How would you describe love?
Love’s a rollercoaster. It is amazing and beautiful. But love’s also work.
It’s multi-multi-faceted. There are times when it’s just thunderbolts and fire and explosions and fireworks… and it’s a drug! And then there are other times when it’s tortuous and painful and other times when it’s tedious. But I think it is why we are here; to look for it, to nurture it, to find it, to try and generate it when it’s not around us; especially in crazy troubled times like now.
You’ve got romantic love, you’ve got empathetic love for other people, you’ve got pathos, elios, phileo, agape. But it’s more than that, it’s having love for your fellow human beings, having love for yourself and then also having love for your romantic partner as well. I’m always trying to work on all of those things.
It’s like the Light Side of the force! I think you either try to fight for the Light Side of the force or the Dark Side of the force. And the Light Side is to try and generate love, to try and put a bit of that back into the world, because there’s enough darkness, that’s for sure.
How would you describe your practice?
My practice is storytelling, as is I guess is most art. The main part of my practice which is acting, is storytelling through playing a character or different characters.
For me, I always try to distill what it is that I’m doing or why it is that I’m doing it, and for me, it’s about making people feel like they’re not alone.
If someone can relate to the story we’re telling, if they can relate to a character or see a part of themselves or someone they know; whether it’s things they like or don’t like, then they go “other people have had these experiences as well.”
When you’re looking at a project, is the story then really important to you as to whether you’re going to take it on?
Yeah, I mean we don’t always have that luxury, but yes that’s true.
I recently turned down a state theatre gig for the show that I’m doing right now. And purely because the story that I’m working on now is so beautiful and the team are just the most wonderful bunch of people.
I was actually doing the Camino de Santiago when I had to make this decision, you know the walk across the north of Spain, which is a pilgrimage. And I’d found out that I had this gig at the State Theatre in Perth, which I thought “awesome, this is amazing!” and then I found out a week later that the team had gotten this play into Griffen here in Sydney.
The team called me and said, “Ben, we know you’ve probably got that gig in Perth and we understand if you can’t do this.” And I said, “Give me a week on the Camino and I’ll make a decision.” On the day I made the decision, it just seemed like a really easy one. Do I want to tell a story that I love telling, with the people that I love working with, which reminded me of why I do what I do, or do I do something purely for the money and the career opportunity? Well… I’m on a heart-journey right now, so it was easy to make a decision with my heart.
It definitely makes a decision easier when the story has got something that connects to you. In times when there’s absolutely no work… then I guess you might take on anything.
It’s a constant negotiation. You get different things from different projects. Some projects, the story might be amazingly strong, some projects might have a director or actors that you’ve always wanted to work with, and then every now and then you’ll have one of those really rare times when everything just seems to come together – which for me has been this project. It is one of those shows that actually reminds me why I do what I do.
We make people happy when they come out of the theatre with this show, and that’s not always the case or point with a story, but it’s nice to have that for a change. Because I think with a lot of storytelling, we are dealing with some very dark themes, which are important, but it’s nice to have a night about love and all the permutations, the hard things and good things.
What revives or refreshes your creative spirit?
Watching, listening and looking at other people’s creative work. If I see a great show, and for me, one of the last great things I saw in the theatre was a contemporary dance piece, that just blows my mind and excites me and I feel like “AHH! Yes! I wanna DO THIS!!” – it makes me want to put 200% back in!! Seeing other people with such rigorous passionate work. Other great works of art inspire me such as films, things that move me, that hit me emotionally. That generates more desire in me to create. The last documentary that really moved me was “The Look of Silence.” by Joshua Oppenheimer. It’s a follow-up piece to “The Act of Killing.”
What is the reason you continue with your practice?
To make people realise that they’re not alone, that’s what I distill it down to… but beyond that… I don’t know what else to do!!
It’s just what comes naturally to me. Of course, there have been so many times when I’ve felt like quitting and I still do. Even before an opening night, you’re like “Why the… fuck am I doing this!?” But when you have those moments… well, people call it so many different things, like when you’re in the flow, or you’re in the moment. Or there’s this zen-ness where everything just seems to just fit perfectly and you’re expressing the role and you feel like the audience is completely with you and engaged. Or say if you’re on a film set and you feel that you and the other actors are just connecting, flowing with the tsunami of the story. It’s really really exhilarating. And it’s times like these when you just go “Fuck I love doing what I do!” It’s that collaboration as well that keeps me going, with all the people making the project happen.
What is the last dream you remember?
My dreams can be really crazy and really vivid, I haven’t had a lot lately, but the last one I remember was I that was standing by the sea, by a rock wall, and my dad was out there in the water with a heap of friends surfing. And all of a sudden their surfboards got bumped by sharks and I was like “oh… shit!!” and then, they were all paddling in. The swells were so big, they were rolling up and I could see through the water, cause I was standing on this rock wall and the water was rolling past me and I could see just these hills of water. I just saw these sharks swimming through the water and they could have just jumped out and got me right there! Then I just remember having no fear for myself and just slapping on the water, trying to distract the sharks, to try and get them to come towards me whilst my dad and his friends were trying to get in.
I dunno what it was about, maybe because my dad just had a little thing where he had to go to hospital recently and seeing the potential mortality in your parents. Probably also because I was coming up to the show and there’s always a few nerves.
Where is your family from?
Perth. Mum is Greek. Dad is pretty… generic… “skip” – Aussie…Angle – Euro German French background. But there’s also a slight possibility of Anglo-Indian heritage. But Mum’s side of the family are all Greek / Macedonian.
I didn’t have much Greek culture growing up, not as much as I would’ve liked. My family are from an area right up near the border, between Greece and Macedonia and through that area a lot of them spoke Macedonian. My grandparents, if they were arguing, would start out in English and then it would click over a gear and turn into Macedonian. So I knew a few Macedonian words (not all curse words). But they just really worked their guts out, they were poor and came from peasant backgrounds. The only real cultural stuff I got from the family was more to do with the food. We would try and generate some sort of culture, like every now and then at a wedding we’d try to do a Zorba! *laughs*
You’re in a play at the moment, what’s it called?
Are you ready for the longest name ever?… “Those who fall in love like anchors dropped upon the ocean floor.”
We are currently performing it here in Sydney at Griffen Theatre.
We have done two seasons in Perth at The Blue Room Theatre, who’ve been huge supporters of this piece. We won lots of awards for that and we sold out. It’s a beautiful small venue with 2 stages, it’s a really unique space. The diversity of work that comes through there is amazing, you get contemporary dance, new Australian works, old Autralian works, the odd classic work as well. It’s a really supportive community that’s obsessed with generating new work.
Then Perth’s got an amazing Fringe Festival, which is becoming one of the hit-lists on the world fringe tours, there’s a curated section called “Summer Nights” and the show was performed at PICA and sold out there as well.
What props did you bring?
I brought my Greek worry beads. I was in Sydney and didn’t have much on me, they are a thing that’s in my bag that I carry all the time. In a way, they are like rosary beads, you meditate and they de-stress you. And they’re a little bit of heritage as well. I got them in Northern Greece, Thessaloniki.
Do you have any rituals?
In terms of before a piece – there’s a physical warm up, a vocal warm up. And just before it starts I try to do a little breathing meditation. Remind myself that I love doing this because the nerves can get to you.
My main thing is that I go for a walk every day and remind myself what I’m grateful for. Then I go into a visualisation for what I’m going to be grateful for in the future. Scientists have found that even if you don’t feel grateful, if you try to practice gratitude, it starts to change pathways in your brain.
Mental health is massively important and from my experience, a lot of creative people are a lot more prone to struggles on the mental health front. It’s become a big part of what I do. I’m learning techniques on how to stay positive. With our industry, it can come with a lot of insecurities.
The other big thing with actors is that we know how much your thoughts can shape your world now, science is proving this. As actors, we sometimes have to put ourselves into the minds of dark, horrible situations and characters. That’s gotta have some impact on you. Having the strength to compartmentalise those things is really important. I think it’s also really important to educate younger actors in this and create a safe place to explore these things. I’ve had friends who have chosen to exit.
When you are in a character, you are stepping towards that and you have to act out these things that these horrible people might do, really heavy things like sexual abuse. They are really heavy places to go to. I’ve actually had people who haven’t wanted to speak to me afterwards because of the character I’m playing.
All the psychology is showing that our thoughts create our world. So I think you need to cultivate an element of mental strength.
In other forms of art, you are generally expressing something that is coming from YOU. But as an actor, you’re part of a bigger machine and in a sense, we are often telling someone else’s story.
For, say a painter, your art might be almost like an exorcism of something inside you, like a cathartic release. But for an actor, we’re actually inviting those things in.
I mean, I also get to play wonderful things of course!
What other outlets for your creativity do you have, other than acting?
At the moment I have a real passion for film and moving into documentary making. I’m working on a doco with a group of friends. That’s really satisfying. It’s a very different form to acting. It’s a documentary about the survivors from the boxing day tsunami. Sometimes I play on the guitar and sometimes I draw. I think it’s good to have a few little other things. Especially when there’s not an opportunity to act all the time.
What is the hardest thing about your practice?
The inconsistency. The times when there’s no work. Wondering when the next job is coming. But luckily for me, the last couple of years I’ve have quite a lot of work. You create your own luck for sure and I’ve made a lot of risky decisions. Like going back to Perth. But it’s been building and rolling. Smaller places can make you generate your own work and there seems to be a lot more space to work out new things. Finegan Kruckemeyer talks about this as well I think, because he’s down in Tassie. Doesn’t seem to be this pressure to make work that is successful in this particular area or regurgitate the same thing. You can think “what interests me right now and how can I express myself in this way?”
What has been the most significant or exciting moment for you so far?
There are a few main ones. One was getting to work with Barry Kosky at NIDA, he completely opened up my eyes to what theatre and performance and storytelling can be. He came in and spoke about how you can do nightmares on stage, you can dance around on stage to marilyn manson with cards floating down from the sky. And then Bell Shakespeare a couple of years later, that was a major pinnacle moment as well. Going to train at with Philippe Gaulier in Paris, I did a few courses with him. He is a really blunt, rude, clown of a teacher. He’ll just yell out “Totally boring get off the stage! 2 out of 10!” … and you know he’s fucking right! And you understand why. You think…“yeah, sometimes your a prick… but man you’re right.” But there was a moment I had with him. I had been struggling on something for ages and finally I broke through. I had everyone in hysterics and he just goes “perfect.” – everyone was screaming because of his reaction. Screaming and laughing.
The things that stuck with me that he taught, is that you have to have pleasure in it, no matter what you’re doing. Whether you’re acting angry, tortured, pain in love – that you deep down have to have pleasure. He would say “I don’t want to see you in their crying thinking about your dead grandfather or your dog that died yesterday… then you will actually start to feel really uncomfortable. Yes, we have to believe what you’re saying is true. But you have to be enjoying it deep down.”
Continually learning, it opens your eyes to what’s possible and how much hard work you have to do to work and fail and fail and fail… until you go, “OH I think I get it… maybe”… and then you fail and fail and fail.
I’m reading a book about 1890’s Western Australia to learn about what life what like back then, I feel very privileged to be about to do that for my work.
If money were no object, what would you do?
Travel a lot more. And make films, theatre, documentaries, go out and make films with communities that are disadvantaged, give back to the world. And…maybe buy a nice house in the bush.
What do you see yourself doing, when you are say… 55?
I’d love to have a sustainable house in the bush, with a family, and an amazing veggie patch. And some chickens, and an art studio.
Then being able to travel around to make my films and perform in other people’s work. That’s my dream. Sitting on the porch playing the guitar at sunset when I’m real old.
What are you currently working on / what’s coming up for you?
I’ve got two film projects straight after this show. An amazing Sci-Fi short film. Then a feature set in the 1890’s in Western Australia. It’s being billed as WA’s first ‘western’!
Both are so exciting. And I get to jump from one archetypal boy’s dream to another. Astronaut to cowboy. Life is being good to me. And whenever I get a spare moment I try and work on our Doco ‘Friends of the Sea’.
What does “Create or Die” mean to you?
It blew my mind when I first realised that everything in this world started out as an idea. A teacup, a lamp post, a building, a song, a book, a car, everything started in someone’s head.
I think we are here to create. Whether that be a business, a family, a vaccine, a meal, a piece of art – everything is a form of personal expression. And perhaps if we are not working towards what it is that we want to express, or manifest, or share with the world – then maybe a part of us dies.
Keep in touch with Ben’s upcoming projects here: https://www.facebook.com/bmortley
~ Portrait by Chrissie Hall / Conversation with Deb Morgan ~