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The Servant of Two Masters

"I'm a very insecure person"

Benjamin Law and George Zhao talk turning points. One of them is Flubber.

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Company: Sport for Jove
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George Zhao: Class clown

Date: 20 Nov 2017

Right now the entire stretch of Surry Hills’ Devonshire Street is rubble.

Endless roadworks for the new light rail means all businesses operate to the constant hum of roadworks and shovelling, and that includes indie theatre company Sport for Jove.

Inside the warehouse, a dozen-strong circle of cast and crew talk above the din, one month away from the company staging Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Carlo Goldoni’s mid 18th Century Italian comedy The Servant of Two Masters. Everything is up for grabs. As much as today is a read-through of Measure for Measure, it’s also a studious book club and production meeting. Cast and crew alike wrestle with staging options together – should they employ the audience as an in-play crowd? ­– as well as its current-day political resonances.

“Think of it as Trump shaking Obama’s hand,” someone says about one scene. Later, someone stops the reading to point out the resonances to current-day revelations of Hollywood’s culture of gaslighting, discrediting and doubting allegations of sexual assault, abuse and harassment.

Just before rehearsals started, I stole away Sydney-based George Zhao, who plays Provost in Measure for Measure and Truffaldino, the lead role in The Servant of Two Masters, as well as co-starring in SBS’s The Family Law. We talked about the TV show, his personal connection with The Servant of Two Masters and his former life as a figure skater (No joke).

“Have you ever asked yourself why you chose acting in the first place?

I’ve always ask myself, ‘If I wasn’t acting, what would I be doing?’ But there’s really nothing that I want to do.

What is it about you – your personality, your character – that clicks with acting? What does acting give you?

Okay [laughs] – I’m a very insecure person. But because of my insecurities, I like to understand people so I can better understand myself. I think acting forces me to understand as many different kinds of people as possible. And when I hear the applause at the end, I feel really good about myself.

Not every night is applause, right? And there are lots of auditions.

It really isn’t easy. It swings. The best thing is you get the applause and laughs and feel good about yourself. The worst thing is you don’t. And when you don’t, yeah – it’s really draining.

Do you remember an ‘a-ha’ moment. As in, that’s what I want to do? That’s the job for me.

[laughs] It’s funny. The one person who did that was Robin Williams. And it was the weirdest movie … Do you remember Flubber?

I was about to say Flubber as a joke, but you just said it seriously!

[laughs] Yeah! It was Flubber.

So not Good Will Hunting … Flubber.

This was when I was a child!

Williams’ performance with slime really spoke to you.

It was that comforting feeling of him in that. It wasn’t so much, ‘He is a phenomenal actor in this movie’; it was the first Robin Williams film I saw.

I had that feeling with Mrs Doubtfire: a film about divorce, prosthetics and cross-dressing. But it’s one thing to watch a performance and think ‘That makes me feel wonderful and joyful’; it’s another bridge to say, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ What were you like at high school? Were you doing plays? Drama captain?

Heck, no. In high school, I tried and failed to be the class clown. It’s one thing to be the class clown; it’s another thing to fail at it, when you try to be. I didn’t stop trying; I tried and failed. Multiple times. For me, people laughing at you – well, not at you; with you – is approval.

You were already kind of a performer, being a former figure skater. What drew you to figure skating? Did you watch the Winter Olympics or something?

Figure skating was a completely random thing. I went in with my brother and my mum – ‘Oh yeah’, this is really fun’ – then a teacher offered lessons and from there, it was like, ‘Sure, let’s do it.’

Was anything about that helpful – in retrospect – with acting?

Oh 100 per cent. Physical theatre is something I really thrive in. And ice-skating gave me the balance and the physical capability as a base to springboard off.

Asian kids are often discouraged from pursuing arts. Was that your experience?

It’s changing. And in the industry too, with The Family Law.

My plan is working.

It’s definitely a turning point. There are actually opportunities for people like me. It was always an uncertain thing when I chose acting. It was like jumping into a black hole – I didn’t know what was on the other side. It’s been quite a good journey so far. I’ve only started.

Your family’s got your back.

They didn’t always. But they do now.

What changed?
Just my commitment to it. Growing up, I always did stuff then quit. Two years was always my maximum amount of time: piano, tennis, all the classic Asian stereotypes and tropes. Acting was the only thing where my family was like, ‘He’s actually stuck to this.’

What was your first paid acting job?

An AFTRS short film.

Are you more of a creature of the stage or screen now?

Whatever’s available, to be honest. I love theatre: having a live audience reacting in the moment to everything you’re doing, as opposed to filming it and getting the reaction months down the track. But there’s also a technicality to filming I really like.

Was Family was one of your first screen roles?

It was the first screen role.

What was the biggest learning curve about playing … well, my brother?

Off the top of my head, the biggest impact was walking into that room, right at the beginning. Actually, I’m just gonna throw this out there. I actually forgot I auditioned for it.

Right, you don’t care about our show whatsoever. You think it’s garbage.

I was doing that whole ‘audition and forget about it’ thing.

Were you doing that for superstition or for self-preservation?

More for self preservation. If you’re constantly thinking about an audition, it’s not good for your health. The audition itself almost needs to be the end point [in your mind], and if things come out of it, they come out of it. I try going to the audition thinking it is the performance – the casting director is the director. You do your thing. They film it. They leave. That’s the gig. But the biggest learning curve for me on The Family Law was walking into that first read-through and going, ‘Wow. This was not the short film I thought it was.’

[laughs] Did you get a different brief? What was going on in your mind that day?

Before the audition, I was doing Aida – the opera on the harbour – so I was focused on that. I got this brief, learned it, walked into the audition room, did my thing. It was my most comfortable audition ever. Then I completely forgot about it. When my agent texted me – ‘Congratulations on your role of Andrew Law in The Family Law’ – I responded with, ‘Sorry, what was this for again?’ [laughs] I thought it was like a web series or short film. So when I walked into that first read-through with all these people …

There were sandwiches!

Sandwiches! Not just biscuits. And our names on the table! I was like, ‘Okay… this is not a web series.’ And then read through it, and was like, ‘Holy shit, this is a television show.’

I imagine a lot of our actors that day – especially young actors – had a similar experience? A lot of you had significant stage experience, but it wasn’t like TV roles were there.

Stage has always been slightly ahead of television. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a [white] Australian cast, but if I started playing one of the roles, at first, you’d be like, ‘There’s an Asian guy’, but eventually you’d forget about it.

Like Kate Mulvany and Miranda Tapsell playing sisters [in The Literati at Griffin]. You just forget.

On TV it’s harder to do that. Although on Louis CK’s show, his daughters are completely different race [to their mother], but they never address it.

Well, the whole conversation about Louis CK is something quite different now …

Definitely.

I haven’t seen many Asian faces on stage until recently. What’s your experience as an actor behind the scenes, going for these kinds of roles? Did you ever feel there was a wall?

I’ve only been out of uni for three years, and I’ve been working with quite diverse people so far. It might be something the older generation feels more, but it’s at the point where I’m not feeling it as much. People behind the scenes are diverse now; so are people creating works for stage. Still, there have been gaps in work where I have been asking, ‘Why am I not doing anything at the moment?’ I really feel it as an ethnic actor, because I don’t know whether having no work is because I’m Asian, or because there’s just no work.

You’re the lead of this production. It still stands out to me when I see an Asian-Australian face as a lead. Tell me about the Servant of Two Masters. Because I’m a Philistine. What’s the story of this classic and very renowned play I know nothing about?

So … Servant of Two Masters is a play by Goldini, written in the style of commedia dell’arte.

Which is your expertise.
I teach commedia dell’arte, so doing this show has been great. And Servant of Two Masters is one of the – or the – first ‘written’ commedia dell’arte plays. Commedia dell’arte originally was just all improvised, because all of the characters are such solid stereotypes and archetypes. Then Goldoni comes along and decides, ‘I’m going to write this down’. It works in certain aspects; it doesn’t in others.

What do you mean by that?

Commedia dell’arte is so audience based, so you’re working off what they’re giving you. When you write that down, you kind of lose that a little bit. But it still works, and that’s why Servant of Two Masters is still around. It’s the predecessor to One Man, Two Guvnors, and a lot of people says it’s the predecessor to The Comedy of Errors. There’s a conspiracy theory Shakespeare went to Italy and a lot of his character creations came from commedia dell’arte.

What’s been challenging for you as an actor in this production? Like: “I need to get this right; I need to nail this …”

It’s been difficult in a sense I’ve come in with full commedia training, but this isn’t quite commedia. So my challenge is to relinquish some of my commedia training to match the show. Because commedia is so engrained in my body, there was certain things in the script where – argh! – my body just instinctively wants to do that. But it’s not the style of this show. It’s more of an enjoyable farce.”

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