Falling into worlds
AustralianPlays.org reports on an Australian play on stage
The reaction was amazing; the audience flowed on to the stage after curtain call and stayed back and talked for so long after the show—about how real it was—quote (and I will never forget it), “Everyone must see this show, to know how it really is out there”.
Stephen House in Appalling Behaviour, image by francesco photography.
Written on the streets of Paris, Appalling Behaviour takes the audience on a journey into the darkest corners of the seedy urban Paris underworld. From the banks of the Seine river to the tucked-away all-night sleazy clubs, this acclaimed and now widely toured poetic piece is about a man living on the very edge...
Playwright and actor Stephen House continues to tour his acclaimed solo performance.
His next stop is Hobart's Theatre Royal Backspace this month.
Can you pinpoint what drew you to this character in the first place, and the issue of homelessness?
I had been travelling Australia and the world a lot leading into the writing of Appalling Behaviour and I was continually struck by the universal condition 'homelessness' on the streets of everywhere that I went, be it Asia, Europe, USA or Australia.
I was interested in the stories and real people behind the
faces I saw on sidewalks or in parks and so began to explore this
The development of this play involved immersive research. Is that always your approach, or could
you imagine being able to write such a character and his situation
purely by way of imagination? Are both approaches valid?
As writers we all work in different ways… I fall completely into the worlds I write of, and create theatre about—I have a living research approach. Maybe not everyone does. I can’t imagine writing it without completely knowing it. All approaches are valid, if valid to he or she that is approaching it.
I never take a factual story and make it into mine. I immerse myself and then from the emotions sparked in me—create a fictional piece with fictional characters true to that spark.
Stephen House in Appalling Behaviour, image by Nic Mollison.
This is a play with an obvious social conscience. As
playwright how do you understand your role? Should your plays educate,
or provoke or entertain… or something else entirely?
I never really set out to make change or political statements. I intend in all my work to reflect elements of humanity with a truth—often (as I’m told) with a brutal and confronting truth.
But if the stories appear as theatre then they must be created with the craft of well-made theatre and also entertain, in some way.
With that said, outside bodies have for many years seen my work as a tool for making change or creating awareness about an issue. After an early reading Appalling Behaviour attracted a major sponsorship from a SA Government Homelessness Department (and big controversy related to that) and has featured in National Homeless Week programs in SA and WA. I have also been commissioned often to create theatre to raise awareness over issues, so maybe my social consciousness looms more than I think.
I intend my work to entertain and create discussion.
You've been touring this play for a couple of years now. Has it changed at all in this time, or has the script and performance remained consistent?
The script has never changed a word; I know now when I have finished a play. The changes occur before and sometimes during rehearsal. Appalling Behaviour was finished, totally, before it opened. I have remained true to every word over around 70 performances of this piece (I hate to miss even a word).
But the performance changes. I see each show as an opportunity to become more true to he, whom I created, and the text that I have written. I never tire of the challenge to take the performance further. I owe it to the piece, audience and acting craft. In fact, today I did a line run in preparation for some shows in Melbourne next week and I discovered something new—which made me smile.
Have you noted much variation in responses from different audiences—whether to the subject matter generally or to specific moments in the play?
Extreme responses. Contrasts that blow me away! Polarization of audiences on opinions of many elements.
One of my favorite performances was to an audience of around 150 people all experiencing (or having experienced) homelessness and mental illness. It was organized by a St Patrick’s Mission when I performed at Deckchair Theatre in Fremantle. The reaction was amazing; the audience flowed on to the stage after curtain call and stayed back and talked for so long after the show—about how real it was—quote (and I will never forget it), “Everyone must see this show, to know how it really is out there”.
It was one of my most exciting, emotional moments as a dramatist. Also—they got all the laughs! It made sense of why I am doing what I am doing…
Stephen House in Appalling Behaviour, image by Nic Mollison.
Is there any key influence that you could tell us about, such as a
playwright or actor who has had a big impact on the deveopment of your
To be honest, I am more affected by those on the streets than on screens or stages. And more influenced by the stories I hear, imagine or come upon on in life than by those that I read. But I have to add that seeing The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams had an indescribable effect on me as a young man. I had not been to the theatre much at all and had left school early to work in a factory. "I will write a play one day", I thought—and I did.
Your plays are a combination of one-man shows and ensemble casts. How do you go about determining which option is right for which story?
I tend to write a monologue every four or five years—I’m due for another and have been living in India drinking in that that will fuel it (but that’s another story!).
My monologues (I think) are my truly emotional pieces that confront, challenge and in some ways inform about unknown hidden worlds (that I love to fall into and explore) within our world. My ensemble pieces are more about exploring the craft of creating dark black comedy and heightened realism.
The different forms tend to lend themselves to the different elements I am exploring in my work. I love doing both, and have recently finished a new ensemble piece. I have just heard from a director who wants to do it in November.
Will you continue to tour this show?
I actually thought I was putting it to bed… after the last shows, but it’s obviously not ready to sleep. In addition to being in theatre company programs I have done, schools, community shows and for the first time in a cabaret theatre club (The Butterfly Club in South Melbourne, 10—13 May).
Maybe now it’s finished—but actually, I have had a conversation with a Sydney presenter in the last week so who knows. And come to think of it, I might be doing a few shows in India it seems...
The script for Appalling Behaviour is available here.
Written and performed by Stephen House
Directed by Justin McGuinness
Music and sound by Peter Neilson
Theatre Royal Backspace - TAS
Presented by Tasmanian Theatre Company and Professional Collective
“A masterful production”—The West Australian
“Brutally honest... devastatingly real”—Sunday Mail
More info at tastheatre.com