Friday, April 04, 2008

In coversation with Brendan Cowell & Toby Schmitz

Ruben Guthrie

Benito Di Fonzo, Metro, Sydney Morning Herald.
April 3, 2008

It's not easy working in an industry that encourages the odd night on the turps.

Just water thanks ... Toby Schmitz, left, and Brendan Cowell.

Just water thanks ... Toby Schmitz, left, and Brendan Cowell.
Photo: Marco Del Grande


"Yeah, the nights are hard," admits playwright and actor Brendan Cowell of his latest stint of sobriety, "but the days are unbelievable - the day's a whole new world."

Cowell's experiences during his first period as a teetotaller in 2005, the year he also won a commission from the Philip Parsons Young Playwright's Award, inspired his new play, Ruben Guthrie, the first production in B Sharp's 2008 season at Downstairs Belvoir.

"I got this incredibly raw, vivid perspective on myself and the universe," says Cowell of the time, "and a lot of my relationships changed completely. Some of them fell away, new ones started, everything looked different, myself included. Then I started to notice how society was completely geared towards drinking. Everything I went to, everywhere I went, everyone I met with, said, 'Have a drink, let's sit down and have a drink, we'll have a drink,' and I was like, 'My God, this is out of control.' "

Cowell's epiphany clashed with his love of pub culture, which still tempts him: "When the sun's just calming down a little bit, and you've worked really hard all day, and you want to take that f---ing edge off."

Ruben Guthrie tells the story of an enfant terrible of advertising who, after an industry-awards night, jumps off a rooftop into a kiddie pool, which leads him to consider temperance. All the inherent changes and challenges it brings into his life come into focus when his old drinking buddy hits town after being fired from his job in New York.

"I don't think what happened to me was as interesting as what happens in the play," Cowell says. "They were just little things I realised that I've dramatised for effect."

The problem for Guthrie (and Cowell alike), is that he works in an industry that encourages the odd night on the turps, as Toby Schmitz, who plays Guthrie, explains.

"Our industry has no office," Schmitz says. "It has no meeting place other than the foyer and the bar, which is hard for the ginger ale drinker. I've been cast in plays, sealed deals, over a glass."

Cowell: "I went to an opening night last week and there's thousands of glasses of wine. You've got to pay $4.50 to get a soft drink but you can drink a shit-tin of champagne, white wine, red wine or beer and not pay anything. I had two lemon, lime and bitters: I had to go to the bar [alone], so you're actually isolated."

It's this social isolation that Cowell and Schmitz, along with director Wayne Blair and designer Jacob Nash, will recreate in the intimate space of Downstairs Belvoir. Cowell hopes the audience's guffaws will have an uncomfortable edge as they see themselves reflected in the black comedy.

"For me, as a writer, that's heaven," Cowell says. "You've kicked your goal in the grand final as a playwright when you hear people swallowing their laughter or laughing out of an obscene discomfort."

Schmitz: "Ruben is what you could classify as a good drunk but the cracks are appearing from the beginning of the play. I think one of the great reveals of the play is how deep the cracks are."

Cowell: "That's exactly it. Because when I quit drinking everybody said, 'But you didn't have a problem? You never beat anyone up, you were a fun guy!' "

Schmitz: "You were still coming up with screenplays at 4am."

Cowell: "It's scary that you can lead two lives, because now [training for his role as Bell Shakespeare's Hamlet] my life is completely different. I'm up at seven, I'm at the gym. I'm reading more novels. I'm a nice guy. You end up doing weird things, like packing your bag the night before. And you call your grandmother, like you're really thoughtful. And then if I go back [to drinking], your life really switches - and who is the right person to be?"

Schmitz: "There's a problem with all artists, who are expected to retain their inner child. I think an inner child is a fantastic thing to have as an artist, even as a lover, person and conversationalist, but should inner children be allowed in the pub after 11pm? Or to have meaningful relationships or drive cars? I don't know. It's a good question."




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