GETTING TO KNOW: PETER COOK

Peter graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2001. Since graduating Peter’s theatre credits have included Cigarettes and Chocolate (Darlinghurst Theatre), EuropeThe QLD Premiers Drama Awards and The Removalists (Queensland Theatre Company) , The Eisteddfod, Breathing Corpses, and The Chain Bridge (The Street Theatre , Canberra), Wet and Dry (NIDA Director’s Season), Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome (QLD Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare) , and Tender  (Metro Arts, Brisbane). His TV credits include: All Saints, Young Lions, Terra Nova, Redfern Now, The Gods of Wheat Street, Secrets and Lies, Old School and The Secret Daughter.  His Feature film credits include: Danny Deckchair; Down Under Mystery Tour; and, Beauty and the Beast for American Sci-Fi Channel.  Peter has also featured in a number of award-winning short films and won the Warner Brothers QLD New Filmmakers best actor award. Peter also has extensive experience in Theatre in Education. He was the Head of Acting at the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts in Brisbane where he also devised new works with the students.  He has worked as an arts educator across the country for major theatre companies and has written, devised and directed numerous plays with students across Australia. 

The Street talked to Peter as he prepares to go into rehearsals for Breaking The Castle, opening at The Street Theatre on the 29th of February.

YOU HAVE CREATED A CAREER ACROSS THE STAGE, TV AND FILM – CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE PLACE AND EXPERIENCE OF THEATRE FOR YOU IN THE MIX?

Theatre to me is the most alive medium. It is hard to beat the feeling of being on stage in front of an audience. Further to that the rehearsal process throughout a theatre production is extremely satisfying. It is hard work but it’s such a creative and explorative experience – finding a character, constantly finding new meaning in the text, exploring the relationships between characters in the world of the play – all these experiences are joyful. Then you get to find all these things again in front of an audience, and you’re using whole self -intellectually, emotionally, physically – I find theatre very rewarding.

YOU ARE PERFORMING IN THE ROLE OF DAVID, A MAN WITH SIGNIFICANT ADDICTIONS WHO HAS TO FIND HIS WAY BACK INTO THE WORLD. TELL US MORE

David is a man who is looking for connection in the world. He finds himself in the midst of a crisis that has slowly been creeping up on him his whole life, and he has found coping mechanisms that are not healthy choices for him. He finds himself at a point where he is suffering from serious mental health issues, substance abuse problems, professional upheaval, and a disconnection from his spirit.  Maybe he has lost a sense of who he is, or maybe he never really  knew and all of these internal and external crises culminate into this kind of  explosive cocktail of events that he can’t seem to control and he’s then faced with a decision about whether or not he wants to confront himself, his past and his demons and find a new way to be in the world.

TALK TO US ABOUT NEGOTIATING ALL THE DIFFERENT WORLDS IN THE PLAY? HOW WILL THEY BE CREATED?

A lot of this will come down to the director and the design team. Imogen has done a great job designing a stage that will allow us to move through these different worlds with ease as they all blend in with each other. David is someone who just kind of floats through the world without any real grounding or connection to anything and this is reflected in the design of the set.  The worlds are also created through the writing, David is different in the various parts of his life and his psyche that are reflected in the play.

BREAKING THE CASTLE HAS YOU PERFORMING A SOLO WORK. FIRST TIME? WHAT CHALLENGES ARE IN PERFORMING SOLO FOR YOU?

Yes, this is my first solo work. There are lots of challenges involved – learning the script is probably the biggest one at this point! There are also lots of different characters that we meet along the way, so finding each one of them and making them really clear and different will be a big challenge, as well as playing David at various ages in his life. 

IS THIS THE FIRST TIME YOU HAVE PERFORMED A WORK YOU’VE WRITTEN? HOW IS IT DIFFERENT?

Yes, it is the first time I have performed a work I have written. The major advantage will be that I can make any changes I like to the script as we move through it. If we find in rehearsal things aren’t working, we can just make cuts or changes on the fly, and as it is a new work it’s important to have that flexibility. 

WHY DO YOU THINK BREAKING THE CASTLE IS A WORK FOR OUR TIMES?

I feel addiction is such a misunderstood and misrepresented element in our society. In a sense, we all have various addictions and some people may not even be aware of them.  We can be addicted to anything; from caffeine and nicotine to being addicted to our emotional states. Then there are the extremes of addiction – excessive drug and alcohol use -and we have terms to describe these people, we use labels such as “junkie” and “alcoholic”, without actually considering what it is that has led these people to use substances in such an extreme way and David is a character who finds himself in the midst of heavy substance abuse without really understanding why. We go on a journey with David as he discovers what is at the core of his addictions and his struggles with his mental health.  My hope is audience members will see themselves reflected in different parts of David, or it may help them better understand people they know who are struggling with addiction, or their mental health. Mental health is a big conversation around the world at the moment and I think the topic of addiction is starting to find its way into people’s lives as well. It is also just a story about being human, and how deeply and vastly complex we all are, and it looks at all of the elements that we deal with as people throughout our lives, from our professional worlds to our inner conversations, our childhood, and how our past impacts how we relate to the world.  In some ways it is a story of survival, and what some of us do to just survive in the world. Ultimately though for me, the story is one of hope – it says we can all find our way back to ourselves no matter what we have been through.

TALK US THROUGH THE PROCESS OF BRINGING DAVID TO LIFE. WHAT IS YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS IN A WORK LIKE THIS?

Well I’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting in writing the piece, so I have a very good sense of who David is and how he relates to the world. The creative process from here on in is about finding him on the rehearsal floor as an actor, physically, vocally emotionally and doing that in conjunction with the director. No doubt Caroline will have ideas and thoughts around things I haven’t considered and will push the character in ways I maybe can’t see. It’s all about collaborating with the director now.

WHAT IS IMPORTANT FOR YOU TO A SUCCESSFUL AND FRUITFUL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AN ACTOR AND DIRECTOR?

I think as an actor you must really trust the director. That’s key for me. I guess from a director’s point of view you are looking for an actor that can contribute ideas and make bold, creative offers as well as take direction and work hard. There is always give and take but ultimately you are both there to serve the writing, and it’s the directors vision you must trust and buy into. There also needs to be an element of fun and joy throughout it all. All these things add up to a fruitful, positive rehearsal room.

WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR FROM AN AUDIENCE?

That’s a hard question, I guess don’t really look for anything from an audience, they just are how they are on any given night and as a performer you must feel that and work with it. For me it’s about the back and forth, I often use the analogy that you’re just kind of kicking the soccer ball back and forth with the audience all night. Each audience is different and      that’s what makes live performing so exciting and challenging.

HOW DO YOU BALANCE YOUR PROFESSIONAL INTERESTS IN WRITING, ACTING AND EDUCATING IN YOUR LIFE?

That is always a work in progress. I’m new to writing as a professional so it’ s been a steep learning curve, but enjoyable at the same time. As an artist, you must keep earning an income, so you don’t always get to pick and choose what you work on, sometimes you just have to take opportunities when they are presented to you. I haven’t done any work in education for a while now as I have wanted to focus on my work as an actor and writer and Breaking The Castle is the fruit of that decision.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STREET.

I have had a relationship with the theatre for over a decade and this will be my fourth show for The Street. I love working with the team at The Street, it’s a very creative and collaborative environment and what Caroline and Dean have achieved there over the years has been amazing. I don’t think it gets the recognition it deserves for the work it does.

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO BRING NEW AUSTRALIAN WORKS TO THE STAGE?

Well it’s vital to get new works on the stage. The whole point of the theatre is to hold up a mirror to ourselves and without works that reflect what is currently happening in the country, or the world or tap into the zeitgeist we can’t hold that mirror up. I think audiences love seeing new works that reflect what is happening in the world around them.

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

My head is very much in Breaking The Castle at the moment, there is a lot of work to do so I’m not really looking for other sources of creative inspiration – I’m just focused on working hard in rehearsal.

https://www.thestreet.org.au/shows/breaking-castle