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Interview with Terence Crawford

Terence Crawford is an actor, playwright and teacher. He graduated from NIDA in 1984 and created roles in the premiere of plays by Stephen Sewell, Barry Dickins, Patrick White and Debra Oswald, among others. He has written for the stage, radio and television and worked extensively as an acting teacher, notably for Theatre Nepean, where he was Head of Acting between 1997 and 2002. His current position is as Programme Leader of the BA (Hons) Acting course at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore.

After a huge success in 2003, Terence’s play Love’s Triumph is currently on stage for a second season at the Darlinghurst Theatre, production closes 21 April 2007.

On a brief visit to Sydney, Terence spoke to us about his work in Australia and Singapore, his book Trade Secrets and the production of Love’s Triumph.

How did you get into teaching?

Well I think there were a couple of things happening at once there: I had a charmed life as an actor. I went through a series of very ordered steps from the time when I decided I wanted to be an actor, from the Young People’s Theatre in my hometown of Newcastle to the adult amateur scene, from there to the Hunter Valley Theatre Company, from there to NIDA and from NIDA to the State Theatre Company in South Australia. I think I was one of the last people to be part of this tradition where the major theatre companies would take young actors as company members and commit to giving them work for a year. And in my case that ended up being four years of pretty much full-time work. All that combined meant that I had about eleven or twelve years of never being out of a play and it was all I did. I was very lucky and I started to figure out how to do it.

Sadly, two of those important steps no longer exist. The HVTC is among the many great little regional companies that have been lined up and shot, and our state companies no longer pursue the practice of taking on grads for extended periods. Anyway, there came a point when my life became like everybody else’s. So that’s the point when I started writing and I started teaching seriously. That’s the practical part of it.

The other part of it is I think teaching is a born thing. I think I was a born teacher. The only real ambition I ever had in my life was the ambition to be a dad and to be a good dad. I think teaching and mentoring is connected with that sort of paternal instinct in a way. Which might sound strange, but I think it is connected. And I think that the people who encouraged me in teaching recognised that.

What was your intention when you decided to write a book about acting?

Most of our formal instruction about acting doesn’t come from Australia. Most of the books you would find young actors reading would probably be American books, and they respond very much to an American industry which is influenced by the fact that the film and television world in the United States is such a big part of the concept of being an actor - whereas here it is a bit of an afterthought.

The other thing about most acting books on the market is the idea that there is a single way that you can act. I think most acting books are not honest about what it is actually like to be an actor. There is the implication in them that you should do this and if you don’t do this you are not being a very good actor: If you don’t write a character biography of your character you are really taking short cuts, when the truth is there are very few good professional actors out there doing something like that. And that’s just one example of a whole range. Why is it that good professional actors don’t actually do those things? That they don’t subscribe to a religion in acting? They don’t do that because it doesn’t work to do that. You have to improvise.

You have to go on stage and have fun. You make it up. But the fun is informed by your experience and informed by rigorous study and understanding of the mechanics of the scene and the play. And so my life task as an acting teacher has become to try and deliver this eclecticism as a coherent model rather than a negation.

I also believe in that old-fashioned thing that as an acting teacher you should be a good role model. You are teaching people about personal integrity and I think that there is a link between personal integrity and acting. I think that great actors – as is exampled many times in my book – act from the foundation of their decency.

Do you get a lot of feedback on your book from students or acting teachers?

I do get a lot of feedback from students, and they are really for whom I wrote it. It has served me – and I think other teachers, too – to as much as possible demystify certain things about acting. I love the confusion in it. I love the lack of resolution in the interviews because when young actors see a really experienced and competent middle-aged actor on stage they assume that acting is for that person a complete breeze. And it’s not! It is hard work and even experienced actors are often humbled by it. I wanted the book to explore the fact that acting is a hard, slippery craft.

In an interview with the ABC in 2005 you lamented the reluctance in Australian theatre to stage Australian plays as opposed to English or American plays. Have you seen any change since then?

Well, it’s too easy to throw knives at people who run theatre companies. It’s an incredibly complex and difficult task and I respect those people doing the best that they can do. But I think they are a bit gutless sometimes in the face of the challenge. I think that it is not enough to say ‘We’ll do whatever Australian plays are good enough to be programmed.’ I think that’s a misreading of their responsibility. Their responsibility is to make sure there are good Australian plays ready; the resources need to be going into it.

These other playwrights whose plays they are doing have been nurtured by their cultures, by their countries; we need to nurture ours. Australian plays need to be recognised as what history is going to record. History is not going to record our productions of Shakespeare. Anything that is not an Australian play might be terribly worthwhile, might help us to understand how to live our lives, but it is in some way playing in the Reserve Grade. The First Grade is Australian theatre. That’s the thing on which we are going to build our heritage. And at the moment there is an inversion there.

What advice do you give young people who decide to become actors, particularly in the light of how difficult it is to maintain an acting career in Australia ?

I guess the thing is that a well trained actor is equipped for life in very significant and important ways. They are equipped for love, they are equipped for parenting, they are equipped for being good daughters and sons in their parents’ old age. Even if they never get a job in their life, it is a great thing to study. You’re studying humanity, because acting is the art of life.

So of course you have to negotiate your ego, you have to negotiate the fact that you are dreaming of a career that is probably not going to happen. There are painful negotiations along the way and almost everybody is living their B plan. But the B plan can be rich and beautiful. Who gets everything that they dream of? And people who do get everything they dream of often aren’t happy with it – whereas the life that you kind of carve out for yourself is often more satisfying.

You have been working in Singapore since 2004. How did you get to go there and what exactly are you doing there?

I travelled a couple of years earlier in Europe on a family holiday and I returned home with the strategy that I tell all students to have when they leave acting school – they have to have a hit list of all the things they might do. And in my case I came back with a long list of teaching and writing ideas to pitch at people and pursue. One of these ideas was to talk to John Clark about some teaching work at NIDA. John put me in touch with an old friend of his in Singapore who runs the Theatre Training and Research Programme. It’s an extraordinary course for people from all over Asia – many of whom don’t speak English - who go there to immerse themselves in traditional Asian theatre forms. And that work is juxtaposed with Stanislavskian or post-Stanislavskian acting work. So that was my part of the gig, to run the course and to provide that post-European acting agenda. After eighteen months of working there I was invited to teach at LASALLE College of the Arts, which is a degree course. We have an international cohort of students working entirely in English – so it is serving the English speaking world – with the aim to become a world-class international version of a school like NIDA.

Currently about 30% of the students come from Australia, 30% from Singapore and the remaining 40% from all over the world. If it is successful, in 20 years time cohorts will be made up from students from every English-speaking continent.

What is it like teaching students from so many different cultural backgrounds?

Oh, it’s fantastic. You liberate yourself from national archetypes and expectations. And it is also just wonderful that people make those friendships that you make at acting schools with people from all over the world. The repertoire is liberated too, to bring in things that someone might suggest from their own country. It’s great.

The interesting thing about Singapore is – and it sounds bizarre to say it and compare it to a country like Australia – but however far it is below Australia in terms of civil liberties, in terms of its tolerance of dissent – the two countries are moving in the opposite direction. Wherever Singapore is – it is moving up. It is improving, slowly. And maybe there is a really low ceiling on how far it will ever get, I don’t know. But it is moving in a liberal direction. And it would be a brave person who would argue that Australia is moving in that direction. You know it seems fairly clear that Australia is moving in the opposite direction. And that is an interesting tension. Well, from the Aussie perspective, it’s a terrifying concept I should think.

Your play Love’s Triumph is on stage for a second season at the Darlinghurst Theatre. What inspired you to write this play?

I was interested in the idea of classic comedy. I was interested in the fact that classic comedy has a pattern whereby the world seems to be a nasty place and throughout the course of the play we learn that it is a brighter place than it seems, that it is a more open-hearted place than it seems. So it begins with danger and it ends in happiness. And then it struck me that most comedies that I had seen - and indeed the comedies that I had written - were the opposite: the world might seem to be a nice place at the beginning, but as the play goes on the world of the play darkens. And that’s the description of most 20th century comedy. I thought that was interesting: Somehow through a century of atrocities comedy had been fundamentally redefined. When did it happen? Where was it lost? In the fields of France? At Hiroshima? In Cambodia? Comedy went from being a lightening thing to being a darkening thing. Anyway, because I am essentially a very happy person – I wanted to write a happy play. I wanted to write a play in which dangers were averted because it is possible for people’s hearts to open.

Meanwhile I had always loved verse. I have always loved nonsense verse, I have always loved rude verse, coarse verse. So those ideas came together and I ended up writing a whole play in verse.

Have you seen the rehearsals for this season?

No, I haven’t. But I have seen the production before, and the closing night of the last season was the most satisfying experience that I ever had as a writer. Everything was so beautiful and the audience were cheering. I love hearing laughter. I think that a group of people sitting in a theatre laughing their heads of together – I find that a profoundly moving thing. Now I also find it profoundly moving that people go to a theatre and watch a play that deals unapologetically with the darkest and most dangerous and difficult things in the world like with my friend Stephen Sewell’s plays. But this play is about getting together and laughing a lot and I must say I find that no less profound.

That only leaves me to ask what you are going to do next?

At the moment I am working on an adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, not a lot of laughs in that! But a great play. It is going to be performed in Singapore by my first graduating class. My writing career went a little like my acting career: I had breaks and I had high praise too early. My first plays were produced, and I was once cursed with the hideous description of being an ‘important new voice’. Now I’ve actually learnt how to write plays as well as having a bit of talent – which is all critics are responding to when they over-praise young writers – and my hope is that the success of Love’s Triumph will help get my two best unproduced plays to the stage some time in the next few years.

Do you have plans of coming back to Australia ?

Yes. My current contract keeps me in Singapore for another couple of years. My children have had a great time of going to school in France and in Singapore and I think it will be an enriching experience for them, but you do tend to think that they probably deserve to make their own minds up about their own country.

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