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EXTRA SPECIAL LIFE WITH SPEAR CARRIERS
By PETER BRENT
20 January 1992, Sydney Morning Herald p24
Copyright of John Fairfax Group Pty Ltd
Go to scan of hardcopy

IT'S Saturday night at the Sydney Opera House. Inside the Opera Theatre a full house has just been treated to the wonderful Brindisi in La Traviata. With the conclusion of the hedonistic on-stage gathering of colourful costumes, cleavages and crooners, the chorus exits backstage in pairs. The audience is impressed, if the applause is anything to go by, but what happens next I do not know, because with the party over, doormen are also no longer required, and so I too am headed down the prompt-side stairs, wig off and scratching my head.

My career as an extra with the Australian Opera Company began in 1986 when I came across a notice at the student employment service that read: "Males wanted to play Russian peasants in an opera ... " At the "audition" several days later I was one of a dozen chosen from a 40-odd lineup to play a peasant, throne carrier and soldier in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Next came Verdi's Aida, for which everybody who turned up got a part, and my foot was more or less in the door.

Being assimilated into the opera network ensures notification of upcoming extras' auditions. As one of the few with no acting experience, it is my reputation as a person who has an at least average level of intelligence, knows that 2 o'clock doesn't mean 2.15, and is able to take directions without throwing a tantrum, that has assured me of a reasonable amount of work over the past five years.

Ninety-nine per cent of extras' parts are for males, and none involve singing. There are two categories, "supers" and "actors", and while the latter are more lucrative and much more fun - they usually necessitate some imagination - they crop up much less often. My 12 parts (four "acting") have included a proverbial spear-holder (Aida, The Tales of Hoffmann), a glorified mechanist (The Turn of the Screw), a wine-dispensing waiter (Cavalleria Rusticana) and a penitent, writhing in agony while being flogged in Hell (Don Giovanni).

In most operas the extras are required for bits and pieces, often only for a few minutes each. During breaks we relax, either in the "Green Room" or dressing room, with a drink, thinking, reading, chatting or playing cards, and wait for the call over the PA - for example, "the two servant supers, your call please, the two servant supers, your call", upon which we make our way to the stage.

Although I am not immune from the odd case of the giggles, I don't generally suffer from stage-fright. Unless I'm right up front, I tend to feel securely quarantined from the masses, their attention being on others. When I have occasion to observe the audience, members seem rather comical -they are nearly all bespectacled and immobile, like those photographs of 3-D movie audiences in the '50s.

In spite of my punctuality, noted above, I have on occasion pushed the clock. On one in particular I was having a beer with a colleague, in between appearances, in the canteen of the Melbourne Arts Centre when there came a stern announcement: "Would Shaun Scanlon and Peter Brent come to the stage immediately. Shaun Scanlon and Peter Brent to the stage immediately |" This, we both knew, meant that we had missed our call. After one or two words of exclamation we ran, as fast as we could, laughing excitedly, through the building's maze-like innards, skidding around corners in our socks, to our dressing room, where we heard the announcement once more, this time with even more emphasis on the last word. We threw on the required extra garments and raced, comrades in a seemingly hopeless endeavour, towards the stage, feeling that, even though the odds were that we couldn't make it, we would, because we had to. And make it we did, with enough time to receive a very brief and concise dressing down from the stage manager before partaking, in cloaks, masks and hats, in the abduction of Rigoletto.

When auditioning for Les Huguenots ("Huge Nuts" to those in the business)last year, I became perturbed to find myself among 100 or so models, actors and singers, most of them much more dashing than I, all hoping to be part of La Stupenda's "swan song". Faceless in the crowd, stomach churning, I observed the almost conspiratorial huddle in the front conferring, with hands on shoulders and mouths at ears, the two that I knew giving the odd glance in my direction, before myself and seven others were chosen. Afterwards the head of wardrobe said, with a smile, "Don't say we never do anything for you, Pete". I was indeed grateful.

I get very distressed when I hear the word "improvisation" at auditions. At one, a director who was unaware of my solid background of professionalism and reliability demanded, unreasonably, that we each choose an animal and, in turn, move across the room and back again, slowly transforming into our respective subjects. My misgivings and acute embarrassment when hopping across the room, hunched up, eyes bulging and croaking, in front of 30 people, were vindicated when I didn't even make the short list.

It has often been a labour of love, because to maintain employment I've had to take the bad roles along with the good. At its worst, the job pays $30, two nights a week, to line up and shiver before applying head to toe brown body makeup (which comes off on clothes and sheets for weeks afterwards), hang around for three hours to periodically lug back-breakingly heavy objects around stage, and finally rush downstairs in the hope of getting a shower under which one scrapes off several layers of skin.

But when it's good, it's hard to beat: receiving three times that amount to be part of the transformation of a production from early rehearsals to realisation, and then play make-believe, in wonderful costumes, before 2,500 people. Being showbiz, there is an easygoing camaraderie among the variety of characters involved in the business, and the job has given me working holidays in Brisbane and Melbourne. What's more, Green Room bar prices are very competitive.

 

HERALD SNAPSHOT
 AUSTRALIAN OPERA "EXTRAS"
 Production with most extras............Aida (38)*
 Production with least extras.....
                             Lucrezia Borgia (2)*
 Youngest extra................5 years
 Oldest extra..................65 years
 Award rate of pay( $ per hour)
  Diag - Minimum three hours work, for Supernumerary and Actor.
*  estimates only
 Source: The Australian Opera, Actors Equity of Australia

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