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June 8, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Moth, Sarah Ogden and Thomas Conroy (interview)


Published June 2011 by Beat magazine

In 2010, Moth won three Green Room awards out of a total seven nominations. It also sold out before the show had officially opened at the Malthouse Theatre. The story of two adolescent misfits has entranced audiences of a wide age range, from 15-year-olds to grown adults. Luckily for Melbourne, it’s coming back in 2011, and the two principals, Sarah Ogden and Thomas Conroy, couldn’t be more delighted.

Conroy looks forward to a cast of only two. As the socially inept Sebastian, he insists that “It’s wonderful. I’ve never done it before, it’s a lot more intense, I think particularly in this rehearsal process, because Sarah has done it before and I’m new to the material. [It’s] quite focused, a rehearsal room, lots of one-on-one time. All we have is each other, to rely on each other, so it’s an amazing thing to be a part of.” While Conroy is replacing Moth’s 2010 actor Dylan Young, Ogden is returning for round two as Claryssa, an emo Wiccan art-freak only minutely “cooler” than Sebastian.

Ogden’s no stranger to small casts. “I’ve done quite a few small-cast plays, nothing quite as intense as this one though. From the minute the lights go up the two of us are on stage, and we’re both there in the light for the duration of the show. Once we’re on that rollercoaster there’s no getting off!”

Moth centres around the relationship between teenagers Sebastian and Claryssa. After a night drinking down at the cricket nets, Sebastian wakes up with a mysterious moth in a jar by his bed, the remnants of an ecstatic vision, and a newfound compulsion to save humankind. Sebastian and Claryssa are unlikely friends, but as the Green Room awards attest, it makes for compelling viewing. Moth reads as rather abstract, but both actors agree that it’s a storyline with a compelling connection to real life.

Ogden sees the opening of the play as abstract, but primarily as a technique for facilitating the more grounded sections of the play. “You meet the two characters in a nowhere space. It’s like a memory space in someone’s mind, and then they go and replay events that have already happened. A lot of the play is concrete things, it’s happened in the schoolyard, something that happened in the park…it’s not too abstract.”

There’s also great potential behind the fact the play has already been performed. Conroy notes that “The good thing about doing a remount, and particularly for me coming into it, [is that] I have a much clearer understanding from the very first day of what the play will look like. I already have my costumes, we’re working on the set already, and all the lighting changes [have been] talked through with me. We already have the finished soundscape to work with as well. Jethro Woodward is the composer for that and [he is] amazingly talented, and really lifts the whole production to another level.”

Both actors can’t help but laugh when they meditate on how closely they resemble their characters. Ogden can see herself in Claryssa. “She’s a crazy kind of pretend Goth. She would say ‘I’m not an emo’, everyone else probably thinks she is. Growing up, when I was 16 and 17, I was hanging out in Brisbane with the Goth crowd. It was all about the corsets and wearing Goth make-up and painting your nails black. I remember being part of one of those outsider cultures. In fact the shoes I wear in the play are my old Docs from when I was 16.”

Conroy’s connection is less specific. “Sebastian, the character I play, is very much an outsider. Claryssa is his only friend and that seems to only occur through circumstance rather than them actually really getting on incredibly well.” He sees the connection between himself and Sebastian, but Conroy was arguably not as isolated as his on-stage persona. His  connection to Sebastian is more “in a broad scale…my memory of [being] a teenager and growing up, and feeling misunderstood and feeling like I maybe don’t fit in with the cool kids…[but] on that level, I was never bullied like Sebastian.”

Playwright Declan Green has invested countless hours into Moth’s production, and both Ogden and Conroy reaped the benefits of his approach to rehearsals and editing. As Ogden notes, in last year’s show “Declan was in the room last year for most of our rehearsal period and was writing scenes over night, new things during lunch breaks…throwing new paper at us
every day for a couple of weeks.”

Is that a good thing? “Yes, it was great,” Ogden says, “because it means that we really have a great opportunity to test new material on the floor, in the mouths and bodies of actors, see if it works, to really make sure of the characters we were creating. And we were changing bits of scenes right up through previews with audiences until we finally felt like we had nailed the shape that the play needed to be.” Ogden found that the challenges in Moth the year before had “a lot to do with rhythm. [These characters] are really both quite horrible. Their friendship practically consists of them abusing each other. And figuring out how to end the play….there’s a lot of trial and error.”

Playing “horrible” characters also holds its own challenges for habitually polite people. Conroy laughs when I jokingly point out that he doesn’t sound like a jerk. “I’m still finding my way into [the character Sebastian], actually. I’m a bit nice at the moment! I don’t think I realised I was consciously doing it today until after the notes I got back from Chris the director, [which said] that I was a bit nice really. So I have to work on being a bit more annoying…[Sebastian] is certainly not a tough character.”

Overall, it’s Moth’s seemingly universal appeal that has drawn so many to the Malthouse Theatre production. Ogden’s had
an entire season of 2010 to observe the audience turnout. “Last year it was really interesting having some shows that were full of school-age students, and then some shows that were general public and an older crowd.”

In summary, Moth is in the enviable position of being a show that pleases everybody and was critically acclaimed the last time it was performed. It seems hard to lose on that score, particularly when the piece appeals to such a wide and varied range of people. Ogden’s experience last year summarises it best: “It was amazing how well the piece worked for both age groups, and how they find different things funny and moving. The adults might be laughing at references to Facebook or mobile phones and things, whereas the students just take that as given.”

Moth will be playing at the Malthouse Theatre between June 15 and June 25. For more information, see the Malthouse Theatre website.

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