Virginia Gay found herself in forced isolation as she reworked a classic. The actor and writer tells Julie Hosking how ‘the apocalypse’ helped shape her Cyrano and reinforced the need for human connection.
Virginia Gay was alone, except for a friend’s dog, trapped in Los Angeles during what she calls the apocalypse. It was here that her vision for Cyrano crystallised.
When the WAAPA graduate beloved for roles in TV series such as All Saints and Winners & Losers decided to adapt Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play about the lovelorn wordsmith, she didn’t want to go where so many had gone before.
For starters, Gay knew she just had to play Cyrano herself. And if Cyrano were a woman in love with another woman, one bewitched by a handsome but dimwitted man, this presented all kinds of pathways and possibilities. And roadblocks.
“I saw this production of Cyrano (with James McAvoy in the titular role) and got to interval and thought ‘oh my god, I have to take this role, what an incredible role’, but then when I came back after interval, I was like ‘oh, no, everybody dies’,” she says.
“I knew if we did the story as it existed, it would give weight to the idea that queer love is impossible. There’s this terrible phrase that has been part of television and culture for the last 50 years, ‘kill all your gays’, as if gay people’s deaths can be useful for a straight white guy’s story of growth. I already knew this was of no interest to me.”
The crushing loneliness of the pandemic only amplified Gay’s desire to create joy, rather than spread sorrow.
“It became more and more important to me the more the world got isolated, the more we were removed from each other and we were trying to reach for just these little scraps of connection,” she says.
Aside from flipping Cyrano’s gender, Gay ditched the death scene; elevated Roxanne, the object of her affection, to an equal rather than an unwitting pawn in a problematic love triangle; and infused her take on Cyrano de Bergerac with laughter and music.
The fact that Rostand’s tale had been adapted so many times in different ways (including Steve Martin’s light-hearted Roxanne and the rom-com The Truth About Cats and Dogs) gave Gay more freedom to explore.
“I’ve got this theory with the classics, like why do we keep telling these stories? We tell them because they are comforting and we sort of know how they will end,” she says.
“My theory is if you’re telling the old stories, you’ve got to give it to new young voices, diverse voices and queer voices, and voices that are then able to tell that story in a way that means something to a modern audience.”
Gay’s thoroughly modern rom-com took its time making it to the stage, however, thanks in no small part to “the apocalypse”. The Melbourne Theatre Company production only opened late last year after the Victorian capital went into a snap lockdown mere hours before opening night in 2021.
When we catch up, it is late afternoon in Melbourne, where the cast is rehearsing ahead of flying west for the play’s Perth Festival premiere, presented with Black Swan State Theatre Company.
If Gay is tired, it doesn’t resonate down the line. She is warm, funny, engaged and eager to sing the praises of her co-stars, including West Australians Joel Jackson (Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door, The Glass Menagerie) and Tuuli Narkle (Mystery Road: Origin, Black is the New White). Narkle played Roxanne in Melbourne, but Jackson is new to the role of the himbo Yan.
“We were so thrilled to get Joel because for the character of Yan, it’s got to be an incredibly intelligent, empathetic, generous actor who looks like a Greek god. And that’s what you get,” Gay says. “He walks on stage and everybody goes, ‘yep, absolutely’. Cyrano will have to be scrambling the whole time trying to win the audience’s love and Yan just walks on and he gets it. Come on! It’s so unfair.”
Gay can’t speak highly enough of her Roxanne, either. “Tuuli is an incredible talent,” she says. “It’s quite amazing really to be able to take a play that showcases her so truly back to her home town, and be like ‘this is her, this amazing First Nations woman, just wow!’ She wipes the stage with me, it’s so excellent.”
The Sydneysider is no slouch in the acting stakes herself. She’s been working non-stop since graduating from WAAPA – landing her role in All Saints from an audition sent off as a class exercise (albeit not the one she auditioned for).
“I am eternally grateful for my time at WAAPA; I actually credit my entire screen career to the fact we had hours of experience in front of a camera, before any of the other drama schools,” she says. “That is so invaluable because you can only learn by seeing yourself in the back of the camera; that you overperformed or the camera can see you lying.”
Gay has parlayed that dream start into myriad roles on screen, including Savage River and After the Verdict, and stage, including High Society and The Producers. She won a Sydney Theatre Award for her interpretation of the unlikely heroine in Calamity Jane.
The artist won’t be pumping up her own tyres, though, describing herself as “the Cate Blanchett you get when you can’t afford Cate Blanchett”. She is also upfront that the American dream she went to LA to pursue in 2019 was not what she hoped, and not just because the world turned upside down soon after.
“I’d moved over there to have the great adventure and I tell you it’s not the adventure I thought I would have, but oh, my god it’s one of those adventures that completely changed my life,” she says.
“America transformed me. I had an incredibly lucky career in Australia; I was basically working since I graduated and I realise how privileged that is. And then going to America and suddenly being faced with nothing and no work. Even before the apocalypse started, I realised that it was going to be me versus the hours and what was I going to do with those hours.”
Initially, Gay thought in between auditions (and rejections) she could enjoy the kind of social life she had missed out on back home when she was constantly working. Covid put paid to that, too.
She had reckoned on it blowing over in a few months when she blithely offered to look after her friend’s dog. The family was in a hurry to get back to Australia and settle kids into school, but the dog needed several shots before he could join them. Gay was happy to be the stop gap, thinking they would both follow shortly after. Instead, they were each other’s only company for the next six months. “We really bonded, that dog and I!”
The thing about having your back to the wall, however, is that you discover new things about yourself. “I truly had nothing and it made me dig deeper,” she says.
What Gay had become increasingly aware of, even before she was isolated in a city she no longer wanted to be in, was the need to be telling her own stories. The more scripts she saw, the more auditions she went to, the more she realised something was missing.
“I had this feeling like there are lots of stories being told in the world but none of them particularly grabbed me by the throat, like this is the story of my heart or my soul,” she says.
“I think the empty hours started me thinking maybe I have a right to tell stories as well. Maybe my voice is valuable because I haven’t seen it anywhere, and that might be important to other people.”
Gay hadn’t thought of herself as a writer growing up, though she confesses to being the author of a “humourless” high school play. But she’s always loved reading anything she could get her hands on, a love that undoubtedly influenced her decision to add playwright to her CV. Cyrano is not her first foray into the writer’s den. She was a dramaturg on Black Swan’s The Torrents, starring Celia Pacquola, and wrote and co-directed The Boomkak Panto at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre.
“If anyone’s reading this interview and wanting insight about writing, one of the great things I’ve learnt is that you write as well as you read,” she says. “You’ve got to be reading poetry and, yes, the classics, but you’ve also got to be reading all the incredible new writing coming out. And the more you read, the better your writing.”
Those who follow Gay on Instagram (@thatsmsgaytoyou) know she loves to shout about books that have made her heart sing. Having devoured Sarah Winman’s Still Life, she is reading the author’s When God Was a Rabbit.
“My god, she is soooo good,” she says. “I’ve also just finished (Torrey Peters’) Detransition, Baby. The title makes you think it’s a hate crime but it’s so uplifting, so real and so funny, and beautifully articulated. It’s also a great example of why trans people should tell trans stories – I was reading it and going ‘wow, is that what it feels like’; it was just so clarifying.”
The effervescent artist is still writing her own story, too. She’s working on a television show that is in the early stages of development, so early she can’t really go into too much detail. “It’s like a mix between Fleabag and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” she offers, delighted to hear they are two of my favourite television shows. “You’re my perfect audience!”
For now, Gay is looking forward to performing for a Perth audience and being back where it all began. Plus, she says, her voice bursting into song: “I’m going to spend sooo much time at the beach!” And you can immediately see why her Cyrano was always going to have a happy ending.
Pictured top: Virginia Gay was determined to take ‘Cyrano’ in a different direction. Photo: Brett Walker
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