In interviews with actor Philip Quast ahead of two very different appearances in Tamworth, a common theme keeps cropping up: danger.
Getting comfortable with the danger of the unexpected has been one of the benefits of reaching 60 as a performer, the Tamworth export says.
But as someone who also teaches young actors, he also sees a lack of creativity-spawning danger and a profusion of the creativity-killing kind.
From Play School to Follies
Quast made a live appearance earlier this month at Tamworth Regional Gallery’s opening of its Happy Birthday Play School: Celebrating 50 Years exhibition, where he relived his many years as a host for the ABC Television children’s program.
A week-and-a-half later, there was a cinema screening of a live-filmed performance of Follies, the Stephen Sondheim musical in which Quast starred for six months at London’s National Theatre.
Play School and Follies couldn’t be more different but one did, in a way, contribute to the other, he says.
Follies was aired in Tamworth as part of NT Live, the National Theatre’s program that aims to brings world-class theatre to cinemas in the UK and internationally.
In it, Quast played the disillusioned husband and diplomat Ben Stone, one of four spouses who reach crisis points in their lives at a reunion 20 years after their courting days.
Quast says the cast and crew have very little preparation before one of their live performances is filmed.
“We have 10 cameras, we have one camera rehearsal the day before and we don’t know what the shots are as actors,” he says.
“What you’re actually seeing is a live production; it’s not edited in any way, so if anything goes wrong, it’s up there for perpetuity.
“Because it’s singing, it’s extra stressful … if you make a mistake, and my character does in this – there’s a moment where the audience thinks that I have, and that was sort of improvised every night on stage.”
Reaping the benefits
But Quast says his prior experience has helped him get comfortable with the uncomfortable.
“As an actor I’m reaping the benefits onstage now, having turned 60, of being comfortable when something unexpected happens on stage; I can deal with it.”
It’s a challenge he met head-on in his Play School years.
“Play School has changed an awful lot, although the structure is much the same,” he says.
“We rolled that tape and it just went; now, I gather, they edit it and that’s certainly a reflection on how things are done now: you know, you take a snapshot on your phone, look at it, take another one until you get the perfect one.
“The reason we did it without stopping was because there was that live element: a bit of danger, a bit of a naughtiness.
“Anything could go wrong.”
He says this also elicits an honest performance, an authenticity that’s needed – perhaps even more so than for adults – to engage with the ultimate truth-tellers and truth-seekers: children.
“As an actor, what it meant to me was that you actually really do know the core of when you’re being honest,” he says.
“I know when I’m being real and when I’m being fake, and if you sit there and go ‘Hello’ [he assumes a patronising, sing-song tone], they know it …
“You had to have that sense of play and dealing with the unexpected.”
‘Learn slow, act fast’
Quast fears this is not happening – or at least, not in a constructive way – for younger actors.
The respected stage and screen actor now divides his time between teaching and performing in Australia and abroad.
And he sees the great difference between the world in which he cut his acting teeth and the world in which young actors start out today.
“The world is so small now because of technology and social media but, for a young person, it’s also its greatest danger,” he says.
Quast insists he’s “not down on technology”.
But he can see many ways in which young performers can sabotage and stifle their own growth through technology: being distracted by small-minded gossip; watching others’ performances and mimicking instead of self-discovering; limiting the input of their senses to visual and sometimes aural; even using “percussive” writing and speech from so much tapping and texting.
Quast says his advice would be “learn slow, act fast … challenge yourself with the classics, try and stay off social media as much as possible, learn to write longhand, don’t tap all the time”.
Play in parenting
Other important lessons came from Quast’s Play School days: the role of play in parenting.
“You have to just be in the moment as a parent, despite the fact you’re stressed, you’re tense, you’ve got mortgage worries,” he says.
“The kids don’t know that and it’s unfair to put all that on them, because you’re hindering their creativity and growth.
“What Play School taught me as an actor and a parent was to try to remind myself of a sense of play, and that great things are achieved when you play …
“Even toilet training became moments of play; I made up songs all the time about flushing the poo down the toilet: ‘pick up the seat and put it in the toilet; stand - up - straight’. I’m just making this up on the spot.
“Couldn’t get the kids into the bath? ‘Wiggerly woo’ something ‘nudie rudie’ something something – as soon as I sang that, the clothes came off.
“If you can turn everything you do into a game or play, life becomes so much more enjoyable.”
Quast says he comes back to his old hometown regularly to see his dad, and it is “absolutely” a pleasure to visit.
“It’s a clean, vibrant, friendly town,” he says.
“It’s incredible to see what’s happened to Tamworth ... the country music scene, the equestrian stuff that’s been happening on a world stage.
“I’m also a fisherman; I come back here and go fishing at Keepit Dam with some old mates.”
And although he hails from a city that has a strong music, theatre and musical theatre scene, Quast says he thinks aspiring artists can make their way from wherever they may start.
“I don’t think there's anything in the water or air that made me anything special; there’s an element of luck,” he says.