Night Writes sits down with writer and director Cassie Hamilton and cast members Carl Gregory, Anna Lambert, and Stephanie Priest to discuss their new production Playing Face with Barefoot Theatre.
What made you want to get involved with this production?
Cassie Hamilton: I feel like Playing Face has been teetering around the edge of my consciousness in most of my creative endeavours over the past few years, devising outlandish, over the top, hybrid performances around themes of identity, power and manipulation, and more recently with existentialism. This show came out of my own acute experience with identity, and a need to draw attention to the ways the performance of identity, as opposed to experiencing true identity, can rot away our true self, and lead us to finding meaning in the things that ultimately hurt us.
Carl Gregory, Mr Wilde: I was immediately struck by the strength of Cassie Hamilton’s writing – not only were her characters unlike any I’ve encountered in my time as a performer, but the script is a wonderfully prescient story. Playing Face is a terrifying cautionary tale for the social media/reality TV generation, and as a performer, I’m always looking to be involved in shows with a strong message like that.
Anna Lambert, Ms Young: My decision to audition for this show really came from a desire to work with Bearfoot Theatre. They are always producing new and innovative works and this was the first opportunity I’ve had to be a part of one. Being a new work, there was a bit of blind faith involved going into it, but I loved the concept of it and Cassie Hamilton is a talented playwright, so knew that this play would be something special.
Stephanie Priest, Mrs King: I had seen Bearfoot Theatre’s previous work and knew how incredible it was. I have admired the company for a long time. I also went to an early reading of Playing Face and instantly fell in love with the characters and the content.
What was the devising and development process like?
CH: I spent around a year revising the premise of this show and developing the characters and themes before I actually put pen to paper, so once I did it came about very quickly! I went to New Zealand for a month in a deep existential depression and wrote the entire play, in more or less the form it is now to be performed. The show was workshopped with some awesome Newcastle actors a few times before we went into production. I have always had a very specific vision for the show in terms of style, but each of the incredible actors has certainly brought their own take to these characters and really brought them to life in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
SP: The devising and development process has been equal parts interesting, challenging, educational and fun! The cast and creatives are all so open and willing to try anything, and so the environment has been one of total support.
AL: The developmental stage has been a dream come true. The play has been through multiple workshops and readings, so I was lucky to come in to the process with a finished script that needed little editing. Developing the characters has been the most enjoyable, yet challenging part. We have had many group discussions and also one on one chats with Cassie to ensure we incorporate her ideas of the characters, but she has also been absolutely willing for us to bring our own interpretations and strengths to the role. The whole cast is also so willing and supportive, so there was never any fear to try anything new or to make mistakes. It’s lovely to be working with a group of people who you know have your back and who ultimately want to be there as much as you.
Playing Face is about playing around with identity and presentation. How has this production confirmed or challenged your notions of identity?
CG: It has really forced me to critically examine the kind of identity I want to express to others in my life – how do I want others to see me, and why do I want that? We all have a version of ourselves we aspire to communicate with others, but the more we rehearse Playing Face, the more I understand just how little control we have over how others might see us. That can be a terrifying concept, or a very liberating one – I haven’t decided yet.
AL: I think it’s confirmed the notion that we all play parts in everyday life, we all have a façade, which is not always a bad thing. But I think what it comes down to is making sure that you are at least honest and truthful with yourself and those closest to you. It’s also about playing the game of life, but questions the value of wealth and fame compared to true happiness.
SP: The show has really forced me to confront the notion that there can be consequences and pain in hiding your true identity, and spending your life searching for an identity that isn’t yours.
CH: The process of writing this play, I found, drew from a lot of my experiences of identity I had encountered throughout my life, more or less embodied in each of the characters. Whether it be finding identity in art, isolation, in mental illness or self destruction, the restrictive performance of masculine identity leading to disillusionment, the repression of feminine identity and shame, or viewing all these identities through the lens of the stories we tell ourselves, I have dealt with them all in one way or another and seeing all these fragmented pieces of my own identity interact with has been kind of mind blowing. The most important thing I believe the play is trying to say is, no matter where you are with your own identity, you can always come back to the fact that you are a body, a soul, present now, and ultimately that is what matters most.
How do all of the mixed genres in Playing Face interact with and inform each other?
SP: The show has a mixture of drama, comedy, black comedy, absurdism, musical and more. The drama reels the audience in to the pain the characters are feeling and the gravity of what is happening, while the elements of comedy and absurdism ensure there is a reprieve from the dark places the show takes you. The music ties in beautifully to tell the story and say things that the characters sometimes can’t.
CG: It’s deliberately jarring, and Cassie’s script takes full advantage of that discord – I think audiences will get a kick out of it.
CH: My own theatrical experience is more or less rooted in musical theatre so I believe that background has informed much of the tone of the show. From that I have cherry picked various elements from different genres to compliment the macabre, campy style I was trying to achieve. Each genre is there to say something about how society perceives identity and the meaning of life. Absurdist elements are used to show the disconnect between the characters due to each of their absolute obsessions with themselves; the feel of a murder mystery or a thriller is present to signify the foreboding and discomfort each of these character have with in their own identity; these are just some of the ways genre helps us understand the play.
What are some highlights from the development of this production? Which element have you enjoyed most?
AL: The first read through was a pretty special and exciting experience, as it was the first time we all came together and had an opportunity to hear this script come alive. I have also enjoyed the character development process and working with the other actors to create some strong character relationships that go beyond what is written. But I think I’m also enjoying the fact that this is a new work and people won’t know what to expect when they come see it. It’s really exciting (and terrifying) to see how people will react.
CH: Composing the score was definitely a highlight as it added so much more atmosphere and depth to what I had written, and it was my first moments of seeing the play coming off the page. As well as directing the filmed sequence which was something I’d never had the opportunity to do before this, I have loved just working with the actors and seeing all of their interpretations of the work.
CG: I don’t often have the opportunity to work on new scripts like Playing Face, so the real fun for me is navigating this totally uncharted territory with the wonderful cast and crew Bearfoot have assembled. We do a lot of experimentation and collaboration in rehearsals, and making new discoveries in that space is my favourite thing by far.
SP: The part of development I have most enjoyed is working on character. Working with the director and the cast, individually and as a group, to find my character and giver her a life and meaning. This character has never existed on the stage before, so I have worked with Cassie to completely build her up from page to stage.
Which aspects of life off the stage does Playing Face pick up on and investigate?
SP: So many! Identity and the consequences that come from hiding it or denying it. Playing Face also investigates the topics of mental health, domestic violence, adultery and infertility, and how people deal with these.
CG: Playing Face is about much more than how people “perform” in life – it’s an incredible examination of gender roles / politics, mental health and addiction, and especially the difficulties in communication. What happens to our relationships in a world where we can’t honestly communicate with each other, or ourselves? That’s what I think is at the heart of Playing Face.
How does Playing Face speak to the wider Australian theatre scene?
AL: Firstly, it’s wonderful to see so many new Australian works being produced. I think Playing Face is a fresh and exciting one, incorporating film and music. It deals with issues that effect the every day Aussie, in quite a stylistic way. Like many Australian plays there is an element of dark humour and also an element that people will find relatable.
CH: Playing Face stays with the trend of using hybrid performance to deliver universal messages regarding our own existence and what it means to be human. I think with the current discourse around identity politics, this show comes at a great time to hopefully widen that conversation and demonstrate the real world implications of denial of true identity.
SP: Playing Face delves into topics and notions that are current and relevant in today’s society, some that theatre practitioners can be scared to touch. Also, our season will be the first staging of an original work – something unique and under-exposed in Australian theatre.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this production?
CG: So many things – I hope that audiences see these characters as the cautionary tales that they are. I hope that audiences leave with an understanding of just how important genuine connections are in life, and how much warmer and wonderful the world can be when we learn just how not alone we are. I hope that audiences that see Playing Face take the opportunity to look inside, and ask if the version of themselves they’re “performing” to the world is the one that makes them truly happy. And if it isn’t, that they believe they have the strength to change. Because they do.
CH: I hope audience take away that questioning one’s own identity is not only an important thing to do, but is in fact essential for happiness and self-love to come about. I have only become the woman I am today through constantly and painfully scrutinising my own identity and tearing away the pieces that were comfortable, but ultimately were holding me down. If audiences can see some of these characters experiences in themselves and it leads them to critically think even a bit about how they present themself to the world, that is all I can really hope for.
AL: I hope the audience gets a new outlook on the people around them. You never know what’s going on in someone’s life. Who knows want trauma they are hiding with their perfect façade? I also hope it makes people stop and question whether what they are doing makes them happy.
SP: I hope we make the audience identify with the story and the characters in some way. I hope they go home thinking and talking about what they saw. Ultimately, I want to make the audience really feel something – exactly what theatre is supposed to do.
NOTE: Responses have been edited for clarity.
Playing Face is running at the Civic Playhouse in Newcastle from October 16th – 19th before running at Shopfront from October 23rd – 26th. For more information and tickets, view here.
TICKET GIVEAWAY: Bearfoot Theatre have generously provided two tickets for a Night Writes reader to attend Playing Face in Sydney. To enter the giveaway, email your name, contact details, and desired performance date to email@example.com with “Night Writes Giveaway – Playing Face” in the subject line. Entries close October 21st.