By BRUCE DENNILL
The Last Five Years is a one-act drama-comedy telling the bittersweet love story of Catherine Hiatt, a struggling actress, and Jamie Wellerstein, an up-and-coming novelist. This old story of love-found and love-lost is told in a fresh new manner. Cathy reflects on their relationship from end to first meeting, whilst Jamie’s story moves chronologically. They meet only once, in the middle of the show. Featured in the role of Jamie is Fleur-Du-Cap nominee, Anthony Downing. Playing opposite him as Cathy, is Fleur-Du-Cap nominee Zoë McLaughlin. At the helm of the creative team is award-winning director Paul Griffiths with musical direction by Jaco Griessel.
Downing discusses the way he works.
Live performance: the thrill versus the nerves – where are you on that curve as a new show starts?
Phew, I guess the start of a new show always brings a substantial amount of nerves because you’re diving into unknown territory. You trust yourself to a point, but you can’t tell the future or what will happen in front of a live audience. We artists are often rather hard on ourselves as well so we want to do the role we play justice, and as a result there is a large amount of nervous energy and pressure. Of course as time goes on, those nerves settle and what was unfamiliar starts to become thrilling and enjoyable.
How do you find a balance during rehearsals or other preparation?
I think balance comes with preparation and repetition. The more familiar I am in the role, the better my nerves will be handled, so even when we get to opening night where I’m suddenly in front of an audience, I’m able to trust that preparation and repetition from the rehearsal space enough to see me through on stage. The worst, though, is if l’m feeling a little under the weather when having to do big numbers. It can be scary not knowing how things might turn out. In that case, I’ve got to tap into whatever reserves I’ve got and make quick, more economical choices. It’s a rush, but not in a good way…
In a best-case scenario, what are you looking for in a role? What is the main basis for that decision – the script, the people involved, the challenge to your skills, the impact (positive or negative) it might have on your life in general, or perhaps something else?
I’m a sucker for grand and opulent! Precision and poise. Big sets, beautiful costumes, lights, orchestras and exquisite music. But best-case scenario would also have to include a captivating storyline, challenging material and the chance to completely relate to my character with creative flexibility. Oh what a perfect production that would be! However, these large scale international shows often come at some artistic cost. They are usually a very blueprinted structure that must be strictly followed – and understandably so. But if I were able to have my cake and eat it then I’d take all the aforementioned. On the other hand, the intimacy one experiences with smaller shows is what makes a musical such as The Last Five Years so incredibly moving. There is something beautiful and authentic in the simplicity of raw theatre without all the smoke and mirrors and I can confidently say this musical has satiated all the creative performing artist and musician in me like no other production in the past has done.
Acting is often a vocation, a thing you can’t not do. How true is that for you now? Has it changed over the years – for practical, perhaps banal reasons? And how do you, or would you like to, keep your calling front and centre in your life?
This is true. The vocation we feel is a blessing and a curse. I’ve always tried to be prudent with my life’s decisions while doing what I love, but it’s often very challenging just because of the tumultuous nature of performing arts. As I get older I’ve definitely found myself searching for what I can build upon career-wise in my life rather than searching for the next best role. Theatre and touring the world has given me so much of what life has to offer, but I’ve recognised this can also be a drug – and like every drug, it wears off over time. So yes, my focus and expectations are definitely changing and adapting but I think this is and should be the healthy transition into different avenues of the business we actors and performing artists are in. There’s a lot outside of being in front of the lights we can offer and need to embrace all facets of our industry, rather than being too tunnel-visioned. I think it’s important to keep up-skilling ourselves so as to be as versatile as possible and tap into these skills down the line. At least that’s how I see it.
What are the toughest expectations to deliver on – all the way from the first audition to the end of the run?
I think at the end of the day you can do everything right in the audition room and still not get the part purely because you aren’t right for it. That’s okay. You lick your wounds and quickly move on without judging yourself too harshly about how you could have done things differently. However, if you are a potential candidate in the casting director’s eyes, that’s a much harder thing, because you have to then play the game of convincing them you’re the one to choose. Ugh, I hate this process just talking about it! You also have to make them see that you’re likeable, easy to work with, talented and consistent. The expectations are high, but what I’ve learnt is to try be as authentic as possible. No one likes a sycophant. And it’s easy to become this for numerous reasons. Regarding the expectations throughout a run, consistency is key. The last thing the creative team want is someone who is flaky, ill-mannered and unable to perform consistently. Sure, there are times we get sick and can’t help that. But people notice when it becomes a trend, so it’s important to have enough discipline to carry yourself through until the finish line.
Tell us about your current production, and what makes your character interesting to play?
The Last Five Years has such an intimate and engaging energy. When I first looked at this musical, I must be honest it did take me a while to understand the whole storyline and all the specific details that come with it. It also moves fast, so sometimes it can be hard to keep up if you’re coming into this musical for the first time. Musically speaking however, it’s easy to quickly fall in love with the songs. The music is simply beautiful and cleverly written. The lyrics have a strong dynamic arc that conveys such a relatable message for many people having ‘been around block’. As far as my character goes, I’ve never had to act and sing with this much emotional depth or degree of difficulty before and as a result it immediately makes my character incredibly interesting to play. Not to mention there are only two of us to drive this story. From electric highs to debilitating lows, I’ve got to somehow foster five years of an extremely turbulent relationship in the space of 80 minutes on stage. The challenge of this has been exhilarating as well as a little nerve-wracking, especially when I first started. But I think I’ve managed to find my way. Do I relate to my character? Absolutely. In fact both Jamie’s and Cathy’s. This story is closely analogous to the industry I am in – any industry that drives creativity often comes with a few rollercoaster rides and The Last Fives Years brilliantly unpacks how some of these experiences unfold.