SAMANTHA IN CHARACTER – From ‘Constellations’ to ‘Contractions’

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Last year’s Drama Festival revelation Samantha Barrass returns to tread the prestigious boards this month in the Trafalgar Theatre Group production ‘Contractions’, a one-act two-actor play, again directed by Daniel Strain-Webber.

The similarities between Samantha’s Gibraltar debut performance ‘Constellations’ and this year’s entry end there – besides their titles’ assonance and a director who works his magic with streamlined setting and action – because this time, she is donning the power suit of a character she describes as ‘the most evil I’ve ever played’. It is a jet-black dramedy which in places may be ‘uncomfortable to watch’ ultimately, about the degree of intrusion employers are allowed to exercise in their employees’ personal life, in a dystopian future when extreme competitiveness will drive employees to desperate lengths in order to safeguard their job.

A top manager herself, Samantha reassures her Financial Services Commission employees and licensees that she is nothing like her character, and to prove her point she recounts the story of how she was cast for Daniel’s production last year, her debut in Gibraltar amateur drama: “When Daniel was hired at the FSC, I perused his résumé and was interested that someone with a Drama degree would pursue a career in finance. Being a keen amateur actress myself, recently moved to Gibraltar after a lengthy acting hiatus due to pressing work and family commitments elsewhere, Daniel and I discussed our love for theatre and, when he learnt I had been involved in theatre all my life, he invited me to audition for his then forthcoming production.

Nick Payne’s ‘Constellations’ required her to star against a male counterpart, played by Jean Paul Lugaro, while in Mike Bartlett’s ‘Contractions’ she antagonises a female, Gemma Leppard: “This play was written for two female characters, and that is how it works best. However, it is not about gender issues, but about inappropriate use of power and unhealthy dynamics in the workplace, with disastrous consequences for the employee. My character is highly manipulative without even fully realising it. As the play progresses, the impact of the manager on the employee’s life becomes horrifying and wholly disturbing, although there are genuinely funny moments when the audience will laugh and won’t hate themselves for doing so.”

Hopefully, the audience will take away from this something more than a belly laugh and will stock up on some serious food for thought on anti-bullying regulations and empathic professionalism that doesn’t lose sight of the fact that workers are human beings.

Relatively new to Gibraltar, Samantha is delighted at the vibrancy of the local amateur drama scene, and recently dipped her toes in the national treasure, the pantomime, in the part of a TV newshound: “It was just a small role, but I got to wear a purple wig and Dame Edna style glasses.”

She would like to see the Drama Festival productions staged for subsequent runs at a small studio for cosy performances and a longer drama season that would be attractive to both groups and audience. “Sometimes the only difference between amateur and professional theatre is just the pay check” she says. “Amateur groups take their productions very seriously and can often count on extensive experience in the trade. The advantage of being amateur is you land more opportunities to good parts and you can enjoy yourself or turn them down if not interested, without worrying about your career progress or livelihood. In my late teens, early twenties, I seriously considered going to drama school, but seeing how other graduates were struggling to land good roles or any role at all, I decided to keep pursuing it as a hobby.”

Acting remained a big part of Samantha’s life throughout a financial career which took her from her native New Zealand all the way across the world to London and eventually, to Gibraltar, and through the demands of raising a family. “My family always comes first, so I carve my rehearsing times in my teenage sons’ schedule. I rehearse early on Sunday morning while they are still asleep and on weekday early evenings when they are engaged in their after school activities.”

That way, she doesn’t disrupt their routine when she morphs into her onstage self: “I don’t stay in character out of rehearsals, but I do practise my lines at home and sometimes my kids help me. My character in ‘Constellations’ swears profusely, and I don’t. My use of foul language under the spotlight surprised and shocked them.”

Amateur theatre allows her to be whoever she wants to be for a short while, anywhere in space and time, and in her career, Samantha has played pleasant, unpleasant and complex people. In ‘Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’ for example, she played a transsexual with a strong South American accent and mannerisms that wouldn’t slip into caricature. A new challenge tapped at her doorstep when she had to learn to tap dance for ‘Stepping Out’, a play about a group of aspiring dancers. “But farce is where one has the most fun, as I had in ‘Noise Off’: timing is the essence, so rehearsals are intense to make sure the cast gets the action rolling absolutely and effortlessly right, and that is the fun part.”

Acting is one hobby that can be pursued throughout life, Samantha says: “No matter how young or old you look, there’ll always be the right part for you, however, I find that learning lines gets harder with age. I like to have them learnt at least one month in advance so I can work on my character’s motions and non-verbal communication, without the hindrance of a script in my hands.” Sometimes hands need be free from the script to be encumbered with more fashionable props: “When I played the Marquise de Merteuil in ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ I wore rehearsing corset and crinoline to get used to playing the part in period costume. Eventually, we had wigs fitted and coiffed by one of London’s theatre wig makers.”

In London, she was part of the Bromley Little Theatre which staged one new production every single month except August for a thousand-strong membership and potential audience who sought West End quality acting without having to pay the price. Of course, Samantha didn’t participate in all eleven, but “there was one point when I realised that I did carry a script in my handbag for one play or the other for a very long time.”

To style her characters, Samantha draws inspiration from what she observes in her daily dealings, and yet pours a lot of herself in the character, so people who know her will instantly recognise her voice, while acknowledging how deep in character she carries herself on stage. “Or at least I hope so, because this is what acting is all about!”

words | Elena Scialtiel