GETTING TO KNOW: RUSSELL CHEEK

Russell has a BA Hons, University of Sydney, (German) and also studied French. After graduating from his theatre-school, the École Jacques Lecoq, Paris, Russell performed with companies in Italy and Germany. He then created Double Take Co. in Paris, playing there, touring Holland, and then to the Sydney and the Adelaide Festivals.

He became a core member of the great musical-theatrical band The Castanet Club, enjoying ten years national and international acclaim, including “The Castnet Club – a movie you can dance to”, directed by Neil Armfield. He created and guest-directed Circus Oz’s 2003-5 world-touring show. He performed in three Sydney Theatre Company productions: “The Government Inspector” (Dir Neil Armfield,), “Tartuffe” (Dir Barrie Kosky,) and “A Month in the Country”. He appears as an idiot in the films “Young Einstein” and “Reckless Kelly”.

In 2014 – he devised-directed Clockfire Theatre Company’s “A Hunger Suite” in Istanbul and then Sydney. In 2015 he appeared in The Hayes Theatre production of “High Society” as Seth Lord alongside Amy Lehpamer, Virginia Gay and Bert Labonte. He completed the initial season of his own one-man show in August 2016: “WHO AM I….?” Directed by Steve (The Sandman) Abbott. He has since performed “WHO AM I…?” at the Bondi Pavilion Theatre, Bondi Beach, and will subsequently perform it at The Riverbank Palais, Adelaide Festival, in March 2017, and then at The Street Theatre, Canberra in March/April.

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THE STREET TALKED TO RUSSELL BEFORE HIS SEASON AT THE STREET.

YOU HAVE WORKED ACROSS DIFFERENT MEDIUMS FROM COMEDY TO CABARET TO TELEVISION TO THEATRE – IS THERE A DIFFERENCE IN WHAT EACH FORM BRINGS OUT OF YOU AS A PERFORMER?

The fundament of my performing ability came from the Ecole Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. I was lucky to coincide there with the legendary clown teacher Philippe Gaulier. Without him, I would never have discovered the essence of openness and play which has informed everything since. For me, all modes of my performance contain a strong kernel of this quality.

In theatre, I loved the shows I performed with the SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY, but  only the experience with Barrie Kosky as director broke the fourth wall, in a wonderful role for me…!

We did a lot of creative group-devised hilarity with the small ‘theatrical arm’ of The Castanet Club. Very physical, Lecoq-influenced shows. These required much discipline to make them feel fluid and easy to an audience – but what a team we had…!

When I first had to perform on mic at The Castanet Club, in cabaret-style, doing introductions, performing my comic character and songs – this was a whole new dimension – you had to COMMIT to every syllable. This was rigorous, and taught me so much about audience relationship and laughs.

Television and film require similar exigencies, but usually, you have to produce them in a ‘smaller’ form – reduce the movement down like a simmering stock – down to more subtle expression – thinking the right thoughts, so the camera can ‘read’ you via the eyes, the breath.

YOU WERE ONE OF THE FOUNDERS OF THE COMEDY-CABARET-BIG BAND THE CASTANET CLUB IN NEWCASTLE, WHICH TOURED OVERSEAS, AND EVENTUALLY BROKE UP BUT FORGED LIFE-LONG FRIENDSHIPS AND OTHER COLLABORATIONS. EG. STEPHEN ABBOTT. WHO AM I. . .? IS A ONE-MAN SHOW. WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR AND DIRECTOR STEPHEN’S APPROACH TO GETTING THE BEST OUTCOME FROM THE STORY AND YOUR PERFORMANCE?

Steve knows me VERY well over a period of 35 years, and knows my strengths as well as my weaknesses, (what FEW there might be…!)

I wrote the show, sourced, chose and edited all the rough edits of the TV footage plus  the tricky audio joke-conversation sequences. This was long work – painstaking, and painful – even MORE painful when Steve would step in and cut whole sections that I’d worked so hard on… and continue to shuffle others about like a perpetual Rubik’s Cube…!

He really DID kill off some of my children here….! (especially one beautifully philosophical piece around TIME, with myself, the beautiful Jo Bailey, and an Omega Constellation watch…!) But – THIS was his job. I sulked, and resisted these sacrifices, too – as we always like to protect our own creative offspring…!

More than anything else, he has kept the STORY tight, and on track. Essential for keeping people ‘in there’, wanting to know what happens next….

Performance-wise, he is keen at keeping my emphasis on ‘connection’ with the audience – some very basic storytelling.

He thinks I am performing it well….!

YOU HAVE MADE REFERENCE TO DEVELOPING THEMES FOR THE SHOW. TALK US THROUGH THESE AND HOW THEY CAME ABOUT.

 The main theme was as above – TIME…. I had  a  beautiful rumination on our ‘human perception of time’ developing nicely – a surreal kind of Existential Desert, in which I become stranded. Time would just NOT PASS during this ordeal….!

Fortunately, Steve has helped me find a LATERAL way to express this theme, so although my initial flowery concept had to wither on the stalk, he came up with something way more compact to achieve something similar and more entertaining….!

Another theme is ‘triumph-of-will’, attention to detail, ‘aspiration requires preparation’.

This is revealed gradually in the show – and eventually leads to a kind of self-knowledge which is accessible to all of us. It just fell to me to swallow a large dose of it in compressed time…!

 YOU DESCRIBE WHO AM I. . .?  AS A STORYTELLING SHOW THAT IS DIFFERENT FROM MOST AND MAYBE FROM ALL. WHAT CAN WE EXPECT?

Because it’s a true story that few others are able to tell….! The pool of people who have both done ‘Sale’, and have the theatrical experience to make a decent show out of it, is small.

So it’s a rare bird…! And we try to tell it in as interesting and truthful a way as we can. There are some creative bits – a rap, a surreal nightmare, a little mime… all somewhat revelatory, but we can never get carried away with these parts-of-the-whole – we have to remain ‘on-story’ at all times…!

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

You have to both be able to defend what you are doing, to find the true middle-ground.

You have to trust.
Steve was not just director – he was collaborator too.

I have great faith in the audacity of his ideas.
He is CONSTANTLY observing, and thinking abut what can be made better. He has a restless mind, and loves ruminating on things.

He is also a truly original theatrical thinker. Some of his past work, in particular his period at JJJ radio in the early 90s, when he created daily serials for month after month, was genius.

You HAVE to believe your director is a genius…!

I should mention, it was also his idea to put Wonderful Jac, my stage manager, on the edge of the stage with me…!

 WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR FROM AN AUDIENCE?

 I think – for them to be open, willing…. the-opposite-of-cynical….? And initially, if they are not, it’s up to me to gently chip away with the work, and coax them in a way, into a certain spirit.

I do look for love from them – that’s what it’s all about….! But I hope that it’s a love that benefits THEM more than me.

I try to be open enough, (one audience member said I was an ‘open book’ – which is not a bad epithet…!) to draw people into my world and to engage them with what I hope is the sincerity that I bring to it –

AND the laughs – and here, they are mostly at my own expense, and often across two discrete time zones….! Sometimes, people like the Old (younger,) me, better than the New, (older,) me….! It gets tricky…..

ASIDE FROM THE FINANCIAL GAIN, WHAT IMPACT HAS WINNING SALE OF THE CENTURY HAD ON YOU?

 It gave me a LOT of confidence – I was on cloud nine for 6 months after I won the show – I floated on psychological air…. (or as Plastique Bertrand may have said in the 80s –  “Ça plane pour moi…!”)

Part of this was the sheer relief that that period of intense, cliffhanging  tension and focus was over, and the other – was having achieved something that few other people have.

And it’s something that no-one can rob from me, ever, ever. I DID do it….!

YOU ARE ABOUT TO GO TO ADELAIDE FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE BUSKING THERE IN THE MID 70S TO NOW PERFORMING YOUR SHOW AT THE ADELAIDE FESTIVAL. HOW DOES THAT FEEL?

Well – I HAVE been there plenty ‘o’ times since my ‘busking’ escapade, (which I loved, by the way – playing a soprano wooden renaissance flute to Opera-going people outside the Festival Centre to make dinner money…!)

I did direct the COME OUT CLUB for the 1983 Festival, and had trips there with the CASTANET CLUB in 1984, 1987, 1989, as well as being invited to perform my one-man kids’ show NO FACE LIKE HOME, for the COME-OUT Festival in 1989…! So Adelaide and I – are pretty close.

But – this is the first time I have really been back with a grown-up show, where I will put everything on the line. Reputation counts for nothing – I sink or swim via my own performance…   Though I’m pleased that I DO have a pretty good story to tell…!

So I FEEL – excited and nervous.

 WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

Whew – I’m creatively spent from the 12 months it took to put this show together, and now the demands of performing it. So I need a real hiatus before I can feel re-inspired to actually DO something else…! I don’t know when that will happen though, as it feels as if there is a LONG life ahead for this show. I do hope so.

Co-incidentally, there has been one stand-out piece of theatre that has inspired me each of the last three times I’ve been to London – there is so much there that I live for – the intelligence, the repartee, the debate – the creativity, the art.….

These shows have been – “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”, “The Oresteia”,  (by the Almeida theatre,) “The Encounter”, (Simon McBurnie/Complicité.) All very different, and completely brilliant.

We are still not capable in Australia, of supporting our own artists with the time-frame and resources it take to achieve something like the scope of these works. I’m very hopeful that Australia’s THE SECRET RIVER in the Quarry at the Adelaide Festival will take its place in this pantheon…!

 WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?

I like to record the French News from SBS – ‘Vingt Heures’, and watch parts of it whenever I get the chance – I lived in Paris for three years, (during my theatre-training,) and I love to keep my language up to speed for the (semi-regular) times I get back there.

I must confess that the advent of social media has curbed my reading habits enormously. I have a number of sad, half-read novels scattered around, which look like they will remain abandoned….! But in PRINCIPLE, I still love reading, I’ll have you know…!

I love Facebook for keeping my network of friends ‘alive’, and I use it to try to sustain creative rapport with many of them.

Because I’m definitely an older person now, I love to stay close to home in Bondi Beach.

I only have two speeds – either AT home, or far, FAR away…!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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