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SPOT Christopher Vernon AKA Daddy Sam Interview


You might recognise the iconic Spot the dog from your own childhood in the 80s. Perhaps you’re even reading the books by Eric Hill to your kids now and experiencing fits of nostalgia. CDP Productions is bringing Spot and all his mates to the State Theatre Centre in a live stage show that’s a trip down memory lane for adults, while their kids get to experience a joy linking them directly to their parents’ childhood. Ahead of Spot’s arrival on October 26 – 29, MELISSA KRUGER talked to puppeteer Christopher Vernon.

You guys have been touring with Spot for a bit now, how’s it going?

It’s been fantastic. We’ve been to a lot of areas very quickly. It’s going really well. It’s one of those shows that a lot of adults have grown up with, so they’re bringing their kids to the theatre for the first time, but they’re also revisiting a book that they might have looked at as a child which is a full circle and I think that’s why the show has been received so well, both with young kids and their adults which has been pretty great. It’s been a lot of fun being able to go to these areas where young kids might not have seen theatre before, so setting their benchmark for theatre is very special.

It’s perfect timing with the run really when you think about it – with the books coming out in the eighties… those are the people with children now!

Exactly!

Did you read Spot the Dog as a kid yourself?

Yeah, absolutely! I would have been five or six. I remember reading those books with mum and dad. They were really special and stuck in my mind because it’s just such a fun, colourful sensory awareness for young kids with a very simple storyline you can follow along.

 What drew you to this production?

I was in the middle of doing a previous production with CDP Productions and when I saw that they were advertising for this role, because I’d trained in puppeteering, I thought it would be a good way for me to hone my skills a bit more. And with having that recognition of Spot as a child I think it was just wonderful to be able to be involved in a production which I wholeheartedly related to as a child and I love working in children’s theatre, particularly for younger age brackets. When you’ve got the young kids reacting the way that they do, it’s such a positive vibe. You get an energy that you don’t necessarily get from older audiences.

Absolutely, you just get instant feedback don’t you…

Instant feedback. There’s no filter with young kids, which I’ve always loved.

Is there anything about puppeteering for Spot that’s different to other shows you’ve done puppetry in?

Yeah, these puppets replicate what you see in the books. So, when you come and see Spot, it’s essentially like seeing a pop-up book, and it’s really beautiful. These puppets are to scale. Initially, it was a little bit cumbersome to operate, I think with any puppets that you pick up for the first time you’ve gotta figure out the best way to get that into your body without injuring yourself. With these puppets in particular, I’m operating the head with my mouth but I’m also operating the tail and body with my other hand. Figuring that out, the rehearsal period was definitely great for, and we had a puppeteer specialist come in to coordinate which was really awesome. I love being able to speak through puppets and learning how I can get that into my body as well. The puppets I’ve used in the past have mostly been puppets on rods so it’s definitely been a big learning curve for me which has been awesome.

How did you get into puppeteering?

I kind of fell into it. I had a friend who was working for Camp Quality (a children’s family cancer charity) and they had an educational puppet program and I was lucky enough to secure a role with that. I learned on the job essentially. It was wonderful. The great thing about working for Camp Quality was I was able to learn on the job how to puppeteer but also provide a positive message around cancer awareness and reducing stigma around a particular issue, which is the best of both worlds and really wonderful. I also bought a couple of puppets so it’s a bit self-taught as well.

I know you got into performance from a very young age. Who were some of your heroes that inspired you to pursue the craft?

I think Jim Carey, for one. He’s just such a… there’s no filter with Jim Carey. The way his mind works I can definitely relate to. He thinks at a million miles an hour and he’s not afraid to make himself look like a fool, and I’ve been like that. As a child, I’d grab my dad’s video camera and film silly skits around the house with my brothers, playing a variety of roles. I definitely looked up to him and thought, you know what? If he can make himself look like a fool, then I’m going to do that as well, and I think that’s definitely helped me get work, in terms of just allowing myself to play. Meryl Streep was another one as well. Her ability to take these imaginative leaps in playing roles is something I really admire in an actor’s work.

What are you watching on Netflix?

A lot of crime documentaries and Big Mouth.

How good is Big Mouth!

I love those characters. I’ve never laughed out loud as much as I have from watching something like Big Mouth and I think shining a light on something that we’ve all been through – puberty – in a crass and intelligent way is awesome, and there’s no shying away from that. Very funny.

What kind of theatre do you get into as a patron rather than as an actor?

As a patron, I’d say musical theatre because I studied in that field, but I really like to mix it up. I saw a groundbreaking musical as part of the Brisbane Festival called Fangirls which completely reinvented the way I can see musicals folding out on the stage with the use of technology and the way the characters were represented on stage was amazing. But yeah I guess I like the big musicals, I like indie stuff, I like supporting my friends, just trying to get out there as much as possible and I think as an actor it’s important to get out there and try to see as much theatre as possible, be it straight theatre, like a play, or musical theatre. Muriel’s Wedding was awesome, I had such a laugh going to see that.

One of the reasons I was really interested in talking to you is because of reading about your passion for youth mental health, particularly reducing the stigma around talking about mental health and having good conversations with young people about that. Can you tell me a little bit more about your work there?

Absolutely. The organisation I was working for was called batyr and they started with a young guy called Sebastian Robertson who many moons ago was going through his own issues with mental health and he decided that he wanted to share his story in order to encourage more people to reach out after hearing a real story, and this is something I resonate wholeheartedly with. As actors, we’re unemployed more than we are employed so it’s difficult to remain resilient, we all have our struggles. I think, especially between jobs, I came across batyr and I applied for their facilitator position. I went into schools and universities and we ran these programs which are structured around specifics about mental health and suicide and then we invited other speakers onto the stage to share their story. People would introduce themselves, and talk about who they were, what they’ve been through etc, then they’d dive into their moment of crisis and essentially how they looked after and how they continue to look after their mental health on a daily basis. It’s a really awesome organisation and we’d have speakers between the ages of 18 and 30 to share their stories and it’s really fantastic, on most programs we’d have young kids come up to us and mention that they’d been through a similar thing and it was great that they didn’t feel alone and that was the biggest thing for me.

With this recent study that found that 57% of young Australians feel lonely sometimes or always this kind of work is really important and thank you for doing it.

I think it’s important and the more conversations that are had the better. It’s slowly reducing that stigma. I think this generation, in particular, are getting better at it, because of things like social media. There are, I think, quite a lot of negative things about it but I think social media can and has been used in a way to help alleviate that pressure as well with things like R U OK? day creating a platform for young people to reach support.

 

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