The actor and the academic

Last updated 12:00 08/06/2012
MISSING, PRESUMED DEAD? Actor Jon Pheloung as grieving, puzzled stepdad Nick, in Centrepoint Theatre's next play, Enlightenment.

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Expect suspense, mystery and the hair to go up on the back of your neck with Centrepoint Theatre's next play, Enlightenment. Actor Jon Pheloung talks to Lee Matthews about shattering stereotypes.

Jon Pheloung, actor, former academic and all-around nice guy, is acting a bemused academic.

It's a rocky role, but it's one that he knows from personal experience. He is an actor. He has been an academic, and in Centrepoint Theatre's next play, Enlightenment, Pheloung's character, Nick, lectures in metaphysical poetry – would that Massey University's humanities department could run to such luscious specialisation – and he is a big-picture, big-question person.

Day-to-day minutiae tend to pass him by. That's the wife's job, doing the little things like paying the power bill and organising the washing into the clothes dryer.

Nick is mostly in the 17th century with his poets, questioning the universe and humanity's place, shaking their fists at God and the world.

That's a long way from knowing where the car keys were last left, but Nick and Leah are rubbing along comfortably when suddenly Leah's son, Nick's step-son, goes missing.

On OE, the 20-year-old's last contact with home was that he was thinking of going to Jakarta. Then the Bali bombings happened.

Swirling panic. What to do?

Pheloung says many men would struggle with this anyway, but Nick has it particularly hard. A professional communicator, he finds he can't, not about this.

"Emotionally inarticulate ... but his very pragmatism ends up being his strength."

Then the play's plot yanks harder on the heart strings: somebody turns up, saying, "Hi, Mum. Hi, Dad", but that somebody is so damaged and changed that nobody is quite sure – about anything, ever.

Pheloung says Enlightenment is all about roles: the way people snuggle into stereotypes, the way they become what they have been labelled. Yet no human being is that simple, but the roles are soothing, accustomed behaviour that most times let people live their everyday lives.

"So the dilemma of the play is that there is a huge hole punched in the middle of this family, and everyone's roles are bleeding, because they don't know where they are any more," says Pheloung.

Enlightenment is a view of how humans live with helplessness, uncertainty and extreme trauma.

"It's about people coping, moment to moment."

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Pheloung says he has never played a role quite like Nick before. Lately, New Zealand theatre has tended more to box-office-friendly cuddly comedy or entertaining musicals – although comedy isn't without its own tools to deliver a punchy, dramatic message.

"This play, though, is gutsy. It's a mystery, suspense filled, dramatic and complex." He pauses. "Put it this way, normally in a rehearsal, the actors will do their work, then wander off for a cup of tea until they are needed again. With this one, we are all just watching each other's work, transfixed. I find I can't look away. It's that powerful." He laughs. "Exhausting, energising."

Pheloung started acting professionally at 18. In the mid-1980s, he won a Christchurch City Council-arts scholarship to be apprenticed at the Court Theatre with director at the time Elric Hooper. It was on-the-job learning.

Later, he topped that with academic learning, getting a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Canterbury. The letters after the name opened more doors in certain buildings.

"My degree's in communication, contextual and cultural studies, social networks and the value of culture. Terribly broad, but it was a whole world of thinking away from theatre."

Yet, it was about the very things theatre does. Communicating ideas, getting people to look at behaviours, telling a story, examining how people react, why people need people.

"You pack 200 comparative strangers into the room and give them a whole set of new ideas they haven't encountered before. That's not easy.

"Yet that's what actors do every night, and it's what academics do in the big first-year lectures every day.

"Actors perhaps demand more emotional response, but academics and teachers are in the ultimate performance job, presenting new material, constantly improvising as the students react."

He knows. He won a scholarship to the University of Illinois, to do his master's degree, then he stayed in the United States teaching theatre in communications and media departments.

"I was at Centrepoint when I got that scholarship. That was the year of Pack of Girls, Dead Tragic and Bouncers. End of 1992, no internet. Just applying was a mammoth task, thumbing through university handbooks at the library, and sending away hand-written applications by post."

The phone went in his flat about 8am. Still bleary from the previous night's performance, he heard a mid-western accent saying that the University of Illinois would like to offer him a scholarship.

"I'll take it!" he blurted.

The now-amused voice coming across the Pacific Ocean, from halfway across North America to Palmerston North in the days when people still got a teensy bit excited about international toll calls, inquired whether he would perhaps need time to think it over. Pheloung, wide awake, said no, indeed, he would come right now, and thank you.

The experience, and the teaching, taught him more about people and the way they persisted in plugging themselves into roles.

"In any first-year class, you could look around and pick the types of people – the clown, the silent one, the one who would have endless questions, the weird new hairstyle every week, the cool one. It must be something tribal that makes people do this, fitting ourselves into roles."

Enlightenment, by Shelagh Stephenson, directed by Paul McLaughlin, with Jon Pheloung, Jude Gibson, Renee Sheridan, Donogh Rees, James Winter and Stephen Gledhill. New Zealand premiere at Centrepoint Theatre, June 9 to July 14.See a movie trailer for the production at:

- © Fairfax NZ News

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