Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other is currently on stage at the Fugard Theatre until 7 July 2018. As a comedy, it stirs up a lot of emotions and takes some dramatic and dark turns to reveal the heartache the main character, Jordan, feels as he sees his best friends all get married… yet, he can’t seem to find Mr Right in a city full of people. Gabriel Meltz (Jordan), Lesoko Seabe (Vanessa) and Lucy Tops (Laura) share how they prepared for their roles and what they would ultimately tell Jordan to try and help him see the silver lining in this heartbreaking romcom of snippet of his life.
For the interview, we sit down with Meltz, Seabe, and Tops in the Fugard Theatre foyer —they look as familiar and comfortable with each other as the close friends they play in Significant Other. Seabe confirms this suspicion to be a lovely fact. ‘I think what’s really cool about this company is that we really are operating like a company, with everyone drawing from each other’. ‘The friendships and relationships you are going to see explored on stage are going to be really drawing from not just our individual true experiences, but the true experiences of the company.’ Much like their characters then, they each bring their unique (yet complementary) perspectives to their roles.
Meltz, who studied at a theatre school in America, shares that he understands New York based Jordan. It is that understanding, more so than his theatre training (which admittedly he finds helpful too) that gives him insight into Jordan as a character.
‘Just where I am in my life right now is so relatable,’ he shares. ‘I’m reaching way more into my own story to feed Jordan’s story. That’s more my focus than technique or what I learnt in acting school. The technical stuff’s all part of it —like the voice and the speech work— but for the most part I’m drawing from having spent some time there, knowing American culture, being gay, being single, being Jewish, being all the things that make Jordan who he is.’
Tops agrees that this personalised approach of Meltz is usually how she tackles roles too: ‘I always find myself coming from a much more natural place.’ Yet, even though Laura as a character is very relatable to Tops, for this role she set out to ‘concentrate on technique, because of the dialogue’. ‘It’s something that’s been challenging for me personally, but exciting too. And when you finally get it right, there is that sense of achievement as well.’
In preparing for her role as Laura, Tops then found a balance between the natural and technical side of her style. ‘I draw a lot from everyone around me —there’s little bits of my mom, there’s some of my best friends, though, I don’t think they’ll notice— and that’s just my personal style. But when I’m working with different actors, I’m also reminded of things and the little bad habits that creep in, because I do so many different things, from rock shows at Kalk Bay Theatre to corporates and voice overs. I constantly have to remind myself to apply what I’ve learnt for my craft, so that I can do it to the best of my abilities and not get too natural and too raw. Significant Other has been a great exercise for me to remember those important things, those foundations.’
Having studied at the UCT Drama School, Seabe similarly embraces a diverse approach to theatre. ‘What was great about Drama School is that we weren’t necessarily taught one style of performance only. We were exposed to different kind of theatre makers. I mean, Jay Pather is so completely different in approach to Geoffrey Hyland, Liz Mill or Mark Fleishmann —and you get to work with all these directors all the time.'
Even though Seabe was exposed to a great range of theatre styles during her training, she looks back at her 14 years as a performer and shares that Significant Other is the first time that she has been allowed to really try her hand at comedy.
‘I find my natural inclination is more towards abstract, no-shoes, very physical kind of explorative stuff,’ Seabe contextualises. ‘You almost type cast yourself in a way. You start to perform one kind of theatre so often that people think that’s the only thing you can do or the only thing you want to do —never really giving you a chance to do anything else. It was a real surprise to me when Greg [Karvellas as the director of Significant Other] was so insistent that I find a way to be part of this company. I had almost convinced myself that this was something I couldn’t do.'
After seeing Seabe on stage alongside Tops and Meltz, there will be no doubt in your mind that she can hit all the comedy marks. In fact, they act alongside each other with such ease that it looks as if this form of dramatic comedy has been their niche for a very long time —each feeding off the other’s style and perspective.
All three ascribe that connection and impression to the approach Karvellas took in directing Significant Other. ‘Working with someone like that, you’re just like, "Thank you, this is so nice!",' says Tops. ‘It’s #blessed to have a director like Greg, I’m not going to lie.’
That sense of unity plays into the narrative of the play, with everything and everyone revolving around Jordan’s character and the turmoil he experiences in seeing his friends happy and in love. This then sees Vanessa and Laura frequently stepping in to help Jordan cope when his obsession with finding Mr Right becomes his life’s purpose.
Giving some insight into this fixated Jordan, Meltz explains ‘that we find out that he’s on anti-depressants, that he is clinically depressed’. ‘So, there is a lot of sympathy that I have for him, because it’s a medical thing —he actually has a bit of a problem and he gets super obsessive.’
Keeping that context in mind, if Meltz had to step in as Jordan’s friend —the way that Vanessa and Laura frequently do— what advice would he give him?
‘If he was just my friend I think I would tell him to take a deep breath, take it back a few steps, slow the f@ck down, and try to just be a little more present, a bit more now. He spends so much of his time in his imagination that he creates all these stories. He is end-gaming all the time, rather than just being here and now and thinking “Ok, my friend's getting married, I’m so happy for her; let’s have a party!”. Instead he is rather going, “OMG, you’re getting married! You’re going to leave me! I’m going to be a mess!”.’ He’s already imagined his whole future, and according to him it’s a disaster.’
The fact that Jordan can be a bit ‘hectic sometimes’ was Meltz’s biggest challenge with this role. ‘He is so obsessive and so crazy sometimes, and I had to make him still likable, still believable, and still loveable —he’s the protagonist of the play, so we still need to love him regardless.’
Listening to Meltz’s take on Jordan, Tops adds that, much like Laura, she would definitely be friends with someone like Jordan, ‘because he’s funny, and he’s entertaining in the way he waffles on’. As his friend, she would add to the coping advice: ‘I think he needs to remove himself from his situation. Maybe something like taking a holiday to another country and then coming back… I think he’s too stuck, too focussed on what he doesn’t have. But it is really lovely and special that he confides in his grandmother. I love that he is going to talk to an elder and asking advice, even though she keeps repeating the same thing.’
Reflecting on these scenes between Jordan and his grandmother, Helene (played by Michèle Maxwell), Meltz comments that those scenes give both him and Jordan a bit of a breather from everything else as it is a bit ‘removed from the rest of it’. ‘And the way that Greg has directed it is amazing. It feels like a breath of fresh air … Even if it ends up not being what he wants to hear, it’s a bit of calmness in this huge whirlwind.’
‘Yes, he needs calm.’ Tops confirms. ‘He needs to relax. Not everybody that he meets “could be the one!” That’s what I want to tell him. Step away and listen to your grandmother.’
‘They have huge generation gap,’ Meltz continues. ‘She doesn’t understand when he says, “I’m not a bridesmaid!”, because according to her Jordan could never be a bridesmaid, so Jordan has to explain, “No, it’s the 21st century, I can be a bridesmaid!”. But even with this kind of gap, they have this beautiful thing about tradition —their religion and being Jewish— of family; a beautiful bond that she is always talking about. She’s always just reminding him that he has a family and that he should just be who he is and people will love him.’
Weighing in on what Vanessa would add to this conversation, Seabe explains that ‘Vanessa never really gives Jordan relationship advice’. ‘The way she operates, her relationships are almost too far removed, almost transactional.’ ‘She doesn’t want to have an emotional connection, because “it’s all going to go to sh!t anyway, but we’re having fun… so anyway”. And funnily enough, in the play, it ends up the way Kiki [their party-gal third friend and first to get married] describes it: Vanessa’s looking left and love comes to her from the right and kind of blows her away. So perhaps the advice to Jordan then should be, “Stop looking. No, rather, look, but don’t take it too seriously!”.’
With such a great support system —friends and family— there must be something that is driving Jordan’s obsession with finding a partner, something that prevents him from recognising the truth in the sage advice all around him?
Tops insightfully responds, ‘I guess when Jordan says that line, “I’m 29 and no one’s told me that they love me”, that’s at the heart of it all’. ‘If I was 29 and no one had ever said “I love you” to me, I suppose I would also maybe get a bit obsessive.’ ‘But it goes back to the thing about his grandmother,’ adds Seabe, ‘there are all these people who have told him this, but it’s rather an intimate somebody who hasn’t told him this’.
Meltz agrees, but also draws it all back to Jordan’s take on life; his perspective. ‘I think it goes back to the fantasy thing again. He’s looking for something that’s not real. I mean, he has one interaction with Will and the rest of it's just in his imagination —he’s already dreaming about boy scout babies and their beautiful life together. That’s not a real thing. If he’s rather just present in the moment, those things may happen organically.’
Considering this, Seabe bravely admits: ‘And yet how many times in my real life have I not done that?’
‘You meet someone in the coffee shop and you’re like, “Guys! I’m getting married!”. It all starts with just the way you are telling it, “I was there, and he was there, and I was 50c short, and he was like, ‘I’ll get your coffee’ … OMG he loves me! I definitely need to go back to that coffee shop!”. And you start to create all of these realities that stack one on top the other, and in the end you can’t distinguish reality from what you are making up. Then you hinge all of your hopeson this one encounter, because that’s all we're looking for. It’s like the movie Shall We Dance where the wife thinks her husband is having an affair, but he’s actually just taking dance classes. Then the wife says to the investigator, “There are a billion people on the planet, what is anyone ever looking for? You’re just looking for a witness to your life...”. That’s it, someone to say that your mundane, stupid, boring life is important to them, because they see you. That’s what we’re all looking for. When you can’t find that in a world full of people, then you wonder, “What’s wrong with me?”. That’s Jordan; all these people on the planet and no one says, “Hey, you’re special.”.’
With this understanding of Jordan, and his relationship with Vanessa and Laura, it is clear that Significant Other is not a laugh-a-minute, even though it will trigger some great ggiggles.
Along with the comedic elements, it has emotional depth and heartache too. It’s not just a play that you come see, and laugh, and leave; you may want to bring a long a packet of tissues too. At its core, the play is truly heartbreaking when you realise that Jordan just wants to be seen by someone in a way his friends are seen and appreciated by their partners. It’s not that he is unhappy that they are getting married, it’s that he is afraid that he’ll always be alone.
‘Greg keeps reminding us of that too,’ agrees Seabe. ‘We could just play the lines on the surface, but the thing about comedy is finding the truth of it, so that we can look at it long enough to see the tragedy. Only then can we deal with the tragedy of it all.'
Before saying goodbye to the talented trio, we twisted their arms to share their favourite Significant Other lines, without giving too much away:
Vanessa: ‘I thought that I had felt everything a person can feel, but there are all these emotions that you can’t access when you are alone. Some things can only be felt in the presence of someone else.’
Laura: ‘Try and recognise when moments are about you and when moments are not about you.'
Jordan: ‘I know life is supposed to be this great mystery, but I actually think it's pretty simple: Find someone to go through it with. That's it. That's the, whatever, the secret.’
… that’s the whatever, but what a soulful whatever it is. Book your tickets online at www.thefugard.com to see this Greg Karvellas directed staging of Joshua Harmons dramedy, Significant Other, on stage at the Fugard Theatre until 7 July 2018.