Unusual production produces tears

Simon O'Connor stars in Watching Paint Dry. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Simon O'Connor stars in Watching Paint Dry. Photo: Peter McIntosh
A simple question from a child about the idiom "watching paint dry" has led to an unusual new theatre work. Rebecca Fox talks to its creator and sole actor. 

The script is only seven pages long and audience members are encouraged to turn up the volume on their cell phones.

Both of these things are unusual for a theatre production, but are core to playwright Anders Falstie-Jensen's latest work, Watching Paint Dry.

The one-man play has been staged at the Hamilton and Auckland fringe festivals earlier this year.

Falstie-Jensen, known to Dunedin audiences for Manifesto, was inspired to write the work after a dinner-table conversation with his wife and son.

They were having an everyday conversation about work with his wife describing a meeting as like "watching paint dry".

His son picked up on the term asking what it meant, so Falstie-Jensen suggested he stare at the wall for as long as he could without saying anything.

"I found it incredibly fascinating watching him for three minutes not moving, what was he thinking about? In the end he got bored and went off to play with his Lego."

The idea of watching someone watching something caught hold and became a work for the Hamilton Fringe Festival.

"I'd never written a piece like that one. It worked well - took off."

The show starts with the actor saying "tonight's colour is ..." and paints a wall.

Simon O'Connor in Watching Paint Dry. Photo: Supplied
Simon O'Connor in Watching Paint Dry. Photo: Supplied
Then the audience is encouraged to turn up the volume on their phones and watch the paint dry.

"If a phone rings Simon asks them to answer it, sometimes they have a conversation and you feel like you are eavesdropping."

A few other things happen, but 50 minutes later, the paint is dry.

"It is a real kind of shared experience with the audience. It's quite fun.

"It can delve into memories - what goes on in your mind when you do nothing? How hard is it to do nothing?"

In its last season, it had some patrons in tears as it stirred up memories of their childhood.

"We're just there to guide people gently."

Falstie-Jensen wanted to bring the show to Dunedin and thought it would be the perfect opportunity to work with local actor Simon O'Connor.

"I really wanted to go back to Dunedin after the 2016 Fringe, so I thought this is my chance to nab Simon."

His last show in Dunedin was Manifesto - a play very different to this one.

"It was super intense bordering on uncomfortable. This is relaxing; a good time."

He had wanted to work with O'Connor for many years after he saw him in a show in Auckland and years later in a video of a show he had done for the Fortune Theatre.

"I thought that guy is an amazing performer. I put his name on a post-it note to do something with him sometime."

So he thought of him when planning to bring Watching Paint Dry south and approached him with the script.

O'Connor was very excited about the offer.

"It's a very innovative piece of theatre in lots of different ways."

The characters and storylines paramount to a "normal" play have been stripped back yet "surprisingly it still works really well as a piece of theatre".

Watching Paint Dry intrigued him as it presented something fresh and new to "play with".

When he arrived in Auckland last week for the first rehearsals, O'Connor found a lot of his preconceptions "went out of the window".

"It happens on the first day of rehearsals. Yesterday was absolutely about new discoveries."

Falstie-Jensen's description of the play being Scandinavian minimalism or zen is very fitting, he says.

"It's so minimal, every little thing counts."

An actor's compulsion on stage is to entertain the audience - that onus has to be really resisted in this play.

"The audience does the work, but it's not audience participation. It engages the audience to imagine their own stories."

"It's asking them to quietly play in their own minds - they don't need much from the actor or it distracts from the process."

The play requires O'Connor to have a different relationship with the audience than he is used to.

"You're not presenting, but you are not quite performing a character, either; it's very difficult to describe."

The role is surprisingly difficult, he says.

"It's not must a matter of doing nothing. Al Pacino might say film acting is about doing nothing, Al Pacino doing nothing is riveting, but Simon O'Connor doing nothing is boring.

"It's hard yakka."

So to fill those spaces, the actor has to be "precise, true and accurate".

"It's a real discipline. All those actor habits, the sloppiness that inadvertently slips in have got to go."

O'Connor has watched a film of an earlier show to see how the audience reacted.

Some people have very emotional responses and others find it very funny.

"There are surprises, little things that happen . . it's like dropping a pebble into a pond."

Earlier this year, Watching Paint Dry played at the Auckland Fringe Festival where it won Best Lighting Design and got noticed by a key programmer from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival who immediately suggested that The Rebel Alliance bring the show to Europe.

A return Auckland season earlier this month also caught the eye of several festival directors and the show is expected to tour extensively in 2019, Falstie-Jensen says.

To see

Watching Paint Dry, Allen Hall Theatre. Today until Saturday, 7pm and 2pm. 

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