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INTERVIEW – BRENDAN HANSON, star of Black Swan Theatre’s Next To Normal

| 19 November 2015 | Reply

INTERVIEW – BRENDAN HANSON, star of Black Swan Theatre’s Next To Normal
By Shane Pinnegar

Brendan Hanson - Next To Normal

Brendan Hanson stars in Black Swan Theatre’s production of the acclaimed rock musical Next To Normal, playing at the State Theatre Centre from 7th to the 22nd November. SHANE PINNEGAR spoke to the actor about the show’s theme of suburban mental illness.

A WAAPA graduate who has sung & acted throughout Australia and Asia performing opera, musical theatre and cabaret, Hanson is eager to get to grips with the acclaimed pop rock musical about mental illness.

When tackling a role like this, does an actor have to approach their performance in a certain way to make sure the subject is handled tactfully and respectfully?

“Well, it’s more about doing the research,” Hanson says. “Also, let’s be honest. I don’t think there’s anyone who isn’t touched or affected by mental illness. There’s a family member or there’s colleagues at work… It surrounds us. I guess part of it is your own personal experience of that and what you bring then to the role yourself. I’ve been doing my reading and doing my investigation. A lot of it is just coming from having to assist or bear witness to friends who deal with mental disease all the time. What an affliction it is.

“How amazing is that now, that we see it as exactly that. We see it as a disease, something that needs to be monitored and addressed, rather than the whole idea, you know, get on with it. Get over it and get on with it.”

Or, lock them up in a padded cell.

“Yeah, that’s right,” he continues. “Medicate and lock them up. But we need to show compassion towards it, I think, largely because of the prevalence of it. Also, where we’re learning that it’s compassion that assists people to transition through it. Rather than this whole idea, put up, shut up and get on with it. It becomes a thing of repression and a time bomb, really.”

Director Adam Mitchell has said, of the work, “It’s much more than a feel good musical. It’s more of a feel everything musical.” That must be a dream for the actors on stage.

“Hell, yeah!” exclaims Hanson. “The material is amazing. Some of it is really funny – it really is. The way they handle Diana’s manic phases is so deft, so engaging, and also, really funny. She’s got a song, My Psychopharmacologist and I… My character Dan is oblivious to a certain degree to how in the depths of her manic or depressive phases she is. There’s this humour that comes from that – after all, we’re all human, we miss the signs sometimes. There’s incredible opportunities for humour.

“Also, the drama. Without giving anything, there’s only six actors in the show. One of the actors plays two doctors. The rest of us are all playing a single character, and one of those characters isn’t alive, which is pretty incredible. You’ll spend the evening with a character who can only be seen by Diana, which is pretty amazing. The complexity of that and the beauty of that is quite amazing.

“And, it’s what happened to that character that was the trigger, the catalyst for her disease. So, it’s really clever. It’s a really wonderful and clever musical. And, very compassionate. Yeah, it’s an absolute gift. It won the Pulitzer Prize. It won the Tony Award. It won the Drama Desk Award. To get the trifecta like that, there aren’t many pieces that can make that claim. And, it’s because of the complexity and the beauty of the writing. And, yet, it’s an absolute gift as an actor, to have the opportunity, because, musical theater often gets put into that basket of jazz hands

Next To Normal was a big hit on Broadway in the late 2000’s, and Hanson explains that it retains its American setting for the Black Swan production.

“Yeah, it’s distinctly American. Suburban American. That can’t be changed, and the way it’s written in terms of the pitch, it’s just so intrinsically American that you can’t change that. Also, it’s just commonalities. It doesn’t really matter where it’s set. It’s about a family in the suburbs, and how they’re dealing with this disease basically. It could be set anywhere. But, it doesn’t matter, the fact that it’s set in America with American accents. It’s written that way so it needs to be honoured in that way.”

Brendan Hanson 02

Next To Normal is undoubtedly an emotional roller-coaster ride over two-and-a-half hours. How do the performers come down and ground themselves after that every night?

“I guess we’ll find that out in about [two] weeks time, really,” he quips. “No… some shows are easy. Some shows you go in and you do the job, [then] you go, maybe, have a drink in the bar afterwards, you go home and you go to bed. Every show is different. It has its different demands. You don’t really know until you get there. Some shows end up being what I call nana-nap shows because you’re a little bit sleep deprived. Because I still get up and make breakfast in the morning for the kids, it might be a nana-nap show where I have to have a nap in the afternoon to do it. I guess we’ll find out when we get there.”

Hanson, who has worked with co-star Rachael Beck over East in shows such as Les Miserables, is looking forward to reuniting with her, as well as working with three recent WAAPA graduates on the show.

“It’s really great,” he enthuses, “two graduated last year, one a couple of years before that. It’s like the new generation – there’s the old timers like myself – because I graduated back in 1994, and I’m a lecturer at WAAPA now. It’s really great to see that Black Swan have been able to program a piece that gives that opportunity to the new blood.

“Yeah of course,” he says when I ask if he saw a bit of himself from twenty years ago in the new guys. “It’s just amazing. You’re kind of like teflon when you’re first graduating, you know – your balls are made of brass! You can do anything! [Then] you get a little bit older, you get a little bit wiser, you get a little bit more knowledge, you get a mortgage and a wife and children, blah, blah, blah. You have other things to juggle besides just the act of making art. You can get so caught up in so how important it is. It’s all blood sweat and tears [when you start out]… as you get a little bit older, you realise it’s [just] the world of pretendees!

“It’s great fun. It’s the best job ever. I say to people all the time, ‘I get paid to play pretendees all day long.’ It’s an amazing job – but, that’s all that it is. It’s a job – it’s a really good one, but it’s not life and everything. Life and everything is my wife and my kids and my family life, you know?”

“And, also that your work is the way that you provide the energy to sustain yourself. It can’t be everything that you are. Because, there’s an imbalance there. Then, it just becomes about your ego.”

Brendan Hanson 03

After comparing my experiences working in restaurant kitchens for many years, Hanson draws a parallel between the two careers.

“There’s not much difference between the pressure of being in the kitchen and the pressure of being on stage. It’s just a high performance where you [have] to nail it all the time. [It’s] not quite a performance – although, if you work in an open kitchen… [you have to] mind your P’s and Q!”

“We have the whole tricky thing of working on a show [where] you’re on microphone, which we will be for this one. If you walk off stage, you’ve got to mute yourself because it’s so easy to walk off and go, ‘aww, fuck! I missed that or I dropped that. Aww, did you hear that clanger?’ You’ve got to really be watching yourself.”

Having done a lot of opera and Shakespeare and musical theatre like Les Miserables, is it very different to be up there singing rock and roll theatre?

“It’s a different style of course,” states Hanson, “But, no, no – you’re using the same craft. It’s just a slightly different style. I’ve just come off singing Oklahoma at the Regal. That’s the old school legit, quasi-classical, big voiced kind of singing. It’s a really different kind of sound. This is right, in the pocket, contemporary – it’s a really different sound. It’s what we call SLS, speech level singing. You’re taking a speech style of vocal production. You take it as high as you can before you have to tip into that rock belt, basically.”

Sort of like singing a soliloquy, I guess, to a certain extent?

“Yeah. That’s great. That’s awesome. It’s written so well. All of the characters seem to have a really good bellow. It’s good fun. I shout in the evenings, that’s what I say!”

What would the actor say to people who might baulk at the idea of going to the theater and confronting mental illness head on?

“Yes, it is the central theme,” Hanson starts with a pause, before continuing eloquently, “it is what we go into inquiry about through the evening. But, it’s handled with such humour and cleverness and accessibility through the music. The music is wonderful – it’s really, really, really clever. It’s not like opera singers bellowing at you. In some regards, you won’t even feel like people are singing, necessarily. Then, there are moments when it’s literally like balls to the wall, having a good old yell. It’s an engaging evening.

“It’s something – a subject matter – which, like I said, that most people have been affected by. If it’s not themselves, it’s by a family member or a colleague at work or a friend. It’s handled with such delicacy. It’s a really great night in the theater. To be honest, I don’t spruik my work much: I go to my kids functions and drop them off at school, and people will ask what I’m doing, and I’ll say, ‘oh, I’m doing this, or, I’m doing Shakespeare, or I’m doing that.’ When it comes to this, I say, ‘don’t miss it – this is a really amazing piece of theatre, really, written in a way that’s completely accessible. It won the Pulitzer and the Tony Awards for a reason – come and find out why.’

“It’s a cracker,” he continues giddily, “we’ve got a great six piece band. We’ve got guitar, keys, drums, percussion, cello, violin and bass. We’ve got David Young as our musical director – he’s phenomenal, he’s just come off Wicked. He’s been touring with Wicked for a very long time. Great cast. Honestly, I’ve had a whiff, a whisper, of about what the sets entail and that’s pretty exciting as well. It’s going to be a great night in the theater.”

Category: Interviews

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