Assassins is a bold musical production that tells the stories of nine people who committed (or attempted to commit) political homicide in the US over a period of two centuries. The musical moves through various times and places with imagined meetings between these ardent murderers.
Currently playing in the State Theatre Centre of WA, Assassins is adapted by director Roger Hodgman from the original Broadway production, with original music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The book, written by John Weidman, won a Tony Award for Best Musical Revival, and deservedly so.
In the Perth production, actress Caitlin Beresford-Ord plays one of the would-be assassins, and brings to the production a brazen humour that you wouldn’t expect to find in a story centred on homicide.
Already an accomplished artist on stage (Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, The Caucasian Chalk Circle), TV (Home and Away) and in film (Red Dog), Caitlin also lectures at universities in Perth, and works collaboratively with the community, directing plays and teaching.
Here, she chats with Cream about her diverse work in the performing arts, and how to get away with murder… with a laugh.
Interview by Annette McCubbin
Hello Caitlin! I caught the opening night performance of ‘Assassins’ and thought you were a standout, bringing a zesty wit to your character of Sarah Jane Moore. It must be fun to perform as a slightly crazy housewife who is willing to shoot the President and her own dog!
Hand on heart, this has been one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had on stage! And I get a lot of support from a very talented cast.
You deliver some killer lines. Tell me about that riveting scene with new-comer fellow actor Mackenzie Dunne [who plays Lynnette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme] where you talk shop and then both start shooting at a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
I think Mackenzie and I could tell from the first read-through on day one of rehearsals that we were going to have a wicked amount of fun with this scene, and we weren’t wrong! She’s incredibly present on stage, and so every night is just a little bit wild – it’s a delight.
How much of your performance is constructed by the director and how much creative license do you have with it?
We were so fortunate to have Roger Hodgman return to Perth to direct us. I first worked with Roger four years ago when he directed As You Like It at Black Swan, and that was when I first experienced the tremendous freedom to experiment and ‘play’ – which is what Roger allows his actors to do. He’s incredibly detailed and specific, but also creates a space where actors are allowed to make bold and creative choices.
The setting for ‘Assassins’ is quite unique: brick façade arches, an 18th Century train station, part American fairground, and flashes of ghosts of presidents past. What is it like to perform in that multimedia scape?
I loved it. There is nothing like feeling that world start to carry you and we were lucky enough to have quite a bit of contact with the creatives throughout the rehearsal process. Michael Carmody – who designed the videos – was in the rehearsal room a lot and we were often able to pop over to his laptop to have a look at what he was envisioning for certain scenes. Tech week was exciting as that was when we got to sit in the theatre and see how the technical aspects were coming together. Along with Mark Howett’s stunning lighting, Lawrie Cullen-Tait’s set, and Brett Smith’s sound, it’s a rich palate.
What highlights can you share about working with the cast?
I think every production is an opportunity to learn and grow as a performer and this has been no exception. I’ve always sung, but this is my first professional musical so that in itself has been a highlight. I’ve sung every day for the past five weeks with a bunch of actors with amazing voices, and I couldn’t be happier! The generations represented on stage are pretty magical as well. My first show with Black Swan was in 2001 and both Geoff Kelso and Luke Hewitt were in it. I’ve worked with both guys a lot since then and they’re so terrific, as is Brendan Hanson, who I’ve also worked with a lot. It’s also been wonderful to work with the recent WAAPA grads; they’re so talented their energy is invigorating. Who does that leave out? Will O’Mahony – who I’ve seen in many productions but never worked with before; such fun and a total scene stealer. If it weren’t for my KFC and dead dog, he’d eclipse me altogether.
On the subject of talent, you shift easily from stage to television to film, and then teach and direct plays. What drives your passion to work so diversely within the performing arts?
Stories, and curiosity about people. I genuinely love people. I love meeting new people and being exposed to different ideas and perspectives. My teaching work often affords me the opportunity to work throughout the state and sometimes overseas and I learn so much from the students I meet – far more than I could ever impart. And I fundamentally believe that kids should be exposed to the arts, as much as they are to sport… and from as young an age. And I can’t deny that I have my own love of performing – which is part love of theatre and music and part incessant need for approval and an irritating need to be liked…
Well, your engaging performance as Sarah Jane Moore certainly meets strong adulation… So liked you are! Can I ask, what’s the most profound understanding you take from an experience such as starring in ‘Assassins’?
That’s a big question and not one I’m sure I have a definite answer for just yet. I do know I’m interested in people’s essential humanity and that it breaks my heart to see the disenfranchised overlooked and trodden on in the pursuit of a nonsensical ‘dream’. And I mean the ‘American dream’ or otherwise, because it could just as easily be here in Australia. But there they are also given guns and that’s terrifying and baffling. It’s a deliberately unsettling and confusing piece – your empathy and allegiances are tested. I’m horrified every time I see the footage of JFK being shot. But I’m also horrified by capital punishment and, despite the hilarity of some of the depictions of the executions in Assassins, like the electric chair scene and Guiteau’s hanging, they too are chilling and appalling.
To a totally different production, you directed Tim Winton’s ‘Cloudstreet’ at John Curtin College of the Arts. How did that come about and what was it like working with a high school?
I’d worked at John Curtin directing smaller shows for a few years before they offered me their major production, so they knew my work. They were very supportive and committed to doing the full five hours of Cloudstreet, not the abridged version. I had a wonderful cast of incredibly mature students and I was able to cast it perfectly – they were a particularly strong year. My talented brother, Hugh Jennings, created and composed the sound design, and that was beautiful. India Mehta was my designer and did an amazing job creating the set and props – so it really was lovely. Some very fond memories.
Is directing bigger stage plays a future career goal?
Possibly – but not to the exclusion of continuing to perform myself. I’d be more likely to write before I’d direct as a future goal at this point… Lots of ideas and scribbles in journals that I just need more time and more coffee to complete!
Black Swan Stage Theatre Company’s ‘Assassins’ runs until July 1st at Heath Ledger Theatre, Northbridge.
Tickets are available at www.bsstc.com.au or by phoning (08) 6162 9300.