17 August, 2009

Interview with Frank Woodley from Optimism

Image: Frank Woodley. Photo: Jeff Busby

We caught up with Australian comedian and actor Frank Woodley recently and asked him a few questions about his lead role of Candide in Malthouse Melbourne's production of Optimism.

Growing up in Victoria, how did you enter the world of comedy and acting?
I'm not sure really. There were no performers in my family. The closest thing was the fact that in his youth, my dad had once been an audience participant at a comedy show. Because it was an event that dad remembered vividly, whenever I involve an audience participant I try to keep in mind that although it's just another show for me, for them it'll be something they remember forever. My earliest memory of making people laugh was when I was running the final leg of a relay in the grade two school sports. I realized I couldn't win and I thought "I can try as hard as I can, and still lose, or I could dance down the track playing the baton like a flute." I went the flute option, got a big laugh from the crowd and my fate was sealed. When I was about eighteen some friends and I started putting together routines and trying them out in comedy clubs and although we had some shockers we got enough laughs to confirm in me, this is what I love to do.

You were part of the successful comedy duo Lano and Woodley for many years. Was the move to becoming a solo performer a natural progression or did you find this difficult?
It has been strange. When we divorced we divided up all our material. Col got the set ups and I got all the punch lines. Unfortunately ... "So, I ate the bicycle, and rode the eggplant", doesn't really work without it's precursor. It took me quite a while to not feel very strange on stage without Col. One of the things I've had to learn is more discipline. Col and I evolved a technique where I could head off on flights of fancy, and if they worked great, but if they didn't work, they'd still have a pay off because Col would berate me and abuse me for wasting the audience's time. Now Col's not there as a safety net I have to be a bit more diligent so that any improvisations I undertake work in themselves.

Which part of your job do you find the most satisfying?
There's a few things I really cherish. I love that first time you present a new idea ... and it works. People laugh. Then I love the experience of refining that material. When I've performed a joke a few times, and I know it's a reliable big laugh, then I have this lovely experience of finding the most effortless way, to get that big laugh. Sometimes, if you put the right pieces together, you hardly have to do anything, and it gets an explosive response. A well timed eyebrow raise, or a twitch of a finger. I don't know if that suggests that I'm very lazy, but I get immense satisfaction from discovering that efficiency.

You performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2008 and are coming back to take part in the Edinburgh International Festival. What do you enjoy about Edinburgh during the Festival period?
I absolutely love Edinburgh. The amount of theatre and music during the festival is totally absurd. I think the thing I love is the incredible variety of stuff going on and the fact that if you get into it, at least once a day you'll see something totally unique that fills you with wonder. There are so many passionate artists in town. Every one of them feels so intensely about their work and is putting their heart and soul into it. Whether it's a youth theatregroup doing Sweeny Todd, or a cutting edge multi media company from Eastern Europe everybody wants to reach an audience and move them deeply. And the backdrop of such a beautiful city doesn't hurt. A little bit less drizzle maybe ... but hey, I've got an umbrella.

What drew you to the production Optimism?
I read the book Candide, written by Voltaire in 1759, which is what the play is based on, and found it totally fascinating. The questions which it explores are so fundamental. Considering life is undoubtedly going to be filled with all sorts of suffering, and we all grow old and die without ever knowing conclusively what it was all about, is optimism an intelligent perspective? And ... what is the alternative? The level of black humour is astounding and I was surprised to find that the edge that the material teeters on, in terms of being shocking or offensive is completely contemporary. This is a comedy that confronts murder, war, rape, disease, depression, disillusionment, old age, bestiality, slavery and just about every other taboo you can think of. I spoke to Michael Kantor the director and he was very enthusiastic about creating a show that would respect the spirit of Voltaire's novel but would also be original and exuberant contemporary theatre.

What do you find most interesting about the character you play in this production?
One of the reasons I was drawn to the play is when I read the book I could see that the comic persona that I have been playing and refining for the past twenty years fitted very neatly into the role of Candide. Candide is essentially a trusting innocent with a naturally optimistic point of view, who is also very sensitive about his own and other people's suffering. I knew that the play was going to be a stretch for me in terms of the dramatic requirements, but I was confident that the role suited my strengths as a performer.

Why do you think people should come and see Optimism at the Edinburgh International Festival?
Hopefully people go away from the show, feeling stimulated on many levels. There's lot of laughs (it's hard to feel pessimistic while your laughing), and some very beautiful theatrical images and music, as well as some deeply challenging and confronting questions being kicked around. It's definitely the kind of show that is brilliant fuel for conversation.

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