Captured By Capsis

27 September 2012 | 4:15 am | Zoe Barron

Paul Capsis is not one for boxes. He talks to Zoe Barron about theatre, music, and all the things in between.

Paul Capsis does most things but fits under the umbrella of none. He sings, and has done so with the Soweto Gospel Choir of South Africa, Judi Connelli, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Russell Crowe and Marcia Hines, among many, many others (as well as on his own), but he's not just a singer. He acts, and has worked in film, television and with theatre companies all over Australia, as well as in various places in Western Europe, the UK, Asia and in the US, but he wouldn't call himself an actor. He's recently co-written a play about his Maltese grandmother and family, but he's not a playwright. If you had to call him anything, I suppose you could call him a performer, or maybe the ever-ambiguous 'artist', though if it were up to Capsis, he would probably rather you just call him by his name. 

“I think it's because I don't want to be pigeon-holed in anything, you know?” he explains. “Because I have different likes of things, I have passions [for] many different things. I very early on sensed that act of people trying to put you in a box. I mean, they put me in the tiny little box of cabaret – that's where everyone seems to put me. Really for me cabaret is just a place I can work. The music industry, the music world isn't going to let me in, because they don't get it. And the acting world – well I'm not an actor, strictly because I don't just act. I love acting, and I love music. So, you know, I just do it. I just keep doing it. I don't worry about all those things.”

Another box Capsis has spent a good portion of his life escaping is that of gender. “I don't think there's anything strange about me but I think, you know, along the line people have sensed something else about me; there's a femininity,” he says. He has been playing with what he refers to as that “middle place” between the genders for years, and has a great deal of admiration for others who do the same. He quotes Patty Smith and Antony Hegarty of Antony & The Johnsons as examples. This, however, has proved deeply complex at times, particularly when Capsis was younger.  “I really hated being male, and I really didn't like men,” he says of his younger self. “I didn't like what men were about. I was attracted to men, sexually; but not interested in men. I thought that men were really kind of fucked up. Like, there was a disability about men, because men couldn't speak, or men couldn't be soft, or men couldn't allow themselves to be who they really are. But men are changing, men have changed a lot. But you still see that, especially in Australian society and culture.”

At the age of 48, Capsis has settled, surprisingly, into the gender he had so much animosity for in the past. “When I perform, I'm more interested in me being in that middle place, because I feel comfortable there,” he explains. “But as I've gotten older, I've interestingly enough just naturally become more male.”

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In his current project, the play Angela's Kitchen, Capsis plays characters of  both genders, including his late grandmother Angela, in addition to almost every other member of his family. Although his family as a whole make up the subject matter, its main focus is Angela, who emigrated from Malta to Surrey Hills in Sydney in 1948. She and Capsis were extremely close. “I get on with everyone really well,” Capsis says of the rest of his family. “But I was really, really close to my grandmother. And that's a relationship I'll never have again. With anyone.” Angela passed away in 2007 of lung cancer, and for Capsis, the play has been an exercise in catharsis. But it has also been way of conjuring that relationship up again, of paying tribute to his lost grandmother. “Well, I guess I miss my grandmother's voice, you know?” he says. “And when I'm doing the play, I hear her voice. I mean, she's with me all the time – I feel her around me, I carry her with me.”

Paul has been involved in Angela's Kitchen since 2010 and has toured the play thoroughly, with two seasons in Sydney, a sold-out season in Melbourne, and shows in Wollongong, Parramatta, Albury Wodonga, Canberra and Brisbane. Now it's coming to its natural end, and Capsis is ready for it. “I'm already getting sad about that, but I need to stop,” admits Capsis. “I need to stop now. I mean, I'm tired. I'm wrecked. It's so emotional. It's been incredible.”

By the time he gets to Perth, where he's set to perform as part of the Art Gallery of Western Australia's Artbar series, his focus will have shifted from theatre back to music, where he seems to be especially comfortable. “I think probably my biggest passion in life is music; and rock'n'roll, rock music, old '60s style, late '60s music, you know – that's my passion, that's what I really love. The Doors, the Stones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix: that's the kind of music I listen to mostly. I don't listen to a lot of new stuff. ” He says that the rawness and passion so evident in those older forms of rock'n'roll is harder to find among newer music. He likes '60s music for its clarity. “It's tribal,” he says, “like going back to something that's really kind of simple. Energy-wise, it's sort of like a bashing and screaming. I relate to that. That speaks to me, that kind of thing. ”

And that's precisely what he has planned for us for at Artbar. “I'm really excited because this bunch of songs I performed once at the beginning of the year in Melbourne,” Capsis says. “It was this random festival, and the arts centre is really supportive of Australian art, which is kind of rare, and they allowed me to do a show. And I worked with this guy I really like – a musical director guy, Andrew Patterson. He's very much into the rock, soul thing. And I said, 'I really want to do a show where I just do songs', you know? I don't talk too much. I don't want to talk too much. I just wanna sing and I just wanna move and shake my ass and kick my legs and scream. So we put together this night and it ended up being quite rocky, and Andrew sings as well, and he's a great singer, he does great harmonies. So I'm doing Beatles stuff, and Pattie Smith, and some things I haven't done before. Amy Winehouse. It's really exciting. Really frenetic though – like a crazy workout.”