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"I was definitely blinded by my obsession"

Les Mis 1000 times? 85 (and a half) viewings of Wicked? Actor George Kemp goes in search of Australia's theatre obsessives.

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Category: Theatre
Show: Audience
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Masters of the House: Who are Australia’s Extreme Theatregoers?

Date: 1 May 2018

I saw Mark Rylance play Jonny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jerusalem on The West End in 2012.

It was a performance of such immense skill and inexplicable magic, I had to go back again, just to make sure I hadn’t just imagined the whole thing.

I saw Laura Linney in Time Stands Still on Broadway in 2010. She delivered one specific line of text with such ferocity, truth and power – a line that affected me so deeply – I had to go back the next night to see if she could do it again. She did.

I saw Tracy Letts’ play August: Osage County in 2010 and I was so astounded by the genius of the thing that I was there the next night, too.

On my first visit, at the second interval, the audience leapt to their feet and cheered.

The next night, at the same point, the audience sat in total silence for minutes after the lights came up, leaving the ushers in confusion and formulating an impromptu plan over their walkie-talkies to clear the theatre of 800 stunned mullets.

As an actor for the last decade, I’ve learned a thing or two about the power of the theatre and the contagiousness of what Antony Sher describes as “red and gold fever”.

I’ve come to understand how a story, an actor or a character can change someone’s life and render them just a little bit different.

Theatre has the power to simultaneously change someone in a specific moment, and henceforth. It’s immediate, dangerous and very, very real.

I’m obsessed with the theatre. But, as a theatre maker in Sydney, and around the world for the last 10 years, I’ve discovered that my mania is positively measly in comparison to that of others.

I’ve seen them staring up at the stage, sitting in the dark, with eyes as bright as any spotlight.

They are the truly obsessed, people who devote much of their time, energy and income to a particular show to which they return again and again … and again … and again. And then again after that.

The New Yorker, in its March 2018 edition, published an article profiling New Jerseyite Jo Ann Veneziano, an extreme theatregoer.

Between 2001 and 2004, she attended Urinetown 200 times. In 2006, she saw The Wedding Singer 170 times, and Spring Awakening 533 times.

As journalist Patricia Marx reports, “she may hold the record for a contest that doesn’t exist.”

In producer parlance or sales speak, people like Veneziano are “whales”, an unflattering yet affectionate term for consumers of a product or service who account for a relatively large percentage of its sales. They are a vital part of the theatre ecosystem. Like whales, they are rare and not a great deal is known about them.

So I wondered, who are Veneziano’s Australian counterparts, our local industry whales, and what makes them tick?

Let’s start at the apex.

If these audience members are the whales, then The Dalton Sisters (Joanne and Sue) are the Moby Dick of the theatre world – infamous and on an unparalleled scale around these here parts.

Cradling matching lattes and both wearing floral pants, sandals and black T-shirts (Sue’s sporting a Warhorse logo), the Daltons are warm, friendly and just a tiny bit wary. Their passion oscillates somewhere between matter-of-fact and breathless intensity. It’s quite infectious and I soon find myself being caught up in their enthusiasm.

I ask if there was a moment when it all began, a show that sparked their love of the theatre. The answer shoots back in perfect unison: “Nicholas Nickleby!”

Joanne and Sue saw it in Sydney in 1984. “And that’s the first time we realised you could go back and see it again!” They did just that, watching the eleven-hour epic another eight times in three different states. They were hooked.

That seems impressive enough, until they bring up the big one. The Dalton Sisters have seen Les Miserables over 1000 times. That’s right, over 1000 trips to the barricade and back.

“We know that the first time round we saw it about five hundred times, back in 1987,” says Sue.

“And it’s been back twice since then,” adds Joanne.

What is it about that show in particular that captures them?

“I think it’s the story. The music and the story just work so well together,” Sue explains. “Even though so many people die, it’s uplifting and I think we intellectually really enjoy it, too.”

Do their minds ever wander?

“If we’re tired, sometimes,” Sue confesses. “But generally not. Though our minds have wandered sometimes in other shows, like in Cats.

They’re only human.

As I’m chatting with them, my own mind wanders slightly to try and do some sums. It can’t be cheap. They flew once a month to Melbourne to see Les Mis in its latest Australian iteration and followed it to Sydney, Perth and Brisbane. They’ve seen the show in London, New York and experienced it performed in Flemish in Antwerp.

It comes as no surprise to learn their zeal for hearing ‘the people sing’ has allowed Joanne and Sue to attain Gold Frequent Flyer status.

Joanne is 54 and a legal assistant at one of the Big Four banks. Until recently, Sue, 51, worked in superannuation. Even though both of them work in financial services, I ask if they had to make sacrifices to sustain their theatre going.

“Yes, we very rarely have any money,” they laugh, before explaining that, through a well-timed sale of shares, they were able to put a deposit on a house (they live together in Parramatta) and then, with money left to them by an aunt, were able to pay off their mortgage – thus freeing up more money for theatre tickets.

It wasn’t always the case though.

“In the old food court in the MLC centre, there used to be a coffee shop that would stay open, and the man would sell us a cappuccino and raisin toast for two dollars. He obviously realised that’s all we could afford,” chuckles Joanne. “That was our dinner before the show.”

There are whales elsewhere, too.

In East Brisbane, 32-year-old Michelle Bagtas is among the most voracious. She has seen the musical Wicked 85 and a half times (more on that half later).

Bagtas’ interest in theatre came relatively late in her life. She didn’t attend shows as a child. But aged 22, she saw, and instantly became obsessed with, actress Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 film Notorious.

Bagtas dug out a copy of Bergman’s autobiography and read that, as well as acting in plays, Bergman would sometimes meet fans outside the theatre. The idea that one could meet one’s idols at a stage door piqued her interest.

A few years later, a 21st century Ingrid Bergman presented herself in the form of Jemma Rix, then understudying the role of Elphaba in Wicked.

“I was honestly a bit disappointed when I saw the slip in the programme saying that we were getting an understudy for Elphaba,” Bagtas recalls. But when she belted out the last line in The Wizard and I, I was absolutely floored and honestly just needed to hear more. Jemma is 100 per cent what made me obsessed with Wicked. Going to the show was the only way to hear her voice so that’s where I went!”

Eventually, Bagtas got her Bergman stage door moment. “Jemma would often come over and have a laugh with us about a goof that she knows we would have noticed, or even just to chat.”

The ‘we’ that Bagtas speaks of is one of the most heart-warming aspects of speaking to these audience members – the community it creates. There is a common answer when I ask whether they have friends who don’t understand their obsessions, and it’s this: most of their friends are people they’ve met through the theatre.

“I made some really good friends through Wicked,” says Bagtas. “Meeting them at Stage Door, on the Wicked in Oz Facebook page, or through other fans. There was a great sense of community with the show and it felt special belonging to it.”

I’m keen to know how important recognition is for the super-fan. Do they care if the actors know that they’re there?

The Daltons, like The New Yorker’s Veneziano, sit in the front row whenever they can, but say recognition is not something they crave.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s fine if they see us, but sometimes it throws people on stage knowing we’re there,” says Sue. “Bill Zappa used to say he used to hate it when we were in the front row. He’s since got used to it. But he especially hated it in White Devil when he had to run out totally naked!”

The Daltons laugh loud, identical throaty laughs.

“I don’t like hanging around Stage Door unless we know someone. I don’t like the actors feeling like they’re obliged to talk to us. They’re not,” Sue adds.

I pose the same question to Bagtas.

“I do feel a sense of pride if it comes up,” she says. “It does feel really great when the performers recognise you and acknowledge you as a regular fan.”

As an actor, this struck a chord with me. I remembered reading an article in The Guardian in which actress Janet Henfry (best known to me from her work in my grandmother’s living room as Mrs Bale in TV series As Time Goes By) offered this advice to younger actors: “If you’re not obsessed with this profession, you’ll never survive”.

I think it has truth to it. In the theatre, to some extent, we’re all obsessive, and our obsession is not too dissimilar to that of our whales. The thousand letters you pen to agents, the repetition of 300 performances of a single show, the meticulous rehearsal of a pratfall to extract maximum LOLs … It just manifests itself 15 feet away, mirrored on the other side of the proscenium.

Recently, I performed in the Melbourne season of Pop-up Globe’s productions of Henry V and As You Like It.

Of the 140,000 tickets sold, an uncommon number were gobbled up by one Melburnian: 24-year-old Emily Busch.

Busch is well-spoken, thoughtful and very easy to talk to. Her speech has an upward inflection simultaneously betraying her passion and her youth. She is perched in front of her noticeboard of pinned-up tickets, alongside a mannequin sporting one of the costumes she’s made – originally as a hobby, now through commissions, and hopefully one day as a career.

For Busch, the show that lit the flame was Matthew Lutton’s production of Kafka’s The Trial at the Malthouse Theatre in 2010.

“I don’t know what it was about it, something just clicked in my head and I was like, ‘Oh my god this is it!’” Busch says.

In addition to enjoying an impressive Pop-up Globe track record (she could be spotted most shows standing, eyes ablaze, downstage right), she has over 20 Les Miserables viewings to her name. “It’s pure escapism,” she says. “You don’t have to be yourself anymore, you’re so absorbed in the emotions of the characters onstage.”

Busch has an intricate understanding of the craft of theatre and gives it her time and energy, writing insightful and lengthy thoughts about shows on Instagram. But she also gets something in return; a protective ‘Wooden O’, surrounding her and acting as a safeguard against change.

Though it’s Bianca who says in The Taming of The Shrew, “Old fashions please me best; I am not so nice to change true rules for odd inventions,” it could just as easily have been Busch.

“I do enjoy the familiarity of theatre,” she says. “Something comforting. Because theatre is like home, basically. I think I’m a pretty repetitive person, I don’t like change that much. Whenever something changes, even if it’s something really small, I freak out and seize up and don’t know how to deal with it, but theatre is something that is always going to be there.”

For Busch, the boundaries of a familiar show provide solace. She knows the rules of the game and that they’re not going to change. It’s comforting, she says. “I think a lot of people just can’t understand it; although they have no difficulty understanding why people go to the football all the time.”

Busch doesn’t seek recognition for her obsession. “I don’t need actors or theatre people to recognise what I’m saying about their shows,” but admits, “it is nice.”

At Pop-up Globe, she would experience a sort of groundling glory among the audience in the pit. “I would be standing there and someone would say ‘oh you’re Emily from Instagram, aren’t you?’ and I’m like ‘yeah, it’s me. Emily from Instagram.’”

Many would assume repeated viewings of the same show would get very dull very quickly.

But to these audience members there is a simple antidote: The Understudy. The subtle shift in energy brought about by an understudy performance is enough to breathe new life into a show for its uber-fans.

In fact, so strong is the desire for fresh blood, that there is a secret Twitter code between understudy and fan, a shorthand to let them know they are performing that day. I spoke to one who said the code-word potatoeson Twitter meant that a specific understudy would be on that day, prompting a trip down to the lottery to try their luck and see a new take on a role.

Theatre can be a life of sacrifice. For actors it can be anything from choosing which meal to skip in order to pay rent, to begrudgingly ticking the “Cannot Attend” box on a friend’s wedding invitation.

For the audience obsessives, it’s not all that different. For Busch, it’s simple. “I feel like most people have something that they spend a lot of money on, like they might go out for brunch all the time and that’s like 20 dollars in one day, but I always put that money aside for theatre.”

Bagtas, meanwhile, funds her theatregoing through jobs in hospitality and working at an IGA. During the height of the Wicked days, she was living at home and not spending money on anything else. “I honestly didn’t keep track of how much I had spent on the show. I knew it was a lot though.”

“I was pretty selfish and I would sacrifice other obligations for it,” she says, including a sister’s birthday lunch she rushed off from in order to catch Wicked’s Act II (accounting for the half-show in her grand total).

“I was doing it for me, which was wrong. I pretty much neglected my family for a lot of that time and I’m really not proud of that. I was definitely blinded by my obsession and have grown a lot from mistakes I made because of it.”

Back at coffee with the Daltons, I ask what fills in the rest of their time. What do they do when they’re not revolting with the French from the safety of Row A?

The answer seems to be more theatre. Sue and Joanne travel a lot. They were in London in January and are heading back soon. Joanne proudly hands me a crumpled piece of paper, a schedule of their roughly month-long London trip. It is chock-a-block: a play every night, sometimes two a day, all pre-booked.

They also have subscriptions to all the Sydney theatre companies. They saw Belvoir’s Hamlet with Richard Roxburgh 24 times.

Bagtas’ interests extend beyond the black box, however, to drawing, reading, jigsaw puzzles, sci-fi and fantasy movies, Dungeons & Dragons and hockey.

I ask the Daltons how would they describe themselves in three words. “Happy” comes first, followed by “content”. But it’s a long time and a lot of soul searching before the third word, the word I am expecting, comes out. “[We’re] probably a bit obsessive about things,” offers Joanne.

Does this obsessive streak spill out into other areas of their life? “We collect teddy bears and our house is full of them, a couple hundred or so. And we collect Lord of the Rings statues.” They saw The Lord of the Rings at the cinema 20 times when it was first released.

And what’s an obsession without an Excel spreadsheet?

“We decided to keep a database so we could work out who we’d seen,” says Joanne. It lists all the shows they’ve ever seen, how many times, who was in it, directors, designers, the whole shebang. An IMDB-for-theatre on their humble home computer. “It’s huge,” Joanne says. “I keep waiting for it to crash.”

It strikes me just how deeply theatre is entrenched in their personalities; so much so that Joanne’s Facebook profile picture is a red London bus with Les Miserables splashed across its side.

When we part, I jokingly suggest that if they truly wanted to be the ‘masters of the house’ and cement themselves as the ultimate fans, they should see the show 24601 times.

They guffaw in stereo and brush it off with “we have quite a way to go before that!” After the laughter dies down, there is a flicker of possibility in their eyes. “Well,” they say, looking at each other, “maybe if we lived in London …”

So what is it that these audience members get out of extreme theatregoing?

In talking to them, I think it’s a haven. An oasis of controlled feeling. An opportunity to communicate – not with the others and the outside world – but within themselves.

Think of it as a form of self-care. Some people meditate, some drink green smoothies, and some go to the theatre over and over and over.

Perhaps the last word should go to the man himself, Victor Hugo, who wrote in Les Miserables, “the pupil dilates in darkness and in the end finds light.”

And isn’t that just it?

I feel, in its simplest form, that’s exactly what these devotees experience. They sit in a darkened room, dilating, taking in light. And, at the end, when the house lights come back up, they take that light with them, back out into the real world to help them through … until next time.

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