Most stage actors in Sydney will know Grahame Best’s face (or his shiny bald head) even if they don’t know his name.
He’s “the standing ovation man”, who, unfailingly gets to his feet – and encourages others to do the same – at the conclusion of every show he sees.
And Best, 71, sees a lot of shows. Every year he sees upwards of 100 shows (128 in 2017) and this year, 2018, is his 58th as one of Sydney and the Illawarra’s most remarkable theatre patrons.
He pays for his tickets. He catches the train to Sydney from his home in Wollongong for every show. At home, he writes meticulous notes, an archive of personal responses that fill dozens and dozens of notebooks.
“I have diaries full of every play I’ve seen since 1960,” Best says. “I keep notes on all the cast and the director. I’ve always been fascinated by theatres. When I was 13, I used to hang around the Ensemble theatre when it was an old boat shed. I can still remember Reg Livermore and Lorraine Bayly scrubbing the place out and painting it. I got talking to Hayes Gordon [founder of Ensemble Theatre] and that’s probably what started it all. Performers get a bug for theatre. Well, I got the bug for theatre as an audience member. Seeing Reg Livermore on stage really started it all for me.”
Why the standing ovations?
“I do feel like a bit of a dork sometimes,” Best smiles. “But I get the audience off their arses and I think performers appreciate that, especially the younger ones and even the older ones. They often come up and thank me afterwards.
“I remember Cate Blanchett had tears running down her cheeks one time when I gave her a standing ovation after Oleanna at Sydney Theatre Company. She still remembers it. I’ve spoken to her many times since then.”
Best says theatre keeps the mind active (“much better than sitting there watching television”) but for him, it’s more than that. After experiencing two serious stroke episodes that left him partially incapacitated and unable to speak, he credits going to the theatre for his recovery.
“After the strokes I couldn’t walk and I couldn’t talk,” Best says. “But when I was let out of hospital I went straight to the Stables Theatre. I just sat there trying to mouth the words the actors were saying and all of a sudden … I got my voice and speech back and eventually I walked again. The brain has mysterious ways. It finds new avenues.
“Me standing up is thanking actors for that. I believe going to the theatre is why I can speak now.”
Best is a big supporter of independent theatre. Always has been, he says.
“I’d say 85 per cent of what I see is independent theatre. It’s great seeing these young actors starting their careers. I’ve seen so many youngsters go on to big things, like Jacqui McKenzie and Cate Blanchett.
“One of my favourite actors is Jeannette Cronin. I think she’s an absolute genius. I loved Queen Bette and I Love You Now. She is a genius.”
He still has an eye for emerging talent.
“I saw one young actor at the New Theatre in The Chapel Perilous – Julia Christensen. I was in the first row and I stood up and she burst out crying. Then I met her outside and we both cried! It was such a powerful performance.”
The theatre he’s visited most, Best says, is the SBW Stables. “I’ve been going to it since 1970. The first show there I saw was Biggles. Mr [John] Bell was director, and Mr [John] Hargreaves and Mr [Ken] Horler were in it. I always call them by their surnames. I’ve only missed one production there since 1970. I was ill.”
Best is retired now, after a career in retail photographic. “I used to sell cameras at George’s Cameras in Sydney. A lot of actors used to go there looking for a special deal,” he says.
Best moved south to Narooma in the early 1990s with his wife Doris. “But I wasn’t ready to retire. Unless you fish, bowl or play golf there was nothing to do. It was about six hours from Sydney so I’d jump on a bus and stay at a friend’s house and see seven shows in seven days. But it was all too much in the end. I was getting older and so we moved up to Wollongong. I’ve lived there seven years now.”
Doris doesn’t share Best’s passion for theatre. “She classes herself as a theatre widow,” he laughs. “But we celebrated our 50th anniversary last year and she still gets Valentine’s Day roses. I’m a romantic.”
Best usually leaves around 4pm to catch a show in Sydney. What does Doris do when he’s not at home?
“I don’t know what she does …” Best says. “I think she watches TV. I get home at one in the morning and hope that I don’t find her in bed with the milkman.”
While his health remains good, “standing ovation man” will keep coming to the theatre three, four or five nights a week.
“What else am I going to do? Watch TV? Watch videos? Theatre is real,” Best says.
“I don’t just sit and watch the play, I let the performer take me somewhere, wherever they want to go. As soon as the lights are out, it’s like I’ve left my seat and I’m part of the play. Then the lights come on again I’m back in my seat. That’s the secret to enjoying theatre for me, go where they want to take you.
“I love to come out and play.”