Gabrielle Scawthorn and Hugo Chiarella had been married for 18 months when they decided to collaborate on an entirely original piece of theatre in a brand-new country.
As their production, The Apologists, gears up for its Australian premiere at the Old 505 Theatre in Newtown, Hugo and Gabrielle sat down to discuss the development of the show – and the realities of collaborating with your spouse.
Audrey: First things first. What was the starting point for The Apologists?
Hugo: The Apologists is a show that Gab and I conceived and developed in London in 2018. At the time, the #Me Too movement was in full swing and we were seeing a number of really high profile people embroiled in scandals and coming forward to make public apologies.
We got talking about other famous public apologies – Lance Armstrong, Hugh Grant, Reece Witherspoon, Mel Gibson. They were like these mini performance pieces that were put before the public to be measured for authenticity. On a whim, we commissioned three different writers to create three 20-minute monologues, each approaching the concept from a different angle. A few months into the development process, the show was picked up for a season at the 2019 VAULT Festival in London.
We’d been living in London for about a year when we decided to do The Apologists. It came off the back of what had been a really hectic period in our lives. I’d been performing in Les Mis in the evenings and doing my Masters in Creative Producing at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama during the days. Gab had come over to join me in London a few months after I’d arrived, and then promptly landed three shows back to back in Sydney. We were newly married at that stage and we spent about 9 of our first 18 months of marriage in separate countries.
I’d been saying for years that I would love to see Gab do a one-woman show. I know I’m probably biased, but she is a true powerhouse of an actor. She’s tackled some pretty monumental roles in her time, and a solo show seemed like really a natural progression to challenge her as a performer.
Gab had just moved to the UK and it seemed like great way to get her out there in the London theatre scene and show people what she can do.
Sounds like a lot to take on early in a marriage …
Gabrielle: Hugo and I had collaborated together before, writing and performing sketch comedy in ABC’s Fresh Blood, but this was definitely the most intense collaboration we’d embarked upon together. I think the best thing about working with your partner is that there is an earned shorthand. We’ve been together for 10 years so I am well acquainted with what a sustained pause of four seconds actually means. You save time cutting diplomacy loose.
But it’s a double-edged sword. The communication might be easier, but the work also comes home, cooks you dinner and gets into bed with you. The boundaries are a lot more blurred, and so the stakes can feel a lot more personal than they otherwise might.
Thankfully, we were pretty unanimous on most of the creative decisions. I know that Hugo trusts and respects me as an artist, and I feel the same way about him. So there was never that sense of being unsure about someone or feeling like you have to prove yourself.
But, while in many ways this was one of the more harmonious creative experiences of my life, it was also one of the most challenging.
In the years leading up to this project, I’d also been through a fairly severe battle with performance anxiety, and the process of mounting this show really brought a lot of that anxiety to the fore.
How did you cope with that?
Hugo: I think that was the thing I really struggled with most. My primary motivation for producing the show was because I knew that Gab would be phenomenal doing it. But I could see at a certain point that the pressure of it was really getting to her. We self-funded the first season of the show. We did well in the festival and were fortunate enough to receive Arts Council England funding down the track, but to begin with there was no way of knowing if we were just throwing money away. And I think Gab really felt the burden of that on her performance.
She was waking up in the middle of the night thinking about it. She was getting sick with stress and anxiety. It was really hard to know how best to handle it. I never had any doubt that she would be incredible, but was it right to put her through something that was clearly becoming quite traumatic for her?
My job as producer became to make my work as invisible as possible to Gab. If I was stressed about ticket sales, I couldn’t bring that home. But then I don’t think a producer should share their stress with the creative team anyway. I would go to work early to do anything related to the show and schedule any calls for my lunch break. Home had to be neutral territory. I think that helped us both find some equilibrium. That was a valuable lesson.
Gabrielle, what was that time like from your perspective?
Gabrielle: Standing up and performing for an audience is a daunting thing to do no matter what the circumstances. But there were a lot of different factors at play here that really added to the sense of pressure. It was our idea, we’d both invested a lot of time into making it happen, there was some financial risk involved, the scripts were still in development, I would be performing solo for the first time, I would be performing in London for the first time, there was no shortage of hooks to hang my anxieties on.
But ultimately the fact that we were in it together really helped us navigate some of those pressures. One of our strengths as a couple is that we’re quite good at balancing one another when it’s needed. Hugo completely understood the level of pressure I was feeling because he was there in the trenches with me. And I know that he did everything in his power to make the process as smooth and easy for me as it could be.
I was also fortunate enough to be working with an incredibly supportive team. My director, Jane Moriarty, was a hugely calming influence on the process. And my forever friend, Charlotte Howley, stage managed the show. So I knew I was in good hands. I couldn’t have had a more understanding team around me.
By the time we got into the theatre, I was really managing my anxiety to an extent that I’d never been able to before. I wouldn’t say that I was relaxed, but I was clear headed and focused in way that enabled me to come in each day and get the job done. It was the furthest I’ve ever been from my comfort zone, but I got through it, and I think I’m a stronger person for it.
Hugo: I’ve been proud of Gab on lots of occasions. But I’ve never been more proud of her than during that first season at the VAULT festival. Knowing what she had worked through to stand up and give that performance was really inspiring. I get quite emotional just thinking about it.
Vault festival wasn’t the be-all and end-all for The Apologists, was it?
Gabrielle: We were fortunate enough to receive funding from The Arts Council England. As well as remounting the show in early 2020, the funding enabled us to deliver performance workshops with the Next Generation Youth Theatre in Luton.
Luton was very similar to my hometown, Ipswich. I was working with young adults who had questions about if there would be a space for them in the industry given their working-class background and not having prior family connections in the field. Being able to stand there as living proof of a way forward put my anxiety into perspective.
How does it feel reanimating the show for a Sydney season?
Hugo: The fact that we’re now able to bring the show home to Sydney is really exciting for both of us. The show has been so well received in the UK, but what’s been most interesting is the conversations it has started afterwards. The format of three different stories around the same theme really seems to spark a critical dialogue with people around the ethical nuances of each situation. They resonate with each other in really fascinating and unexpected ways.
Gabrielle: There seems to be a few people from every audience who will come up to me afterwards with very definitive positions on one particular character or situation from the show.
What’s interesting is how varied these readings always seem to be. Ideas of morality are closely linked with our emotional responses. For some people, having their emotional responses questioned feels like a challenge to their morality. They’re eager to find consensus and make sure everyone’s on the same page. I think the strength of the work is that it forces us to have those conversations with ourselves and with each other.
The Apologists plays the Old 505 Theatre, Newtown from January 20-31.