On the Couch with Philip Dodd

Philip Dodd Arts Review On the CouchWho is Philip Dodd?
I am primarily a theatre actor, who also does some work in TV, film, etc. I’ve been working in the industry for 34 years since graduating from NIDA. After many years living in the beautiful Blue Mountains, I’ve recently moved back to inner-city Sydney with my school-teacher partner of 30 years. In the last 12 months I’ve acted in The Crucible (Sport for Jove), Hamlet (Bell Shakespeare) and currently The Sound of Music (GFO). Three all-time classics, what a privilege.

What would you do differently to what you do now?
Forty years ago I thought I was going to be an astrophysicist. I never thought it was possible to make a living from the performing arts. A year as an exchange student changed that. I still can’t decide whether that was a good thing… Astrophysics at that time seemed glamorous and cutting-edge. But the reality would probably have been years of sitting in front of a computer screen surrounded by nerdy men. However, I still find it difficult to encourage kids to “follow your dream” into the theatre. It’s a tough gig.

Who inspires you and why?
I think it’s very challenging not to become bitter and jaded after working in this very difficult industry for many years. So any actor I come across who strives to improve their performance night after night inspires me, especially in something like a long-running musical. Sometimes it takes months of working on a piece of writing to gain a deep and specific understanding of the writer’s depiction of the human condition, yet we mostly only have a director to help us until opening night. So I love it when actors take responsibility for deepening their own work over time. On a different theme, whenever I travel recently I seem to come across cohorts of young professionals who have grown up in one country, studied in a second, work in a third and a fourth. True global citizens, a new social paradigm. This gives me great hope for the future, breaking down that fear of “the other” that is at the root of so much grief in the world.

What would you do to make a difference in the world?
Last year I started doing some volunteering. Driving little old ladies in the community bus to their knitting group. Garden maintenance for frail-aged people who wanted to stay living in their own home. I love politics but I’m very bad at joining political groups, it usually seems to entail labelling things as black or white. As an actor, my brain is hard-wired to sniff out shades of grey. I think it’s called empathy. So small personal acts work better for me. I hope to do more small acts in the future.

Favourite holiday destination and why?
Oh, where do I start? My partner and I cycled from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Saigon recently. I have never sweated so much in my life. Beautiful people, hospitable, funny – and all carrying personal stories of horror from the Pol Pot era. Great lessons in resilience and the power of looking forward. We also spent some time in Rome visiting our son who is working on his PhD there. A week in Rome is an intensive masterclass in art, architecture and the history of Western civilisation. Brilliant. And the pizzas were damn fine, too. I also love sticking my head into the water of the coral reefs of Vanuatu and Fiji. It’s like dropping acid without the come-down.

When friends come to town, what attraction would you take them to, and why?
I think every overseas visitor to Sydney should do the Spit Bridge to Manly foreshore walk. It encapsulates so much that is beautiful in this harbour city, both it’s present-day beauty but also an inkling of what it must have been like before white man came. Secluded swimming spots and a ferry ride back too. I also encourage them to go to Uluru and the West Macdonnell Ranges. Not exactly local (!) but a landscape and an ancient culture that is uniquely Australian, that has a spiritual vibration in the very rocks.

What are you currently reading?
I’ve just finished Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Purity. I’ve loved all his books, he captures the neuroses and obsessions of contemporary society beautifully. Robert Hughes’ book on Rome was a great preparation for visiting that city, history through the lens of its artists. Geraldine Brooks’ latest, The Secret Chord, disappointed me – an act of writing seemingly motivated by personal religious belief that failed for me. And I’ve enjoyed her other work. And I’d recommend Tim Winton’s Island Home, essays exploring the importance of place in forming our identity – we truly are products of the landscape in which we exist.

What are you currently listening to?
Eight times a week I listen to The Sound of Music. That’s because I’m performing in it! The orchestration of Climb Every Mountain never fails to astonish me. At home I’ve gone back to the Beethoven symphonies, which seem to paradoxically combine spontaneity and inevitability. Like a freight train laying down its own tracks. In the dressing room I’m listening to a young actor, Du Toit Bredenkamp composing pop songs and music theatre anthems, seemingly at will. There is hope for the world.

Happiness is?
Recently my partner and I spent 9 months together, almost entirely not working. We travelled, we house-sat, we rode bikes, we practised yoga, we cooked, we ate, we slept. We have never been so happy. And we have been together 30 years. There is something in the power of another human being who loves you, who commits to you utterly, that allows you to be truly yourself. Like many actors I have met I am a rather private person, and there are very few social contexts in which I can completely relax, where I am not a modified, censored version of myself. The theatre industry is notorious for destroying relationships, and we must constantly work at maintaining them.

What does the future hold for you?
Hopefully more happiness. More helping other people. Being an actor often seems trivial, satisfying my needs while making little difference to others’ lives. For better or worse, we don’t live in an era where the theatre is dangerous or fundamental to social discourse. Film and TV and the internet are now more powerful media, and this is probably where the future lies. I will probably look for ways outside the performing arts to help promote a better world, to be of service to my fellow human beings. And I look forward to enjoying the work of young actors who will transform our craft in the future in ways unimaginable.

Philip is currently appearing as Franz in The Sound of Music. Following its recent critically-acclaimed season in Sydney, The Sound of Music opens in Brisbane on 11 March, before touring to Melbourne and Adelaide. For more information, visit: www.soundofmusictour.com.au for details.

Image: Philip Dodd (supplied)