André Jewson : Pepper Café, Flemington : Melbourne, Australia
“When I was younger I was certainly more naive, but I had more of a creative drive; I think I’ve lost that a bit as I’ve gotten older…through lack of self-belief, really. I was at drama school when I was young and a lot wasn’t fully formed at that stage. I look back and I wish I had held onto that drive that made me want to create and believe that what I created was worth putting out in the world”
André Jewson is currently playing Ed the hyena in the Australian stage production of The Lion King that, based on the Academy Award winning animated film of the same name, is arguably one of the largest live theatre spectacles in existence. But, in person, he may not be exactly what you’d expect from someone whose job for eight shows a week is to sing, dance and engage audiences into the thousands. He’s a calm personality and considered conversationalist who is as comfortable in the lull between words as he is in the interaction itself – an unexpected evenness from someone who lives in a world of bright lights and big personalities.
Growing up in the Victorian regional centre of Geelong, his history is peppered with countless creative pursuits, but the main appeal for André was always live performance. Whether it be an improvised play in front of family and friends, or on-stage with youth theatre companies and eisteddfods, the outlet was always an enjoyable one for him. But after making the decision to formally study at the renowned Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in Melbourne, the focus on achievement somewhat diluted the freedom of his childhood passion.
“It was only at the tail end of drama school that I realised what drove me as a kid – that drive to put on a show not matter what…like every Saturday, or whenever, to put up the sheets and get the puppets out and to write this thing with my cousins – that had disappeared somewhere. That thing of just creating a world out of what we found in the house and wanting to share that with anyone we could find. Never questioning that they may not want to sit there and watch it, or if they sat there and watched it that they may be bored or think it wasn’t as good as the thing they saw last week…that it wasn’t as “interesting” or as unique in vision or as intelligent…all these fears, they restrict…they’re like a straight-jacket”
The creative and competitive environment of VCA challenged André daily, but it was another challenge all together that would change the 20 year old’s life forever when his younger sister, Melanie, lost her life in a car accident in his home town of Geelong at only 19. A beautiful soul, a gifted dancer, and a talented performer, she and André shared a passion for the arts which had guided them both through adolescence, manifesting in a very tight sibling relationship that he would now be unfairly forced to live without.
“Mel and I were like partners in crime growing up. We were both interested in very similar things…during childhood and then into high school it felt like a journey that we were on together. We were close in age, just a year and half apart, and that makes it different I think. It was like we were twins. And we learnt together and we grew together and we made mistakes together in terms of the arts and starting to find our places in that. So it was like I lost a part of myself. We shared a lot and I never really considered that I would ever be without her. We were kind of like two sides to the same coin…mirror images…we reflected each other in so many ways…that sibling bind and the kind of symbiosis and similarity that only sharing genetics can justify…on a journey together that was somehow cut so short”
André continued his VCA course, but was in a daily battle on many fronts. Navigating personal relationships and the demands of the course in a haze of grief was a relentless challenge, prompting larger questions of his personal outlook and future in acting.
“I felt so many times, “What’s the point? Everyone’s destroying themselves for what? Just to pretend to play a silly little game on stage with some people..?”. I remember at the time just thinking how extraordinarily messed up that was, when people were dying…and life wasn’t going on for me but it certainly was for everybody else – so I really struggled with that. So much of what acting is, a huge part of it, is allowing yourself to be vulnerable and allowing an audience to experience that vulnerability; to share in it. But for someone like me at that time who couldn’t be vulnerable with myself for fear of collapsing, how on Earth could I possibly be vulnerable in front of an audience? I think I was scared of it all falling apart, whereas I could be in control, more or less, and glide through from one pretend emotion to the next in my work – and equally in my real life. That’s how it felt….gliding from one false emotion to the next, because the true emotion – the true depth of that – was too real. Too deep. Too painful. So that everything I was doing was kind of floating on the surface, which is kind of the antithesis of what a good actor should be doing”
Ultimately André found his way to the end of the course and completed his degree. Now out on his own he didn’t vigorously pursue acting work, but was involved in a number of projects including: co-producing Steven Berkoff’s ‘East’; ‘The History Boys’ with the Melbourne Theatre Company; and the AFC-funded short film ‘Hugo’. After moving to Sydney, he spent the next two years focussing on a new goal to relocate internationally. And with additional support from two Ian Potter Cultural Centre grants – and armed with French lessons at the Alliance Francaise – he headed to Paris to spend two years exploring and refining his craft; to get some distance and reset his approach.
“When I moved to Paris, a part of that was just to get out of Sydney as I was feeling so frustrated with my life and where I was that I had to get out, as well as wanting to do a very specific course with a very specific teachers and having that as a focus, and that’s a risk in a way but not long-term career risk. It was more about wanting to improve my skills and my training and knowing how I wanted to do that and then doing it”
Having satiated his creative need and reconnected to his passion for performance, he made his way back to Australia and auditioned for the Australian production of the The Lion King. Although excited at the prospect of joining the cast he had spent the previous eight years refining his straight acting craft, so joining a large scale musical where the importance of consistency to both the script delivery and brand cannot be emphasised enough.
“I’m actually really enjoying doing musical theatre, a lot more than I perhaps thought I ever would. It was never the way I wanted to go particularly, as an actor, I’ve not felt like that’s where my really strong suit is, or where my skills really lie. Doing the same show every night 8 times a week…it’s tiring; it has its own challenges, absolutely, but finding specificity is the thing. Because you just do it over and over again, so in order to not get bored you have to occupy yourself with minutia, which can sometimes be a bit of a problem. You obsess over the small things, but it’s also great because I’ve found I’ve been able to develop a very, very specific show that can then be moulded around the way the audience is, the way the other actors are, all this sort of stuff, but finding that has been the thing”
The experience has broadened his outlook on the possibilities of his future in the arts too. And although his strength and study has been heavily devoted to straight acting in recent years, his talent for music has opened up potential opportunities and he’s enjoying the ongoing challenge of focussing on this wider skill set to support his future work prospects.
“I’m not a singer in the way that most people working in musical theatre at the moment are singers; I wouldn’t ever be cast in a show that requires a big broadway sing. But I thought, “Maybe there is a place for me in musical theatre with big character roles that I’m doing in this show”. And if my singing and dancing also were at a better level, maybe those places for me in those kinds of shows would be expanded, or there’d be more opportunity or something like that. Because my training has really all been in acting. With all this said, I think there is an importance to being open to what comes. I’m saying all this and I really think it is as simple as wanting to…I think a big part of happiness and whatever that is for me in the future is having the opportunity to be the best that I can be. Because I think over the last 10 years since finishing drama school, that’s been the major frustration; feeling like I have so much to offer and I want to be doing a lot of things but feeling really hamstrung by the industry and perhaps not being given the opportunities that I’ve felt I’m capable of”
Now two years after the opening night in Sydney (Dec 12th, 2013), The Lion King will continue its successful run after Melbourne, and it’s clear that André is grateful for the work and loving his unexpected professional routine; to be able to spend time alongside talented people and feel the energy from each performance that only a live audience can provide. But he’s young and talented with understandable aspirations that he balances nicely with real-world expectations and, most importantly, a thirst to continue to push himself as an actor. To continue to seek coveted roles and embrace the unexpected ones, not simply for the applause or the recognition – but to satisfy his inherently creative nature and allow him explore the freedom of daring that drove him into this industry to begin with. To undo some of the regimented training that ironically goes hand in hand with studying the creative arts by trusting and freeing himself to delve deeper and open up to new experiences both in and out of the theatre.
“Working in the creative arts, you get big doses of reality a lot of the time and you can want to be doing a thousand things but the rent still has to be paid, you have to eat…and the very basic things like that have been the focus a lot in my twenties. It’s scary to verbalise it, but I would love to work in theatre, I’d love to work on Broadway, I’d love to work on the West End…not just one show, but to be at the level where I can really stretch myself in lots of different directions and tackle wildly different things. I want to do Shakespeare, I want to do Chekhov, I want do new work, new interesting work that is developed in an ensemble. I would like to have a family and be in a loving, easeful relationship. And I would like to be able to be able to provide for a family and give my children the best start in life that I could. Having a full-time job in the field that I love allows me to dream bigger, if that makes sense. Because before that, even just paying the rent, they’re the things you have to focus on. And the thought that there could be more than that is terrifying to think of, because just the short term is scary enough let alone the big stuff”
Since this conversation with André, he has moved with The Lion King to Perth, WA – you can see him and his talented cast performing at The Crown Theatre via this link
The Jewson family set up a foundation in memory of his sister Melanie to support the communities of Vanuatu – you can read more about it at the website here