Lachlan Woods has trod the MTC boards on numerous occasions over the last decade. He made his debut with 2010’s Richard III, and followed that up with appearances in Hamlet, Macbeth and Twelfth Night, among others. You might have spotted a theme – ‘I think it’s probably a little bit to do with way I look,’ he jokes – and like the Bard, Woods is adept at painting a scene. Using a camera instead of a quill, however, Woods creates stunning images, both theatrical and commercial, that are grounded in his intimate knowledge of the theatre.
‘I identify as an actor who loves to take photos,’ Woods answers when asked if he views himself as one more than the other. He doesn’t recall having any great ambition towards the theatre as a child (though admits his family would disagree with this recollection) but ‘was involved in all that stuff’ at university; that stuff being student theatre at the University of Melbourne, before he studied it officially at the Victorian College of the Arts. ‘So it was certainly all there but I don’t think it became a tangible thing in my mind until I graduated VCA. I remember I got a shock when I came out the other side and thought: Oh my god, now I’m supposed to be an actor?!’
The shock of this realisation didn’t last long, with Woods gaining his first professional role – in the afore-mentioned Richard III – soon after. ‘I walked past MTC every day as a student actor, and my one goal was to do a play at the Sumner so that my Nana could see me on stage there. Then within six months of graduating, I did a show with MTC, and my Nana saw me on stage at the Sumner.’ He jokes that he should have aimed higher.
In a way, he almost accidentally aimed his career arc wider, to encompass photography as well as acting. While training at VCA, Woods picked up a camera to document the process. ‘I like performance – it can be absolutely exhilarating – but the thing I really love is process: I love rehearsals, I love working out how to tell stories, I love collaborating, I love working with a team, I love the energy of that creative exchange more than anything. So I was documenting that while I was at VCA.’
Documenting a secret world
The camera followed Woods after graduation, and his fellow actors started asking him to take headshots. He obliged with ‘some very, very bad’ ones but the more he took the better he became, and the more he came to love this form of expression. He enrolled in night school at Photography Studies College (PSC) in South Melbourne. ‘So if I was on a show I’d be rehearsing during the day then walking down Southbank Boulevard to go to PSC in the evening. They were some very long days but it was really good because I could take some backstage photos and then have those available for critique in class.’
These backstage photos are now a Woods speciality. ‘There was kind of a natural evolution’ towards them, he muses, ‘in that I was working in that space already so I had access to this secret world; it’s kind of sensational and private and mystical. And I had access to that, so I just took a camera there.’
‘I’m really privileged, with MTC, that I have that level of intimacy with most actors, so if they turn around and I’m 30 centimetres from their face, it’s not quite as invasive as it might be with someone that I didn’t know.’
There, specifically, means backstage during tech week – the week prior to opening night, when the actors and the technical crew are together in the theatre for the first time; it’s when the set, lighting and sound, props, special effects and costumes are put through their paces with the cast for the first, and final, times before the show opens. With long and exhausting days, tech week is one of the most stressful times for theatre-makers (it’s frequently called Hell Week). Actors need to stay alert, often during long waits between cues. Boredom and nerves can set in, often at the same time. It’s certainly not a place for outsider observers.
But Woods, as a cast member, is perfectly positioned to capture the mood and energy of this space. ‘With MTC, I think that was kind of the crucible of it because I’d worked so much with the Company that I felt so comfortable in the space; I knew the Sumner Theatre intimately.’ He explains that during tech week, the theatre becomes an industrial space: ‘There are things flying in that can kill you, holes opening up in the ground, there’s a revolving stage. There’s just all sorts of complex challenges, and you have to be able to navigate those on top of doing all the other things you need to do during tech rehearsal.’ So, even with his familiarity with the space, it took Woods a while before he ‘had the confidence to also pick up the camera and start documenting the intense and demanding time of tech week.’
There’s something almost anthropological about it. Like an ethnographic researcher immersing themselves into the culture or community they are studying, Woods becomes participant-as-observer. As an insider, he is trusted by the other actors; this enables him ‘to inject [himself] into their spaces, to not just sit back and observe. When you look at most work that’s to do with the theatre,’ he clarifies, ‘it’s usually from the perspective of an audience member. But the work I’m really interested in is process, the creative moment, the ritual of being backstage. It’s a different kind of observation that’s required.’
Rather than anthropologist, though, Woods sees himself as more of a documentarian. ‘The kind of images I take backstage are documentary-style, in a very traditional documentary format: I don’t use a zoom lens, I use a 35-millimetre fixed lens. So to get closer to the action, I have to get close to the person. It’s quite an old fashioned way of working, but it also gives you more intimacy. And because I’m usually working with people that I’m familiar with and in a space that I’m familiar with, it affords me a little bit more bravery than if I were to go and do this in New York. I’m really privileged, with MTC, that I have that level of intimacy with most actors working on the stage there. So if they turn around and I’m 30 centimetres from their face, it’s not quite as invasive as it might be with someone that I didn’t know. And also to have that intimacy with the Company, to give me the trust to go into what is a very high-pressure environment, to trust me to inject myself in a non-compromising kind of way – genuinely, it’s a privilege.’
‘For me, photography became a way to stay present to what was going on … it tunes me in a little bit more, and keeps me focused; it keeps me in the middle of things.’
Taking photos backstage also helps Woods keep his mind focused to get through tech week. ‘During tech week there is just so much downtime for actors; and the downtime is a very unknown stretch of time – it might literally be a day and a half of waiting between scenes. So for me, photography became a way to stay present to what was going on, because it’s very easy to be in your dressing room and time is passing and your mind is not on a task. But if I have a camera in my hand I have an idea of the pace at which the process is unfolding. So it actually tunes me in a little bit more, and keeps me focused. It’s more productive, it’s more creative, and it’s more collegiate; it keeps me in the middle of things.’
Voice is everything
In addition to his photography and his stage (and screen) acting, Woods has made a significant career as a voice actor. Voice wasn’t his favourite class at VCA, but he found his way to loving voice work through Shakespeare. ‘I love Shakespeare,’ he says. ‘I love words and I love the poetry – there’s something about the play of language that turns my brain on and excites me – which is why I also love working with the voice. Voice is everything.’
You’ve probably heard Woods’ voice and not realised it. His commercial clients have included Jeep, Mercedes, BMW, Hyundai, Heinz, Four’N Twenty, Furphy Beer and Extra Gum. ‘Voice acting is a huge part of my career,’ he says. ‘And it works really beautifully hand-in-hand with stage acting because it gives me a chance to stay fresh and exercise my voice in a technical way.’
Woods is so committed to his vocal work (and his love of Shakespeare) that he travelled to Scotland’s Orkney Islands to train with Kristin Linklater – ‘a very famous voice teacher, and kind of the doyenne of Shakespearean performance’ – before she died. And thanks to a recent client, his voice may outlive us all: ‘they bought my voice and turned it into an AI. I did eight weeks of recording – every sound and inflection, sitting with a linguist. It’s just weird to think that somebody owns my voice forever: I could be doing that job for eternity!’
Storytelling in black and white
At the heart of all the work Woods does is storytelling. ‘Whether the story is about Extra sugar-free gum or it’s backstage at MTC, or it’s Twelfth Night, it’s storytelling; it’s about how you ratchet up the telling of this to convey your message.’
Storytelling is also the reason Woods shoots his backstage photos in black and white. ‘Those are photos that are about process,’ he explains, ‘they’re not about a finished product. As soon as something is rendered in colour, you lose some degree of being able to project possibility onto it; there is a degree to which it is now defined. And especially during that very fragile, tender stage of rehearsal, you are working in such a space of possibility that it’s important for it to be rendered in black and white.
‘There is also something kind of workman-like about black and white, and that part of a rehearsal is very workman-like: it’s very robust, it’s technical, it’s raw. And, of course, just from a storytelling level, black and white is just far more emotive – and when people are in that fragile, more tender, stressed space of tech week, it’s probably a more beautiful, powerful way of rendering that state, that place.’
Lachlan Woods onstage
From his main-stage debut in MTC’s Richard III in 2010, Lachlan Woods’s ‘richest working professional relationship’ has been with the Company. ‘I just feel so lucky that I’ve kind of grown up as an actor on the stage at the Sumner,’ he says. ‘Whether it’s going to HQ or going to the Sumner, it really does feel like home.’
Lachlan Woods as Orsino, with Esther Hannaford as Viola, in Twelfth Night, 2018.
Photo: Jeff Busby
Blake Testro (standing) with Lachlan Woods in Macbeth, 2017.
Photo: Jeff Busby
Lachlan Woods onstage in Double Indemnity, 2016.
Photo: Jeff Busby
Lachlan Woods with Ewen Leslie and Gary McDonald in Hamlet, 2011
Photo: Jeff Busby
James Saunders, Lachlan Woods and Bert LaBonté in Richard III, 2010
Photo: Jeff Busby
If you’d like to explore more of Lachlan Woods’ photography, visit his website.
Published on 15 December 2020