Peter (PJ) Williams is an actor, director, lighting designer and freelance media professional who has lived in Canberra since 2002. PJ’s acting credits with The Street include: The Chain Bridge, Breathing Corpses, The Give and Take and Without Prejudice. Other work includes: Late Night Catechism, and television appearances in Home & Away, All Saints, Always Greener, and Tricky Business. Directing credits include: Grimm & The Blue Crown Owl (ANU School of Music & The Street), Lies, Love & Hitler and Lawrie & Shirley (The Street) , Lifting Lucy, Simon Says, and lighting design credits include Berlin, Three Nights at The Bleeding Heart, Blackbird, Albert Herring and The Home Front.
He co-founded Impro Theatre ACT and has been a proud member of Actors Equity (MEAA) since 1989. In 2008 PJ received the MEAA Actors Equity award for Professional Practice. He is active in The Street’s Hive program as a workshop director, dramaturge and actor.
PJ Williams talks to The Street ahead of The Faithful Servant season.
YOU HAVE A DISTINGUISHED CAREER ON STAGES AND THROUGH ACTIVE INVOLVEMENT IN NEW PERFORMANCES MADE IN CANBERRA. WHY DID YOU TAKE ON A ROLE IN THE FAITHFUL SERVANT WRITTEN BY TOM DAVIS?
The role of Raymond is a gift for an actor my age (55). It has a King Lear quality to it and It has all the complexities that you look for in a role. Tom’s writing challenges you as an actor. He is very precise with language and rhythm which gives you a very strong platform to build character and relationships. I loved being in The Chain Bridge, Tom’s previous work, so it was an easy decision really.
TALK US THROUGH YOUR ACTING PROCESS IN BRINGING TO LIFE DR RAYMOND GERRARD IN THE FAITHFUL SERVANT?
I don’t know if I have a particular process. It’s funny, but one of the first things I like to have is the character’s shoes. How you connect with the ground, stand, walk etc determines a lot with a character. This will help find the ‘voice’. I tend to learn dialogue through the repetitive rehearsal process as opposed to learning by rote. It’s about getting the language into the muscle memory. I often find things late in the process; the natural tics of a character etc.
I also like to leave myself open to other people’s processes and the shifts that may occur in a scene. If you want exactly the same thing to happen every time at every moment… you’re after something else, like film or TV. The beauty of theatre is its ability to have living moments.
WHERE DOES PJ WILLIAMS MEET RAY? HOW IS THE CHARACTER LIKE YOU? DIFFERENT?
Hard one; all characters you portray have an element of yourself, that’s impossible in a way to avoid, but part of the challenge too is to get inside characters that are so far from your own personality. I sometimes ask “who would I be if I were…?”
Ray and I are probably similar in our inability to see our own successes and having short fuses. But even those traits manifest themselves in different ways for each of us. We both rejected religion at an early age and like beer.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT FOR YOU TO A SUCCESSFUL AND FRUITFUL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AN ACTOR AND DIRECTOR?
An understanding of each other’s process and a trust in those processes. Patience and the absolute ability to say ‘yes’, that’s not weakness but openness. Caroline (Stacey) and I have worked together a number of times and understand each other well. She is very patient but also knows exactly what she’s after and that’s reassuring for an actor.
AS BOTH AN ACTOR AND DIRECTOR, YOU HAVE BEEN ON BOTH SIDES OF THE TABLE. WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM WATCHING AND AUDITIONING?
As an actor I hate auditions that rely on learning a ‘piece’ and doing performing seal tricks with it. Fortunately that’s mostly a thing of the past except for musicals. I actually really enjoy ‘cold reads’. It’s easier to create a ‘truth’, be ‘in the moment’ when your responding to something for the first time.
As a Director I’d rather not put actors through the stress of auditions but it’s part of the job and you are often surprised by actors and what they find. It’s also the place you find new people, new talent.
IN THE FAITHFUL SERVANT, YOU ARE WORKING WITH A STELLAR CAST PLAYING MULTIPLE CHARACTERS, TARIRO MAVONDO AND DORIAN NKONO. WHAT MAKES A GOOD SCENE PARTNERSHIP?
Curious question. I guess after a period of rehearsals being able to look into the eyes of the person you are in the scene with and see the character looking back at you, not the actor. And hopefully they are seeing the same thing. With Tariro and Dorian this is certainly the case. The three of us have come from very different processes and there’s been a great generosity and respect of how we each get to the point of truth in scene. I’m loving being on stage with these two outstanding artists.
WITHOUT BEING A SPOILER, WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE LINE OF DIALOGUE.
There are a few:
Raymond (mine) “Yes. Across the ocean you will be their answered prayer -and they will save you.”
Coetano: “He made this girl beautiful. He gave her claws. Doctor, I cannot run away.”
Caroline: “I’d really like to see an amputation”
ARE YOU SUPERSTITIOUS? IS THERE A PROCESS THAT YOU ALWAYS LIKE TO GO THROUGH BEFORE STEPPING OUT ON STAGE?
Not really superstitious but I do tend to allow for the traditional ones, i.e. “The Scottish Play” not being mentioned in the theatre space or don’t whistle on stage unless it’s in the play. That one actually comes from a very practical place which historically was about flying scenery in and out.
Before each performance I go through a particular routine to warm up and embody the character. Technical things for the voice and body but I also like approach it as a tradie would a job. Making sure you’ve got the chisel sharpened.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
Well obviously the work being produced at The Street. I think there is a great creative partnership underway and the possibilities are very exciting.
Also the work of people like Geordie Brookman at The State Theatre Company of S.A, new works from Andrew Bovell and Aiden Fennessy.
Also what it means for myself to be an older actor. I’m 55 so I’ve hit a new period as an artist. You have to say goodbye to the possibility of some roles but you look to a new set of characters and challenges.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
I’ve recently read James Woodford’s ‘The Dog Fence’ an account of the Dingo fence that runs from the Great Australian Bight to Queensland and Rob Hirst’s ‘Willie’s Bar & Grill’ which follows Midnight Oil on tour through America just after September 11. Recently watched Stranger Things on Netflix. Great series.