Christopher Carroll, a physical actor and theatre artist who was described by the Canberra Critics' Circle as the "master of the solo performance", says the Australian capital has given him a stage in uncertain times.
“Until the last few weeks, we had almost no cases for around a year here, so life had resumed more or less as normal, and I even worked when theatres and entertainment were shut down elsewhere.”
Carroll, originally from Feltrim in north Dublin, went to Trinity College in 2006 to complete a BA in acting studies at the Samuel Beckett Centre, which also saw Ruth Negga and Paul Mescal pass through its stage doors. Work with theatre companies in Ireland followed, with solo performances about the Diceman mime artist in Bewley's Cafe in Dublin and collaborations at Electric Picnic and Smock Alley theatre, among others.
After a year teaching English in Nagoya in Japan, Carroll moved to Paris to study acting at Jacques Lecoq Theatre School in 2012. "It was pretty rigorous training with lots of collaborating training and movement classes."
He refused to sit and wait for the phone to ring, and so gave English lessons.
“I spoke French, but knew my roles were limited. I would always be the English-speaking guy, so I focused on creating plays and writing. A play about lawlessness during the gold rush in San Francisco, called The Emperor of America, was invited to the famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
In 2016, after five years in Paris, Carroll moved to Australia on a holiday visa. While there, his Victorian blockbuster, Early Grave, Fashionably Late, sold out, while his adaptation of Paradise Lost toured at the Adelaide Fringe and on to Perth, where it was nominated for the West Australian Arts Editor Award and shortlisted for the Best Theatre award at Fringe World 2017.
He returned home in 2017 after seven years abroad to an Ireland that was out of reach to him and many others.
“What struck me was how many friends had left and how many were struggling to find somewhere to live. After seven years abroad, coming home meant starting anew in a city most people couldn’t afford, so I decided to travel back to Australia and apply for a partner visa with my then Australian partner.”
Carroll has been in Canberra since 2018, and it has turned out to be a great career move – “2019 was my best year to date,” he says. “Successes include a wordless ‘physical odyssey’ Icarus, winning the Fringe World overall award for dance and physical theatre and, in 2019, the inaugural Helen Tsongas award for excellence in acting, for roles in Twelfth Night, Icarus, Howie the Rookie and Metamorphosis.
“I was busy performing and acting, and had been planning to take some time to write in early 2020, so when we were locked down initially, I wasn’t as affected by the restrictions, work-wise.”
Carroll says Canberra was spared the worst effects of Covid-19 restrictions, with hardly any cases in the past 12 months.
“But that changed as we recently had a handful of cases, so Canberra is in another lockdown. People have to stay home and only leave the house for emergencies.
“So far it’s for three weeks, which isn’t too bad, taking into account that last year was quite humane. Venues were open, you could eat in restaurants and life was pretty normal.”
Carroll was back in Ireland in early 2020, during the horrendous fires that spread across Australia. “The air was so toxic, you couldn’t breathe properly. Though Canberra didn’t get the worst of it, the smoke from nearby forests set off fire alarms in buildings across the city.
“It was horrific. I came back to Ireland in January of 2020 during the fires, and it was the first time I could properly breathe again.”
Because he was home just before the pandemic, Carroll says he didn’t feel too homesick in the past 18 months. “Obviously I want to see family and friends, but being here meant availing of a life with few restrictions. Sure, I had gigs cancelled, but venues were open and you could dine indoors and outdoors. I wasn’t missing much back home.”
Life in Canberra – a three-hour drive from Sydney – is good, he says.
“As the seat of government, around 80 per cent of people here work in the civil service, so rental prices are high. But that said, there is access to grants, funding and rehearsal spaces for artists. Canberra has a population of just under 400,000 people and, as an entirely planned city, it is very spacious.”
It is getting more expensive, but not compared with Sydney or Melbourne, he adds. “A lot of people commute from here to Sydney, so hopefully we can contain the virus spread.”
Carroll says the vaccine rollout has been heavily criticised for being too slow. “It seems prime minister Scott Morrison’s government are more interested in a zero-Covid policy for now.”
Despite the distance and the inability to travel home at the drop of a hat, Carroll says he is happy in Australia and plans on staying there, perhaps branching out to Melbourne.
“I’ve found my niche here, and creatively it has been very positive. I am working on a one-man show and teaching students in movement, voice and dramaturgy, so 2021 is busy.” The quality of life here is great, and as an actor who gets work during a pandemic, I’m truly blessed.”