How live performance brings HSC texts to vivid, unforgettable life

Actor Mark Barry returns to his alma mater, the Actors Centre Australia (ACA) to act in Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ as part of a season of HSC-focused performances.
A fair-haired woman in a long grey cardigan over black clothes stands with arms outstretched on centre stage. She is framed by two actors with their backs to the camera, red-haired woman on the left and a brown-haired man on the right.

Watching talented artists bring a play to life, in comparison to reading the text on the page as part of one’s Higher School Certificate (HSC) studies, can be a transformative experience for drama students according to Sydney-based actor Mark Barry.

‘You can read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia and it doesn’t do the play any favours, because you’re not seeing the struggles of the characters,’ says Barry, adding that, regardless of how skilled one’s English Literature teacher may be, it can be challenging to bring a complex script to life in the classroom.

‘When you’re reading [a play] as a student: you’re not necessarily seeing what is really being said in the text and what is causing these characters’ discomfort,’ Barry tells ArtsHub.

A graduate of Actors Centre Australia (ACA), which he auditioned for immediately after finishing secondary school in the Blue Mountains, Barry is currently in rehearsals for ACA’s upcoming production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, one of two plays on the HSC syllabus that ACA is presenting this year.

Godot is a play where, ostensibly, anything could happen from moment to moment. And if you can see a production of the play you’re studying … it just highlights the text in a way that makes it feel so much more lived in, rather than this impenetrable thing. It’s sometimes hard to read [Beckett’s] lines and imagine how they could be funny. Seeing a performance allows you to be surprised by the text in a way that you wouldn’t be able to be surprised if you were just reading it over and over and trying to mine a few quotes for an essay,’ the actor explains.

Mark Barry (right) and Ciarán O’Riordan in rehearsal for the ACA Company’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. Photo: Courtesy of Actors Centre Australia.

Barry was inspired to audition for ACA after seeing a production by the school’s third-year graduating students when he was in his final year of high school.

‘My dad and I went along and saw an ACA production and it was really good quality work. And I was just like, “Cool, this is exciting.” For a little boy from the mountains it was very exciting to see that sort of work – it was a big step up in terms of what I had been used to at the HSC performance level.’

After graduating from ACA, Barry went on to work with companies including Sport for Jove and NSW’s oldest theatre company, New Theatre, and says he is very much enjoying being back at his old school as part of the ACA Company.

‘It’s special for me this time around because it’s like owning the space again. I think [this is] because I was such a young man when I enrolled at ACA. Truly I was – straight out of high school and the youngest in my year along with two other people who were also 18! So it’s quite surreal to now go back at this stage of my life and just feel like “this is my space,” because initially you feel in awe of everyone, as well as the space and the teachers – but now, with a bit of hindsight and experience behind me, it’s just a lot of fun,’ he laughs.

Launched in 2022, the ACA Company employs ACA graduates in new productions of HSC texts, providing secondary school students and their teachers with the invaluable opportunity of seeing set texts brought to life by highly skilled creatives. Productions are followed by post-show conversations about both the plays and the performances the students have just watched.

For its 2024 season, the ACA Company is presenting Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (22-25 May) as well as Waiting for Godot (29 May – 1 June).

While Beckett’s 1951 tragicomedy is sometimes perceived as being dense and obtuse, Barry enthusiastically calls the play ‘vivacious’ and describes its characters – including his own character, Vladimir – as ‘people that have nothing to do, so all they do is think about everything’.

He adds: ‘I think its reputation and seeming impenetrability, and its reputation as a classic, portrays it as anything other than what it is, when actually it is just so alive from moment to moment and has great dynamics at play between all the characters. It is really a lot of fun.’

Learn more about Actors Centre Australia’s 2024 HSC Company Season.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts