A choking man spits out a hunk of chicken that lands near our feet. A wheelchair is suddenly illuminated by our seats. A crying woman shakes beside us, her tears visible on her face. Participatory theatre? Not intentionally. Try instead intimate theatre that is a vital and vibrant part of independent drama in Sydney.
As part of the 2016 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival, The Old Fitz, Woolloomooloo, and King St Theatre, Newtown are staging big productions in small spaces that allow the audience to be up close and personal and feel the full, theatrical live experience. As Sheryl Sandberg encourages: lean in.
The Whale, written by US playwright Samuel D Hunter and directed by Shane Anthony, is particularly intimate given its extra large subject. The plot revolves around Charlie, a 250-kilo online tutor (Keith Agius) who is gentle but self-destructive. He heaves himself from couch to wheelchair as his best friend, Liz (Meredith Penman), a nurse, both admonishes and enables his eating addiction.
As death looms, he seeks to reconcile with the elephants in the room – his estranged daughter (Chloe Bayliss), his ex-wife (Hannah Waterman) and what happened to his partner, which sparked Charlie’s own decline.
The play confronts not only the impact of obesity on oneself and relationships, in the vein of Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, but also the physicality of inner grief and internal struggles of sexuality that are externally judged.
Being so close to the audience, the actors have live close ups. Agius – a character actor who has most recently starred in zombie film Wyrmwood Road of the Dead (2014) Crownies, Paper Giants and on stage, Falstaff in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V – is near drowning in his fat suit yet brings sweetness, depth, empathy and likeability to Charlie.
He is matched by English actor Hannah Waterman – daughter of New Trick’s Dennis Waterman – who appears late in the play as his shocked, battle worn ex-wife. The intimacy of the space seems to energise rather than constrain the actors. As for the audience, the initial closeness is confronting but as the play becomes absorbing, they lean in.
Across town in Newtown, King St Theatre is another intimate space. Tables and chairs crowd the stage and bunch up against the bar, and the stage is makeshift stairs and, well, the front of the room.
While not uttering the ‘o’ word, Tits, Wine and Hearing Aids: Confessions of a Disabled Drag Queen still seeks to confront prejudice, if in a much lighter tone than The Whale.
Diagnosed with Usher’s Syndrome, Walter recently told Same Same: “The doctor told me I was blind and should give up performing. My dad was like ‘well, the doctor’s a dickhead.’ I feel most comfortable on stage because I know where everything is.”
Contrary to that doctor’s advice, Walter is appearing on the Poof Doof float in the 2016 Mardi Gras parade, dressed in a Roman goddess costume. At King St, as Dizzy Bility in standard drag queen leopard dress, glitter lipstick and amongst risqué puns and dressing up the straight guy on stage, Walter satirises a visit to the hearing aid clinic and her disability.
Crowded around her in the intimate space of King St Theatre, Dizzy Bility heard lots of laugh out louds. She was so close; you could see the colour of her nails. (Red, or course).
“If I can still hear the audience laugh, I’ll still be on stage trying to make them laugh,” Walter says. The stage may well be bigger so seek out an intimate theatre while you can.
The Whale is on until March 4 at the Old Fitz Theatre, Fitzroy Hotel, Woolloomooloo.