Peter Williams (PJ) 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 Faithful ServantThe Chain BridgeBreathing 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.

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PJ Williams takes to The Street Stage portraying Poprishchin, the poor hero in Gogol’s dark comedy, Diary of a Madman. PJ shares his own thoughts in weekly diary entries for Street Talk.

19th June – Diary of an Actor #9

And so the final curtain…

Not that there actually was a curtain but the amazing ride that was Diary of a Madman is over. It is a rare and deeply satisfying thing to see ‘Sold Out’ on a production you’re involved with, whether it be 50 or 500 seats, it feels good.

The run into the last week started with an earlier show Tuesday evening followed by a forum discussion involving the This is My Brave organisation which uses performance, poetry and public speaking to help people deal with and challenge their mental illness through telling their personal stories to an audience. For some just getting to the foyer was a major challenge but then hearing some of their stories, after they saw the play, was very powerful.

It’s always interesting how ‘different’ audiences can be. There were nights when people wanted to laugh, other nights, (particularly Fridays) when you could hear a pin drop. With a work like Madman you have to remember, it’s not a comedy as such, but a tragedy with humour. Some audiences respond more to the humour, others are being drawn into the tragedy. As an actor you just have to play the line and intention and try not to push for a result.

I was very blessed to have a large posse of friends and family at the final performance. It’s a funny thing, I’m often more nervous about closing nights than opening. If you screw it up you don’t have another shot to fix it. Fortunately the show went very well and there was a great buzz in the foyer after. The season ended on a great high and just a tad of a hangover on Sunday.

I don’t have enough words to thank Caroline for the trust, encouragement and Direction of Diary. It has been the role of lifetime and she made me work bloody hard! I have learnt so much doing this show.

It was such a pleasure to meet and work with Lily (Constantine) for the first time and become good stage buddies. Huge thanks to Imogen for the perfect set and costume design, Nick’s outstanding and edgy lighting, Seth’s beautiful soundtrack and Angharad’s patience and attention to detail as Stage Manager.

The immediacy and ethereal nature of theatre has once again woven its spell.

 Sunday 10th June 2018 The Diary of an Actor #8

And now we are halfway through the run.

Hard to believe really. So much work for very short seasons but thats the way of things in Canberra.

After Saturday opening, a couple of days off, (lounge got a workout) and then Tuesday we had a rehearsal to tweek some moments and keep it in our bodies/brains before it was back to a second opening night on Wednesday, a full house with press and invited guests.

Lily and I had a really solid show. We found some new moments for our characters and started to feel like we own it, with room to play.

The response has been fantastic with reviews that are, to say the least, a little overwhelming. All the creative aspects of the show have received high praise which points to how cohesive the vision for the play has been. This has been a great team of people to work with.

It’s interesting once you are in the ‘run’. For the first couple of shows you have this adrenaline boost which kicks you along but then you have to find where the play settles. It’s not a ‘rush’ every night but the trade off is a feeling of being in control of your character, the space, the language. Probably more so for a play like this. The danger is sitting back on it, you have to stay on your toes and do the work. There’s no place to hide. You have to be ‘in’ it the whole time.

I have been very lucky to have my kids and a bunch of my family travel to Canberra Friday and Saturday to see this. Nothing validates you more than having your daughter saying how proud she is or your big sister in tears squeezing the life out of you in the foyer. A life in the arts can be a tough road but it’s those moments that help keep it going. This is not a hobby, this is who I am.

I’m starting to think about the next project now, which is directing a staged reading of the Orson Wells’ version of HG Wells’ War of The Worlds. It’s part of a double bill with Tourmaline (Dir. Adam Broinowski) which is based on the Randolph Stowe novel. I have a week after Diary closes to prep before we hit the rehearsal room. Rare to have back to back projects so feeling a little blessed. It’s swings and roundabouts, last year was very quiet, so a couple of busy months this year feels great.

Soon it’ll be back to the ABC, I’m lucky that I have another career I love, radio has given me a lot and continues to expand my knowledge of the world, but if I could walk into a theatre every week…

Monday 4th June 2018 The Diary of an Actor #7

I have normally been writing this blog / diary thing on a Sunday; but after opening on Saturday night and the week leading up to Opening I hit the lounge Sunday and didn’t move.

Tuesday we tech’d all day and then into Wednesday morning.

A lot of actors dread tech rehearsals; there’s a lot of repetition as you feed lighting and sound cues into the running and make adjustments. There’s putting together all the practical elements ie. bowls that break, lamps, costume pieces, cuing off stage etc.
I actually look forward to techs as it gives you an opportunity to perfect sequences, find your light, not bump into the furniture unless directed and I think about how all of this endeavour is there to support the vision of the play and you, the actor.

Our Stage Manager Angharad Lindley is fantastic and has been extremely patient while documenting an extraordinary amount of blocking, cueing, scheduling, props/ costume movements and now operating the lighting desk. Stage Managing at a professional level requires a very unique skill set and we are so lucky to have someone with those skills in spades.

From Wednesday it was pretty much run, fix, run, fix, run, fix, run.

There is still so much detail you can find in the last week of rehearsal. And the process of finding the best way through a scene can mean your working a scene a couple of hours before opening. This doesn’t mean your not ready, it’s just not saying ‘that’ll do’. Caroline makes you work and it pays off.

We had a good audience for preview Friday night and learnt a lot about what needed tweaking. One thing I discovered was about letting the audience ‘in’ more. It’s interesting with a play like this. It has a lot of direct audience address but it isn’t prescribed in the text which bits. Sometimes it’s obvious though it’s really when you have people there in front of you, you realise how much you need to give the audience permission to join you in story.

Saturday night arrived and there we were. So much work, and it comes down to trusting the work. Lily and I gave each other the thumbs up and a “Chookas” as the green light came on and away we went. A very warm full house with generous intent.

In one respect it was a different opening from most. We had a group booking in from ADF ARRTS Program. This is a program that helps Services personnel deal with PTSD through interacting with the arts. These are people who have travelled very real journeys into the darkness and to have them say how much the show meant to them and affect them in a positive way was humbling.

As was the reception when we walked into the foyer.

May 27th 2018 The Diary of an Actor #6

Just made Banana Bread.

The calming & restorative power of baking.

A week to opening, actually just under a week. Eek!

This last week has been about seriously burrowing into detail. And repeat.

Finding the light and shade vocally and physically. Also really locking in the emotional journey through the play. Running blocks of scenes together and then stringing the whole thing together.

As a director Caroline works on so many levels at once. She is always encouraging you to think deeper about aspects of the character, relationships or the physicality of a particular moment. She will give you a particular point of concentration for a scene to see if it elicits a different or stronger line through the scene.

With Emma Strapps, our movement advisor, we continued to find where some of the emotion lands physically. And this is where detail comes in. My character has a number of groans / moans / cries of frustration through to a full blown howl of a meltdown or two. We looked at the journey through these utterances, how they build upon each other, even in completely different scenes.

A lot of this detailing the audience won’t be consciously aware of, but the result (hopefully), is a richly layered work with many subtle connections throughout.

I think Lily and I have managed to nail the waltz, almost, not an entire waltz but the bits required.

I had the biggest bath on Thursday night. Radox to the max. I could get used to these again.

Imogen has been adding constantly to the set and the costumes and we are working with the actual pieces we’ll be using in the run. Can’t wait to feel all of this under lights. Over the last week Nik Pajanti has been building the biggest rig I’ve ever seen go into Street 2.

Diary of A Madman is really starting to feel like a show.

Bracing now for Tech rehearsals and many, many runs between now and opening Saturday night.

The pointy end is near.

There’s no business like….

May 20th 2018 The Diary of an Actor #5

Wow – 2 weeks down and 2 to go.

Ok just having a slight freak out this week.

Working my proverbial ring off.

Sometimes though that little voice of creeping doubt sneaks in and starts whispering in your ear.

Can you really do this? Should you be here? What makes you think you’re good enough?

Usually this happens when you’ve spent the evening before going over the scenes you know are coming the next day, and you’re feeling a bit pleased with yourself, thinking all the lines are in and you’ll nail it. Only to get in the room and not remember the first sentence of the scene, or the second one and so on. A string of expletives follow and then you settle down, dust yourself off, and get to work. As my father said, “you put one brick down, then the next one and the next. And you keep going till you’ve built a house” Makes sense; he was a bricklayer after-all.

Caroline is the most patient Director I’ve worked with, while leaving you nowhere to hide or make lazy choices, she gets you to where you need to be in such a calm and caring manner.

Over this week we have now pretty much shaped the action of the play and laid the path through the  key events within scenes and the play as a whole. Towards the end of the week we started detailing.

Events, intentions, connections, objectives – cause / effect, change or no change. Just some of the things to think about in any given moment. Sometimes my brain is full, like, seriously full.

I  managed to reconnect with my pair of teens on the weekend. After a number of guarantees of their non contagious status we had dinner and talked about the week and watched a movie.  A welcome evening of ordinary life in an otherwise all consuming period. My son is in his first semester of Youth Theatre and I try and remember what it was like to be 14 and starting to discover this stuff.

It’s funny, after 40 odd years I still don’t feel like the adult in the room when I walk into a rehearsal.

Sometimes that’s great; sometimes,  it’s just plain scary.

May 13th 2018 The Diary of an Actor #4

First full week of rehearsals. And I mean full, Monday to Saturday.

It’s a great thing to still feel butterflies and nervous excitement at the start of a process like this.

Started the week with a costume / sound and lighting design presentation which gave us all a great picture of where we are heading. A clever mix of St Petersburg 1830’s & 1980’s with a touch of 80’s Canberra public service palette throughout.

We marked up the script and started the analysis of key events in the piece. Lily (Constantine)and I then hit the floor with Caroline putting us though various exercises exploring some of the emotional landscape.

Part of what I love about doing this job is the extended general knowledge I discover about the world e.g. St Petersburg and the period. People’s lives and how life looked. Even though its a work of fiction it’s informed by the real world it was written in and Gogol own life. He is credited with introducing ‘realism’ into Russian literature.

‘Every day is a school day’ as the saying goes.
Spent time with Elena (Yilyenah) Grigorieva  during the week. Elena is from Russia, works at Questacon and is one of The Street’s volunteer ushers. She patiently took me through the pronunciation of locations and names.

The other thing I discovered this week is that I could probably cancel my gym membership for the period of the play.  I have my very own play-gym (the set) which I’m spending a good 5hrs of the day running up and down or climbing through and around. It’s a very physical show and there’s now a fresh packet of Radox in my bathroom. I do need to be careful though. The reality of not being a lithe 25yr or even 35yr old is ever present. Maybe I shouldn’t cancel it just yet.

So at the end of the first week we have roughly moved the first act around the set and discovered an enormous amount about how the characters think, feel and move. Lily and I are having great fun working the ‘business’ of our scenes together.

Ok;  day off.  Learn lines, write blog, add to character lists, practice pronunciations. Learn lines.

Oh yeah, being an actor is all Chardonnay and swanning around foyers. Now the Radox…

May 6th 2018 The Diary of an Actor #3

Interesting week.

Seriously started getting into the character analytics of Poprishchin.

Lists. Lists.

What do we know to be true? What does he say about himself / others?

What do they say about him? What are the unanswered questions? And more…

The main part of the set went in during the week. A large staircase with landings. How fit am I? About to find out. Spent some time with Imogen & Caroline looking at positions and safety etc.

I’m really lucky to be rehearsing in the theatre with the main elements of the set right from the beginning. This doesn’t usually happen.

Waved goodbye to the ABC for a while, which feels both liberating (being an employed actor) and scary (will there be work at the other end?) in equal measure. I’ve been very fortunate with the vagaries of the theatre world to have a second career I also love. Radio always held a fascination for me as a kid and I built numerous crystal radio sets with wire strung across the backyard. Lying in bed listening to Wimbledon or The Ashes in England with an earpiece in.  And none of it required batteries! It was always something I wanted to be a part of.

Was fortunate to have a couple of days with Caroline this week prior to full time rehearsals starting to explore some of the emotional journey of Poprishchin. Getting in touch with your own emotional history to see what your body does, how it moves in particular states, is fascinating and challenging, but the keys to a physical language for the character are right there.

I was going to go on the wagon over this period but haven’t quite managed that at this point. Looks at ½ glass of Shiraz to the right of keyboard.

Hair is now a straw gold, dirty blonde sort of colour and the beard has gone. I like to get this stuff done early so I can live with it.

Interesting reactions from friends, children and colleagues. From not noticing or asking if I’d had a haircut, to ‘I can’t look at you right now’.

Full rehearsals kick off this week. On your marks…get set…

30th  April 2018

The Diary of an Actor #2

“Embrace it – Don’t make it boring”

This is what my mate Simon says to me about writing this diary.

I responded with “I wasn’t intending to make it boring but…”  There’s possibly a bit of Douglas Adams theory here. Like his description of flying as “the ability to throw yourself at the ground… and miss” A lot like theatre I think.

Maybe if I try and be boring I won’t be… we’ll see.

So a week has flashed by, funny how they do that. Beautiful autumn morning in the national capital. Watching the chooks (Australorps) from the sunroom window as I write.

The ‘day job’ became harder this last week as the days draw near to the start of rehearsals.

The brain is well and truly ‘in the room’ already. Difficult to stay focused on dealing with the ‘here and now’. Which in itself is slightly ironic as actor-ing (Jeb) is about being ‘in the moment’ as much as possible. Or so I’ve been led to believe over the last few decades.

Taught a great class for The Street’s Pre-professional program this week. Bright young things eager to play. The workshop focused on ‘Making Offers’; being open and able to respond to improvisation in the rehearsal room. Responding with a new offer and a new choice again and again.  So, used a lot of Impro exercises. Teaching is a funny thing, something I have resisted often but five minutes into a class find absolutely energising. There’s always the constant fear they’ll see through you and start shouting ‘Fraud!’  It does make you think about how you do what you do though.

Have been reading some articles on St Petersburg in the 19th Century, also the Table of Ranks, instituted by Peter the Great in 18c and a couple of papers Caroline found, looking at  ‘Diary’ from a modern psych point of view. Learning lines, learning lines.

Have to take one of the chooks  to the vet, been off her feed for 2 days.

Ah… there it is;  the day to day,  the here and now.

24th April 2018

The Diary of A Mad Actor #1

What! Diary?? Blog?

I mean, yes, I can see why it’s a good idea but seriously, you want me to write it?

What? EVERY WEEK! About the the process of putting Gogol’s ‘Diary of a Madman” together from an actors perspective.

Yes I know it makes perfect sense. It’s just…I mean. I’ve never kept a diary in my life.

And you wanted the first entry…yesterday..

Ok, sorry, produced radio program yesterday, drove to Sydney for a commercial screen-test, drove back, went to sleep with play script on pillow.

Have begun trying to get dialogue ‘in’ as there is soooo much of it! This is the role of a lifetime and I’m constantly swinging between feeling excited and daunted at the prospect of it. Can’t wait to actually get into the rehearsal room and really start pulling it apart and putting it back together. That’s when the magic happens.

Had a great meeting with Director Caroline Stacey last week to discuss approaches to the work. It’s a very clever, and subtly complex story.

What do we want to approach first? What is the physical language of the piece? How do we relate 19C St Petersburg to 21C contemporary Canberra?

Given Poprishchin (my character) is a Clerk of the 9th Grade, seemingly going nowhere in a large bureaucratic machine, with grand dreams, there’s plenty to relate to this city of public servants.

I managed a peak at the model for the set design by Imogen Keen and as usual her design is a mix of surprises and challenges for the actor and audience. There’s going to be a lot of spacial exploration and I’ve had the pleasure of working with Imogen on a number of shows and this will be no different.

Now back to the script…