Caroline Lee, now appearing in her second Red Stitch production as an official ensemble member, is no stranger to emotionally demanding roles. In Colder by Lachlan Philpott she plays Robin, the mother of a young man who disappears… Twice.
Philpott’s new play deals with the theme of absence – and it’s raw and brutal territory.
The first half of the play interweaves scenes about the disappearance of Robin’s child, David, whilst he is still a young boy on their first visit to Disneyland, with scenes about Robyn and David 26 years later in the ‘present’ of the play.
They have both suffered a significant loss with David’s beloved stepfather, Ed, and Robin recently separated. They might have even been planning this trip as a family before the relationship broke down.
The suggestion is that David may be acting out in some bizarre way. His outlook on life has been compromised at an early age, losing a father (Ed’s best friend) and Ed himself in a matter of years.
David’s mother is of course traumatised by the experience of losing her son. Even though he’s found by the end of the day, she is so torn apart by what happens that she seems deeply and permanently broken by it.
And when David returns he’s not crying, shaking, or distressed. He won’t look at his mother. For both of them it represents a kind of separation. Like he’s discovered he’s ready to deal with the world on his own. You sense he doesn’t have any understanding of the pain and grief that it had caused her.
“Lachlan was much more interested in this syndrome, and it’s a real thing, it’s called ‘ambiguous loss’. It’s the name for a loss that can’t be resolved because you never find the person, you never find the body, you never know what’s happened to them.”
So when David goes missing again – as an adult – Robin relives her trauma but in a qualitatively different way. Act Two deals with the disappearance of the adult David – but Philpott’s decision to deny us closure in this instance creates a sense of frustration that echoes the absence felt by its characters.
And this is why you might call Colder thematically challenging. Because normally we expect some kind of resolution, some sort of understanding of the character’s motives to be supplied by the playwright – but we’re not given it here. Like the people around David, we can only guess at it.
What’s it like getting up on stage every night and committing to such an emotionally draining performance? Knowing of course that the audience will probably also feel frustrated by the lack of a resolution or motivations given to its characters.
Lee is sanguine. She’s grateful for the chance to represent the many people who suffer a kind of grief that is rarely spoken about.
There’s something like 20,000 people missing in Australia at any given time. Lee stumbled on this fact watching a documentary that gave the clearest possible insight into her character’s dilemma; through a mother whose son is described as ‘permanently missing’.
Though it had been over ten years since the disappearance, the mother never really had been able to let go:
“She was talking about this issue of unresolved or ambiguous grief…It was heartbreaking seeing her. You could see the toll in her body…in her face…in her psyche…how chronically tired she was…She never felt like she had moved on…Of course she had to some degree but, as a mother, how would you ever be able to shut that door? There have been people who have come up to me and said things after the show…we can hear people crying in the audience. So I just feel an incredible sense of compassion. That gives me resilience. It’s tiring but it feels very worthwhile.”
David disappears the second time at 33… his ‘Jesus year’. They never really find out what happens to him or why. He kind of just takes off. David’s best friend (a woman, Kay) his older mother, Robin, and his boyfriend, Ed, all deal with the loss in different ways.
Turn and Face the Change
Philpott’s portrayal of the adult David reflects aspects of gay male sexuality from a particular era, a particular age and section of the community. He’s in his late 20’s, early 30’s, totally on his own trip.
But within these encounters Philpott weaves the suggestion that maybe David is deliberately pushing boundaries, exposing himself to danger.
Is it simply because he’s searching for a father? Searching for a resolution to the mystery within himself? We’re not privy to the reasons but it’s clear that he’s suffered some damage.
Lee suggests that the beautiful, poetic monologue delivered by the actor playing David (Charles Purcell) in the second act possibly offers answers to some of these questions – but then it also raises several more. Philpott’s commitment to ambiguity is uncompromising!
Caroline joined Red Stitch at the end of 2016. When Artistic Director, Ella Caldwell, asked her to become an ensemble member she had a heap of work lined up for 2017 so she’s worked her way into the fold gently, as is her way.
Her very first ensemble experience, she says, was in her early 20’s – in a young Melbourne University ensemble called Edge theatre.
“Then, when I went to NY I looked at the Wooster Group ensemble and, whilst in Italy, I trained with some people who inherited Grotowski’s work in Tuscany. Even though Thomas Richards and Mario Biagini are the figureheads there, they’re part of an ensemble too. I’ve always believed in it as a structure for the actor. I just thought…wow…the only ensemble company in Australia is in my own home town and I’ve been invited to join. What an incredible opportunity!”
She also feels she is able to show some leadership with the experience she’s acquired over the years, both as a mentor to younger actors including those in the company’s Graduate Program, but also to help steer the ship as an ensemble member making decisions about the company’s direction.
Whilst she doesn’t yet regard herself as someone who can read a play and instantly visualise how well it will read on stage, she feels that’s one area she will develop quite quickly given the sheer number of plays ensemble members are expected to read!
She’s also carved out a little niche for herself helping to look after some of the young stage managers who are often still finding their feet at Red Stitch. A small theatre company’s production budget sometimes limits its ability to provide an adequate support network and Lee feels that this is something she’s naturally drawn to.
“We are able to make really exciting theatre here in Melbourne and its partly because the cost of living is such that people can still juggle paid work and working for low wages. So artists can offer an incredible amount of themselves in terms of time and resources to a project. I also think that that has allowed a culture to grow in Melbourne where there is a lot of sophisticated alternative work and thinking that happens around theatre.”
Sometimes, she acknowledges, that approach leads to a perception that artists don’t need funding, they’ll just do it on the smell of an oily rag – and Caroline has certainly had her share of ‘love projects’ where she effectively paid for the work herself while the paid professionals, like the publicist, “took home about 2000 times what I received!”
But at the same time she feels lucky to be in a city where artists can create opportunities for themselves and find audiences who are interested to seek out the work.
For a company that has raised artist compensation by about 40–50% from the amount it was paying just a few years ago thanks to support from its Kindred donor Programme, Lee feels it is making a massive difference to the actors and creatives Red Stitch can attract.
She’d be thrilled if the company could also manage to raise production budgets a fraction in the future, to ease the burden on others like set designers who are sometimes putting in their own funds to realise their ideas.
You get the sense Caroline is not about to let this particular vision slip.
COLDER by Lachlan Philpott, directed by Alyson Campbell is playing at Red Stitch until April 8th.
More information is available at The Missing Persons Advocacy Network.
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