As the week rolled on I shrugged off “comic acting” – I mean, how degrading – and I threw myself into some intense character work. In an improvisation session that lasted one and a half hours, I portrayed Sam from the popular drama, I Am Sam. In what can only be described as an incredibly sensitive performance, I rocked on the spot and made spider shapes with my hands and repeated lines and re-arranged markers on a desk. I bonded with the girl who was doing her interpretation of Juliette Lewis from The Other Sister. More students switched their act halfway through to chew on more nuanced mentally-challenged roles. It was like that film The Idiots, with less urinal assistance and penetration. I also filmed a scene from American Beauty. I was grateful to receive the role of Plastic Bag Weirdo but was concerned that the script excerpt we’d been given didn’t make any sense. Years later, when I watched the actual film all the way through, I discovered Bitch Tits had forgotten to photocopy an entire page of dialogue. When I brought up my confusion at the time he’d simply mumble “Use it!” or “We’ve only got five minutes.” He’s still the best director I ever had. Oh, and I also played one of the male leads in Looking for Alibrandi. Not the sensitive, suicidal Matthew Newton role, but the tough guy, love interest role. I was so typecast.

By the second last day of camp I started to think about what returning to my real life, my real school would be like. I’d never made friends outside my own school before. Most of my friends had been friends since birth, stuck with me, for better or for worse. I’d never felt “chosen” before. And why had I been? I began to second-guess it all. Had I been their prop – a mere coat stand for pleather jackets and denim kangols? Was I there as the personal photographer, chronicling each day’s outfit like an amateur Bill Cunningham? Or had I been used, just as I had been by friends in primary school, to come up with creative insults to hurl at the unsuspecting and the undeserving? Of course, it was all terribly unfair. These girls didn’t look like Heathers because they weren’t Heathers and though I couldn’t accept it at the time, I could be every bit as toxic as them. The American film location we all inhabited didn’t make them the mean girls of Mean Girls. They were good at school and charming and funny. They had part-time jobs and families and lives played out off-screen. And sure, like any fourteen year old, regardless of gender, they were a little vain, but it was the much less devastating pre-Instagram vanity of the early noughties. And perhaps what I liked about them most is they liked me. For five days I didn’t feel so alone. I knew they weren’t playthings, Bratz dolls come to life. They were real humans, still figuring it all out – just like me, Rove. It was a great comfort. I knew those girls weren’t hanging out with me because they felt sorry for me or as a favour to my parents. I knew they were hanging out with me because they didn’t feel threatened by me sexually.

On a Friday of teary goodbyes we decided to keep in contact forever and we did for three months over MSN chat and boy, did it seem like forever. Outside of that NIDA bubble we didn’t seem to have all that much in common. Emma was always talking about the beach (“That place? Oh, I don’t like taking my shirt off.”) and Toni had actual drama, with actual family and friends (“Oh, he’s sick? That’s too bad. Hey! I transcribed the words of one of the Alex Trebek SNL sketches!”). I saw Lish and Mel just one more time, over the summer holidays of ’03 and we had a blast (I minded their miniature inflatable backpacks while they hit on 19 year olds in Cavill Ave).

Before we left camp though, Bitch Tits asked if we wanted copies of our scenes for our “show reels”. Sure, I said. Who knows when Home and Away might decide to cast a pale, introverted boy with a solid one-pack? Something happened when I finally got my hands on my bulky VHS reel and pressed play. I didn’t like what I saw. I didn’t like my voice or the way I held my face or the way I walked as an actor. It was a different feeling from those glamorous film stars who can just never watch themselves on screen. I was genuinely embarrassed. You know that moment in which you discover you aren’t half as good at something as you thought you were? For me it mostly happened in primary school, on football ovals and in a compulsory Line Dancing class. I just wasn’t very good. I didn’t want to humiliate myself. And acting - I couldn’t put my finger on it but there was just something about pretending to be someone else that seemed so fake. And I really did prefer being good at things. I once saw a grown man playing a fence post in an amateur production of The Wizard of Oz at Beenleigh Theatre. Continue acting and there was my future. A picket, far from pro-am. I wanted to be a singer-slash-actor, but ended up being a nothing-slash-nothing. It’s tough when you realise that you have a passion for something but don’t have the talent to support. I was lucky that my moment came early, at my grandparents house staring into a TV screen and not on the set of Australian Idol staring into Kyle Sandilands' bloated, joyless face.

When I returned to school I pasted all my photos of my newfound drama buddies on the cover of my school diary. It was a message to my school friends – “If I lived on the north coast of New South Wales, I’d be hanging around with these attractive people who GET ME, not you losers”. They didn’t seem too bothered. And that was fine. I’d returned to a place where nobody really gave a toss about drama. There was no regional theatre, no real measure of good or bad. And in that time and in that space, I could shine for just a few years more.