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Wil Greenway: Either Side of Everything, Edinburgh preview

| Comedy, Festivals, Theatre | 28/07/2018

wil2-PhotoCreditEdwardMoore

In the first of our Edinburgh Fringe previews, Ian Cater speaks to Wil Greenway – one of the most soul-stirring, poetic storytellers around – about his move towards comedy in new show Either Side of Everything.

The first time I saw Wil Greenway walk onstage, he looked very much your archetypal Australian hipster: bright shirted, bare footed, big of beard, all perched on a strong frame growing down from a top-knot.  He was only lacking a surfboard and a can of Fosters to complete the picture.

But book split from cover the second he opened his mouth and unravelled a softly spoken story full of heart, humour and small-town heroism.  The fluid in his eyes ebbed and flowed to the rhythm of his words: full of mischief during each well-worked metaphor; packed with pain when retreating to gather himself during folksy musical interludes from singer Kathryn Langshaw and guitarist Will Galloway.

Screen Shot 2018-07-27 at 15.14.32His shows can be uplifting and spellbinding, yet the unassuming 33-year-old Victorian plays down their mystique.  “I think it’s basically just a form of poetic storytelling,” he smiles, as if it were that easy.

Greenway’s gradually grown a cult following over seven years of performing, selling out runs for the past three Edinburgh Fringes.  He’s gained acting work (Molly, The Warriors) on the back of his stagecraft and been heralded by Daniel Kitson – the greatest storyteller within these shores – as “dense and rich and fanciful and somehow still entirely grounded.”  Yet there’s still a sense that more people should experience his work, that it warrants wider sharing on TV or – following the trail blazed by Sarah Kendall’s Australian Trilogy – on radio.

New show Either Side of Everything (above, right) could be the ticket to broader acclaim.  “I’ve enjoyed my previous stuff, but I think this is the one I’ve been looking for.  I feel pretty bullish about it,” he adds in a lilt that shies from assertiveness.  “It’s more of a mix between storytelling and stand-up, and the first time I’m listed in the ‘comedy’ section at Edinburgh, which Kath [his onstage singer and offstage partner] got angry about as she thinks we should stick with theatre.  But I really want to bring more humour into my stories.  So I’m doing it my way.”

Hope and regret

Greenway’s past two shows – The Way The City Ate The Stars and These Trees The Autumn Leaves Alone – were superb, painting evocative pictures of men falling in love, falling apart and trying years later to get back with the one that got away.  Both represented a homage to the sights, smells and sounds of Australia, but laid bare emotions everyone in the crowd could connect to: the battle between regret and hope.

“Yeah, those themes are there this time too,” he says.  “You always set out to make something different, but from a distance you realise you’re having the same conversations.  In this show I also try to look at how trapped you can feel in your loneliness and how impossible things seem.  But then when someone helps you, the world suddenly becomes more acceptable.  I guess I really believe in the importance of kindness.”

wil1-PhotoCreditEleanorKellyThe sobriety of these subjects explains why Greenway’s traditionally operated in the theatrical rather than comedic sphere, although the boundary’s often artificial.  His shows oscillate between tragedy and comedy, drawing laughter from carefully crafted turns of phrase and the playfulness previously displayed in his darkly funny sketch series, Something Nautical.

To this end, the work seems to reflect the man: while his ready smile and easy conversation convey an upbeat attitude, there’s a hint of unease beneath the surface.  That’s reflected on his website, where Greenway describes himself as a “writer, performer, failure machine”.

“It’s a joke,” he says, “but I think everything you do is trying to patch up something you’ve fucked up.  I know I drag around a lot of regrets because every opportunity you take is a bridge you burn.

“I grew up in a little town called Maffra and left home as soon as I finished high school to head to the city [Melbourne, 140 miles to the west].  I worked in a hat warehouse for a bit, then went to university in Ballarat, which is even further away.  I love my family but the distance really separated me from their tight unit.  When I went back to visit, I could see big changes in them and they could see them in me.  I felt like I’d let them down a little bit.  So there is a sense of separation and I think that comes through in my work: trying to make a home again.”

Graduation to collaboration

Despite the repercussions, Greenway was determined to study drama and pursue a career in theatre.  “It was really fun, although I wasn’t a good student.  But I met Stuart Bowden there – who I do a lot of work with – and my director Kellie [Tori].  So it was a great way of meeting collaborators, even if it didn’t get me heaps of acting roles.”

He clearly values the input of others, quick to praise the creative contributions of Langshaw and Galloway, not to mention – you suspect – the added onstage comfort their presence brings.  But it was his unusual partnership with Bowden that launched Greenway’s career as a storyteller, after they formed The Lounge Room Confabulators (below right) for the 2010 Melbourne Fringe.

hungover-2“We wanted to do a show but we were pretty flat.  So we thought instead of paying for a room, we could put it on in people’s houses.  That determined the type of work it’d be.  No one wants fuckin’ actors in their home, but we thought sitting down and sharing a story by the fireplace could be nice.”

Their show, Unverified Tales From A Travelling Suitcase, gained sufficient plaudits and awards to launch “buckets” of performances across Australia and the UK.  In 2017, Greenway and Bowden made a second version of their door-to-door double act called Survival Party.

“It was so much fun to do.  Don’t get me wrong: when it bombs, it bombs hard.  That’s never nice in a theatre, but when a show dies in someone’s house it feels horrible.  The host feels bad because they’ve invited their friends over to watch and you feel awkward when they show you out.  There’s always that risk with what I do.  I like to think it’s accessible but kind of niche – as it asks the audience to buy into it a little bit, which doesn’t always happen.  But when it went well, it was this kind of magic that stays in that house.”

Chancing on truth

The Lounge Room Confabulators’ success helped convince Greenway he could make it as a storyteller.  “I wrote some stand-up when I was younger and later realised all of my jokes came out as stories.  So it seemed that the medium suited me.  And as I couldn’t seem to get any acting work, I started to write my own storytelling shows.”

His early solo work – A Trapper’s TaleA Night To Dismember and Vincent Goes Splat – leaned more towards niche than accessible.  “I initially made fairly far-out, whimsical shows,” he grimaces slightly.  “I did A Night To Dismember again last year – about a guy who’d lost arms in separate shark attacks but there were also asteroids and stuff – and it felt like a story someone else had written.  I still liked it, I think, but it wasn’t mine any more.”

wil3-PhotoCreditEdwardMooreAfter a series of positive but unspectacular reviews, Greenway decided to call it a day before one final Edinburgh run in 2015.  “As it was going to be my last one, I chose to be braver.  So in For The Ground That Grew Me, I told true stories – like one about my grandad losing an eye – and it felt a lot better.  After that, I couldn’t go back to writing what I did before.  Now I start with truth and then smatter it in lies to make it easier to share.”

That show also saw Greenway enlist Langshaw and Galloway to lay melody over his stories for the first time, and move further down the path of engaging with his audiences, treating them as parties to a conversation.  “That’s why I don’t have much interest in acting anymore.  I enjoy bits of telly that I do, but doing a play – where you have to pretend the audience isn’t there – seems silly to me now.  I don’t have any desire to go back to that.”

So what does the future hold?  “I think The Way The City Ate The Stars would make a good book, but writing comedy for TV has been my main dream for a while now.  I’ve just got to find someone who’ll let me.  That’s partly why I keep coming back to Edinburgh: to find that person.

“But it’s also about performing to great people.  And I find it such an invigorating place to be, whether watching friends like Rob Auton or Stuart Bowden, or finding new acts.  The first time I came here in 2011, I stumbled across a show called An Instinct For Kindness [by Chris Larner], which was this beautiful, heartbreaking story about a guy taking his wife to Switzerland to be euthanised.  I learnt so much about theatre-making in that hour.  Experiences like that really feed in to the way you do things, even it sometimes takes a while to find your style.”

Wil Greenway is performing ‘Either Side of Everything’ in the Dexter room at Underbelly Bristo Square (Venue 302) every day at 14.50 (except 13th August).  Head here for tickets.  For more information, see Wil’s official website or follow him on Twitter @wilgreenway.

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