In Progress

Stage and screen actor Dan Spielman has a substantial side hustle as a woodworker and joiner. His workshop practice informs his on-camera work – and vice versa – in fascinating, unexpected ways. By Maddee Clark.

Dan Spielman

The workshop in Kew and, below, the walking staff for actor Kate Mulvany.
Credit: Dan Spielman

Dan Spielman’s acting career began when he was still at high school, when he started working with the acclaimed indie company The Keene/Taylor Theatre Project in the 1990s.

His credits across film, television and theatre include The Code, Deep Water, Sisters and, earlier this year, Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes. Since the Me Too movement gained force in 2018, he has worked with the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance helping to devise intimacy guidelines for the Australian theatre industry.

Visiting him in his workshop in Kew, I discover that alongside his accomplishments as an actor, Dan is an experienced craftsman in woodwork and joinery. He has been developing his skills in furniture-making and design for more than 25 years and takes pleasure in the process of creating custom objects for clients, finding unexpected crossovers between the two practices of crafting wood and acting. His commissions are usually for furniture, but at the moment he is making a walking stick for actor and writer Kate Mulvany.

Tell me about this place. What do you do here?

This is my grandma’s house. She and my grandfather, who’s died now, moved in here 38 years ago. I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid. That hill you just walked down used to be – to me – the biggest hill in the world!

I operate a joinery business here. I’ve always worked on the tools to pay the rent, alongside performing, which is always intermittent. I’ve worked for builders, landscape gardeners and for a long time in set-building for theatre, which grew out of my work as an actor. Then I took on some furniture jobs in my spare time. But it was slower than I wanted, so I took a leap, invested in some machinery and set up my business about four years ago.

Since then, I’ve been making half a living out of commission-based furniture-making and other custom objects. I usually make one-off pieces for clients and it’s very much dependent on that relationship and a conversation with them that goes back and forth over a long time.

I’m in the middle of making a piece for the actor and playwright Kate Mulvany. It’s a walking staff. She gave me the commission in the middle of last year. I wasn’t able to do much or go anywhere then, so I just started testing things in the shop to see what I could make for her. This is what I’ve settled on.

Look at that handle.

The handle is a rare timber called Lignum vitae, which I was lucky to find for this piece. It’s rainforest timber, it’s incredibly hard. I’ve used it for the top because Kate wanted a quote from Richard III engraved in the handle and I figured the harder the timber, the better to engrave script in.

The process of joining the handle and the staff together is complicated. It took me weeks to build the jigs for the test piece you see here, to cut the timber pieces so they married perfectly, then shape it back. Then I looked and thought, it’s too fussy, doesn’t look good. It’s an interesting joint, but in the end I went for this butt joint because it’s more elegant.

A lot of care was needed to get a subtle curve in the handle. What has to happen now is this whole thing has to be reduced by just a little bit. She’s got small hands, so this girth in the handle needs to come down. Then it needs to taper very gently down to the size of the ball bearing rubber bit on the bottom and meet it seamlessly. That will take time, I do it by hand with abrasives, sandpapers. It is a process where I need to have a calm morning, get the right music, sit and have a coffee and stare at it. You can’t just pick it up at 3pm on an afternoon.

You’re reducing this by hand?

Yes, you need to, because of the detail, and because that unique wood grain runs in many directions … a machine will tear it. It is important to work by hand too, because I’ve been pouring myself into this and it’s going to be a powerful thing.

During the Covid lockdown I did a mailout and the first nibble I got was from Mulvers. Her request was for something like a wizard’s staff, a magical stick. I was thrilled by the symbolism of that. I’ve done a lot of work to problem-solve this piece and I’ve been lucky to find heritage timber for it.

So there’s the delicate shaping that needs to happen and it needs a leather strap so that her hand won’t slip down. I also want a bag made for it, a box would be too pool cue-y. I’m thinking a leather bag or canvas bag. It will be heavy, but it’s something she can take to opening night.

I feel like you really love this, it’s more than a side gig. And that if you were asked to leave it to go into a performance season, you might resent acting for taking you out of the workshop.

That’s a good question. I’ve spent 25 years establishing this, getting the skill base to use it, because I love it, and because I need it, it helps me maintain mental health. But it was always hard, the transition, the choice. Both acting and this practice are abiding and deep, and I think about all of it every day. And it resulted in a resentment, that was exactly what it felt like.

There’s a gratitude that I have for having meaningful stuff to do, for it feeding me in all sorts of ways, and it being completely discrete from the performing arts. There are also secret crossovers and secret sharing of ideas, work principles which operate in both.

There are a lot of dangerous machines in here and there are processes you follow in the workshop which make things safe. That has demystified some of the other stuff that I’ve been confronting in the performing arts, especially in relation to sexual harassment and the way some powerful people are trying to sell aspects of our work as mysterious and special.

I see that mentality in the attempts to redefine the playfulness of our workplace as somehow unique, which means that if someone gets abused in that context that they should suck it up. I feel more emboldened in my performance practice to say that it’s not special and to look at how we be both safe and bold. So there are ways, in my mind, that these two things can inform one another.

There’s also the feeling of taking pride in one’s work that’s so rewarding when you’re under your own steam. Performers don’t always get that when they work in ways that are inherently collaborative and dependent on the decisions of others. Things like the need for approval, applause, recognition – the peril is that those things are always affecting whether you can take pride in your work or feel good about it. Those are always partly in the hands of other people.

Being in both these types of work mitigates and balances [each of them] and makes both things more possible. I’ll be doing it all until I can no longer safely do one or the other. There’s no end point.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Dan Spielman".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer and editor.