Interview: Mark Salvestro (The Will to Be)
A University Office, 1962: Homosexuality is illegal. The fear of communism is in the air. A lecturer is dismissed. His secret is out. Will he choose legacy or the law? One man's exploration of sexuality, society and shame, laced with the words of Shakespeare.
To kick off, what show are you currently working on and what is your role in the production?
I’m currently working on a one-man show called ‘The Will To Be’, which I wrote last year, and am performing and co-producing for the 2020 Adelaide Fringe.
What drew you to this show and why do you think now is the right time to be bringing this story to the stage?
Initially I just wanted to create a show where I could explore and learn as much about Shakespeare as I could. After some months of planning, I realised that this didn’t provide enough substance for a story and that I needed something I could connect to on a deeper level. I then began delving into LGBT history and decided to merge the two topics together, resulting in the story of a closeted gay Shakespearean lecturer who is dismissed from his job because of his sexuality. I feel it’s particularly pertinent to explore queer history at the moment as the LGBTQIA+ community face the potential consequences of the proposed religious discimination bill. It can be easy to forget how much was fought for over the past 60 years, and even easier to take for granted the life we have today. The queer community and its allies must be vigilant in not letting us lose that and continue to fight for further change. If this show can shed a light on that then I have done my job…for now.
What has the experience been like working on this show? What has been unique about this show and your process in comparison to other shows you have worked on?
The process of this show has been very interwoven, in that it’s never been ‘now I’m writing’, ‘now I’m rehearsing’…even though it has felt like it at times. My acting experience has constantly informed the writing, and similarly, my word choice as a writer has only fuelled my performance all the more. It’s been a nice balance of exploring another writer’s text (Shakespeare) and my own, and then mixing it with the historical research I’ve done.
What can audiences look forward to in this show or why do you feel it is a story that they need to hear?
Audiences can look forward to experiencing a story rooted in honesty and heart that is inspired by true events, including that of gay Adelaide University lecturer, Dr. George Duncan, who drowned after being thrown into the River Torrens by police in 1972. Shakespeare lovers will enjoy experiencing The Bard’s text in a whole new context and realise all the more how adaptable and relevant his words are.
What has been the most rewarding part of this show to create for you?
Having a solid reason to delve right into LGBTQIA+ history and unashamedly share my findings with the world!
Why is this a production that a 2020 audience cannot miss?
The state of the world at the moment, politically and climate-wise, has created quite a rocky start for 2020. There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty in the air, and I feel people, particularly the younger generation, are beginning to sit up and take notice. The 1960s was a similar time in that people were becoming unsettled and began to fight for what they believe in. If I can give audiences a taste – or a reminder – of what those times were like, perhaps we can mobilise the population once again and fight for a world we truly want to be a part of.
When first beginning a new project, what is the first part of your process in approaching a new role?
Normally I read the script again and again for clues on my character and circumstances until I begin to embody them. This time, having written the script over a number of months, so much work was already done before the first day of rehearsal. Not only did I know my character’s backstory, his relationships, his goals, his fears, but they were already a part of me. After all, amidst all the historical references and fictional circumstances, his words are ultimately mine.
What is a common misconception that people have about your role in the production?
That the process is easy for me. I have a number of friends who often ask ‘how do you create your own work?’. I’ve become better at articulating my process over the years, which can make it sound like it is simple and easy. It’s not. Rarely. It takes an incredible amount of effort and self-discipline to not only sit down and write, but to then craft those many words into an actual story, into something that is entertaining, informative and in need of being told.
What has the rehearsal process been like in bringing this story to life? By the time audiences see this show on stage, what has gone into making it happen?
The rehearsal process really began on the day I wrote my first word, actually no, on the day I began my first part of research as a writer. To give you an idea, that’s around three months of research, three months of solid writing, two months of getting the piece on its feet, two weeks of more re-writes, followed by a four month hiatus, more re-writes, and a second lot of rehearsals to remount the show for Adelaide Fringe. The time in the actual rehearsal room has involved a lot of playing in the university office space (where the play is set) and learning how William (the protagonist) would interact with it on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes this would involve playing with the text, improvising scenes outside of the main action of the play, or even spreading the script out across the room and making those heartbreaking but ever-necessary cuts.
Do you have any opening night rituals? If so, what are they?
I don’t think so… not specific to opening night. Look, I’d love a bouquet of flowers but that’s yet to happen! I do have a specific preparation routine for each show though. This usually begins with 30 minutes of voice warm-ups and some glorious stretching, followed by a speed-run of the entire script so as it’s all on the tip of my tongue. I then put on my 1960s playlist and take my time putting on Wiliam’s clothes. I try not to see it as Mark putting on his costume and more as William getting ready for the day. My favourite – and most unique - part of the prepartion for ‘The Will To Be’ is putting on my white old-man undies…it’s very satisfying!
What is something that you take away from each show that you work on? Do you feel like you take a piece of the production with you each time?
Always! But each show it’s something different. It’s usually some kind of shift in my own life, something that I learn from the character I’m playing. For instance, playing William in ‘The Will To Be’ encourages me to be more open about my own homosexuality and begins to light that little fire in my belly – that mobilising power I mentioned earlier.
When was the turning point for you when you realised that theatre was not just a hobby but a passion? How did you go about making it your career and is there any one show that you can attribute this to?
The turning point for me came when I was about 17 years old. I was doing lots of community theatre in my home town in country NSW and it seemed to be the only thing that made me feel truly whole. At 19-years-old I packed my bags and moved to Sydney to begin part-time acting training. I suppose the real switch though was getting into the full-time program at the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Melbourne. My time at HFAS helped me establish a solid work ethic and gave me the tools to go on to write and perform my debut one-man show, ‘Buried at Sea’. After multiple tours of BaS, I went back into writing mode, and here we are with ‘The Will To Be’ doing it all over again!
Across your work, is there one story, thought or theme that keeps you interested in continuing to create? What stories do you find yourself drawn to the most?
Both my solo shows, ‘Buried at Sea’ and ‘The Will To Be’, seem to be connected to a particular time in the past. BaS was split between the 1910s (World War I era) and today, while TWTB is solely set in the 1960s. I was never much of a history buff at school, but today, I keep finding myself diving into any opportunity I can get to explore different eras, cultures and customs. What can I say, I’m a bit of an old soul…just not sure which era I belong in though! I suppose, thematically, it’s a nostalgia for a time that once was, and a chance to reflect on where we’ve been as a culture and how much we’ve grown (or not) since then.
What has been the highlight of your career so far and what is still on your performance bucket list?
The highlight of my career would have to be an equal tie between two experiences: Adelaide Fringe 2017 when I performed ‘Buried at Sea’ and Prague Fringe 2018 where I performed ‘Comedy of Errors’ with Australian Shakespeare Company’s Graduate Players ensemble. There’s a lot still on the bucket list but the first thing that comes to mind would have to be Edinburgh Fringe – maybe a double bill of ‘Buried at Sea’ and ‘The Will To Be’ is in store?!
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given that you would like to pass on to aspiring theatre makers?
A quote from musical theatre composer, Stephen Sondheim, comes to mind: “The worst thing you can do is censor yourself as the pencil hits the paper. You must not edit until you get it all on paper. If you can put everything down, stream-of-consciousness, you'll do yourself a service.”
I don’t remember when I first read this quote but I do remember printing it out and sticking it onto the cover page of my first journal in acting school. Ever since then, the essential lesson has been reiterated by others in various contexts. It can be distilled down to: Get out of your own way. Just do. And allow whatever comes your way to do so. I’m still working on this myself – and probably always will be – but I know the more I adhere to the advice, the better the artist I’ll become.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
What is your favourite production you have ever seen?
Oh wow, this is a big question! Let’s sayyyyyy Canadian playwright, actor (and everything else)’s ‘887’. I saw it at the Melbourne Arts Centre a few years ago. It took the concept of a solo show to a whole new level. He played with film and every design element you can think, all while supporting the flow of the storytelling and live experience.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world - where do you go?
Prague. It’s a magical land filled with so much history…and so much (cheap) beer.
What is your dream show to work on?
While I’m not in the music theatre industry, I do sing, and the role of George Seurat in Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ is definitely at the top of the bucket list.
What is a hobby you have beyond the theatre?
What do you mean? There’s a life outside of the theatre?! Not sure if this counts as a hobby but I’m Uncle to seven nieces and nephews … I love to go back home to NSW to spend time with them and redeem my favourite uncle status.
What’s next for you after this show?
I’m hoping to continue touring ‘The Will To Be’ and possibly remount ‘Buried at Sea’ for a regional tour. Then, London’s on the cards!
The Will to Be opens at the Bakehouse Theatre on February 24, 2020 as part of Adelaide Fringe Festival. You can get your tickets here.