Australia has exported many great things to the USA: kangaroos, koalas, shrimp on the barbie, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and Hugh Jackman, to name a few. Now we can add the acclaimed play Holding the Man to the list. Based on a bestselling memoir by gay writer and activist Timothy Conigrave, it will be premiering in Los Angeles May 10th-June 29th as the inaugural production of the Australian Theatre Company (ATC).
Conigrave’s 1995 book relates his coming of age as a gay man while a student at an all-boys school in Melbourne in the 1970’s. He fell in love with the captain of the school’s football team, John Caleo, with whom Conigrave subsequently had a 15-year relationship. Sadly, AIDS claimed both their lives prematurely. The memoir was published posthumously but won the United Nations Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction.
Nate Jones, one of ATC’s founders and the Australian-born actor playing Conigrave in Holding the Man, discovered a personal connection to the book at an early age. “When I first read the book, I was 15 and in the bathtub,” he shared. “I started to cry — it’s the only book that’s ever made me cry — and my stepmother called me out of the tub. I had to quickly make it sound like I wasn’t crying.”
Playwright Tommy Murphy adapted the book for the stage in 2006. It smashed box office records, and what was supposed to be a six-week run became nearly two years. Holding the Man won several Australian theatre awards for Best Play and then enjoyed four sold-out seasons at the Sydney Opera House before moving to London’s West End.
“I saw the play in Australia in 2006,” Jones recalled. “I thought it was a phenomenal play and quite beautiful. I relocated permanently to the United States 2 ½ years ago and asked Tommy if we could do it in LA. It’s been very serendipitous how it’s all come about.” Jones lives in LA with his partner of 5 ½ years, Josh, who also hails from Australia.
While most Americans have not had the opportunity to see the play until now and the book is out of print in the US, Jones doesn’t see this as a marketing challenge. “It’s really a love story between two people and that resonates with everybody,” he said. “If someone has read the book, they will have that much more insight. But every gay man, every member of the LGBT community, will have a connection to this story. The love Timothy and John have is what we all hope to have.”
The LA production, directed by veteran Hollywood acting coach Larry Moss, is being described as highly theatrical in style and incorporates elements of absurdism, magical realism, farce and heartfelt drama. There are even puppets designed by Alex “Jurgen” Ferguson involved. All performances will take place at the Matrix Theatre, located at 7657 Melrose Ave. Tickets may be reserved by calling (323) 960-7735 or visiting the play's official website.
Jones finds it “really exciting and kind of surreal” that both Holding the Man and the launch of his and producing partner Nick Hardcastle’s Australian Theatre Company are “actually happening.” Jones and Hardcastle were at dinner one night when “we looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s start a theatre company!’ We registered ATC the next day.” Their goal, according to Jones, “is really giving actors the opportunity to grow as actors and not just to tell Australian stories.”
Although the cast of Holding the Man is all-Australian, ATC intends to give all actors in the LA area a chance to participate. In addition to Jones as Conigrave, the current cast members are Adam J. Yeend (Lifetime’s Liz & Dick) as Caleo, Cameron Daddo, Luke O’Sullivan, Adrienne Smith and Roxane Wilson. The latter four actors play a combined total of 47 characters in the play.
Jones began performing when he was only 8 years old. “I started out in youth theatre and ballet from when I was 8 to 15. When I was 15, my mom unfortunately passed away and I quit everything for a year. Then I picked it back up and went to a performing arts school.” Since then, Jones has done plays and films as well as worked as an assistant to both a successful Australian film producer and “a big-name Australian actress” he wouldn’t identify.
Speaking with Jones, his sincere love of acting and actors comes through loud and clear. “A lot of people come to LA to chase fame and fortune, but at the end of the day it’s really not about that,” he said. “I really agree with what Meryl Streep said: I will be a student of acting until the day I die.” Jones also likens developing oneself as an actor to the rigorous, continuous preparation Olympic athletes undergo.
And he had strong words not only for actors but for the rest of us. Paraphrasing Moss, Holding the Man’s director, Jones exclaimed: “Stop sitting in front of the TV (or computer) and go see a play. Go read a book. Go educate yourself. There is so much more out there!”
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.