Peter Houghton is an award winning performer, writer and director. He recently returned from Edinburgh where his hit one-man show, The Pitch, was dubbed “show of the week” by The Skinny guide to Edinburgh Festival - no mean feat in a Festival boasting 2,000 productions.

The Pitch is now set for an extensive Australian tour with a return season at The Malthouse announced for the end of the year.

Peter Houghton spoke to Australian Stage's Simon Piening about his experience in Edinburgh.

The PitchYou’ve just come back from Edinburgh with your Green Room award winning production – The Pitch. For the few people who haven’t seen it yet – can you tell us a bit about the play…

It’s a solo performance written and performed by me and directed by Anne Browning. It’s about a guy trying, rather pathetically, to break into the film industry. He has to pitch his action blockbuster to a disparate panel of producers and funding bodies. In his desperate attempt to please all of them, he pleases none of them – least of all himself. In the process he discovers a few truths about himself; ambition, and integrity.... and of course, love.

I understand it’s the first time you’ve performed in Edinburgh. How did you find the experience?

Wow! It was an extreme experience. ‘Fringe Festival’ is, in my opinion a misnomer. It’s really a huge commercial trade fair where everyone involved (this year about two thousand productions) peddle their wares in the hope of getting tours and further seasons lined up. Every day you have to fight for an audience using every gimmick in the book... but mainly copies of reviews and the dreaded stars glued to your posters and fliers.

Will you go back again? Would you do anything differently next time?

Absolutely and absolutely. I’ll wait a couple of years and take over three or four shows. Spreading your risk is a good idea. For Australians it’s a long way to go so you may as well completely immerse yourself in it for four weeks once you’re there. I’d put more emphasis into publicity and marketing. We were at Assembly Rooms which is the main venue so we were lucky in that there was passing trade and good turnover. But the need to create a profile for your work is essential. A lot of this happens before you even get there.

What was the response like to The Pitch?

It was, overall, excellent. But much more varied than the Australian response. I’d get standing ovations one day and absolute silence the next. Festival audiences are notoriously hard to please. They might see seven shows a day. They come in half dead and sit back waiting to be impressed. They can take their pick from the best shows on earth so they get complacent. You have to wake them up. People who’ve seen the show will know that it’s a pretty accessible piece about Hollywood cinema and it’s clichés. It walks a line in that it celebrates the folly and grandeur of the Hollywood blockbuster whilst also satirising the form. But basically it’s a romp. Some of the ‘serious’ theatre critics thought it lacked weight. But the main show guides and tourist guides and media saw it for what it was and accurately identified the show for audiences. This was good for us as they came primed for the show. My fear always with theatre criticism is that the critic will try to use the work to grandstand on a particular theme but fail to identify the work accurately for readers, who may or may not be interested in that kind of play. I got excellent reviews that failed to mention it was a comedy for example. The word ‘comedy’ in a review is worth twenty tickets.
{xtypo_quote_right}In this country we’re happier if someone else takes the risk and then we pick over the battlefields of Broadway and the West End and prise out the gold fillings. Even our revivals are basically click and drag jobs.{/xtypo_quote_right}
The Pitch is based on your real life experience of trying to pitch a film to a panel of industry “experts”. Now there is talk of turning The Pitch into a film. Would that be the ultimate writers revenge?

Reveeeenge! Absolutely! But history has some hard lessons for artists. Most artists struggled in their lifetime and revenge didn’t get the workout it deserved. Basically, it’s hard to sell something new. In this country we’re happier if someone else takes the risk and then we pick over the battlefields of Broadway and the West End and prise out the gold fillings. Even our revivals are basically click and drag jobs. It’s all good for the box office of course but it’s bad for innovation and originality. Overseas audiences don’t really want to see an Australian production of Shakespeare. They want to hear our voice, our accent, our stories, our slant. So I am committed to getting our work to the world, and film’s a good way to do that. I’ve got a mad dream that one day I’ll have a company that regularly crosses the boundaries of all the performance mediums. With one feeding the other.

The Pitch is part 1 of a trilogy – the second part, The China Incident, performed by Anne Browning, opened earlier this year – can you give us a hint about part 3?

My dad was a pretty staunch old bush protestant from the WW2 generation. I found him hugely frustrating and intransigent on many issues, but I also admired his ability to enjoy simple pleasures without the crushing weight of expectation and burdens of modern generations. He was deeply moral, righteous, but also in many ways bigoted and blinkered. His father’s generation was Edwardian. He’s the inspiration for my central character, Sargent Atkins. Atkins has been left behind in an African country in 1948 by the British Empire to guard the barracks and the flag. They forget they’ve left him there. To stop himself going insane, and to convince the local natives he is not alone, he forms a ghost platoon comprised of the men he served with throughout his military career. He talks with them, shouts at them, bosses them round and confides in them. The play is a kind of ghost story as he conjures up the personages of fallen comrades. It’s also a little satire about Australia as the last outpost of empire.  But mainly it’s a dedication to the generations of silent stoics that got us where we are, for better or worse. It’s also a kind of love story.
{xtypo_quote_left}Overseas audiences don’t really want to see an Australian production of Shakespeare. They want to hear our voice, our accent, our stories, our slant.{/xtypo_quote_left}
What was the reason for developing the series? Are there any plans to present all 3?

I initially wanted to take on some of the more annoying Australian cultural icons and resulting pathologies; Hollywood cinema and it’s impact on our inability to be original in The Pitch. The politics of spin and political survival in The China Incident. And the third was going to be an indictment of our obsession with sport. But as I sat down to write it I found that I had nothing to say about sport, except that I thought that we had become spectators rather than participants as sport became a business – not a very original revelation. So I allowed my mind to drift... I wanted to create repertoire for a company and solo pieces seemed an appropriate place to start. I had no money to pay anyone so I could do them myself, with my wife Anne. If they worked, and three seemed like a lucky number, I’d get more ambitious with cast size. We will do The Pitch and The China Incident in London together next year. That will be the first time the works have been done together.

You work regularly as an actor, director, writer, producer and teacher – that’s a pretty broad skill set – how did you get started?

I actually started in horticulture and secretly went off to acting classes at night. Then I went to a place called Drama Studio in Sydney in 1987.  I knew nothing about theatre and wanted to be a film star – I used to bunk off from school and watch movies – but I fell in love with theatre. As you know it’s a hit and miss form with far more failure than success. But it somehow seems more honest than the other mediums. It is largely driven by the passion of artists, audiences and commentators rather than mass media and commercial interests. So there’s a chance that what you see on stage is actually something the artists are proud of. It’s more than a job. It’s an obsession. I’m happy in several roles but mainly writing and performing.

The PitchYou’ve worked regularly with major companies like Malthouse and MTC, but you also have a clear commitment to small scale and independent companies, like La Mama (where The Pitch was first presented) and Eleventh Hour. What do the small companies offer that you can’t get from the ‘big’ companies?

Freedom. At La Mama you can do what you want. It’s function as a theatre is to support new work. That’s why it exists. Without it risk would be a rare thing. Because La Mama is so entrenched in our psyche we run the risk of underestimating its value. In my opinion it is the most valuable company in this city. 11th Hour is a rare company. Will Henderson and Anne Thompson are obsessive characters. They make about two shows together every year. They’re almost always highlights. This is due mainly to the fact that they have excellent taste, but also to their unwavering pursuit of their own questions. They are shining examples of how the best art comes from genuine passions, rigorously pursued, rather than jigsaw puzzle projects where disparate individuals are hurled together for a few weeks in the hope they’ll strike some hidden vein of magic.

The Pitch has clearly been a stand out success for you, with an extensive national tour planned and another season at Melbourne’s Malthouse scheduled for the end of the year. So what’s next?

Well, I’m writing this piece for MTC, and a commission for Malthouse as well. And I’m directing a new piece by Bill Garner and Sue Gore next year about Marcus Clarke and Redmund Barry. And we’re pursuing The Pitch as a film quite intensely now. And I’m working for three months on Newstopia with Shaun Micallef on SBS. And acting in a couple of plays next year which will be announced soon.

The Pitch performs in Frankston this week and the Malthouse Theatre from Dec 5.

Photo credit (lower right) - Jeff Busby

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