Tim: It’s a contemporary piece. I think of it as a memory play about a man in his fifties who is looking back on his life. It’s really about the conflict between art and religion, about a chap called Asher Lev who grew up in a Hasidic family and wanted to follow his passion as an artist, but found that it came into conflict with his parents, more so his Father’s idea of what a Jewish boy should be focusing on in his life.
Emily: Do any of you have cultural or religious connections to Judaism?
The cast point to Moira and laugh.
Emily: How has this affected your experience in directing the play?
Moira: Well I’m pretty uninformed unfortunately about many aspects. I am Jewish - I’m about to have Passover on Friday - but you’d probably call me a secular Jew rather than a religious Jew. The family represented in the play is highly traditionally religious, and I know that from a distance – I know that from friends and from being a part of that community, but I wasn’t brought up like that.
Annie: There’s a great deal of the play that we don’t really need to have a strong knowledge of Jewish tradition for, because it’s about human interaction. The basic conflict is between his innate desire to be creative, where he has to be because of his passion and his talent. The conflict that has with the outside standards can be understood by anybody.
Emily: Yeah okay. There’s a pervasive idea that to be a great artist you have to really struggle – such as a depressed Heath Ledger type – but then you have Virginia Woolf saying in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ that actually you have to free yourself from this anger to be able to create good art. In this play the religious pressure shapes the way he creates art, but how do you think that other people might relate to that, with those ideas in mind?
Annie: Well one of the other characters belongs to that school of thinking, that anyone can draw, but you need that scream within. You need something that has to be expressed, that might make the difference between someone who might just doodle and someone who becomes a great artist.
John: That’s where that great passion comes from.
Emily: Conversely – you can tell I’ve been reading Virginia Woolf (laughs) – she was discussing ways of creating art in the context of gender, and said that because these women are so angry about the inequality that they’re facing, she thought you could see it in their writing, and that it was harming their work – whereas men didn’t have this burden.
John: It’s interesting, I can see where she’s coming from. As a teacher of artists, that’s one of the things I do say, I say, why do you want to be an actor? What’s inside you that needs to get out? What do you want to say about this world that you’re living in? Otherwise don’t be an actor. It’s a very difficult life. You need to want to express yourself and you need to find your own personal aesthetic, and I think that’s really really essential. And the character Jacob Kahn who Tim plays, that’s his beef. You’ve got to find what’s inside you – and you can’t just have a voice, you can’t just have a scream. It’s more than a scream. You’ve got to be able to master the art form. Once you’ve mastered the form then you can express your emotions, and your feelings – which is the Virginia Woolf connection here – through your craft. But you need the craft. And then the character sets off on a journey of five years with an amazing recognised artist who has worked with Picasso and Braque in Europe. And Annie’s character Anna Schaeffer owns one of the finest galleries in Manhattan, so he says to Asher Lev, now you want to exhibit your work in her gallery – this is what you have to do. Your drawings are fine, they’re beautiful, they’re lovely, but your personal expression’s not in there. So we need to find that – find what’s in your soul, the voice of your soul, the song of your soul. And we also need you to master your craft. So when these two things come together, it’s like an alchemy. He takes the mission on and sculpts me like Michelangelo’s David. But now to find my voice, I have to give up something. I have to give up the rigidity of a religion, because the religion is holding me in. He has a nervous breakdown, because there’s a schism in his world. He goes to the Yeshi, he does everything right, he obeys his father, he loves his father – he wants to be like his Dad, and he wants to do everything his Dad wants him to do. But he can’t help it. He keeps wanting to draw. And that conflict of not being allowed to draw – of giving up because he wants to be a good boy, is such a universal story. In teaching actors myself, I’ve found this – they come to me broken kids a lot of them because a lot of them went to law school or went to study engineering or accounting–
Emily: -I can relate to this (laughs)
John: -and they did exactly what their Mum and Dad wanted them to do, and they come to me almost at nervous breakdown point. “I’m giving up everything, please help me.” And so he goes into this mini depression and he doesn’t draw – he gives up drawing to be a good boy.
Emily: I’m at law school right now. I feel it! (All laugh)
Emily: Obviously in this situation there’s a big conflict between his religion and his artistic expression. Do you think that’s in every situation? Of course there are religious people who are artists, do you think it always is in conflict?
Tim: No it depends on your influences’ point of view on whether there’s going to be conflict. I grew up in a very conservative Catholic family and I went to study economics and do all those things and I decided that wasn’t for me, and I felt the pressure of my family. When I finally dropped out of uni and went home and said, “I don’t want to do that. I want to do this.” The reaction from my parents was “Well why didn’t you do that from the beginning?”
Moira: You were lucky.
Tim: The pressure I had was from my teachers at school. The Marist brothers saying your parents will be disappointed if you become an actor and don’t become an accountant. So I had that in my head, believing that was what my parents would be thinking. When I went home to my parents and said I wanted to be an actor, they said “Well just do it.” (Laugh) “Do what’s going to make you happy.”
Emily: That’s crazy. Why do you think people value accountancy etc more than acting?
Tim: You’d have to ask the Marist brothers that. (Laughs)
Moira: But that doesn’t exist everywhere. It depends on the society.
John: Well you worry about your kids. I worry about my son, being an artist and having lived a long life as an artist – grey hairs to prove that – I want my son to be happy, and to have stability. And living in Sydney it’s about money, and there’s no way as an artist in Sydney that you can enter the property market. It just doesn’t go. By associating, I suppose a ‘good life’ with economics, which I think is a mistake that we make, it’s a natural protective instinct.
Moira: I’ve got a quote that ‘A society is as great as its dreams, and its dreams are dreamed by its artists’. Some societies ascribe to that, but Sydney, Australia…
Emily: Not so much.
John: You’ve got to follow your passion.
Emily: Yeah I know, and it’s a struggle I feel deeply. That’s why I’m very much looking forward to seeing the show – and I’m a Christian as well, I feel it on multiple levels.
Tim: What kind of Christian?
Emily: A protestant, but I would just say that I believe that Jesus died and rose again for me, I’m not particularly denominational.
John: Oh right, because there’s that whole artistic – you know, the Hillsong thing-
Emily: Oh yeah, yeah.
John: They’ve even got art colleges and music colleges and record labels, you know they are producing more art than the rest of us in Sydney! And they’ve got the facilities and the money.
Emily: Which is interesting. And when you look at the very rich art history in Christianity that goes back hundreds of years-
John: Yeah absolutely. We talk about that in the play a lot. He has me, a little Jewish Hasidic boy, painting crucifixion after crucifixion, studying all the masters.
Emily: Is that near the part (I read in the book) where he starts to paint the nudes?
John: He paints one live – Annie takes all her clothes off on stage (laughs).
Emily: Do you?!
John: She does. In front of a little Jewish boy. (laughs)
Moira: Naughty. You’re going to have audiences coming expecting to be voyeurs…
Annie: Or staying away!
Emily: Talking about his responsibility to his parents, and moving away from that to find his own artistic expression, do you think an artist has a particular responsibility, do you think that an artist is free to do whatever it is they want?
John: An artist’s responsibility is to himself and to his art.
Emily: As an example in film, Tarantino created Inglourious Basterds and audiences became very angry when his characters killed Hitler in the film – people said how can you change history like that when people take what they see in movies as truth. This is something you cannot portray as truth. Tarantino’s response was that ‘my characters do what they want to do’. But it does make you think, maybe to a certain extent there does need to be some sort of social accountability to what an artist does.
Tim: I think from a painter’s point of view, if they started painting from that viewpoint you’re not getting the raw art. When an actor comes on stage, the most dangerous thing for an actor to do is for their brain to go to the audience and look at them from the outside. The best thing as an actor is when you come off stage you ask ‘did we just do that? Did that just happen?’
Emily: Because you’re fully present.
Tim: You try to stay out of your head and be in the moment.
Moira: The artist is there to reflect what they see. I think the result is a changing of society. But I don’t think it is the artist’s role to do anything but reflect what they see.
Annie: I think they can push the boundaries too and make people think about alternatives.
Moira: Do they need to make moral judgements?
Moira: That’s in the show. Aesthetic blindness or moral blindness?
John: And what is the measure of morality? What is your benchmark? An artist has got a personal vision, so there can’t be any morality around that. The cutting edge comes out of a personal vision and a very gifted person. Millions of people have talent. But not everyone is a great artist. You’re not an abstract expressionist if you copy Picasso – how many millions of people can create sad copies. But Picasso and Braque created something new, they didn’t even know what they were doing.
Moira: They were visionaries. Nobody else dreams these visions – the politicians don’t, the economists don’t, who else dreams visions? That to me is the element of what art is.
Emily: Since the play is about relationships, how did you cultivate these interesting familial dynamics between you on stage?
John: We’re discovering it aren’t we. We have worked together before.
Annie: Tim and I haven’t worked together before.
John: No but I have with each of you individually. But even during lunch it’s all part of the process of becoming close to each other and being open. You negotiate that as part of the process, so Annie doesn’t feel in anyway intimidated about coming into my personal space, she feels like she can treat me as a child and I will nuzzle into her. You give each other permission. The trick for me anyway, to be vulnerable all the time, so that you’re able to be affected. So when Tim comes up and does something to me, it does something to my being, and stays there, becomes a sensory memory for the next rehearsal.
Annie: It’s very much a team sport! And we’re all on the same side. That’s nice.