Brink Productions have a wonderful reputation for creating new and exciting Australian theatre. Their current show, Symphonie de la Bicyclette, is no exception. Written by Adelaide writer and performer Hew Parham, Symphonie de la Bicyclette is a funny, heartfelt one-man show about cycling and obsession, envy and ambition, winning and losing, and finding the inner grit to dominate the mountain stages of life.
With Symphonie de la Bicyclette set to ride into town on January 17, Hew spoke with me about the show, cycling, and what drove him to study in the performing arts and ultimately forge a career in the industry.
“I think I have always been performing from a very young age. I am a shared middle child, so it probably came from a cry for attention. Apparently a thing I was renowned for doing at a young age was ‘fruit dances’, where I would do a dance and my family had to pick what fruit I was being. When I was teenager I was a little bit of an inbetweener. I liked sport and had a few learning difficulties, and Mum was trying to find a place where I would fit. She introduced me to Unley Youth Theatre, which became Urban Myth, and something just clicked for me. It allowed me to harness my energy and showed me how to express myself. I really found my home. I studied drama and acting at uni. From there I was introduced to the world of cabaret and clowning, which have a more direct relationship with the audience. I really loved the storytelling that comes out in these art forms, and that is something that comes out in the new show I am doing for Brink Productions.”
Cycling has always had a wealth of written text around it. The Tour De France was even started by a newspaper. Hew discussed with me what it is about cycling that he likes, and what drew him to write Symphonie de la Bicyclette.
“I do cycle, and I enjoy it, but I wouldn’t say I’m professional or that I’ve ever taken it seriously. In some ways, cycling became a useful metaphor to be able to tie the two stories that run through Symphonie de la Bicyclette. Cycling is often a real battle with yourself. Sure, you have other competitors if you are professional, and it is very much an ability to overcome and endure. This has been a fun theme to play with in the script.
“This show has gone in so many directions. It’s been in development for about six years. It first started when I was working for The Tour Down Under. I was asked to create a character for the Santos tent, so I came up with this clown-based character who was this buck-tooth European cyclist. He drew a lot of attention and it started this idea about creating a twenty minute silent clown show for The Tour Down Under. Over the years it has turned into a ninety-minute, multi-character production, but I think what changed over time is when I heard about the story of Gino Bartali. I saw a video about him a few years ago and loved how he was a Tour de France winner many years ago, but it was revealed when he died in 2000 that during WWII he risked his life to save Jewish lives in Northern Italy by secretly transporting documents in his bicycle. He had this expression that has become the heart of my show: ‘Medals aren’t meant to be worn on the shirt; they are to be worn on the soul.’ That statement really punched me in the heart. So, through a series of events, the show changed from being a little bit wacky, to having more heart and more depth. Some of the final changes to the show happened when I got a residency at The Mill with Brink and Chris Drummond, who is directing the show for me. He has a great way of working with narrative scripts, and he worked with me to really hone in on the messages and characters that had stories that needed to be heard.”
Being both the script writer and the only actor in the show can present its own challenges. Where do you draw the line as the scriptwriter and focus on the acting, putting your entire faith into your director and creative team? Hew did face a few hurdles like this, but ultimately he had to put his faith in him Symphonie de la Bicyclette’s director, Chris Drummond.
“I can be very critical of myself. It’s hard when it’s your own work. It is probably the biggest work I have created and there is a lot going on in it. Something I have found a bit tricky in the show is that there is a character called Hew. He is kind of me, but he is also not me. There have been times where we had conversations about changing the character name and nothing has really stuck. So I’ve probably found the tricky thing to be – where do I separate and where can I take on different modes of the writer and the actor. It also has been hard while we tweak things in rehearsals because the writer’s brain still has to be engaged. The whole team has been amazing and I do often step back and trust their opinion. We did the show in Wollongong and it was very well received, so that was a huge relief.”
Symphonie de la Bicyclette has already been performed to audiences in Wollongong to great success.
“We worked with an education officer in Wollongong and we talked a lot about the themes in the show. Something she said was how she felt it was such a refreshing voice and a very refreshing masculine voice. She said it was something that she needed to be talked about. There is a lot in the show about men expressing their feelings. It wasn’t really my intention when I set out to write the show, but it really was nice when I heard that. I also got a really lovely email from someone in Wollongong who said that he was a male who was touched very deeply by the show, and it opened his eyes to another side of himself. That was truly beautiful to hear; it was probably more affirming than any reviews you would ever get.”
Brink Productions Symphonie de la Bicyclette opens at The Space Theater at the Adelaide Festival Center on January 17 and runs until January 21. Tickets and further information about Hew and the show can be found at https://www.brinkproductions.com/productions/symphonie-de-la-bicyclette .
Interviewed by Ben Stefanoff