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Young Frankenstein

"that inner shame-monster still rears its ugly head ..."

You pay a price for years of pretending to be someone you’re not, writes Matthew Backer, star of Young Frankenstein.

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Category: Musical
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Young Frankenstein: Some Kind of Monster

Date: 23 Feb 2021

“But I now indulge in dreams of bliss that cannot be realised …

It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.”

– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

 I never thought a madcap musical based on a 1974 Mel Brooks comedy-horror film would force me to examine my monster within.

Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of Transylvania’s infamous Victor Frankenstein, spends much of his time in Mel Brooks’ film (and subsequent musical) Young Frankenstein correcting those he believes to be mispronouncing his surname.

‘Fronkensteen! My name, it’s pronounced Fronkensteen!’

See, his late grandfather, Doctor Victor von Frankenstein, used to prowl around Transylvanian graveyards digging up freshly-buried corpses with the aim of bringing one back to life. Legend proclaims he once succeeded and his monster ‘hurt and lamed and killed and maimed’ everyone in the village.

Frederick, on the other hand, is devoted to the practise of pure science; preaching his love for the brain. He would never continue his grandfather’s ‘whacky work’ and firmly believes he shouldn’t be thrown in the same basket as his ‘crazy’ grandfather on the basis of lineage. After all, what’s in a name?

Perhaps Donald Trump’s 14-year-old son Baron will have the same reaction when he grows up: ‘Troomp! My name, it’s pronounced Troomp!’

When Frederick is labelled a ‘Frankenstein’, it produces a visceral, full-bodied reaction. It’s akin to a face slap, a gut punch, a testicles kick. He feels it in his bones. He is NOT a ‘Frankenstein’, damn it!

At least, that’s how I’ve approached bringing Frederick to life in the Hayes Theatre’s first production since closing their doors due to COVID-19 last year and the Australian premiere of Brooks’ kooky musical.

I was, and wasn’t, surprised at how quickly I responded to Frederick being called a ‘Frankenstein’.

I wasn’t just correcting characters for mispronouncing ‘my’ surname. I was scolding them, admonishing them for daring to call me such a horrid name.

In Frederick’s mind, to be called a ‘Frankenstein’ is a slur.

And my reaction to this is understandable.

I too have had visceral reactions to being called another horrid name; a homophobic slur that begins with ‘F’ and rhymes with ‘maggot’.

Yep. That one.

I can’t remember a day at the Catholic, all-boys Brisbane high school I attended in the 90s (enough said) when I was not bullied and called a− um… well… in an effort not to trigger anyone reading this, let’s go with ‘F-maggot’.

I was a small teen who performed in school musicals, played in two bands and sang in the choir. Next to the rugby-playing blokes who were built like brick shithouses and shaving in Grade 8, I didn’t stand a chance. My best friend and I were bullied ruthlessly for five years, the damage from which we are still trying to unpack at the age of 35.

Being called an ‘F-maggot’ day in, day out, during your formative years can really, um, F you up.

You quickly learn that you should actively strive to be anything but an ‘F-maggot’, even if that means censoring yourself, your personality, your humour, your wants, your desires, your spark, your essence, your truth.

I don’t think we even knew at the time that we were gay and we certainly weren’t going to entertain the idea when we learned that being an ‘F-maggot’ was the worst thing someone could be.

So we set out to not be ‘F-maggots’ because, apparently, ‘F-maggots’ were disgusting, they deserved ridicule and they went to hell (something one of my religious education teachers, a school priest, cheerily espoused to my class).

Even after finding ‘my people’ in the acting industry when I moved to Sydney to study at NIDA in 2008, I still had trouble accepting that perhaps I was indeed an ‘F-maggot’.

‘No! I can’t be!’ If I wound up actually openly being an ‘F-maggot’, then were my high school bullies actually bullies, or were they just correct?

As I approached my NIDA graduation in 2010, I firmly believed there was no place for an ‘F-maggot’ in the Australian acting industry; which, let’s face it, still predominantly celebrates the straight white Aussie-bloke archetype.

So I did what I was trained to do: act. Act like I wasn’t an ‘F-maggot’.

But I was tired. So tired. Years of pretending to be someone you’re not catches up with you and you realise a potentially joyous part of yourself has died.

Then I met someone, fell in love, embraced not only him but also the idea of being an ‘F-maggot’ and I’ve never looked back.

Sure, that inner shame-monster still rears its ugly head sometimes – and yes, my fellow queer actors and I are constantly reminded that there often aren’t seats at the table for us. Even the occasional gay scripted role will typically go to a straight male actor (and we’re a long way off seeing openly gay actors playing straight characters on our screens. I challenge you, dear reader, to list five).

Nonetheless, embracing my queerness was an overdue revelation. I was happier. I was stronger. I began doing better acting work. And I found even more of ‘my people’; people who also sometimes feel cut off from the world and, consequently, more attached to one another.

Working with Young Frankenstein director Alex Berlage has reinforced this mindset. Throughout rehearsals, we were asked daily to embrace the camp! Embrace the queerness! Embrace the over-the-top absurdity of this world! And we did and it’s been joyous.

When Frederick Frankenstein finally embraces his desire to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps by bringing a dead man back to life, he does so with abandon. He embraces the insanity and the darkness and the horror and the excitement of it all and proudly exclaims to all of Transylvania: ‘I am a Frankenstein!’

It took me years to do the same with my F-word. And that joyous part of me that was buried was brought back from the dead, high-kicking and screaming.

Young Frankenstein plays at Hayes Theatre Company until March 20.

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