Patrick Dickson is an old hand at this. Having taken to the stage with gusto – not just as an actor, but also as director, set designer and, probably, orchestra pit – he has had ringside seats to the development of Australian theatre for over three decades. He is currently the lead in the O’Punsky’s Theatre’s spectacularly verbal revival ofThe Gigli Concert, a play widely regarded as Irish playwright Tom Murphy’s masterpiece and which, I soon learn, is most definitelynotpronounced “Giggly”. Which is a shame.
When we speak I am interrupting rehearsals, yet Patrick sounds relaxed and loquacious. I take this to be an indication that he has long ago shaken off the nerves that come with the countdown to opening night.
“Oh no,” he assures me. “There’s certainly nerves. Terror is probably a better word. Particularly with a play like this, where it’s a huge role in a rather big play. There are so many words, it’s a bit like downhill skiing. You jump off the top and you just have to get through the gates without crashing into a tree or something.
“I’ve had moments where I’ve found myself on stage in what feels like a great big hole, not knowing what line comes next, and you just think “What the fuck do I do now?” But something always kicks in, instinct takes over and it all comes back together. [Theatre acting] is an interesting job, because you’re in real time and can’t really conceive of the whole production at once. You just have to trust that you’ve put in the work during rehearsals, not just learning lines but understanding the piece, why you say something, when you say something. You have to trust that the work you’ve done will carry you.”
The Gigli Concert may be noteworthy in this regard, given the sheer amount of dialogue the cast must memorise. While not without humour, the play addresses serious subject matter – madness, music, suicide, alcoholism, despair – and I wonder if the vitality of performance is compromised for the cast by having to keep such exhaustive dialogue in their heads.
“You have to keep reminding yourself that these things are called plays. It’s about playfulness, you play with your fellow actors, your crowd, everybody. As you get into the season there’s more opportunity for discovery, more spins on the material, the curve-balls that keep it bright and alive. There are always certain subtleties that develop that the audience might not be aware of, but that we can certainly feel. That’s the pulse that keeps it alive. It’s not a process of repetition, it’s a process of reliving.”
I end by asking about Patrick’s observations of the changes in theatre attitudes over the years; how the shape of our play has evolved.
“Sometimes you’re just so close to it, you can’t see clearly. The other issue for actors of course is that we’re often so broke we can’t even afford to go and see each other’s work. Theatre has been limping along for centuries. It’s one of those art forms that’s not elitist, it will never die. It’s just labour intensive. Most people will enjoy it if they go, but, let’s face it, most people don’t. It’s there to be enjoyed. It’s so varied, I’d struggle to judge it fairly.”
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Patrick laughs, “The price of the ticket will give you absolutely no indication of quality. You can have the most memorable, fascinating, thrilling experience at the Tap Gallery, and you can have a dry, boring, detached, processed experience at the Opera House. The cost tells you nothing.”