Henri Szeps stars in Elizabeth Coleman's splendid black comedy It's My Party (and I'll Die If I Want To). Szeps describes the play as a wonderful insight into the blindness's that family members can have for one another.
Szeps has been an actor for close on five decades. In the early days it was Division 4, Homicide, Skippy, Number 96 to name a few along with his film and theatre work but most will remember him as Robert Beare in Mother and Son alongside Ruth Cracknell and Garry McDonald.
Szeps' earliest memory of ‘the acting bug’ is from when he was 5 years old. He was born in a refugee camp in Switzerland during WWII, and, he tells me, fostered out to a wonderful, staunch Lutheran Swiss family at 11 months. "These people probably saved my life.," admits Szeps. "Subsequently I was tossed back and forth between this family and my mother, a single mum, who lived in Paris after the war. I clearly remember at the age of 5, my second stay with them, standing on the dirt road running along the side of the big, beautiful Swiss farm house we lived in, entertaining 3 kids sitting on a wooden fence. I was doing (possibly unflattering) take offs of some of the oldies around the place. And I remember these 3 kids hanging onto this fence for grim death, tears streaming down their cheeks with laughter. And me thinking, 'I like this.'"
"I was blessed when I came to Australia (age 8) to go to a primary school (Greenwich, Sydney) where one teacher had organised a repertory theatre system where each class got to do 2 or 3 plays a year – those in the school magazine. This simply inflamed my love of acting, and my sense of communication with the audience, at some kind of gut level. By the time I was studying Electrical engineering at Sydney Uni I had discovered Hayes Gordon, teaching his ‘Method’ approach to acting at the Ensemble Theatre, and I was on my way. By the time I graduated in Science and Electrical Engineering I was ready to start acting. (Hayes’ classes were on weekends.)"
"I have to add at this point that I did have another formidable mentor without whom I might not have dared to take the plunge: George Sparks, my acrobatic teacher. I was a keen tumbler, which became very handy for me later in musicals and in spectacular Shakespearian productions in England. George was virtually illiterate, but his understanding of human beings was astounding. He somehow opened the gates for me. 'Just do it, son. Just do it. You love it, you’re good, do it.'"
Szeps has accumulated a close knit tapestry of work but cites two as being outstanding in his memory. On stage, it is SKY, written for him by John Misto. "About a father who loses his son in a light aircraft incident, based on the Valentic case in 1978," Szeps explains. " A 21 year old lad flying from Melbourne to Tasmania in a Cessna disappeared. Completely. No plane, no wreckage, no body. Misto wrote me this extraordinary solo piece, where the father tells the story of a lost son he couldn’t bury. He goes angry, then mad and eventually comes out resolved and accepting. This is the most powerful piece of theatre I have ever performed."
"The reason John wrote this for me is partly because of the other most demanding performance for me: PALACE OF DREAMS, a ten part ABC TV drama series, created and produced by Sandra Levy. This was about a Russian Jewish family running a pub in Sydney during the depression. In the last episode my 13 year old son dies of meningitis. (So again a distraught, grieving father.) The writing of the grief scenes was superb. Guess who wrote it? John Misto. That may have encouraged him to write SKY for me. I adored PALACE OF DREAMS. It earned me the Penguin Award for Best Actor in a Miniseries."
Szeps has worked with many directors during his impressive contribution to the performing arts. But what is his definition of a good director and what sorts of things would he expect a good director to bring to the rehearsal room? "Firstly a sense of fun. Secondly a clear sense of how the rehearsals were going to be organised in order to get us to the finishing line. But most importantly – a broad perspective," states Szeps. "I love the director to have insights into the politics of the day, the psychology that is driving the story. The background. Why did the writer write it, and what did the writer want the audience to come away with?"
"This is really a huge question, because at the end of the day, I believe that every moment in the play should be seamlessly linked to the next moment, and vital to this part the scene. And the scene should be a vital step in the narrative, so that everything builds perfectly to the final note of the music of the play. And ideally, the audience should walk out of the theatre feeling they have been re-linked to all of humanity, to the whole of our history, and hopefully rejoice at being a tiny, tiny, miraculous microcosm in this wonderful universe. I have worked with several directors from whom I have felt this elation."
Szeps is, of course, proficient at all three performance mediums – TV, Film, Theatre but, for him, it is not an easy choice when asked which he prefers. "This is like asking a mother of three children, which is her favourite," he quips. " Theatre, film or television? They each have their strong points. Film allows you to simply think a thought, and the camera will read it. It can pry into your soul. And you may do something on one take which is brilliant and which you might never be able to repeat. But now it’s been captured, spontaneously, beautifully, it is proof that you actually did that. Once."
"Television is similar in spontaneity, but it tends to give you a greater sense of flow of the whole scene. It’s not as chopped up as film."
"Theatre of course is the gruelling, no holds barred, face the audience and deliver. That makes it electric, and at times spiritual. When the flashes of bonding between performer and audience are total, perfect communication, it ceases to be a job, a vocation, an art. It’s communion. It’s prayer."
Szeps has been touring nationally with HIT productions' It's My Party (And I'll Die If I Want To) since about February. and feels that touring is an essential part of show business. "Going to regions where really good theatre is not common, is a simple service," he says. " It is ancient. Troubadours wandering from village to village, unrolling their mat, and telling their stories or singing and getting people to come out of their huts and listen and laugh and enjoy. Anyone who has gone to the trouble of learning to perform, to entertain, I think would do it for free, if they knew they were giving people pleasure."
Playwright Elizabeth Coleman has written another hit with this script – most would know Coleman's other successful comedy Secret Bridesmaid's Business . Szeps describes it as a spectacular script about domestic insensitivities. "But it is also incredibly funny," adds Szeps. "Anything that can shed such light and depth into the everyday, and have us laughing till we cry is OK by me. I need nothing more in life. Except my wife and kids, of course!"
It was pure providence that brought Szeps into the project and that is more than okay by him. "An actor lives moment by moment hoping that yet another madman will suddenly appear and offer them a job. And they did. Yet again. I’m so glad," he says.
It's My Party (And I'll Die If I Want To) is touring nationally. Check the link for dates and venue
Will be at The Athenaeum in Melbourne July 5 and 6