22 Dec, 2016
The Theatre Guild Award for Best Performance by a Junior Male in a Supporting Role has been won by Sean Rees-Wemyss (12H), for his hilarious turn as Mrs Mae Peterson in the St Michael’s production of Bye Bye Birdie. Sean talks about what it was like to star in this exuberant and hilarious role.
‘Everything sort of fell to me,’ he says. ‘Musicals weren’t really my thing, as I found singing and dancing in front of people quite confronting. But one day, Ms Fiume [Director of Dance and Drama] pulled me aside and said: “Would you like to audition for a female part, with no singing or dancing?” I did a dry read, and got the part.’
The distance between Sean and his character was a major source of inspiration. ‘At first I really struggled, because the role was literally the polar opposite to me in age, gender and personality,’ he remembers. ‘Something just wasn’t working – but after a while, I realised I was having difficulty imagining the role while wearing jeans and a t-shirt.’
Changing into ‘appropriate’ attire made all the difference. ‘On Ms Fiume’s suggestion, I went backstage to the costume cupboard, grabbed the first floral dress I could find, and started wearing it for a day,’ he says. ‘It all clicked – I was so clearly playing someone else that any sense of self-consciousness fell away.’
Despite initial reservations, Sean soon found himself singing as well. ‘A month in, Ms Fiume asked: “Would you like to do a song?” As I’d started to get comfortable in the role, I decided to give it a shot. It helped that Mrs Peterson is so absurd, embodying every stereotype under the sun.’
Mrs Peterson was a foil for the ‘straight’ characters. ‘The musical’s 1950s setting “boxed in” the other performers to that time period, whereas I had more freedom,’ Sean observes. ‘Around 90% of my role was inspired by the audience’s response. I’d always be gauging their reaction, and doing things like dropping my glasses in the oven, then sneaking back to retrieve them.’
Sean’s performance may have confused some viewers initially, who noted his resemblance to his sister Ruby (OM 2013). ‘I got told a lot that I looked like my sister … until it clicked, and people realised it was actually me.’
Performing at the Theatre Guild Awards gave Sean the chance to reprise his role. ‘Being in front of an audience who didn’t know me was really enjoyable, but it also brought a new set of challenges,’ he says. ‘Everyone there was dressed to the nines, so it felt bizarre ambling into the building in an old woman’s dress!’
Sean’s education at St Michael’s has given him many performance opportunities. ‘I remember doing the musical in Year 7, Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr.,’ he says. ‘I’ve been privileged to have a series of major roles at St Michael’s that actors would die to play, including Melchior, Faust, and Hamlet; this year, co-directing Punk Rock was one of my greatest learning experiences. I’d also like to thank Ms Annie Fiume and Ms Janine Meadley for all their support throughout Bye Bye Birdie.’
Sean is looking forward to the coming year. ‘I’m going on to study Arts at Melbourne, where I’m really looking forward to joining the many theatrical clubs and societies on offer.’
We congratulate Sean for receiving this richly deserved honour.