I chat with Natalie Bochenski, founder of performance group Act/React, pop culture comedian and co-producer/writer of Die Hard: The Movie, The Play, which is set to feature in Brisbane Powerhouse’s Wonderland Festival.
If you’ve ever visited TRYP Fortitude Valley, you’ve probably experienced this hotel’s raw, quirky authenticity. A proud pillar of Brisbane’s vibrant entertainment district, it’s a tangle of contradictions – immaculate service against a backdrop of street art, inner-city sophistication paired with the grunge vibe of a dive bar.
And, true to its local spirit, TRYP Fortitude Valley is committed to supporting Brisbane’s thriving creative scene. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a street artist or a musician or a cabaret performer – if you’re creating and inspiring and making incredible things, TRYP wants to help you do it.
That’s why they’re a sponsor of this year’s Wonderland Festival, one of Brisbane’s biggest performance festivals. Hosted by Brisbane Powerhouse, this incredible line-up of comedians, dancers, musicians and cabaret performers is set to hit Brisbane’s artistic scene in an explosion of hilarity, sexiness and downright strangeness.
Who is ‘the Mother of Kittens’?
Comedy exists in a multitude of rib-tickling forms – from the biting savagery of stand-up to the carefully scripted combination of storytelling and humour found in movies, it’s a diverse field that draws a variety of talented performers.
Enter Natalie Bochenski, writer, performer and self-proclaimed Mother of Kittens (a nod to her two great loves, Game of Thrones and cats). She’s a homegrown queen of parody, whose comedic work delights in the gentle subversion of pop culture.
If you don’t know what ‘gentle subversion’ looks like, check out her company, Act/React, best known for its The Movie, The Play formats. It’s covered classics like Speed and Titanic, and now it’s coming to Brisbane’s Wonderland Festival with its newest offering, Die Hard: The Movie, The Play.
Think of the original, subtract the high-budget special effects, add a cabal of Eurotrash terrorists, and substitute an audience member for John McClane, and you’ll start to get an idea of what Act/React has in store.
Today, I’m lucky enough to have Natalie on the phone, so I don’t waste any time – I want to know exactly who the Mother of Kittens is, and how she came to be.
The answer’s not what I’m expecting. Natalie is actually a journalist by trade, but she’s always managed to balance the cold factuality of the news cycle with what she calls her “creative side-hustle”.
Her interest in acting started young. Community theatre was her first taste of the performing arts, but she quickly segued into comedy improv, scripted theatre, directing and production.
In 2013, she started Act/React. The company’s first foray into the acting world was a rendition of the Australian cult classic He Died With A Felafel in His Hand at Brisbane Powerhouse. Fast forward to 2015, and Act/React had produced the first of its The Movie, The Play parodies, this time based on Speed.
“We skewered it, but in a very loving way,” Natalie tells me, seamlessly adopting a dopey American accent. “We have Keanu Reeves – he’s the main star, obviously – but we have him talk like he’s still in Bill and Ted, so he’s this wide-eyed innocent, who is totally serious trying to stop the bomb on the bus. It’s just naturally funny to have this wide-eyed Keanu Reeves going, ‘man, I need you to settle down.’”
Taking the Next Step
That same year, Natalie moved on from her journalistic roots. She landed a political position with the Queensland Government, the kind of intense, high-pressure role that came with an equally high pay-check.
“It [was] an incredibly high-stress, demanding job, but I was still able to keep the creative stuff going on the side, albeit in a reduced sort of fashion. When I left in the middle of last year, I just wanted a break. I didn’t want to go and get another job straight away, and I started booking in tours […] on the festival circuit, and I realised what I’d done was turn my side hustle into my main hustle. I thought, I’ll give myself a year, and maybe try to be a full-time producer, performer, writer, director, all that sort of thing, and I have.”
I offer her congratulations – the leap from full-time job security to self-employed is challenging and a little frightening, and Natalie seems to have pulled it off.
“I remember I had a conversation with someone, just someone in a shop or something,” she tells me. “Working as a journalist, I never earned a huge amount of money, but it was steady, and then working in politics I had, probably for the first time in my life, a decent income, and that totally reversed going into the arts. And [this person] said, yeah, but at least you get to do what you love.” She laughs. “You know, it’s this funny thing we have with in Australia […] you definitely get a sense of, well if you’re lucky enough to do something you enjoy, then you don’t deserve to get well-paid.”
It’s an interesting observation, and I feel like I’m getting to see the real Natalie – not just the wise-cracking, Game-of-Thrones-obsessed comedian, but also a shrewd small business owner with one eye on the horizon.
She’s in this for the long haul and, when you’re trying to establish a successful company, ‘doing it for the love of it’ takes a backseat to profit margins.
“I am very grateful for being able to exist so far,” she says. “But I don’t know how long something like this will last. All I can do is give it my all, and try to become a sustainable small business person.”
I mention how well Act/React seems to be doing so far, and she explains that, when she creates shows, she does so with commercial success in mind.
Are her performances clever, engaging and wildly entertaining? Absolutely.
But they’re also designed as a counter-offer to more convenient modes of entertainment like Netflix, Stan and Disney Plus.
“I’m incredibly humbled that people choose to spend their time and their money coming out to see our shows, because it’s a big commitment for people to leave the house often, and I want to make sure they have a great time.”
The Queen of Pop Parodies
Her formula for “a great time” is the shared language of pop culture.
Act/React might have The Movie, The Play as their hallmark style, but Natalie’s other ventures include performances like the hugely successful Love/Hate Actually, a two-woman comedy showdown based around romcom Love Actually.
Her blog features Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and Westworld recaps (sharp, snappy posts laden with clever humour).
She even has the Raven On podcasts (also based on Game of Thrones).
Natalie’s talent lies in treading that fine line between mockery and humorous homage – she handles the source material with the love and respect it deserves, and still manages to capture the essence of what makes it special. In a way, that’s what brought her to Die Hard: The Movie, The Play.
“Die Hard is ripe for [skewering], of course, because of the performances of Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman in particular,” Natalie says. “It’s also coming into Christmas, and Die Hard is arguably a Christmas movie, so we’ve really had fun playing with that, and just embracing this 30-year-old movie. [It’s amazing] how loved it still is, and how much it’s still in the zeitgeist.”
Die Hard: The Movie, The Play
So what exactly does Die Hard: The Movie, The Play involve?
Well, there are similarities to its cinematic predecessor – Act/React’s offering keeps the basic plot and pieces of dialogue, but pairs it with fresh characters.
Natalie tells me that, in this rendition, Hans Gruber’s terrorists are all eighties-style Eurotrash with heavy metal trappings. “We amp up and exaggerate certain elements, and, of course, the big twist in this particular production is that John McClane will be an audience member, so audience members will get to have their chance to be the hero of the show.”
It sounds like an ambitious idea, but I’m curious whether a walk-in will be able to successfully pull off the lead role. How can someone with no acting skills and no training create a performance engaging enough to keep an audience entertained for an hour?
Natalie explains that each evening’s John McClane is chosen via an in-character audition at the start of the show. “It’s not a mandatory thing, nobody has to do anything, but we’re pretty confident that we’ll get blokes willing to step up and have their chance to be John McClane.”
They’ve had success with a similar approach with their homages to Speed and Titanic, both of which featured female audience members in the leads.
“[Our John McClanes] don’t need to worry about anything, they don’t need to know the movie off by heart, they don’t need to have pre-prepared anything, but they’ve just got to be willing to get up and give it a go,” Natalie says.
The other Act/React performers are trained in audience interaction, so they’re used to supporting and guiding people through the play.
Moral of the story: don’t stress. If you’re a fan of Die Hard, comedy or just love delivering killer lines, then this is your chance to be the ultimate badass in front of everyone. The best part? You can’t muck it up, because every quirky move or strange action just makes it funnier.
Where Next for Natalie?
As exciting as Die Hard: The Movie, The Play is, it’s certainly not the finale for Act/React. Both Natalie and her creative collaborators have lots more in store for audiences.
Speed: The Movie, The Play is making a return to Perth Fringe World in January 2020, and is expected to be just as popular the second time round. Natalie and fellow performer Amy Currie are also working on the spiritual sequel to Love/Hate Actually, called Puppies versus Kittens. It’s exactly what you might imagine – a comedic take on the age-old debate about the superiority of dogs or cats.
In March, you can expect to find Act/React at Brisbane Comedy Festival. Speed: The Movie, The Play is their offering to the Sunshine State, so, if you haven’t watched the original, I definitely recommend checking out Keanu Reeves’ iconic performance before you go and see Natalie’s talented performers in action.
After that? Natalie confides in me that she’s developed a slight obsession with true crime. “I’m really keen at some point to sort of join [comedy and true crime] and do something true crime-related in a theatre setting or in a performance setting.”
There’ll certainly be challenges along the way, but Act/React is fortunate to be supported by organisations like Brisbane Powerhouse and Elephants Boots Productions, and the future is looking bright.
As for me? I’m keen to see what else Natalie and the Act/React team can cook up. A Criminal Minds sitcom, maybe?