Alan Hopgood AM is a national theatrical treasure. He has been honoured for his services to the performing arts, and to the community for raising awareness of men’s health issues through his HealthPlay series.
When did the acting bug bite you?
I was six years old when I was cajoled into playing the ‘straight man’ for a comedian in Hobart. After that, every touring company that needed a child recruited me.
I had six more roles before the age of 11 and then at 15 I played Ronnie in The Winslow Boy. Acting always seemed to be a key to opportunities and it continued at Wesley, where it helped me win a scholarship to Queen’s College at Melbourne University. I was acting in university dramas when the Melbourne Theatre Company started as the Union Theatre Repertory Company with John Sumner. I acted several roles with them and after graduating I joined them as professional actor.
How many years have you been acting and writing, and how many plays have you written?
Some 76 years, of which 57 have been as a professional. I have written about 48 plays and many hours of television and several films.
Which plays and films have had the biggest profile?
And the Big Men Fly, The Carer, Alvin Purple, Weary (the diaries of Sir Edward Dunlop) and the HealthPlay series.
How did HealthPlay come into being?
I had prostate cancer in 1994 and I was asked to write a book about it. That coincided with the ‘quiet revolution’ in men’s health, meaning that men were finally starting to talk about it. So I adapted the book into play. People saw it and said it was a great way to get a health message across. Now there are 10 plays, plus one written by Stig Wemyss about suicide.
How do you manage to take potentially challenging or embarrassing subjects and imbue them with humour and nobility?
I used comedy in the cancer play to keep the audience in their seats and that formula has worked ever since, even when writing about palliative care and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s not the disease or the condition that’s funny but the behaviour of people dealing with it.
The Carer is one of your most loved plays—what’s the story behind that?
I was performing a one-man play, The Emperor of the Ghetto, when it was suggested that I write one about Alzheimer’s, for me to perform. Ultimately, when I came to stage it, I was too busy touring my cancer play For Better, For Worse so I asked ‘Bud’ Tingwell to take it on. How lucky was that? After 260 performances and two tours of Australia later, Bud died and I took over the role.
Not many people celebrate their 80th birthday by booking a theatre and doing a short season of their one-man show as you did with The Carer—how did that happen?
I had performed The Carer a few times out of Melbourne and in Tasmania, and we thought it should have a metropolitan ‘airing’ to have it coincide with the big 8-0.
Significantly, the woman in the photo on the piano [that was part of the set] was my late sister so on the final night my entire extended family gathered around the piano with my late sister’s photo in the centre of the group. It was a wonderfully emotional moment and the best way I could think of turning 80.
You obviously have a very supportive partner in crime in your wife Gay.
None of my adult work would have been possible without Gay. She has been a wonderful support personally and in business, as HealthPlay has expanded. She has a lot of patience, as well as business acumen. We’ve been married for 50 years. How’s that for patience—on her part?
Looking back, which projects have meant the most to you?
My role in The Fantasticks which was the year before I wrote And the Big Men Fly; and of course, that play changed my life. Obviously, The Carer, both writing the play and playing the role. Plus The Emperor of the Ghetto which I performed over a hundred times, mostly for schools. And I really enjoyed being Dr Reed in Bellbird for six years, a fact which still follows me as I tour around the bush.
Do your plans for the future include putting your feet up any time soon?
No! Dear Bud Tingwell often said, “Acting gives me the adrenalin to keep me going.” Well, Bud didn’t last forever and I suspect the same will happen to me, but until then…