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Getting to know Callan Purcell

With theatrical credits including Spring Awakening, The Removalists and the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) already under his belt, young Novocastrian Callan Purcell has an impressive dramatic resume. He is now directing a new production of Aftershocks, a play that uses verbatim  accounts from people located at the Workers Club when the Newcastle earthquake struck in 1989. The play was written by Paul Wright and first performed at Newcastle Playhouse in 1991.

We asked Callan about Aftershocks and his love for theatre.

Tell us about your background, including what drew you into theatre?

I was born in Gosford and moved to Newcastle at a very young age. I grew up by the beach with my older brothers Trent and Josh, and took regular dance classes as an after school activity. I loved playing soccer as well and was prime goal attack material at the time. My family and I would escape to our property in Gloucester and manage our livestock. As I got older, I still attended dance classes, in addition to singing and drama, and by the age of ten I was attending Hunter School of the Performing Arts as a dance major. It wasn’t until year 7 that dance fizzled out and I changed over to acting. I contributed to a large amount of projects and events both inside and outside of school, and picked up stage lighting and sound design experience along the way.

Last year I returned from working in New York at French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts. This summer camp nurtured the skills and talents of aspiring performers; training them to become strong, creative individuals in the industry. I began my love affair with the US in 2010 when I went on exchange and lived in Illinois for six months. These experiences have engrained a desire to hear, share and create stories. “Have a life worth writing about” rings true.

There was no ‘lightbulb’ moment that I loved performing. I’ve always performed and created and observed things in the artistic realm.  I just don’t know any better. In 2012, my HSC year, I felt it was natural progression to direct something. I was so passionate about Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and the journey of those boys from civilised beings to barbaric beasts that I had to share it with an audience. Fellow students responded just as enthused, and eight weeks later we had an all-male cast ready to jump on stage and give it all they had. I guess I see directing as the journey between holding a story and sharing a story. This time round, Aftershocks is in the spotlight.

Do you draw on any people or resources for inspiration?

Aw man, it’s so important to constantly change my sources of inspiration in order to keep ideas evolving. I’ve been a big believer in the phrase “actions speak louder than words”, so mentors and friends that lead a balanced, ambitious, adventurous lifestyle inspire me more than a lot of the lessons I’ve experienced in a rehearsal space or classroom.

I have a greed for thick books with a multitude of images and illustrations and photographs. One of my favourites at the moment is Humans of New York which gives a brief exchange of dialogue verbatim between two strangers in NYC, accompanied by a natural portrait of the stranger.

I gravitate towards theatre practitioner Peter Brook and his understanding of the theatrical space. He breaks all conventions and believes any space can be a place of performance which defies a lot of limitations and produces limitless possibilities when making theatre. German set designer Katrin Brack also delves into this notion as she uses everyday things for her designs. For example, she once just used gigantic rubber squares throughout a production about war and destruction. That got my attention without any dialogue being spoken. Weird ideas like that are great.

What are you passionate about?

I have a habit (or perhaps a curse) of jumping onto things and holding onto them for dear life until they are achieved. Last year I got my Bronze Certificate at Merewether Surf Club, flew to the States, and spent five months mentoring young performers at a performing arts camp. I came home to jump into teaching students again and kept things rolling into the new year where I now teach at Hunter Region Drama School.

It’s all about Newcastl now. Earlier this year, I was part of Tantrum Youth Arts‘ production of Diving Off the Edge of the World, I volunteer as a life saver at Merewether Beach, I’m keeping a keen interest in the arts in our community and supporting the City of Newcastle Drama Awards (CONDA) and finally being lucky enough to bring back stories of our Novocastrians in Aftershocks. Here’s to many more Newcastle projects!

What’s been the most unexpected aspect of your work so far?

As many directors begin a project, they have an initial design or concept in their mind which then adapts and moulds to the cast and any other influences along the way. It becomes this marriage of ideas that are grown together and connected organically, instead of just one person’s vision. I however was unaware it would change as much as it has.

Originally I had the idea to stage Aftershocks at DAPA in a neutral space, using lamps and industrial lights to litter the stage, however the actors have lifted the piece into something far more sophisticated. I have been impressed by the intelligence of my cast members and their ability and eagerness to understand the people of Aftershocks and their stories. Each individual contributed something unique and personal to the project. I am able to stand back and see that this project has become a group of young, mature, artistic individuals all working towards a common goal to share with their community. It really does make it a joy to enter the rehearsal space.

Aftershocks was originally developed as a theatrical healing process for the community. How does your interpretation stay true to that?

I feel now that 25 years have passed, and a new generation has grown up in Newcastle – many with little idea about the earthquake, this verbatim piece becomes an event of remembrance rather than restoration. With that in mind, the cast and I have approached these stories from a human perspective – to fall in love with these people and find our own understanding as to why each of the victims and rescuers are heroes – whether it’s through their optimism, humour or sheer strength.

We have by no means taken these stories lightly as firstly, they are word for word accounts that should be given the utmost respect, in addition to personal memories and confessions that expose some of the most vulnerable moments for these people. We present the stories with authenticity and heart; letting a new generation’s understanding shine through in order to enlighten many younger Novocastrians of what happened that day.

What do you hope will be achieved by what you are doing?

Putting it simply: to enlighten. The team and I realise this project was not ignited originally to glorify or sensationalise the earthquake, but to shed light on the unsung hero. We will do the same by studying, experiencing and sharing the stories from our point of view. We hope this initiative will make an impact on young and old alike, inspiring them to pay respect to the event and the heroism of those involved. It’s all about the people at 10:27am, December 28th, 1989.

What’s been your proudest achievement to date?

Probably receiving my Bronze Medallion to become a lifesaver. It’s something many Newcastle folk do after coming up from nippers and staying by the beach but being a drama kid most of my life, all I would do was wear black clothing and stay indoors to create performance pieces. It was a great physical challenge to improve my fitness, my lifestyle and prove to myself that you can be athletic AND artistic – despite the generalisation that drama kids can’t even catch a ball.

Having said that, it has been a really awesome moment when you see a child in the rehearsal room or classroom light up because they did something they didn’t think they could or because they suddenly had an idea to contribute. I strive towards finding those moments in order to let young theatre makers see their true potential and support the strengths they have. Celebrating the individual and employing their skills creates such an inspiring environment for everyone involved.

What would be your dream project?

I’d always wanted to be in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and I did. I wanted to do Aftershocks in its 25th anniversary year with a young cast – and I am. It’s all the truth. I’m just a lucky person, or I just latch on until it’s done. At present though, it IS a perfect project to me. It’s a locally written play that began the trend of verbatim theatre in Australia, I loved it when I studied the text in the HSC alongside one of the original cast members Kath Leahy as she was my teacher at the time, it’s my tenth year being associated with DAPA Theatre after starting tap classes there when I was ten, and the icing on the cake – it’s a play about Newcastle for Newcastle.

What does the future hold?

Hopefully lots of challenges, spontaneous moments and free meals.

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What’s your favourite Newcastle neighbourhood and why?

I’ve recently lived in Valentine for a number of years. It’s close enough to the hub of Newcastle that it isn’t a 40 minute trek to get there, but also far away enough that there is a relaxed, “small town” vibe about it. Just a few suburbs over, you have The Esplanade and the row of restaurants by the lake, and the parks, including Speers Point Park and the incredible playground there (where I will put a show on sooner or later). It’s an escape from the core that I really do appreciate and now having just moved to Wickham, as Melba says in Aftershocks – “You never miss anything til you lose it.”

Can you name a local hero?

I really love Trevor Dickinson and his artwork around Newcastle. There is such a vibrancy and cheekiness to his images. It’s a very modest approach, but he’s willing to share it with anyone who is willing to stop for a few moments and enjoy it too. I’m all for challenging an audience and society’s views, but Dickinson gives us gentle reminders that we are so very lucky for what we have.

What do you look forward to doing most in Newcastle in summer?

Getting up early in the morning and knowing it’s going to be beach weather all day. I don’t even have to be at the beach on a beach weather day, it’s still a good day. I heard a saying once “If you live in Newcastle, you can work in the city and surf in your lunch break.” and I think that is the best way to sum up my summers.

And winter?

Late night coffees. Darby street is a good hub for that, and places like The Edwards Bar and others on Hunter street are creeping up behind as strong competitors. If I’m feeling ambitious enough, I’ll go for a late night swim because a hot shower is all the more satisfying before jumping into bed. Also it’s prime weather for theatre-goers. There’s nothing like a solid evening at the theatre!

Where and what was the last greatest meal you had in Newcastle?

The caesar salad at the Exchange Hotel is the best thing I’ve ever experienced and the avo on sourdough at Darby Street’s Frankies is impressive. A pot of tea at The Press on Hunter Street is also a winner. The tea is good, but the records they play are even better.

What is your favourite getaway destination?

Anywhere that’s either full on or total peace. I don’t like the in-between.

Tell us your number one Newcastle insiders tip?

Treat Newcastle like your home. Be a traveller, not a tourist. Surf, see a show, get breakfast on Darby Street. If you see a hub of people talking and laughing in a venue, chances are it’s a good place to be. Buy a bike. Don’t pay for the parking.


Do you know someone in our region making a difference? Let us know!

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