It’s a little-known piece of trivia that Conrad Coleby and his father, Robert, had worked together before securing father and son roles in Queensland Theatre Company’s ‘Other Desert Cities’.
“We have actually been on screen together in 'All Saints', in one episode, but I had to ignore him the whole time because he wasn’t part of my story or anything,” Coleby laughs.
“I was just an ambo in the background, and he was a highfalutin doctor.”
The dynamic will be a little different when Coleby joins his father on QPAC’s Playhouse stage for ‘Other Desert Cities’, a family drama set against the Californian desert and the 2004 crisis in the Middle East.
“Both of the parents are politically involved and ex-actors,” Coleby explains.
“There’s been a tragedy in the family [and] the daughter’s written a memoir about the family life and the tragedy that happened. And there’s secrets and buried things that the family don’t want to know about. There has been a rift between the family, and they’ve all gathered for the first time together in Palm Springs at Christmas Eve. It’s the perfect place to send people to boiling point and have arguments, because they’re a little bit bored and don’t know what to do with themselves.”
If that sounds like a familiar scene, Coleby wouldn’t be surprised. “Everyone that comes to see this play will find lots of things about it that sit close to the bone and close to the truth in their own lives.”
There’s also the fact that writer Jon Robin Baitz, best known for creating TV hit ‘Brothers and Sisters’, has family in-fighting down to an art.
“It’s one of the best-written things I’ve read in terms of family drama,” says Coleby.
“What he’s done so cleverly is he’s represented each generation, from the ‘60s and before. So, he’s kind of added some great spices into the mix there in terms of conflict and in terms of politics, [and] in terms of the way people have been brought up.”
Coleby points out that our own relatives often have the greatest potential to hurt us.
“We know how to wound each other, we know each others’ inner secrets, and each other down to the core. And I think that’s why sometimes when there is unhappiness or disagreements they can be quite traumatic experiences, because you know how to get under each others’ armour so successfully.”
Of course, between the nasty snipes and teary confrontations, there’s always room for a laugh.
“At times it’s very funny too,” Coleby assures. “So I think everyone’s in for a good treat of all sorts of elements with this play. There’s some very funny moments, some very dark moments, some very sad moments, and some very hopeful moments too. One of the major through-lines in the play is just that all that’s going to matter at the end of the day is how you loved, and not whether you’re right or whether you won the argument. And I think that’s a very important universal message.”
And for Coleby, whose on-screen acting credits include stints on ‘Underbelly: Razor’, ‘Sea Patrol’, and an appearance in soon-to-be-released blockbuster ‘The Wolverine’, theatre is probably the most powerful medium in which to explore that message.
“You get the whole experience of actually spending four weeks studying a character and bringing that to life right in front of people,” he explains.
“And, you know, there is no ‘cut, let’s do it again’. You’ve got to come with it perfect every night, and every night you’re going to have a different audience who laugh in different spots and do different things, so it sharpens your spontaneity as well.
“That’s a great thing for an actor to keep going back to. You certainly don’t do it for the money!” he adds with a laugh.
Conrad Coleby performs in ‘Other Desert Cities’ August 10 to September 1 at The Playhouse Qpac.