AWGIE award winning playwright and actor Stephen House has been touring his dramatic monologue Appalling Behaviour nationally for the last couple of years to critical and audience acclaim. A play very much in demand, it captures two days in the life of a homeless man living on the streets of Paris, but who is not from Paris. Paris is the setting, but the plight of the homeless is the same the world over, and in Appalling Behaviour, this writer/performer gives an often poetic voice to the kind of people usually existing on the periphery of our vision. And yet they are real, and not so different to those of us fortunate enough to have jobs and homes and loved ones.
House lived on the streets of Paris and has observed and connected with the homeless in many parts of the world, and the result is a text and a performance striking for its honesty. It is real, it is raw, it is very human and peppered with unexpected moments of humour.
Appalling Behaviour is back in Melbourne for four nights before heading south for a season with the Tasmanian Theatre Company. Just back from a youth workshop in Whyalla, Stephen House gives Australian Stage some background on his most successful play to date.
You have a run with The Butterfly Club before taking Appalling Behaviour for a season in Tasmania. How did these two seasons come about?
The Butterfly Club came about through my interest in alternate and exciting performance venues, a chat to Xander from the club – who had heard about the Melbourne Fringe season – and an invitation from him to present in a four show slot that was available. (Not long before my Hobart season; great timing re getting another run up). In regards to Tasmanian Theatre Company – they were calling for submissions for their Cascade Indie Program for only four spaces in 2012 (quite competitive). I thought – Ah, what the heck, I’ll give it a go, submitted and got in… which was fabulous.
The Butterfly Club is pretty small, isn't it? How does the size of a performance space affect your performance?
To be honest I haven’t seen the venue, but have heard that yes, it’s tiny. But a performer I know who has seen my show said he felt it would work very well in there. The spaces I perform in do make a difference to the way I present, but I don’t think to how the show comes across or what is says, or the emotions in it and the impact. I enjoy the challenge of different spaces. I have performed this show in so many different venues now: the cavernous, large open stage of Deckchair Theatre WA; a tiny space at La Mama during last Fringe; school drama room stages; and medium size back boxes like The Bakehouse Theatre SA and The Blue Room Theatre Perth… It’s fun fitting in with what’s there.
For the uninitiated, give us a brief run-down on what Appalling Behaviour is about?
Appalling Behaviour is about a man in the middle of a difficult psychological episode, living on the streets of Paris. It follows just less than two days his chaotic journey into the seedy urban underworld, and explores the relationships he falls in and out of with a sex worker called Caroline and a hustler, Romano. More broadly it is about battling against the odds and surviving another day and how even those living on the very edge experience love and life fully at times.
Why did you choose the monologue format over sharing the load with other actors?
The monologue is a form that I choose to use to present some of my more edgy, confronting and challenging work. I feel the form is suited to Appalling Behaviour because the piece is so much about a man’s inner journey. Slipping in and out of a “stream of consciousness” type form allows the audience to go right into his head. I lived on the streets of Paris when I wrote this work and it continually told me that the journey was so about aloneness at times that it must be solo.
Has the script stayed the same or have you tweaked it a little over time?
During rehearsal I pulled out a scene that just had to go – and the director totally agreed. But since performing it (around two years), every word is the same. I kind of know when a work is complete now days… for me Appalling Behaviour is where it should be.
Do you remember any of the first street people you encountered or observed who perhaps provided inspiration for Appalling Behaviour?
People from even many years ago led to this work. But I never take or use real people in making a work. The work comes from a collection of experiences and observations that I mix up into an emotional pie, take slices from and then create the piece that I am making. But more related to your question – a young German girl living on the streets of Delhi in India, addicted to heroin and working as a prostitute had a big impact on me. (I used to chat to her sometimes when I was living in that area). A guy sleeping under a bridge in Paris that I talked to stuck in my mind and a collection of regulars from the streets in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide were there in my mind also when I thought and wrote.
Occasionally you encounter homeless people in possession of obvious intelligence or who are well spoken and articulate. I imagine these kind of encounters must have motivated you to take a closer look at how they got to where they are?
Homeless people are the same as all of us, experience all the same things, just without home... and maybe suffering to a greater degree a range of issues in their lives. The more I came to meet and know people living rough, the more I saw myself and everyone else as not that much different. We are all close to toppling over the edge in some way or another.
What is the biggest lesson or most lasting impression about the homeless you have retained as a result of making Appalling Behaviour?
Personally – how important it is to go closer, not judge, accept that the human condition comes in all forms. People have bad runs that lead to unfortunate circumstances. We should empathise, not judge or condemn. Creatively – to continue to take risks in the content and form of work that I make and not be too concerned about theatrical norms and what the industry thinks one should create theatre about.
Has the play been receiving pretty consistent audience responses, or have there been some surprises?
Yes, some surprises… I played to 150 people – homeless / had experienced homelessness and mental illness on the streets for National Homeless Week in Perth – my favourite audience ever! They loved it and got every (in play type) joke. I was nervous with that audience for they were the ones who would judge its authenticity. They fully gave it the thumbs-up and stayed back talking to me for ages after the show. I have to be honest that generally most people do go with it – but the opinions about elements of it – content and form and the discussions that follow are incredibly varied, and I love that.
I read some interesting press in Adelaide from a couple of years ago in which a lot of uninformed opinion (the journo and the angry comments following the piece) gave you a savaging about circumstances surrounding Appalling Behaviour. My impression from that discussion was that a lot of those readers simply don't understand the role of the story-teller; how the role of the story-teller is to give a voice to those who don't necessarily have a voice, and to bring the plight of others to the attention of a broader audience. Your thoughts on that discussion?
Actually that article came out before the show opened. His (huge page three) story was about it receiving a small amount of funding from a homelessness government department bucket to present shows during National Homeless Week, South Australia. Many people (audiences) wrote back to the paper after the play opened in defence of the funding for that season, and actually the same paper – The Sunday Mail – gave it a rave review. (You can understand that I had a bit of a chuckle about that). The journo was trying to create a political / funding storm, it seemed, and that was fine – where he was at. He should see the show if he has such strong opinions about it, I thought at the time. (Another journo told me that he never did.)
How do you want the audience to feel as they leave the theatre after seeing Appalling Behaviour?
People are usually very moved in some way and sometimes changed by the experience, I have been told. That’s certainly enough for me… that’s just wonderful.
Do you have a line or a passage that for you best captures the essence of the play?
The first lines of the play as it opens and I step forward on the stage:
“There is something disturbingly honest about living in another city and wondering why… Create measures to gauge the seriousness of fragile moments strung together by no more than the present notion of life… my life. Another moment, now, no longer that moment of just before, so I turn my attention to the boys on the corner playing their music… and I dance; here on a corner in Paris… I dance.”
Appalling Behaviour plays at The Butterfly Club, South Melbourne, May 10 – 13, and at the Hobart Theatre Royal Backspace May 23 – 27.
Photo: Nic Mollison.