This month renowned local actor Humphrey Bower will be performing in Black Swan State Theatre’s fresh new take on The Cherry Orchard, which sees Chekhov’s comedy classic transplanted in time and place, to the South-West of WA in the 1980s. Nina Levy caught up with Bower to find out more.
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Humphrey Bower is an award-winning actor, director and writer, whose career spans over 30 years. Originally from Melbourne, he has been based in Perth for the last 20 years.
As an independent theatre-maker he has made and performed in many works at the Blue Room Theatre, most recently The Golem at the end of 2020, The Apparatus in 2019 and Hiro in 2018. He last appeared at Perth Festival in 2019, in Maxine Doyle and STRUT Dance’s Sunset, and with Black Swan State Theatre Centre in 2017’s Coma Land (the first show that Seesaw reviewed).
Bower is also a sessional acting teacher and guest director at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).
Nina Levy: Thanks for making time to talk to us Humphrey. At the time of this interview we’re in the midst of a five-day lockdown here in Perth… are rehearsals continuing via Zoom? How is it working out?
Humphrey Bower: We’ve gone back to rehearsing via Zoom for two hours every day this week. It’s how we first worked together as a company on the development of the script for a month during the first lockdown back in April 2020. That’s when we were originally scheduled to rehearse the show for production in May until Covid 19 intervened. So in a way it feels strangely familiar.
NL: You’re well-known and highly regarded in Perth’s independent theatre sector, as an actor, director and writer… so much so that I was surprised to learn that your career began in Melbourne. Given that Melbourne is such a hub for the arts, what drew you to Perth?
HB: The short answer is that I moved here for family reasons. But I’ve since put down roots here professionally as well as personally. Perth is a wonderfully rich environment in terms of its creative community, especially at the grassroots and independent level. I think there’s something paradoxically liberating about being far away from the cultural centres of power like Sydney and Melbourne. There’s also a very vital Indigenous cultural presence here.
NL: And what has kept you here long-term?
HB: See above. I also love the natural environment that surrounds Perth to the south, east and north, and of course the Indian Ocean and the Swan River. And I live in Fremantle, which is the most seductive place on earth. It’s like the Land of the Lotus Eaters, or the Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave.
NL: You describe yourself as an independent theatre-maker… so what drew you to work with Black Swan State Theatre Company in this version of The Cherry Orchard?
HB: I’ve always alternated between the independent sector and working with major companies like Black Swan or the Melbourne Theatre Company. Both have their advantages (and drawbacks!) but they complement and feed each other, at least for me as an artist. In some ways this version of The Cherry Orchard is a kind of crossover work. It’s a “major” production (Black Swan/Perth Festival) but it’s also a site-specific work of “contemporary” theatre.
NL: For the uninitiated, what do we need to know about The Cherry Orchard?
HB: The Cherry Orchard is a classic play by Anton Chekhov set in early 20th Russia. It’s about an aristocratic family who have to sell their country estate. This version is a contemporary adaptation by Adriane Daff and Katherine Tonkin set in Southwest WA in the 1980s. It’s being performed at the former Sunset Hospital site in Nedlands.
NL: How is this version of The Cherry Orchard different to traditional interpretations?
HB: It’s a contemporary adaptation of a classic play staged at a historic local site with a fantastic cast including two live dogs. What more is there to say?
NL: Which role do you play in The Cherry Orchard? What appeals to you about this role?
HB: Pischik (or ‘Piss-Cheek’ as he’s called in this version) is a next-door neighbour comic cameo role (think Kramer in Seinfeld). He appears in three out of the four acts, and only has a few lines, but they’re all good ones – especially in this version.
NL: And this isn’t your first time performing in The Cherry Orchard. What draws you to Chekhov’s work?
HB: I’ve actually been in two previous productions of The Cherry Orchard, in which I played Yepikhodov and then Yasha. (Maybe next time I’ll play Gayev, and finally Firs.) I’ve also been in productions of The Seagull, Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya (the latter was a very different production by Black Swan 15 years ago, in an adaptation by Reg Cribb, also designed by Zoe Atkinson [set and costume designer for the 2021 production of The Cherry Orchard], and with Hayley McElhinney [2021 cast member] in the cast); and I’ve taught and directed Chekhov scene work at WAAPA.
As for having an interest in Chekhov: what actor doesn’t? As a playwright he’s second only to Shakespeare in terms of the sheer breadth of his humanity; and along with Brecht, Beckett and Artaud he redefined what theatre could be in the 20th Century.
NL: What are you looking forward to seeing at Perth Festival?
HB: Because of my performance schedule I can only see other shows on Sundays, but I’m especially looking forward to seeing three other site-specific outdoor performance works: Galup, Beside and Witness Stand.
NL: What is your favourite part of the playground?
HB: The monkey bars.
Pictured top: Humphrey Bower (foreground) rehearsing with the cast of Black Swan State Theatre’s production of ‘The Cherry Orchard’. Photo: Daniel J Grant
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