By Mark Morellini
With Sydney Fringe Festival in full swing now, festival-attendees may browse through the programme and ask, “so much talent…but who are these performers? Are they fully employed within the entertainment industry or just doing a one-off show for this festival alone?” Meet James Hartley and Tommy Green who star in the comedy sketch show The Generalissimos playing at the festival. They’ve had their fair share of ups and downs in their careers so far, winning awards for their projects but also receiving bad reviews for certain projects. James is also suffering from a mental illness which is a further hurdle for him to jump over. They candidly speak about their lives, their careers, their show (which they are very proud of) and their aspirations for the future…..
TELL ME ABOUT YOURSELVES AND YOUR PATH IN THE ENTERTAINMENT WORLD THUS FAR.
James: I’m 32 and Tommy is 23. I cast him as a school boy back in 2011 in a short film that died a long, painful, and drawn-out death. In 2013 he was my third choice to act opposite me in a two-hander short play which ended up nabbing Best Director for me, Best Actor for him, and Best Script for the writer Simon Godfrey at Short+Sweet Sydney, the largest short play festival in the world. Since then we’ve written, directed, and acted with each other across full length plays, short and feature films, TV shows, podcasts, and sketch comedy both live and filmed. In 2016 we even flew to the Philippines and performed a night of sketch comedy there.
Tommy: Yeah, I’m younger than James and probably better looking, but a lot shorter. James was my first hook into the theatre scene outside high school, and we just kept doing stuff together. Although, funnily, a play I wrote and directed in 2015 was probably my greatest success on paper; it won five out seven possible awards at the Short+Sweet finals. James had nothing to do with it. We were probably tiffing. But friends who bomb together stay together.
HAVE YOU DONE THE HARD YARDS TO GET TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
James: I don’t think we’ve done the hard yards. Not yet. Like we’ve performed in a 150-seat venue for an audience of 15. And we’ve bombed at comedy clubs before. And had bad reviews. And been rejected for plenty of government and private grants but who hasn’t? I feel like we’ve always bounced back because we’re The Generalissimos, you know? Military grade toughness.
Tommy: Yeah, we wanted a name that came across confident. Self-deprecating comedy seems really in vogue but it never made sense to us. I think this year for both of us has really congealed a lot of what we’ve been going for; between our theatre troupes The Upper Crass Players and Johnny Cobra, our ideas have found a home and we’ve built a family of actors and collaborators around them. The guys we roll with are always so enthusiastic and we’re definitely picking up momentum.
DESCRIBE YOUR SHOW IN DETAIL – IS IT LAUGH OUT LOUD COMEDY?
Tommy: Definitely. No, it’s not subtle at all! Sometimes it comes across crass and hopefully there’s an underlying intelligence that comes across, but it’s definitely a loud show. We’re loud people. The formula of the show is cheap and effective; historical and pop culture characters in jarring and hilarious situations – like Darth Vader getting pulled up by the Human Resources officer on the Death Star, or a dead-beat Harry Potter applying for a job at ALDI after graduating Hogwarts. It’s easy listening.
WHAT AUDIENCES WOULD THIS SHOW APPEAL TO?
James: We write shows that we find funny, so if you’re anything like us you’ll enjoy it. You can write for an audience that isn’t you, but then you’re making content you don’t love and you’re always vulnerable to catering and pandering. I’d rather have an audience of ten people who love the work I love than a hundred people who love something I’m only doing to please them.
Tommy: We’re lucky because we have managed to sell great houses doing the stuff we write for “ourselves”. It’s broad. It’s fun, and it’s apolitical which I think is a nice point of difference in this climate. I think its irreverent without being pointlessly edgy. I like to say it’s fun for the whole family, if the family are all over fifteen. I hate the “what’s your demographic?” question because we’ve had teenagers laughing alongside eighty-somethings, and demographics just aren’t something I personally think about when I write. You’re lucky enough to have an idea, so I figure just write the damn thing and see if it sticks.
WHERE DO YOU GET THE IDEAS FOR YOUR SKETCHES? DO YOU BOTH WRITE THE SKETCHES?
James: Our ideas in this show are based around writing characters for both of us. There are some natural fits: Batman and Robin, for example. There are other, more esoteric pairs where one of us is a famous pop-culture reference and the other is the average Joe and we’re putting the classic character through the ringer or in an awkward position. Our process is to basically come up with the pairing, tell it to the other guy, laugh, boggle at the potential of where it could go, then record us improvising the scene a couple of times. Once we feel we have a handle on the scene we’ll sit down to write it in full and mine the recordings for the best jokes.
Tommy: We hit our stride with what became The Generalissimos when we were doing the aforementioned show in Manilla. We were spending the best part of every day with each other, between bars and airports and jeepney rides, and yeah; we just picked some fun pairings, improvised and put on the voices, and we really made each other laugh. We did one where I was Alice in Wonderland and James was every other character she came across. Here’s to putting that on someday.
WHAT SETS YOUR SHOW ASIDE FROM SIMILAR SHOWS AT THE FRINGE FESTIVAL?
Tommy: Well, the fact that it’s a raucous comedy in the regular Fringe line-up! I think we were late for the Fringe comedy applications, but honestly – we love working with Dino Dimitriadis and his team, and Kings Cross is an awesome place to play. I think what’s unique about the show is that it has that brisk, on-the-fly energy of a lot of the improv stuff that’s back on in a big way at the moment, but with our classically theatrical twist; big props and costumes etcetera. And compared to our other shows, which have felt more like plays, it’s really light weight – just the two of us handling the on-stage stuff, the backstage stuff, and even the musical transitions. And then
generally, like I said, we’re set apart by our style of comedy; which, at least for me, feel’s very Python-esque in the sense that it’s funny for the sake of good silly laugh and not bothered with some ideological transaction. There’s enough of that political stuff out there. Like, we just did an Adam and Eve sketch where I bite into an onion because we haven’t discovered anything better to eat yet, and a gentleman after the show said “you should’ve made a Tony Abbott joke!”. And I thought, why? You already have.
JAMES WHAT CHALLENGES ARE THERE IN WORKING IN THE ENTERTAINMENT WORLD WHILE LIVING WITH A MENTAL ILLNESS?
James: I’m thankfully in a much better position than I was when I was initially diagnosed in 2011 with schizo-affective disorder. I was psychotic and delusional in 2009 and had to take two years away from everything to really recover. I know that other people recover in different ways but for me, personally, having a psychiatrist and prescribed medication was really important. In the entertainment world, the biggest issue I’ve found is self-generating work. When you have work, it’s great and consistent and you can build your timetable around it and be financially stable. But it’s a boom and bust business and when you don’t have a show or a TVC you have nothing. So when you have depression and you really need that consistent schedule to get up to in the morning and do something and be productive, it can really double down on your mood. And when you’re depressed already, you’re even less motivated to generate your own projects to keep your head above water.
WHAT’S IT FEEL LIKE HAVING A SHOW IN THE FRINGE FESTIVAL? HOW DID THIS COME ABOUT?
James: We’ve had a history of doing Sydney Fringe shows. Both Tom and my first full length plays were in the Sydney Fringe: Oh My God: A Blasphemous Play of Biblical Proportions for Tom in 2014 and This Modern Coil for me in 2016. Then in-between those we’ve been doing the Upper Crass Players improv shows. I love the culture of Sydney Fringe and I love the idea that people will see two or three shows a night. I also think it’s a fantastic opportunity for all kinds of creatives to get work produced and seen.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU GUYS AFTER THIS FESTIVAL?
James: We’ll be grouping up with the rest of the Upper Crass Players for some improv shows at the Harold Park Hotel and then I’ll be directing a new Australian play by Maura Pierlot called Fragments at the brand-spanking-new Pioneer Theatre in Castle Hill in November.
Tommy: We’re also starting conversations with theatres and festivals around the country about putting on The Generalissimos and our other Johnny Cobra projects. And I’ve just launched into pre-production for the pilot episode of our sit-com Supertramps. Keep an ear to the ground.
WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE IN 20 YEARS TIME?
James: Filming films in Hollywood while performing on stage in New York and London. Travelling around the world, writing, directing, and acting.
Tommy: Outnumbered by children, hopefully with my current girlfriend who I love very much. I’d like to live semi-rurally and survive off writing commissions, voice-over work I can do from home, and occasional big city gigs, while I grow my beard out and finish painting my Warhammer figurines.
Sept 11-14. Fringe Club – Kings Cross Hotel, 244/248 William St, Potts Point. $15-$18+b.f. Tickets& Info: www.sydneyfringe.com