Joeys drama students are encouraged to explore their creativity and push their boundaries, which is precisely what they did when they wrote and performed Ultus: The Forgotten Story of Aurele de Lambert.
Aiming for the stars is easier said than done. Those who courageously forge their own path attract our respect and admiration. Aurele de Lambert (1897) is one such person. A long-forgotten Joeys Old Boy, De Lambert abandoned his medical degree to become “Australia’s Charlie Chaplin” – a star of stage and silent films in France and Britain in the early 20th Century.
His captivating life story is the perfect subject matter for a dramatic recreation, which is why Head of Drama, Mr Pat O’Shea, chose it as a self-devised play unit for Year 11 students.
Starting from scratch, under the guidance of Mr O’Shea and Director, Mr Simon Gleeson, it was the boys’ job to improvise, write and perform a play based on De Lambert’s extraordinary life.
Despite being a gun athlete, scholar and musician at the College, De Lambert’s story was unknown to the broader community. He had languished in the shadows of history until a chance discovery by College Archivist, Ms Beverley Malone, identified a reference to De Lambert’s star-studded career in the 1919 year book.
Thinking outside the square: Drama students used creative licence to recreate Aurele de Lambert’s athletic feats at Joeys.
His relative anonymity and the lack of memoir gave the boys a clean slate on which to depict his story. Using a shared Google Doc to post their ideas, they workshopped scenes and exchanged opinions on what the trajectory of the play should be. It was an exercise in close collaboration that enabled them to experience the magic of group creativity.
“They learnt the ability to accept and explore an idea that wasn’t theirs and which they may not necessarily like,” says Mr Gleeson. “This is a very important part of the dramatic process.”
Indeed some scenes had to be cut or edited. But it didn’t deter the students.
“Everyone was pushing for each other’s ideas, so that even if your idea didn’t happen we would find a better idea based around that,” says actor Jack Scarf.
“They learnt the ability to accept and explore an idea that wasn’t theirs,director, simon gleeson
which is a very important part of the dramatic process.”
The only proviso was that it had to follow the production’s theme. The end result was a 45-minute play that incorporates elements of a musical, comedy and realism, finishing with two and a half minutes of rare black and white footage of De Lambert performing in Ultus, the first movie series ever created for a star actor.
The production turns on the conflict between De Lambert’s father’s desire for him to become a doctor and his own yearning to be a performer. He is naturally anxious about throwing in a safe career for the bright lights of Europe’s stage and this is illustrated through devices such as the cast dancing to Queen song Don’t Stop Me Now.
To simulate the voyage to France, the boys had the ingenious idea of singing a sea shanty.
It is these moments of creative thinking that make the play work. They also had input from actresses at Willoughby Girls High School and Marist Sisters’ College Woolwich, who filled roles such as De Lambert’s mother and sister and the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt, whose theatre company he joined.
But four nights out from their three-evening run at the College Drama Theatre, Ultus still required work to bring it up to performance standard – not an unusual state of affairs for a newly conceived play. In addition, Thomas Young, who had been prepping for the lead role of De Lambert, contracted Covid, forcing a cast reshuffle. It was an impromptu lesson in the vagaries of theatre and problem solving.
“Many things went wrong and we still didn’t have the backdrops and technology sorted,” says Patrick Velutti, who replaced Thomas. “I had to accept that things might not go the way I wanted, but also realise that it’s a group thing and we accept the good and bad together.”
“It was a great example of their resilience and faith in each other,” adds Mr Gleeson.
The production was a resounding success with packed audiences warming to the boys’ boundless innovation and energy – and the recreation of De Lambert’s forgotten journey.
One of those present in the audience was Mr Marc Parmentier, a relative of De Lambert’s.
“My great grandmother was Aurele’s aunty,” he says. “I’m really thrilled the College created this play. I admire Aurele and what he did; it’s just so sad that he died when he was 40.”
Indeed De Lambert’s premature death from smallpox in 1920 denied him the opportunity of acting in “talkies” later in the decade – and the associated fame and fortune.
But is has not dimmed his achievements.
“The likes of Peter Finch, Sir Robert Helpmann, Barry Humphries and Baz Luhrman stand on the shoulders of this great man,” Mr O’Shea says. “He was someone who took a leap of faith and backed himself.”
He also pioneered a type of acting that was more raw and physical. He brought a rugged, Joeys-like attitude to the stage and screen that challenged the genteel, overly-mannered style prevalent in Europe at the time.
The skills the students learned in conceiving and performing Ultus will be utilised in their Year 12 collaborative pieces next year. For many of them, this was a unique opportunity to challenge preconceived ideas about the creative process and performing – in the process opening their eyes to new forms of communication and art.
None more so than Oliver Gardiner, who was performing in front of a live audience for the first time. Normally found behind the lighting desk or in the pit working as a sound technician, Oliver relished treading the boards. “It was an eye-opener to see more of the process of an actor and to be able to do it myself – seeing the reward that comes, and not knowing what that is until you’ve done it.”
Classmate Jack Angwin agrees: “I learnt that rewards come from challenging myself on stage and opening up to new characters and styles I’m unfamiliar with.”
It’s a sentiment that resonates with Mr O’Shea, who has his seen his students flourish at the coalface of drama; nurturing a self-devised production from seed to flower. He couldn’t be prouder.
“I think the message from Aurele de Lambert’s life is to follow your dreams, take a risk and do the hard work to make it happen – and I think the boys who took part in this production were able to get a taste of that, and experience the complete process of bringing drama to the stage.”