GETTING TO KNOW: GEORGE KANAAN

As actor, George’s theatre credits include Homebody/Kabul (Downstairs Belvoir); Urban Theatre Projects’ The Last Highway (Sydney Festival); Mirage; Harlequin & Columbine; and Wasted for Horizon Theatre; Antony & Cleopatra for Vantage Theatre; and Summer Holiday and Toons on Vacation (Saudi Arabia & Qatar).

Feature films include John Laing’s A War Story playingOsama bin Laden in the real life story of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Arnett’s efforts to interview bin Laden. Short film credits include Sharon Mani’s The Worst; Raihan Harun’s Bani Ibrahim; Paul Barakat’s Squalor; Johnny Tran’s The Pizza; and Michael Samer’s Blood on Blood amongst others.

George’s TV work includes The Secrets She Keeps, Total Control, Bite Club, Hyde & Seek, AllSaints, and East West 101, (Seasons 2&3) where he was anominee for an AFI for Best Supporting/Guest Actor in a Television Drama. TVCs include IGA, Afterpay, Blackmores, SBS, Nissan, Mr Juicy/Pepsi & Toyota Celica amongst others.

The Street talks with George about his acting role in the FIRST SEEN creative development of Barren Ground by Helen Machalias.

HOW HAS COVID-19 IMPACTED ON YOUR WORK AND CAREER? 

My own experience has been largely positive: I was not immediately involved in any projects so did not feel the effects of the shutdown too acutely.  I have friends whose shows either evaporated or went into some sort of limbo.  When COVID-19 hit, I was auditioning regularly, and given the industry simply shut down overnight, it became a waiting game.  These strange times became a welcome interlude—particularly given the cost of always being switched on.  It became an opportunity to catch my breath and brush up on skills.  Notwithstanding the industry is not yet where it was pre-COVID, there has been a noticeable excitement these last three months about the work being made and I find myself once again auditioning regularly.  I think there will be a lot of work headed our way so hopefully that bodes well for many careers.

YOUR HAVE A LONG CAREER IN FILM, TV AND STAGE. WHERE DOES THEATRE FIT INTO THE MIX? 

Where film may speak to me simply, my love of theatre is complicated by the same sort of respect that one might have for the ocean.  That said, there is no real design in terms of which discipline I choose to work in—I am often happy to follow the work.  It’s been 10 years since I was last on stage.  I was fortunate then to work on Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul (directed by Christopher Hurrell) with wonderfully talented actors in the Downstairs Belvoir Theatre, and shortly before that on Urban Theatre Projects’ The Last Highway (directed by Alicia Talbot) for Sydney Festival.  And while there have been other stage credits (including hosting children’s shows in Saudi Arabia and Qatar), the thrill of Homebody/Kabul and The Last Highway stay with me for what they afforded creatively.  With the exception of say a long-run character on a television show, the opportunity to explore character is unparalleled as it is in theatre.  And then there’s the buzz.  Naturally, I am thrilled to be doing this creative development.

YOU WILL BE DEVELOPING THE CHARACTER OF PROSPERO IN THIS NEW WORK BY HELEN MACHALIAS. HOW DID YOU RESPOND TO THE CHARACTER? 

Prospero’s reputation precedes him—he seems to be an entire archetype unto himself, so after the initial excitement, there was trepidation.  What Helen has cleverly done in Barren Ground is take Prospero from his magical, nebulous world, make him incarnate and place him in the indeterminate hell of the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre.  And as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, he is challenging.  How do you reconcile a man whose tenderness toward his daughter is just as soon unabashed resentment toward others?  We know that as the Duke of Milan, Prospero was well liked.  It makes sense then to imagine him as having necessarily regressed to a state of nature.  His fall has been great and he is a product of his environment.  What would I do given such a fall?  I very much look forward to walking a mile in this complex man’s shoes.

THE WORK FOLLOWS SURVIVORS FROM A SHIPWRECK FINDING THEMSELVES IN A HOSTILE, UNCERTAIN ENVIRONMENT AS THEY SEEK OUT FREEDOM. HOW DO YOU RESPOND TO THIS?

We are blessed to live in a country where we are very unlikely to ever experience such hardship.  Personally, I’ve not experienced such extremes in life.  That said, what if, for fear of my life or that of my son, I could no longer live under my own roof and needed to flee my home, my country?  What are those circumstance that would drive someone there?  To crowd onto a boat that may not be seaworthy?  I am haunted by those images of individuals jumping from the burning Twin Towers.  In a way, they too found themselves in a hostile, uncertain environment and sought freedom.  While Barren Ground speaks to the Australian experience and particularly to its harshness, there is something about a journey or seeking freedom in all of us not matter how small, and the challenge is to tap into that.  These are universal challenges.

THE WORK INCLUDES SHAKESPEAREAN TEXT, FIRST HAND ASYLYM SEEKER ACCOUNT, MEDIA REPORTS AND FICTIONAL WRITING. HOW EXCITING IS THAT FOR YOU AS AN ACTOR?

I think Helen has married the different genres with great deft.  The result is writing that seems to reinforce and compel the telling—and certainly with great deference to Shakespeare—writing that is greater than the sum of its parts.  An adaptation of The Tempest to the asylum-seeker experience in Australia may not benefit from the rich palette of the various styles.  Verbatim for example has an immediacy that is hard to deny, while media reports work well to corroborate the narrative.  A case in point in Barren Ground is the choice to hear politicians’ and ‘pundits’ words in voice-over: the effect is a veracity and elegance that furthers the narrative in ways that fictional writing might struggle.  For Prospero, Shakespeare’s language finds resonance in the Christmas Island detention centre and I certainly look forward too exploring this.  I am also aware of the responsibility.

TALK US THROUGH YOUR APPROACH TO CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT AND THE PROCESS OF BRINGING PROSPERO TO LIFE?

I am always most comfortable having been immersed in the world I am exploring.  No idea is ever too big or too wrong—those that don’t quite work serve to inform the work.  You soon develop an intuition which seems to guide further exploration.  My own lived experiences are useful, as are mental and physical images.  Reminding oneself that the best actors are the best listeners means being present to the provocations of our director Nicky Tyndale-Biscoe and fellow cast and responding in a manner that is truthful and hopefully, very interesting. 

WHY DO YOU THINK HELEN MACHALIAS’S BARREN GROUND IS A WORK FOR OUR TIMES?

Very little has changed in the last 20 years in terms of how we treat refugees.  Notwithstanding in the past we have accepted most refugees as being genuine, we managed to eschew legality and morality and treat them with contempt.  We continue to elect governments who magnify difference when there is none, whose rhetoric suggests we are besieged but choose not to take perspective or legality into account.  The better solution is not only more humane and inclusive but makes better economic sense.  Till such time, work like Barren Ground will remain relevant. 

THIS YEAR’S FIRST SEEN SEASON IS BEING DEVELOPED AND SHOWN VIA ZOOM. WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES IN DEVELOPING A CHARACTER IN THIS WAY? 

To be sure, it will be weird, and probably uncanny to begin with.  And given any lags in connections, it will be fitful and may well feel like we are performing under water.  The traditional creative development space is alive—it has an immediacy.  The creatives respond to each other’s cues, generously and instinctively.   The tyranny of distance (I understand we will be working from a number of states/territories) coupled with the two-dimensional aspect of a Zoom creative development might mean that to begin with we might speak over one another or miss some cue.  But humans are superb creatures able to adapt in amazing ways.  Take away one’s sense of sight and you enhance their sense of hearing.  I think creativity and imagination will be enhanced and actors will do what they do best. 

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

I think in order to build work, you need to challenge it, in much the same way one might a hypothesis.  To test an idea for its soundness, you play, explore.  You ask better questions of the work, and incrementally you build a work that tells the story in a manner that is intuitive and effortless.  With ensembles, I would have to say trust is needed to explore those places where the truth may be.  Invariably, it is a beautiful place.

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

I am both inspired and excited to be undertaking this creative development, so I am going to say this work in the first instance.  It’s not often I get the opportunity to immerse myself in an extended creative pursuit like this.  I am enjoying the long chats I’m having with my mother, and while many of the stories I have heard a thousand times before, sometimes it seems I am hearing them for the first time.  As my mother ages, I wonder at the change she has seen in her lifetime and get thinking about my own mortality.  Finally—and beyond my interest in world events—in a very perverse way, I find the train wreck that is the Trump administration very hard to turn away from.  For the last three and a half years, I have had a grotesque fascination with the US president’s behaviour and what he will or won’t say. 

WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?

I’m savouring Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which explores the history of violence in its many forms and its decline throughout the ages.  He posits we are living in peaceful times, and I think does so convincingly and poetically.  It’s pretty expansive and offers wonderful insight—detailing our collective history along the way.  I am reading Chris Womersley’s City of Crows only two years after he so kindly sent me a copy!  Chris is a friend and writes beautifully—and in this case—darkly.  I have just started re-reading From Nothing to Zero—letters by refugees in Australian detention centres.  Edited by Julian Burnside and pre-dating our Christmas Island experience, they detail our inhuman and illegal response in terms that are immediately human.  Bedtime reading at the moment, Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.

I find that I don’t watch a lot at the moment, but during the enforced months of COVID isolation, I re-watched Arrested Development – there isn’t a spare moment or word in the show and the characters are wonderfully depraved; binged on Ozark and Normal People; and was blown away by features, A Separation and Toni Erdmann, and loved the very cinematic Leviathan by Andrey Zvyagintsev.