May 24, 2019. An email from Alice Livingstone at the New Theatre:
“Hi Jason and Elissa … Lovely to see you both last night. Now, I mentioned briefly that I had a little proposal …
We’re producing the Australian premiere of Cats Talk Back by Bess Wohl (of Small Mouth Sounds fame) as part of our Sydney Fringe Festival program in September. It’s a spoof on verbatim theatre, where a ‘well-known arts journalist’ interrogates a group of former cast members of the Broadway production of Cats – yep, the Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-hit – in front of a live audience.”
Would we, Alice enquired, be interested in stepping into the journalist role for six performances in the New’s season of Sydney Fringe Festival shows. Take your time, she wrote. Read the script.
“I look forward to hearing back from you when you can. Obviously, hush-hush at the moment, as the season hasn’t yet been announced.”
We get a lot of emails asking us to come to see shows. Emails asking us to be in one? Not so much. Not ever.
A few days of deliberation passed. On the plus side of the argument, the following:
We’ve both been on stage before. Elissa danced the roles of a tornado and a crow in a regional Queensland touring production of The Wiz when she was 16.
And I had made my Sydney theatrical debut on the New Theatre’s stage 21 years ago, playing the title role in Odon Von Horvath’s Don Juan Comes Back from the War. Every night for five weeks, I died under a little shower of paper confetti as the lights went down. If I could do that, I thought, surely I could just about manage to play myself.
Also, I’d just seen Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds at the Eternity Playhouse and enjoyed it. Wohl has a gift for the kind of dialogue in which the unsaid lurks, and Cats Talk Back fairly crackles with those tensions. The script rang truthfully, too, with Wohl basing much of it on interviews with long-serving cast members of the Broadway Cats, which opened in New York City’s Winter Garden Theatre in 1982 and ran for an incredible 7485 performances.
On the negative side: We were busy as hell with Audrey Journal; Elissa was working a day job in science media; I was schooling two kids at home and there was a better-than-even chance that one or both of us might suck – even when playing ourselves.
Then there is the not-insubstantial issue of Cats itself. I’ve always disliked Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. After the last time I saw it, I told myself, never again. Convincing an audience otherwise might require a Brando-esque level of acting I was incapable of.
So we said yes.
We turned up to the New Theatre a touch nervous. Sheepish, actually. Here we were, two non-actors, about to make chumps of ourselves. Had I written anything negative about any of my soon-to-be stage colleagues? Were we supposed to dress the part? Enter with an aura of actorly insouciance? Bring our own coffee or bottle of red?
Present were Sahn Millington (director), composer Patrick Howard (whose job was to resurrect a controversial number apparently excised from Cats just before it opened) and actors Callum Alexander, Taylor Buoro, Jodine Muir, Julian Ramundi and David Woodland, who play Wohl’s Broadway Cats veterans.
Quite alarmingly, they all seemed to be entirely on top of what they were saying and how it was to be said.
Woodland, who plays Hector, a former Rum Tum Tugger, already had the leading man’s (or is that cat’s?) confidence and aura of entitlement. Muir (whose character Monique is based on Marlene Daniel, who played the entire 18-year Broadway run) effortlessly oozed exhausted glamour.
Buoro, whose character was a latecomer to the Cats run, seemed every inch the wide-eyed Midwest Miss Dairy Queen, and Ramundi pitched the acerbic Stephen (a former Skimbleshanks) just about perfectly.
Alexander glowered in the corner. I couldn’t quite tell if he was acting a clinically depressed ex-Mungojerrie or if that was his default.
We read the script. We all laughed. Millington said we did OK and decided not to replace us while she still had the time.
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Into the light
We’ve all got day jobs so rehearsals for Cats Talk Back have been a weekends-only affair, 3-4 hours every Saturday and Sunday. They’ve been fun, mostly, though occasionally frustrating as we navigate Wohl’s demand for a relaxed, non-acted panel talk performance style, with the requirement to be effortlessly hilarious while being heard at the back of the room.
Even now, with the show running, the introductory monologue we’re charged with speaking fills us both with an apprehension that, to this day, hasn’t eased. There is nothing harder than to “be yourself”.
Just walking out into the light and saying the line, “My name is Jason Blake …” and making it sound like I actually am Jason Blake and not some curiously inept Jason Blake impersonator, is to me, as challenging as any monologue from Hamlet.
There are still times when my shaky grasp of Wohl’s words reveals itself in garbled cues that leave my colleagues scrambling. Then again, perhaps it’s good to keep everyone in a perpetual state of alertness.
I’m writing this on the day of our opening night. Elissa is biting the bullet and going first. I’ll be there to watch her and learn, and observe the effect a real-life audience has on the event.
And I can say at this point, having yet to experience my trial by fire, that saying yes to this was a great idea – possibly the only one I’ve had all year. It’s lit-up areas of my brain that have been long-dormant. I’ve met some friendly, talented people and been privileged to watch them do their magic.
And while I’ll never love Cats, I’ve developed an admiration for those people this show portrays – the actors, dancers and singers who hit their marks eight times a week for months, years, entire careers.
If I can do it just once, damn it, I’ll be happy.
Cats Talk Back plays at the New Theatre until September 14.