In Florian Zeller’s cheeky comedy, two married couples discover that honesty isn’t always the best policy, but lying won’t solve their problems. Or is it the other way around? The Truth keeps its characters and its audiences guessing right to the very end. Its actors, however, are more forthcoming. Here, Bert LaBonté reveals the truth, as he sees it, about acting, Melbourne and himself.
The truth about … acting
What’s the most common misconception about working as an actor, especially on stage?
I think the biggest misconception is that our job is somehow special. It’s lovely to watch but it’s nothing more special; we’re just humans doing our job – which is an awesome, fun job and different to other people’s jobs, but it’s still just our job and we have trained and learned how to do it, just as anyone else has trained and learned how to do their job.
For example, we often get the question ‘how do you remember all your lines?’ To which I reply ‘how do you remember all the formulas you work with as a doctor or as a plumber?’ It’s the same thing. Our businesses is the same as anybody else’s business: we discover ways to do what we have to do just as anyone in another field learns how to do what they’ve got to do.
What’s the weirdest audience moment you’ve encountered?
Oh, there’ve been a few! Here at MTC, I was doing a play called Lungs with Kate Atkinson. It was a very intimate play, a two hander, in the Fairfax. So it was really tight and intimate, and with only two of us onstage it had a lot of quiet, still moments. And in one of those moments a mobile phone went off. It was in the front row – and in the Fairfax, that means we are half a metre away from where it’s ringing. But we both continued on, assuming it would ring out soon. But it didn’t: it just kept ringing, and ringing, and ringing, and ringing and ringing!
The poor woman – who was an MTC subscriber and had come to many, many shows and was a delightful lady – was so embarrassed that she just sat there waiting for this thing to stop and I could see her pretending that it wasn’t her phone! Eventually we had to actually stop the play because we couldn’t carry on; it was just killing too many moments and the entire audience was getting agitated, shushing and shouting TURN YOUR PHONE OFF! So she finally reached in and took her bag and left the auditorium to turn it off. But she was mortified and sent apology letters to both of us.
What about the best audience moment?
It’s the best and worst: I was doing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee many years ago. We were in the middle of a big song – The I Love You Song – that myself and Marina Prior and Nat O’Donnell would sing. It’s a big, soaring kind of rock ballad, with a semi-operatic feel to it, and we’re in the middle of the climax of the song with its big three-part harmony, and in the middle of one of the big notes Nat collapsed on stage! The audience initially thought it was part of the show. But I’m slapping her face, completely out of character shouting ‘Nat! Nat! Wake up Nat!’ And our stage manager rushed out on stage and the lights came up and then the audience began to realise this wasn’t a part of the show.
‘It was like a half hour stand-up performance with these people wandering out randomly onto the stage while we waited for the ambulance to come.’
Anyway, we took Nat off stage and in the half an hour while we were trying to get her to come to, Magda [Szubanski] walked out on stage and started singing Climb Every Mountain to the audience; and then Tyler Coppin walked out on stage and started doing spelling words to them; and then Dave Campbell and I walked out and started singing Ebony and Ivory, because it was Valentine’s Day. It was like a half hour stand-up performance with these people wandering out randomly onto the stage while we waited for the ambulance to come.
Meanwhile, the poor girl who was understudying Nat had only started two days prior. She’d seen the show once and she had one day of rehearsal. She goes out the back, puts a costume on, comes out and flawlessly finishes the last 20 minutes of the show, which she’s only watched one and a half times! And then the audience stand for one of the most raucous ovations I think I’ve ever heard. Afterward, we all went out, got drunk and then went to the hospital and visited Nat, and found out she was pregnant!
What’s the best thing about working in this industry?
The immediacy of what you’re doing. As much as I love working in TV and film I really miss the immediacy of theatre. I miss being in a rehearsal room, working out the nuances of the script and the piece and how to give it life. Believe it or not I miss the repetition of it too! Getting a chance to do it again and again and fine tune it – maybe not 800 times like The Book of Mormon, but definitely 54 shows at MTC is great.
And the immediate response from an audience and that feeling you get: there’s an energy when you walk into a theatre and the lights go dark, and then they come back up and it’s like the air just gets sucked into the room. There’s a stillness for the first two or three seconds of any piece where everyone has just got bated breath, including the performers, about what’s going to happen. Nothing replaces that feeling.
The truth about … Melbourne
What’s the most common misconception the rest of the country/world has about Melbourne?
That we’re arty snobs and we think we’re more cultural than everybody else. We don’t think we are; we are! And we are because we’re forced to be. Theatre and art are such a central part of our culture because our climate pushes us towards this sort of stuff, especially in the middle of winter. I mean, sure, people also go to the footy but that’s also theatre. We love events like that because we can come together, stay warm. In the warmer climates up north, if it’s 26 degrees in the middle of winter or 20 degrees at night, I’m gonna go sit in a bar outside. Also our coffee is way better!
What are the best and worst things about Melbourne?
The best things – and I hope they come back to life at 100% capacity soon! – are the bars, the restaurants, the cafes, the theatres, the venues. It’s hard to watch them struggling right now, and it’s hard to go through the city at the moment and have it feel like a public holiday every day. And we’re in a country that’s going really well; I can’t imagine what it must be like overseas right now.
The worst part? Well, the weather’s not amazing all the time. We had no summer this year. It was a Wednesday in January, I'm pretty sure! But the weather is also one of the best parts of Melbourne, for the reasons mentioned above. And I love the seasons; the seasons really make me feel like I know where home is. I’d like them all to arrive in the year though. They used to when I was a kid but now it’s all over the shop. Like, this year we had summer at Easter. I was in the ocean every day: I’ve been going to Lorne for 26 years and I’ve never swum at Easter before.
The truth about … Bert LaBonté
What’s the biggest misconception the public has about you?
I suspect people think I might live in that world of comedy and music. Whereas, I trained as a dramatic actor and found myself in musicals and comedy – and I love doing comedy, and musicals – but where my actual heart lies would be in the really thick, dense dramas. I really want to do more of that.
What’s your most formative or memorable acting experience?
Oh wow, that’s really tough! There have been a lot but I think Spelling Bee was the job that changed my life. I’d previously done two plays at the MTC but I hadn’t been able to get another gig here for a while. My previous experience that I’d had with Simon [Phillips, then Artistic Director] hadn’t been amazing. We got along fine, but my performance hadn’t been great – I’m not gonna say what it was but I sucked in it! So I knew that I was going to have work hard to get back in the door.
‘Huge, huge lies! All of us actors. Making up these elaborate, crazy stories. Maybe that’s part of why we become actors?’
Eventually I got a phone call from my agent telling me the MTC wanted to see me for Spelling Bee. Simon was in Germany at the time, and Dean Bryant and Mat Frank had just graduated and were doing AD work with Simon, and they were in the room with [then Casting Director] Sioban Tuke. I did the scene, I did the songs; then I left, not thinking much about it. But apparently as soon as I left, Dean and Mat turned to Sioban and said ‘ring his agent and book him now.’
It was an elite cast – Magda Szubanski, Marina Prior, David Campbell – and because they were in it, it had a lot of interest. A lot of people saw it, and my career just went kind of nuts from there. I’d grown up a lot since my previous MTC show, I was a lot freer; I got nominated for a Helpmann for that show, and I haven’t been out of work since. So Mat and Dean turning to Sioban and saying ‘book him now’ was the Sliding Doors moment that changed my life, and gave me the confidence to really own what I do, to not always second guess myself.
What is the best lie you’ve ever told?
Oh this is embarrassing! In grade three, my best friend was leaving to go to another primary school and I was gutted. One day, maybe two or three months after he left, somebody was talking about him and I just blurted out ‘Yeah, I saw him the other day. He’s in a coma. He had an accident.’
I hadn’t seen him. He wasn’t in a coma. I didn’t even really know what a coma was; I must have seen something on telly. I’m pretty sure the parents would have found out that I was making up a fib but no one called me out on it, and it never came back to bite me. So yeah, that’s the biggest lie I’ve ever told! To this day, I still don’t know why I said it. Maybe deep down I was upset that he’d left so I made up some stupid story.
I’ve since told a couple of friends that, and they’ve shared with me the biggest lies they told as children. Huge, huge lies! All of us actors. Making up these elaborate, crazy stories. Maybe that’s part of why we become actors? We’re creating a story, but it’s still a massive lie. You can paint it and put a big bow on it but we’re still telling pretty huge fibs!
Published on 20 May 2021