Meeting theatre director Simon Stone
Eloise Mignon and Anthony Phelan in the Stone-directed 2011 Belvoir production of 'The Wild Duck'. © Heidrun Lohr
If director–playwright Simon Stone were to write himself into one of his plays, his entrance would read:
SIMON STONE, a scruffy man of about 27, although he looks five years older at least, from years of drinking and various other unseemly pursuits …
Stone stops himself and grins, clarifying the bit about “unseemly pursuits” is only an embellishment, though I may need more convincing. Otherwise, he’s just about nailed it. Australian theatre’s boy wonder is happily unkempt – a cross between handsome lad and friendly dog – and while he does look slightly older than 27, the fact remains: Stone is 27. Widely tipped to take over Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton’s Sydney Theatre Company gig when they bow out at the end of 2013, Stone was only born in the mid 1980s.
The buzz leaves him the target of both fevered adoration and murmured loathing in Australian theatre circles. For every accolade and award he’s received – most notably, beating STC blockbuster Gross und Klein for Best Director and Best Mainstage Production at the Sydney Theatre Awards in January with his update of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck – there are the productions that underwhelm critics. Tellingly, though, even dissenters – Peter Craven called Stone’s nudity-filled rock-star take on Brecht’s Baal a “gross disappointment”– will make a point of mentioning they’re massive fans of Stone’s other work.
But other people’s opinions are the last thing on Stone’s mind today. It’s just past midday in the rehearsal room at Belvoir Street, the Sydney mainstage theatre where Stone is into his second year as resident director. He’s got an impossible calendar ahead of him, the kind of schedule that will collapse like an undercooked cake if tampered with in any way. On today’s agenda: rehearsals for Stone’s rewrite of Strange Interlude, Eugene O’Neill’s dense sex-and-lies play that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. A week into rehearsals (the show opens on 5 May) and Stone is still writing the play. Not a problem, he assures me.
Belvoir Street’s second-floor warehouse space is drenched in natural light, and Stone is decked in his standard uniform: untucked pale blue Oxford shirt, camel khakis and unwashed hair. If Jesus came back as an inner-city graphic designer, he would look like Stone. On the marked stage is the eternally boy-faced Toby Truslove, delivering lines in his character’s grey bathrobe, and Toby Schmitz, local theatre’s angularly handsome go-to man. But all eyes are on Emily Barclay, the smouldering New Zealand actor whom Stone has cast as Nina Leeds, the protagonist whose sexual decisions could spell catastrophe for her and the men in her orbit.
As Stone watches the actors perform, he walks around them restlessly, like a boxing coach watching his sparring pupils. It’s an old habit. Even when he was a teenager in plays, Stone would come to rehearsals early and stay around late, just to watch the other performers through the bleachers or from side stage. But Stone’s intensity is offset by deep reservoirs of goofiness, too. He laughs constantly. Some find his chuckling, gurgly laugh disconcerting – imagine an old car horn shoved inside a hiccupping kid – and it was only when some of his actors impersonated him in his presence (never a good idea) that Stone became aware of how he sounded. (“Unhinged” is the word he uses.) It was wounding.
“Initially, when I saw those responses, I was really self-conscious, like, ‘Oh, I must look like such a buffoon, such an idiot.’ Then I realised, that’s my childlike fascination. I’m never really going to be able to change it.”
Stone’s directions oscillate between fatherly (“Nice and loud”; “Sit up straight”), frenetic (“Faster!”; “Explode into ridiculously over-the-top snake oil salesman!”) and intuitive (“Move away; there’s a revulsion there”). At one point, Stone asks lanky actor Mitchell Butel to give a more masculine delivery. “Can I see what that would sound like,” he says, “if you said all of that through your balls?”
When the cast moves on to a nude scene, a small upturned table acts as a shower cubicle. As Barclay climbs into it, Stone reminds her, “He can see your entire body now.” Barclay makes a face: “Yeah, and so can the whole audience!” This will be her first onstage nude scene, and she’s nervous. To alleviate the tension, Stone and Barclay play-fight.
“He’s a genuine theatre rat,” Schmitz tells me later. “His rehearsals include a large amount of sitting around swapping anecdotes and experiences, long after any other directors I’ve worked with would have their actors up on the floor. It happens every day.” Schmitz adds it isn’t about slacking off. “It’s a genuine need to compare and contrast our lives. He has a need to tell us about his private life, and for us to divulge ours, because it’s going to illuminate the human condition. If he’s boisterous, he’s also very sensitive and aware, you can’t get away with whispering something without him butting in with a ‘What did you just say?’ and a big grin. Whether whatever you said is puerile or intelligent, he’s interested. He’s a tornado of interest.”
“He much prefers jumping to taking small cautious steps,” Truslove adds. “It’s a bit like being strapped to a rocket.” It helps that almost everyone here is young. The median age in the room today is 27. Youth is Belvoir Street’s trademark right now, and that includes its artistic director, general manager, associate director, associate producer and literary manager. When Strange Interlude’s actors take a break, the atmosphere is reminiscent of a break between uni lectures. Schmitz plays his Nintendo DS, while conversation among the others stretches to the whys of crotchless undies and how often women should change bras. Simon Stone’s world is not one of quiet Toblerones and matinee ladies.
The day after rehearsal, Stone meets me for lunch in Surry Hills. It’s only when you’re sitting really close to Stone that you notice his eyes, the kind of pale baby blue you don’t really see aside from newborn infants’. Stone’s face is a rare oddity: it actually looks younger the closer you get to it.
He’s the youngest of three kids and the only boy. Among Stone’s family, people fondly tell the story of how his father discovered baby Simon was on his way. It was Canberra in the 1980s and Stuart Stone, tasked with picking up his wife Eleanor’s pregnancy test results, had elder daughter Brangwen strapped to his back and baby Meredith on his front. Dressed in overalls, he walked out of the clinic in a daze with the positive test results, before realising he hadn’t paid for them. When he walked back in to apologise, the receptionist took one look at him and told him to forget about payment.
Simon Stone was born in Basel, a Swiss city known for producing pharmaceuticals, where Eleanor and Stuart had both been contracted to work as research scientists. After six years of raising Swiss–German speaking children, the Stones moved to England where Stuart worked in the research department at the University of Cambridge. Until then, English had been a vaguely alien language used only between Stone’s parents at home, and young Simon had to work out how to speak it in the outside world. Neither Eleanor nor Stuart were artists, but elder sister Brangwen – obsessed with art – would organise outings to galleries and the opera for the whole family.
It’s worth noting that both Strange Interlude and The Wild Duck deal with questions of paternity and inherited illness. There may be a reason for that. When Stuart Stone was 21, well before Simon was born, doctors diagnosed him with a congenital condition that caused him to retain dangerous amounts of cholesterol. It was unlikely Stuart would live past 30. Stuart Stone never told his children about the inheritable condition, but emphasised a healthy diet and robust exercise regimen. Simon’s childhood was all about good eating, all-day skiing sessions, long walks and swimming training.
Simon Stone was 12 when his father – still one of the healthiest, fittest men Stone has known – died at 45. They had been swimming at the local pool, back in Australia, when his father had a heart attack. “We had a vague sense that there was a reason we had to eat and exercise a certain way,” Stone says. “But I don’t think you tell your children there’s a chance they might prematurely lose their father. It’s probably better that I didn’t know. It would have been very difficult for him. The older we got, the more he would have become invested in seeing the rest of our lives unfold. I imagine it would have become harder and harder.”
After his father died, Stone worried he wasn’t grieving properly. He was unsure how to act and felt bad about it. Instead, for three or four years, Stone dreamed every night of talking to his father. “We held each other for long periods of time, walked around the various places that I’d grown up with him,” he says. “We used to hang out in our house in England a lot together, and in the garden where we used to do gardening. I was really homesick for Cambridge as a place, but also as the last place that we had the predictability of a solid relationship together.”
When Stone was 15, he decided he wanted to be an actor. He’d been in several extracurricular school plays already at Melbourne Grammar – Oswald in King Lear; Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost; Antony in Antony and Cleopatra – before winning a scholarship to study at St Martins Theatre. He wrote letters to agents, who wrote back offering to put him on their books. The agency Stone decided on was the only one who asked him to audition. Even at that age, Stone felt the audition request was a good sign: it showed they exercised quality control. His first profile shots – for which his mother paid $150 – featured Stone with spiky hair and orthodontic braces.
By the time Stone enrolled in the Victorian College of the Arts drama course, he had already done some television – John Safran’s Music Jamboree and playing Shane Bourne’s son on MDA – but his confidence waned in exercises where students had to “be the sea” or “be the colour red”. In his final year, he would leave for weeks at a time, acting in the films Jindabyne and Kokoda. Classmates gossiped and griped. It wasn’t just because Stone was breaking university rules (curiously, students weren’t allowed to work on films while studying), but also because of the readiness with which screen roles were lobbed his way. Even now, though his focus is directing and writing theatre, Stone will sometimes take a screen role. “I think people find my relationship to acting irritating,” he says. “Even friends of mine who I direct – actors who I work with – find it irritating when I go ‘Look, I’m just going to do this film. It’s not really the most amazing thing, but—’ And people are like, ‘You motherfucker.’”
Still, Stone jokes that in his family – one that values academia – he is actually the underachiever. Both his sisters have PhDs. Brangwen studied at Yale and is a doctor in German literature; Meredith has a doctorate in psychiatry. It is possible, Stone says, that their father’s death gave them a sense of urgency to achieve things while young. “Initially, my measuring stick for how long my life was going to be came from the man who died at the age of 45,” he says. Even now, Stone medicates every day to keep his own cholesterol down. Initially at least, he concedes his father’s death probably propelled him to accelerate his career. “Now that kind of urgency is just a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says. “The more urgent I’ve become, the more I’ve got used to living at that pace. I don’t think it’s urgency anymore. It’s just the way I’ve learnt to live my life.” When asked whether his health is okay now, Stone thinks. “Theoretically I should be able to live to a significant age,” he says. “But anything’s possible.”
On the night Strange Interlude opens, Stone will throw up backstage. He has vomited on the opening night of every play he has ever directed. He explains it doesn’t get any easier with time. One thing that doesn’t intimidate him is his schedule. While writing and directing Strange Interlude, he has also been casting Belvoir Street’s Death of a Salesman at night (he is directing), which begins rehearsals three days after Strange Interlude’s rehearsals end. After Salesman is the STC stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Face to Face, co-written with Andrew Upton, which Stone will also direct. Schedules between Salesman and Face to Face are so close that they actually overlap, giving Stone what he calls “a minus three-day break”. Then it’s to Norway for a reprise of The Wild Duck – Stone’s first overseas production – with only two weeks to rehearse two new actors, while simultaneously working on a Wild Duck film adaptation for producer Jan Chapman. After he leads me through this horror of dates, Stone says something appalling.
“I’m actually quite lazy,” he says, shrugging.
I ask how, exactly, he defines laziness.
“Every now and then, I have to write another act, but I sit down and I just watch six hours of television instead.”
Back at rehearsals, the young actor Eloise Mignon has come to watch Stone direct Barclay, Truslove, Schmitz and Butel. She is performing across the road in Belvoir Street’s season of the sexually explicit play Every Breath. Mignon played a doomed teenager in The Wild Duck, a performance so vulnerable it made many in the audience cry. When working on that play, Stone says he almost felt Ibsen had used a girl’s suicide as the full stop to an ideological argument. For Stone, a young person’s suicide had to be the beating heart of the play. “A girl’s suicide is the most important subject matter,” he says. “You don’t get to use it callously. You do not get to use something that confoundingly, confusingly tragic.”
“It’s so sad,” says Mignon, after watching a poignant exchange between Truslove’s and Barclay’s characters. She is smiling through wet eyes. Like a big brother, Stone happily calls out and says if Mignon thinks this is sad, real life is going to be a series of awfulness and disappointments. The scene has ended, but Mignon grins and calls out, “More.” Stone tells her, “I haven’t written any more.” It’s true. Even boy geniuses have homework to do.