INTERVIEW: Peta Sergeant (Cover Story)

Published in The Music (VIC) and on theMusic.com.au, June 2015

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DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

Fame comes at a price, and Melbourne Theatre Company’s Birdland illustrates that point perfectly. Playing a grounding force in the production, Peta Sergeant tells Daniel Cribb she’s had her own problems with stardom, including identity theft. Pic by Kane Hibbard.

Celebrity obsession can often drive fans to extremes. From a quick selfie request to full-blown stalkers, there’s always someone who wants a piece of the action when an individual is thrown into the spotlight, but little is ever revealed about the way the celebrity deals with the attention. Sure, we’re often bombarded with tales of people falling from grace or breaking down, but it’s rarely analysed in a productive way, usually delivered through click-bait and re-tweets. The way in which Birdland tackles the subject is what makes it such a compelling piece of theatre.

From the pen of award-winning author Simon Stephens, the story follows a rock star by the name of Paul, played by Mark Leonard Winter, as his sold-out world tour draws to a close and he struggles to deal with it, all the while exploring the intriguing realm of celebrity obsession. Recently returning to the stage after stints on US TV shows The Originals and Once Upon A Time In Wonderland, Peta Sergeant plays three characters in Birdland; her most prominent being a room service waitress named Jenny who ends up joining Paul’s touring party.elebrity obsession can often drive fans to extremes. From a quick selfie request to full-blown stalkers, there’s always someone who wants a piece of the action when an individual is thrown into the spotlight, but little is ever revealed about the way the celebrity deals with the attention. Sure, we’re often bombarded with tales of people falling from grace or breaking down, but it’s rarely analysed in a productive way, usually delivered through click-bait and re-tweets. The way in which Birdland tackles the subject is what makes it such a compelling piece of theatre.

“We’re just at the beginning of week four [of rehearsals], which is pretty mental,” Sergeant begins, taking a break from the chaos. “I think it’s going to be really incredible. It’s definitely a wild ride; it’s an extremely energetic show. From the moment we step into it, it’s got this kinetic, compulsive energy that just sort of rages towards a wall like a Mack truck. It’s almost like watching an angel be cast out of heaven; it’s so epic. You kind of get to peer inside and have a look at the fall of a man who’s at the very top of his game.”

While a celebrity imploding will render entertaining subject matter for audiences, the themes of Birdland are also intended to be provocative in a way that people might not expect. “We do hope people will become aware as they’re watching the show of the voyeuristic delight; that weird, gross voyeurism age that we seem to be living in. We’re just very much in an age of watching, and there’s something really creepy about that. I think [Birdland] poses a really interesting question about the collective responsibility.”

The character of Jenny is a grounding force in Birdland and bridges the gap between fan and celebrity. She first meets Paul in a Moscow hotel. “The character that I play is kind of an anchor to the real world, and she’s very much somebody who sees him as human and not just an artist, or product or something to be consumed, or an animal or experience. I think that happens a lot with celebrities; people want the experience of having been around them or they want to walk away with the story or the scandal.”

Having fronted Melbourne band The Bellows several years ago, Sergeant is no stranger to the rock environment, but Birdland is her first live theatre production in four years. While she describes the format as extremely rewarding, it’s also one of the hardest. “It’s pretty terrifying and scary. It’s not a new experience and somewhere in the membrane of my kinaesthetic memory is, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve been here before. I know that this is how it feels.’ It feels terrifying, and it feels like, ‘Why am I doing this?!’ And I don’t think that that ever goes away, but at the same time it’s extremely rewarding… It’s extremely rewarding and nourishing and it’s a different kind of muscle.”

With weeks of rehearsals, and developing chemistry and a rapport with co-stars, live theatre is far different to the hectic shooting schedule of most TV shows, as Sergeant discovered working abroad the past few years. Analysing her performance as Francesca Correa on The Vampire Diaries spin-off The Originals, you’d be hard pressed to even find a flaw in her fake American accent. Not bad for line and prep work done over a few flights, especially considering her on-screen character couldn’t be further away from her. “No, look, I haven’t,” Sergeant responds when asked if she’s been keeping up with the show since departing. “It’s not my kind of show; I’m really, really squeamish, so I can’t watch anything that’s really bloody; I don’t do well with it.

“I think in my first episode I had to sign something in blood. We were making this blood pact, and of course being The Originals, we all had to hold up these sponges that were loaded up with fake blood and pretend to slice through the palm of our hand and mix all our blood together, and I was nearly passing out.”

With The Originals having a large cult following, Sergeant was asked by the network to live tweet when the episodes were airing. The problem was she didn’t have a Twitter – at least one that she knew about. “[Twitter] was something that we’d all talked about onset and something I was quite adamant about and probably a bit old school, and then one day I got all these text messages from some of the cast members saying, ‘I see you’ve joined us on the dark side.’ And I was like, ‘What’s all this about?’

“I got to work and didn’t understand what was going on and they were like, ‘You joined Twitter.’ And I was like, ‘No, I haven’t joined Twitter. I have not joined Twitter.’ And then a friend sent me a screenshot of ‘my’ Twitter page and it was pretty creepy – the photo for the page was a picture from my wedding day. It was pretty weird and gross.”

Despite others wanting to steal her identity, Sergeant remains modest about her level of fame, and although she’s not selling out Wembley Stadium or being mobbed by hundreds of fans at airports, her experiences have helped her better understand the celebrity obsession culture – allowing her to observe it from both sides. “We have this kind of car-accident culture where everybody is just slowing down for a moment to go, ‘I got a glimpse of that – I saw it. Did you see that?’ Hopefully the audience will experience some of that and at some point during watching the play and experiencing the play, they will have an awareness of it. They won’t just be experiencing the voyeurism; we hope to provoke awareness. We’re all in this world together.”

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