Home is where the art is

Director, playwright, artist and teacher Chris Edmund. Photo: Tom Norman.

As Chris Edmund sits opposite me inside his small, tidy apartment near the heart of Mount Lawley, he’s lamenting the recent loss of his ability to travel. For Edmund, it feels like being forced at gun-point to surrender a part of his identity.

After a prolific career in theatre arts spanning more than 40 years Edmund finds himself – for the first time in his life – stuck in a single location due to circumstances out of his control.

Characteristically, he’s used this forced hiatus to work. But his focus at this time has shifted to a series of highly personal paintings. “I never do any preparatory sketches,” Edmund explains. Rather, he uses the process of painting to “unlock the valves of feeling”, a quote he references as we discuss one of his favourite artists, painter Francis Bacon.

Since leaving Perth in 2013 after a 30-year stint as the head of acting at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Edmund has travelled the world running workshops, hosting television shows, and directing more than 150 plays. He’s rarely stayed in the same country for more than a year at a time.

Like the proverbial shark, Edmund feels the need to keep moving, lest he suffer some sort of creative death via suffocation. This compulsive desire to keep working and keep creating – something he refers to as his “quest for home” multiple times throughout our conversation – is one of Edmund’s most quantifiable traits. But where does it come from?

“I think about it quite a lot,” he says, pausing contemplatively before continuing. “And I’ve put a lot of it into my plays. A lot of my plays are about home. What is home? Where is it? Is it here?”

A young Edmund (right) and family. Photo supplied by Chris Edmund

Born in 1949, Edmund grew up in the austere black-and-white of post-war Great Britain in the small working-class town of Hertfordshire. The middle child in a family of three, tragedy struck early when complications at a local hospital led to the death of his infant sister. “My mother said it was from neglect,” Edmunds explains. “The hospital rejected the doctors view of what should happen, and she died. It was a complete nightmare really.”

The subsequent trauma led his mother to have what he describes as a “mental breakdown” whilst his father, a former soldier and British railway employee was often absent.

At just 12, Edmund faced great loss once again. This time, his older brother David to leukemia at just 18. Edmund describes it as one of the most traumatic things he’s ever experienced. “Suddenly you go from having a family that was warm, to one which wasn’t at all.”

“A lot of my plays are about home. What is home? Where is it? Is it here?”

Chris Edmund

In the years following the death of his brother, Edmund pursued studies in acting after encountering an inspirational drama teacher, John Gardener, at grammar school. “He had a huge impact on me,” Edmund recalls. “Particularly when I was kind of lost and didn’t know, you know, home. He wasn’t a father figure as such, [just] someone guiding me when my parents weren’t.

“I think that finding a home after my home was disrupted, that’s certainly an element in my quest.”

Inspired, he followed his passions to drama school, but soon found himself having doubts about his abilities as an actor. “When I was good, I was really good, but when I was crap, I was really crap,” he admits.

Edmund (second right) with friends from drama school. Photo supplied by Chris Edmund

His “eureka” moment came when a friend asked him to direct his one-man-show. “I started working with him, and I suddenly found that I could really help him. I could guide him; I could make suggestions that inspired him,” says Edmund.

He soon built a reputation working as the associate director at a London reparatory company. “I directed everything from Chekov to Agatha Christie plays,” he says. “I learnt my craft.” According to actor and close friend Dalip Sondhi: “When he teaches – that’s what he is. He doesn’t have a sense in him that he somehow wants to be an actor. He’s incredibly intuitive and he makes you feel remarkably safe to be able to take risks.”

By 1983, Edmund’s reputation as a director-to-watch had landed him an offer to teach the first ever intake of WAAPA graduates at the brand-new performing arts academy in Perth.

Amongst an exhaustingly long-list of achievements as an artist, playwright, director and performer, it is Edmund’s 30-year-long association with WAAPA and, most notably, his tutelage of big-name Hollywood performers such as Hugh Jackman and Jai Courtney, which have most insistently followed him around throughout his career.

Former student Matt Aris, who learned under Edmund in the same class as Hugh Jackman between ‘93 and ‘95, recalls: “It was a real weird crew at WAAPA back in those days. If you took a photo of [the teachers] it could have been the Adams Family or The Munster’s.”

Appearances aside, Edmund and his colleagues turned WAAPA from a relatively unknown academy in the 1980s, into Australia’s most well-respected centre for performing arts by the time he retired in 2013.

Edmund’s appetite to keep working and keep moving only increased after retiring in 2013. He led acting workshops in Mauritius and India, lectured at the Gaiety School in Dublin, and wrote and directed plays in Melbourne, Sydney and Buenos Aires.

Edmund’s recent artwork. Photo: Tom Norman.

In 2015, Edmund was recognised with the naming of a WAAPA scholarship in his honour, funded partially by the Jackman-Furness Foundation for the Performing Arts. Soon after, in an unexpected career pivot, he was offered the roll of the pronouncer on Network 10s The Great Australian Spelling Bee.

“I thought, ‘oh commercial television, oh my god this is going to be… they’re all going to be horrible and shallow’,” Edmund laughs. “But it was actually fantastic – I actually loved it!”

“He’s really engaged in life. He’s been in love, he’s been hurt, he’s suffered loss. That kind of experience means that all of that’s inside, and so he really enjoys very freely putting stuff out there.”

Dalip Sondhi on Chris Edmund

Asked about Edmund’s insatiable need to keep on creating, Sondhi pauses momentarily before jumping in: “I think he’s had a life; you know? He’s really engaged in life. He’s been in love, he’s been hurt, he’s suffered loss. That kind of experience means that all of that’s inside, and so he really enjoys very freely putting stuff out there.”

Looking around the room at Edmund’s collection of freshly painted canvases and the recently unboxed assortment of artists anthologies and playbooks tightly packed into his bookshelf, it strikes me that it’s not where he is that matters, but what he’s able to do while he’s there. He finds himself stuck in what would appear to be a perfectly good place to call home­, but he’s restless ­– ready to keep moving.

Ironically, it’s his praise for former student Hugh Jackman that best exemplifies Edmunds’ own ethos, whether he’s conscious of it or not. ‘He’s a quester, a seeker,” says Edmund effusively “And I think that’s really important for an artist.”

Edmund in his current home and makeshift studio space. Photo: Tom Norman.

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