Incoming QTC artistic director Sam Strong on not always sticking to the script. By Nic Low.

MTC’s Sam Strong on his new role in Queensland theatre

The bar is a den of bass rock and raw wood: the upmarket lumberjack vibe. The man has a careful beard, dishevelled hair and excellent large-framed glasses, like a well-prepared inner-city actor playing himself. There’s something both studied and relaxed about Sam Strong. He’s here to be interviewed, but he props forward on his elbows and asks good questions. He’s friendly and curious; and he’s buying time, figuring me out. He orders wine-strength India pale ale by the pint, and smiles when the bartender vetoes the order. 

“It’s a bit early, mate!”

We weren’t going to catch up in a bar. What I’d heard about Strong stressed busyness, so I’d suggested we do something he never gets time for. He’d proposed a footy match, North Melbourne at Etihad Stadium, then a premiere at the Melbourne Theatre Company. Perfect: two Australian dramas in one night. But that morning an apologetic message flashed up: family emergency.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t do the football,” Strong yells over the music. “My mother had a fall.” Then this, about a minute into the conversation: “Are your parents still alive?”

Strong’s father died not long ago. It was a tough time: grief, overwork, and bitterly polarised responses to the footy play he directed, The Sublime. Some saw it as morally complex, others as feeding into rape culture. The play tackled mainstream Australia, but for the first time as a director at the MTC, Strong didn’t hit his box office targets. “I like targets, and I like meeting them,” he says. “But it was a challenging work – three interwoven monologues about football and sexual violence, and there’s no redemption in it.”

There’s personal redemption in football for Strong, though. It’s one of Australia’s great collective rituals, but he sits among the crowds by himself. He values the anonymity. “It’s a creative rejuvenation,” he says. “I can switch off. When you’re directing, you always have to be the one with the most energy in the room.”

He is animated – “you can’t hide the alpha for long,” he jokes – but faintly, intriguingly self-conscious, and far from the loudest person in the bar. You get the sense he has plenty in reserve, and from beer to whisky his attention stays focused. But stamina has consequences.

“I’d spend as much time poring over scripts by myself as actually rehearsing with the cast. I used to really over-think and overwork things.”

These days as outgoing associate artistic director at MTC, incoming artistic director of the Queensland Theatre Company, chairman of Circa, husband to actor Katherine Slattery and father to their young son, Henry, there’s no time for over-preparation. I wonder if busyness is a strategy, to stop himself thinking too much.

Strong’s face lights up. The busyness is important. Plus he tries to leave the script behind, and stay on his feet while directing. He once witnessed another director deliver a searing intellectual critique of a rehearsal. The analysis was brilliant, but left the actors at a standstill. For Strong, it’s about being embodied, getting out of his head.

As he talks, I tune out from his words and focus on the certainty in his voice. There’s no hesitation, no reaching for a thought. It feels like some of his certainty is instinctive; and that some of his instinct has been carefully cultivated. Before theatre, his world was law. Early in their relationship, he and Katherine swapped top-five novels. His were intellectual tomes, and he’s long been drawn to high-modernist theatre. But at some point he set his sights on working intuitively, and in the mainstream. “I belong on the main stage,” he says several times.

A breakthrough moment came walking through Sydney’s Kings Cross with one of his heroes, a notoriously inscrutable man. Strong seized the chance to confess his desire to be an artistic director in commercial theatre. The man simply smirked, and said: “Those are perfectly reasonable ambitions.” Since then, some of Australia’s top artistic directors have been mentors. “They’ve been incredibly generous, even if I’m coming for their job!”

With his recent QTC appointment, Strong now has one of those jobs, and that takes him a step closer to another big ambition: creating the next seminal work of Australian theatre. What does that look like?

He cites John Romeril’s The Floating World, a ’70s classic about the trauma and xenophobia of returned World War II servicemen, and books such as The Slap. “Something that reflects our society back to ourselves. Something that’s from and about our times.” 

We come, at last, to the idea of ambition itself, and whether or not it’s acceptable in Australia today to be open about your drive.

“I am ambitious,” Strong says. He isn’t boasting. It’s in the script. But as he speaks he looks away, and his hands unconsciously grip and rub his elbows: the origami of a person not-folding their arms.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 10, 2015 as "Strong ambitions".

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Nic Low is a writer and artist. His first book is Arms Race.

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