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Playing dad:
Two Jews walk into a theatre...

Georgia McKay
Sydney Opera House

Renowned choreographer Gideon Obarzanek and performer Brian Lipson appear on the Sydney Opera House stage in the premiere season of UnWrapped as their real-life fathers in Two Jews walk into a theatre... This fictionalised account follows two irascible old men meeting in a theatre foyer outside their sons’ experimental theatre performance. Ranging from the domestic to the global, their disagreements are as intense as their affinities, making for hilarious and provocative theatre. Gideon and Brian reflect on how the piece came to be and what it means to act as your father.

Gideon: I first became interested in dance towards the end of high school. After graduating, I deferred science at university to study at the Australian Ballet School. Later, I danced with Sydney Dance Company before I formed my own dance theatre company, Chunky Move in 1995.

I initially encountered Brian over 20 years ago. Although I knew he was quite a successful actor in the UK, I wasn’t overly familiar with his work. The first time I saw him on stage in Melbourne was in a one-man show that he wrote and performed, A Large Attendance in the Antechamber based on the true story of the father of Eugenics. It was brilliant, one of the best things I’d seen in the theatre, and I was really impressed by his performance. We later collaborated on a Chunky Move show together, Two Faced Bastard in 2008.

I admire Brian’s daring as an older actor to take on new ideas and try things out. When you work with dancers they are generally willing to take on fragments of ideas, but actors want to have a lot more information before throwing themselves into something unknown. Brian is very brave, the perfect candidate to work in a new dance production.

Brian is also very particular (as am I) and we don’t always agree. In fact, we tend to argue about most things, which is actually really useful for the show because we don’t have to manufacture disagreement.

It was Brian’s suggestion to pretend to be our fathers. Neither of us had met each other’s dads – we didn’t know their respective backgrounds or how they would get along. When we switched on the camera and began the improvisation, we started yelling at each other and it became quite dramatic. Nearby Arts House Melbourne staff came out of their offices absolutely convinced that Brian and I were having a serious fight. We quickly came to the conclusion that it would be good material for a show.

Childhood image of Gideon's father
Childhood image of Gideon's father, Zenek
Gideon's parents, Zenek and Alexandra Obarzanek

We’re both very interested in real people and real stories, fictionalising them through the manipulation of reality. This work, although a fictional meeting of our fathers, tries to remain as faithful as possible to their true characters in imagining how they would have reacted and responded to each other.

Both our fathers had similar upbringings with difficult childhoods followed by military service in active conflict zones, but they responded very differently to their Jewish identity. They’re very passionate in their oppositional thinking and can’t agree on certain things at all.

Brian’s father, Laurence, always lived in London, but has long since passed away, whereas my father emigrated to Australia in the late 1950s from Poland. He’s very critical about asylum seekers and their failure to follow a proper ‘immigration system’, which features in a significant argument in the show. Although he could be labelled as refugee himself, having arrived from Eastern Europe after the war, he doesn’t adhere to that label. I think his politics cloak a form of racism.

My father Zenek and his parents were survivors in a community that was decimated and they lived in an anti-Semitic post-war environment in Eastern Europe. He believed the only way to secure a future for Jewish people was to have their own nation state. He sees any form of criticism levelled at Israel, particularly by other Jews, as contributing to anti-Semitism. If Jews like Brian’s father are critical of Israel’s behaviour and actions, he can’t stand it.

I was very nervous about my father seeing the show. He hadn’t been well for quite a long time, and his prognosis wasn’t great. I told Brian I didn’t want our final years together to be acrimonious – it’s not worth it. We held off staging it for quite a while but my father held on (almost like a Monty Python joke!) so eventually I agreed.

I gave my father the transcript from one of our improvisations, which he read at the kitchen table and he seemed okay. I thought he might feel differently about a whole bunch of strangers in a theatre looking on, so he came to the first preview. I phoned him the next day to query whether he really liked it (I criticise his parenting a lot), to which he replied: “I just feel sorry for Brian having to prosecute this stupid argument about Israel being a criminal state – what a ridiculous position!”

I haven’t had a particularly close relationship with my father, but I get along with him much better since making this work. In the past, we’ve had a hard time agreeing, our politics and what we do are very different. This show has enabled me to see him as a complete person, not just as my father.

Image: Han Rose Worrall

Brian: I grew up in North London and studied at Central School of Art because I didn’t pass the exams to get into university. I became a partner in a prop making company called Small Works and worked as a theatre designer for four years, including with Lindsay Kemp. I enjoyed working with Lindsay and other directors but not theatre designing, so I decided instead to go to acting school to become a performer. I joined an experimental theatre group, Lumiere and Son, which offered a marvellous realisation that there were a bunch of people who liked doing the sort of things I did and thought the same things were funny and interesting.

I worked in experimental theatre in the 70s and 80s with two companies that I helped to form, Liquid Rational Theatre and Hidden Grin. It was a very exciting time in British experimental theatre, but it came to a crashing halt when I (and many other artists) lost our grant during the Thatcher years. I started to diversify into straight acting, performing at The Royal Court and The National Theatre, but I kept up my independent work.

I came to Australia 21 years ago and developed a solo show, A Large Attendance in the Antechamber. It did very well, touring to Edinburgh Festival and major festivals around the world. I’ve since worked at most of the theatre companies in Australia like Melbourne Theatre Company, Malthouse, Sydney Theatre Company and La Boite, but I always maintained my practice as an experimental theatre maker.

I received an Australia Council Fellowship in 2011, offered to artists only once in their career, which provides financial support for two years. I decided to work with 25 different artists that I admired and had worked with previously, half of them based in Australia and the other half in the UK. I worked for a week with each person with a completely open brief.

I first met Gideon when I was part of Chunky Move’s ‘Two Faced Bastard’ and I really enjoyed working with him as a director and choreographer. Gideon’s a really terrific artist and I’ve always admired his work. Lucy Guerin, Gideon’s partner (and the director of Two Jews) is a great director and choreographer herself. The idea of collaborating with those two, well, I can’t think of anybody I’d rather work with.

It’s been an interesting exercise getting to know Gideon through his father who I didn’t know anything about before we did that first improvisation at Arts House in Melbourne. I had no idea that Gideon had grown up on a Kibbutz in Israel and English is his second language.

We’ve both had difficult relationships with our parents and our fathers in particular, who we disapprove of. 

Like Gideon’s father, my father Lawrence was also a socialist and Jew, although he had a very different relationship to Judaism and felt very angry about being saddled with the ‘affliction’ of being Jewish. I’ve never felt particularly passionate about being Jewish, although I did have a Bar Mitzvah to please the relatives, much to his chagrin.

I’ve become more fond of my father since his death. I felt rather overwhelmed by him, he was a very successful man in some ways, good at sports and school, and very ambitious for me. He was very disappointed that he didn’t get to fulfil his dreams of going to university because of the war and ended up working for his father, which he hated. I think he felt I would do all the things he’d hoped to, but I was a terrible student at school and ended up doing these embarrassing things on stage as an experimental performer. 

Had my father seen the work, I think he would have been very embarrassed and disturbed, although I think he would have been pleased with its success and positive reviews on my behalf. He’s not as thick skinned as Gideon’s father who loves the show and thinks of it as a mouthpiece for his ideas and prejudices. I suppose my father would like it for that reason too, but he would also find it really embarrassing.

“I’ve become more fond of my father since his death...”

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