Loose Canons: Thomas Sainsbury
Loose Canons is a series where we invite artists we love to share five things that have informed their work. Meet the rest of our Loose Canons here.
Thomas Sainsbury is one of New Zealand's most prolific playwrights and has written, directed, produced and acted in more than 50 theatre productions. His plays have been performed in Australia, USA, UK, France, Greece and New Zealand and his thriller novel (which he co-wrote with Swedish author Linda Olsson) was published in Europe and Australasia.
Thomas has co-written (with Chris Parker) this years annual festive offering from The Basement Theatre, The Opening Night Before Christmas, starring himself, Kura Forrester, Byron Coll, Brynley Stent, and a new celebrity guest actor each night.
Kath and Kim
As with everything I end up adoring, I originally rolled my eyes at Kath & Kim. I watched some clips and wrote it off as silly. But after so many people told me I’d love it, I decided to watch a full episode and I was instantly hooked. Gina Riley and Jane Turner have just nailed the satire of suburban middle-class Australia. They are so specific in what makes the world and characters; eating cheesy stringers, doing correspondence courses in ridiculous subjects, turning their house into a B&B, having wine time together. And I absolutely love all that. I always try and imbue my own characters with such details.
I also love that Kath and Kim is so camp. I once read a description of the camp aesthetic as ‘ludicrously tragic’ and knew that was me to a tee. You could look at the characters of Kath and Kim as so depressively, mundanely tragic. But Riley and Turner have turned up their tragedy to ludicrous, hilarious levels. Muriel’s Wedding is also ludicrously tragic. And God that film was influential on me. The Australians just do it so well.
Watching Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show for the first time was a revelation to me. Again, it’s the finely drawn characters. Everyone knows someone like Corky, the indulgent, narcissistic theatre director in Waiting for Guffman. Everyone knows a Ron and Sheila Albertson, the middle-aged couple who do everything together and are a real “team”.
I would describe my comedy as heavy on the mockery. I mock and satirise people. And I guess Christopher Guest illuminated that this could actually be an art form. Perhaps I am a bully, making fun of people, but I usually do it with full love for people’s quirky eccentricities.
My theatrical career
The Opening Night Before Christmas is basically drawing on the years I’ve spent making theatre. I love it, but I especially love the people that are drawn to this lifestyle. It can be a very stressful career choice. And it is high stakes! You have to be ready by opening night, by hook or by crook. Usually you are exhausted. Usually you are working ridiculously long hours. Usually you are ready to snap at those you are working with.
What a great environment for high drama.
One character I’ve come across (and which I play in The Opening Night Before Christmas) is the passive aggressive backstage crew member. Don’t get me wrong, most people working in theatre are so goddamn lovely. But there are a few…
Last year I came across a term that really illuminated something for me. I can’t remember where I found it, but the term was ‘crazy-maker’. In short, a crazy-maker is someone who is too afraid to pursue their real dream (in this case, being an actor) so they get themselves into positions of power (in this case, a stage manager) so that they can have status and can ultimately punish those who are doing what they want to do (the actors). I’ve come across a few of these people in all walks of life, not just theatre. I am obsessed with this psychology.
Growing up in Matamata
In day-to-day life I don’t really think about my hometown. But boy does it keep influencing what I create. Again, it’s the people. My first character study was when I was about seven. There was an obese woman who worked at a farming supplies store that my father would frequent. Every time I went in there she had a different hairstyle. Blackberry and permed one day - short, spiky and peroxided the next. I wrongly or rightly assumed this was her attempt at making herself happy. But she always had the glummest face as she scuffed down the aisles, collecting industrial hose fixtures.
I got a lot of mileage character-studying my parent’s rich Christian friends who were very defensive about their wealth. They even came up with scripture to excuse it. Then there was the eccentric farmer who lived as a bachelor just down the road from us. I would often wonder how he’d spend his days, rattling around without contact with anyone.
In later years I got involved with amateur dramatics and boy oh boy was that illuminating. My first role was in Pride and Prejudice as Mr Bingley and my soul cringes to think about that performance. I was so terrible. Anyway, throughout the season I simply feasted on the internal politics of cast and crew, the terrible acting, the terrible direction, the flimsy sets, the needlessly intricate and expensive costumes. It was all so great. And great fodder for a future show of my own…
I dine out on people’s names. One of my favourite activities is coming up with names for my characters. Once you get the perfect name, everything else becomes clear. And new names are coming into my life all the time. I read the last name ‘Beamish’ the other day and thought that was brilliant. ‘Boyd’ has always been a winner for me. I met a woman called 'Emerald' and noted that. I read about a 'Fantaysia'.... Right? My friend, Yvette Parsons and I really enjoy the names Pat Cheese and Jan Fish and have found people with those names on Facebook. Pat Cheese?! What the hell kind of name is that? But you can just imagine someone with that name. They simply could not be sexy. They’d probably have a short, functional haircut if they were Patricia. And bald if they were Patrick. She would be a homemaker. He’d work with his hands.
And then I think of these people’s parents. Imagine holding a sweet little baby in your arms and deciding the name Gary, for example, suited them. I don’t have a problem with the name Gary, in fact I’ve used it multiple times, but calling a tiny baby Gary? What in the hell?
The Opening Night Before Christmas is on at The Basement Theatre
6 - 22 December
Tickets available here