She stars as the lead in Harold Pinter’s play, A Kind of Alaska. She is also co-founder of one of Melbourne’s new theatre companies, Winterfall Theatre Company, together with the play’s director, Trent Baker. Before the play’s Melbourne premiere on 11 June, Anna Lozynski interviewed actress Michele Williams to find out more about this intriguing work.    

A Kind of AlaskaWhat should audiences expect from A Kind of Alaska?
Audiences should expect to be stimulated and moved. The work raises a lot of questions without proffering answers. People will have very different interpretations about what went on in the play, what the relationships are about and so on. Pinter deliberately leaves things open.

What was your first reaction when you read Harold Pinter’s script?
I was intrigued by the very first reading, but there was a lot I missed. On the second reading, my reaction was “God Pinter’s a genius”. The third time I read it I found myself in tears.

Which moment in the play most resonates with you?
There are many. However the one that comes immediately to mind is the moment when Deborah (my character) attempts to tell the doctor what it feels like to be “asleep” and frozen in time when others cannot hear you, even when you try to speak to them. She says “It’s a vast series of halls with enormous interior windows masquerading as walls. The walls are mirrors you see, and so glass reflects glass for ever and ever…I want to say hello, to have a chat, to make some enquiries, but you can’t do that when you’re inside a vast hall of glass with a tap dripping.”

How did you come to be a part of Winterfall Theatre Company?
I had known Trent Baker (the director) for several years and we had worked together on a Regional Arts Victoria tour a few years ago. I went to see him in a play called Someone to Watch Over Me at 45 Downstairs last year and it was the best piece of theatre I had seen in years. I already had The Theatre Husk space and knew I wanted to form a theatre company there too. I started having conversations with him about the possibility of getting involved. We spent a day brainstorming names for the company. We both felt that Winterfall Theatre Company had a certain magic and charm to it. It connects to fairy tales, myths and legends and also to the seasons. The long term vision is for the company to be a permanent ensemble of actors and directors. In the short term, we are producing four shows per year and offering high quality theatre at accessible ticket prices.

Tell us about the charm of The Theatre Husk, one of Melbourne’s newest theatre spaces.
The Theatre Husk is a modern, fully refurbished ware house that was originally a factory. It is made of stone. There is a large upstairs and downstairs space. Upstairs includes a kitchen, bathroom, office and large open area. Downstairs is the area that we have converted into a theatre which is fully functional as such. It has a 12 phase dimmer rack, raked seating, backstage area, curtains, lights, flats, etc…. Everything anyone would need to put on an intimate piece of theatre. My administrator, Dr. David Clapham is incredibly overqualified, but the most adept at multi-tasking and making it all come together. We urge new people to contact us if they are looking for a space in which to perform a show and/or rehearse.

You have the lead role, Deborah, in this play who has been asleep for 29 years. How did you prepare for this role?
I would love to say “I sleep a lot to prepare” but of course, that wouldn’t be great preparation. The play is about a medical condition, yes, but I think that fundamentally it's theme is more universal. It’s about the sense of “lost time”. Most people have experienced that. And I would say that all people over a certain age know exactly what it feels like to wonder where a large chunk of time disappeared! I try to imagine what it would be like to have last gone to sleep at the age of sixteen and to wake up at the age I am now, which is roughly the same as Deborah’s. I try to imagine how scary it would be to have no identity, and to realise that life, and everyone in it, had moved on.

Awakenings was also the inspiration for the 1990 film Dr Sacks. Did you watch the film as part of your preparation?
I did watch the film and I think it’s wonderful. However, it is very different from the play. The film Awakenings is naturalistic, whereas A Kind of Alaska is heightened realism. For example, it’s most unlikely that a doctor and patient would have the kind of conversation or relationship that Deborah has with her doctor in A Kind Of Alaska. There are no nurses in our hospital; no other patients; we don’t really know exactly where the doctor and patient are. There is a dream like, surrealist quality to A Kind Of Alaska, and it is in a very different genre from the film Awakenings.

What do you find most challenging about this work?
It’s probably the most challenging work I’ve ever done. There’s the technical side of Pinter’s language. It is classical writing in the sense that, in my view, the pauses, full stops and silences must be adhered to. Then there is the other layer of the illness, and most importantly the characters state of mind. I once played a woman who suffered from a very serious mental illness but I was able to talk to people who suffered but who had recovered from that illness.

What you have learned from Trent Baker’s direction?
I have learned to trust myself more and to take my time with each moment. Trent is an actor as well as a director and that’s an added bonus. He knows what it’s like to be directed and what it is to act. Trent has taught me that reading, research and knowing as much as possible about your subject, even if you don’t end up using it all, are very helpful, if not essential.

Winterfall Theatre Company's production of A Kind of Alaska opens at The Theatre Husk, June 11, 2010. Further information»

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