Tele­vi­sion Rose­mary Neill finds rough magic in an act­ing school for ex-cons

Ex-cons are get­ting a kick out of tread­ing the boards, and screen ap­pear­ances can some­times fol­low

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Rose­mary Neill Tak­ing on the Choco­late Frog airs on Foxtel’s Stu­dio chan­nel in early April.

PETER Sam­mak’s rov­ing, ex­pres­sive eyes — the eyes of a nat­u­ral comic — widen vis­i­bly as he says: ‘‘ I never could have imag­ined it in my life. I’m grate­ful I did, but.’’ A tat­tooed man moun­tain and one-time prison in­mate, Sam­mak is talk­ing about his part-time ca­reer as an ac­tor.

He says that in his stamp­ing ground of Punch­bowl, a sub­urb in Syd­ney’s west with a large Mid­dle East­ern pop­u­la­tion, ‘‘ if you say you do art or act­ing, they’ll say, ‘ You’re a weirdo, man’ ’’. Al­ter­na­tively, they’ll as­sume you are ‘‘ a poof’’ or ‘‘ on drugs’’.

It’s an un­der­state­ment to say that Sam­mak, a 43-year-old sin­gle fa­ther of two grown sons, is an un­likely per­former. With a large, shaven head and mus­cles on his mus­cles — his arms and thighs seem to ex­plode out of his bot­tle­green shirt and shorts — he has an al­most phys­i­cally threat­en­ing pres­ence.

At 14, he was kicked out of school af­ter he hit a teacher. He had been in an English-as-asec­ond-lan­guage class even though English was the first lan­guage of his Chris­tian Le­banese fam­ily. As a young man, he was ‘‘ known’’ around Syd­ney’s Kings Cross and had un­nerv­ingly close en­coun­ters with the crim­i­nal un­der­world — an ac­quain­tance of his was chained to a night­club sink and bashed and raped by bikies. At 24, he spent three months in Syd­ney’s Sil­ver­wa­ter jail for as­sault­ing po­lice (‘‘I ac­ci­den­tally hit eight of ’ em,’’ he says, dead­pan ) and for drug pos­ses­sion.

Yet to­day Sam­mak runs a thriv­ing car­pet clean­ing busi­ness and at­tends an act­ing course with a dif­fer­ence — it’s for ex-crim­i­nals and its grad­u­ates have been re­mark­ably suc­cess­ful at se­cur­ing pro­fes­sional gigs. As a re­sult of th­ese classes, Sam­mak has played a cameo role in the pop­u­lar ABC drama Rake and a ma­jor one in the fea­ture film Con­vict, which is re­leased this month and ex­plores racial ten­sions in a max­i­mum se­cu­rity prison.

The novice ac­tor also fea­tures promi­nently in the doc­u­men­tary Tak­ing on the Choco­late Frog, which will screen on Foxtel’s Stu­dio chan­nel from early April. Across three episodes, the doc­u­men­tary fol­lows a group of ex­pris­on­ers as they rein­vent them­selves as stage ac­tors. Guided by their act­ing teacher Grant Thomp­son, the for­mer crim­i­nals work to­wards a show­case per­for­mance at the de­com­mis­sioned Par­ra­matta jail in front of an in­vited au­di­ence of celebri­ties, fam­ily and me­dia. Thomp­son — who with blokey af­fec­tion, de­scribes Sam­mak as ‘‘ 120 ki­los of Le­banese man­hood’’ — says the task he set his stu­dents ‘‘ was al­most im­pos­si­ble. Get up there. Learn Shakespeare.’’ When he was told he would have to mem­o­rise pages of di­a­logue, Sam­mak re­sponded, ‘‘ f . . k off’’ — he couldn’t han­dle more than three or four pages at a time.

A more press­ing prob­lem emerged when the doc­u­men­tary, pro­duced by Screen­time, was caught up in a fake iden­tity scan­dal. Last month, it was re­vealed that one of the ex­pris­on­ers who fea­tures in it, Michael Lahood (also spelt La­Houd), had in­vented much of his crim­i­nal past. Lahood claimed in this film and in SBS’s re­al­ity show Once Upon a Time in Punch­bowl that he had spent years in some of NSW’s tough­est pris­ons. But prison au­thor­i­ties clar­i­fied that he pleaded not guilty to an armed rob­bery charge in 2006 that was even­tu­ally dis­missed, and that he spent just a few days in a remand cen­tre. SBS has post­poned its doc­u­men­tary, which fo­cuses heav­ily on Lahood, while it in­ves­ti­gates his back­ground.

Mean­while, dur­ing a live show­case per­for­mance filmed for Tak­ing on the Choco­late Frog, Lahood falsely claimed he had spent six months in soli­tary con­fine­ment in Par­ra­matta jail, and that the ex­pe­ri­ence was ‘‘ f . . ked’’. The press kit in­cor­rectly states that the fa­ther of four, who has top-to-toe tat­toos, spent eight years in jail. A Stu­dio chan­nel spokesman says the soli­tary con­fine­ment claim does not ap­pear in the doc­u­men­tary and that Lahood plays a small role in the film. Any in­ac­cu­ra­cies about his past would be ‘‘ edited out’’. al­co­holic, he would never ad­just to life on the out­side — and the ex-cons’ progress as ac­tors.

Thomp­son es­ti­mates that about 40 ex­crim­i­nals have com­pleted his act­ing boot camp dur­ing the past three years. He holds a weekly class in what­ever venue he can rus­tle up — a ware­house, a strip club, an of­fice af­ter hours. ‘‘ I do this to get the guys work,’’ he says.

So far he has been highly ef­fec­tive; his stu­dents have been ex­tras and se­cured speak­ing roles in Aus­tralian and US films and tele­vi­sion se­ries in­clud­ing Screen­time’s Un­der-

HIS ARMS AND THIGHS SEEM TO EX­PLODE OUT OF HIS GREEN SHIRT AND SHORTS

Last spring, Re­view went to see the show­case be­ing filmed at the jail — all coiled ra­zor wire and dun­geon-like cell blocks with pun­ish­ingly small win­dows. Yet in this in­hos­pitable place (and de­spite Lahood’s false claims), a kind of rough magic oc­curred: re­formed drug ad­dicts and rob­bers who wouldn’t dream of go­ing to the the­atre flu­ently re­cited Shakespeare’s verse and starred in a pro­duc­tion of The Choco­late Frog, a one-act play writ­ten by ‘‘ prison play­wright’’ and for­mer armed rob­ber Jim Mc­Neil. (Choco­late frog is prison slang for dog, and in this work two pris­on­ers ac­cuse a younger cell­mate of be­ing a dog, or in­former.)

In the late 1960s, Mc­Neil crafted award­win­ning plays from his al­most light­less cell at Par­ra­matta jail, al­though he had never been in­side a the­atre. The doc­u­men­tary shut­tles be­tween Mc­Neil’s life story — a vi­o­lent belly and Bikie Wars: Brothers in Arms. Nor­mally, he says, about 70 per cent of re­leased pris­on­ers in NSW re­turn to jail. Of the 40 or so he has taught, three went back in­side, one died and the rest stayed out of prison.

The Par­ra­matta jail per­for­mance, he says, ‘‘ is the first time we’ve fo­cused on the the­atre. I wanted to chal­lenge them to per­form live in front of an au­di­ence.’’ It’s hard to be­lieve this joy­less in­sti­tu­tion — which in­cludes a soli­tary con­fine­ment cage ex­posed to the weather — was de­com­mis­sioned only two years ago. In fact, sev­eral of Thomp­son’s act­ing stu­dents have done time here.

Ex-pris­oner Shamus Vin­cent tells the in­vited au­di­ence: ‘‘ Shakespeare was like Chi­nese lan­guage for me, I could hardly un­der­stand it.’’ He’s per­form­ing tonight in front of his kids — the last time they saw him here, it was in the bleak visi­tors’ hall, where the printed rules ban ‘‘ ex­ces­sive touch­ing/cud­dling’’.

For­mer con­victed drug user Guy Spence se­cured a ma­jor role in the show­case. Days be­fore, he de­vel­oped a life-threat­en­ing blood clot and ended up in in­ten­sive care with 80 stitches in his leg. But he turned up, limp­ing heav­ily, on the night and Thomp­son said of this: ‘‘ Noth­ing was gonna stop this bloke get­ting on stage tonight. He’s a cranky old bas­tard any­way, so it kinda suits him.’’

On the same night, Sam­mak per­forms an in­te­gral role with ease and a flair for mimicry. Study­ing his lines didn’t come eas­ily, though. Draw­ing on his ami­able, class-clown per­sona, he says: ‘‘ I get ner­vous when I sit down for too long. My blood starts to shake. That’s why it was so hard to do this, be­cause we had to sit down and study it for like, four weeks. Sweet Je­sus.’’

Not­with­stand­ing the scep­ti­cism of Punch­bowl lo­cals, this man, who went straight years ago to please his mum, gets a lot out of act­ing. ‘‘ I dunno, it’s very im­por­tant to me,’’ he con­fesses. ‘‘ I’ve never been a part of some­thing like this, I’ve been a cleaner all my life . . . Hav­ing the sup­port and learn­ing some­thing new — art, some­thing I never knew ex­isted — is some­thing that’s touched my heart.’’ Even so, Sam­mak is not about to throw over his clean­ing busi­ness for an un­cer­tain life in front of the cam­eras: ‘‘ I know it’s clean­ing, but it’s my bread and but­ter,’’ he says.

Tak­ing on the Choco­late Frog

Grant Thomp­son, front, with

ac­tors, from left, Paul Macken­zie, Michael Lahood and Peter Sam­mak

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