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"I was always an
entertainer."

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Somewhere in the north of Scotland, a baby boy named Damien was born, his BBC journalist father stationed up in Inverness.

But raising two children in the Scottish winter was tough for an Aussie mother, and soon the family made their way back to Australia, in regional New South Wales.

The sun brought out performance in Damien. Sports took precedence first, following in the footsteps of his athletic brother. But somewhere along the way it became evident he was destined for the arts.

"I became involved in the Little Theatre and I was into dancing and singing and jumping around. I was always dressing up; any photo of me as a kid, I've got some kind of costume on."

 

 

"There's a great one of me

dressed as Superman up a tree."

 

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As he got older, the living room dances got bigger. Soon, he was appearing in school plays, even taking the lead in a high school one. Damien had found his calling, and it was under the lights, in front of an audience.

Little did he know that this love for performance, the kind of unabashed wholesomeness most of us carry as children, would be reiterated throughout his life like a motif, in his pursuit of a career in the arts.

 

"Actually, it's funny, because I ended up becoming a theatre performer.

then I ended up training as a clown in Paris.

it's basically being a child."

 

Damien-Warren-Smith-Teenagehood

 

 

"I went to drama school initially to be an actor,

and I was interested in being in film and television.

Or I thought I was."

 

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After learning the ropes of acting, Damien graduated from drama school in Sydney ready to take on the industry. He was lucky; Love My Way, an Australian drama about a group of 30-somethings navigating life starring homegrown heroes like Asher Keddie, Claudia Karvan, Ben Mendelsohn, and more, offered him a role right as he step foot into the working world.

Friends and family were all excited for him. But there was one problem: Damien didn't exactly feel the same.


"It's exciting, but the work itself wasn't thrilling. I thought, 'This isn't the kind of work I love.'"

 

Remember Scotland? Those rolling hills, the months-long cold of Damien's childhood? It was about to come in handy. With his UK passport, Damien boarded a plane to London in search of a future in theatre.


"I went to the UK in the first place because I didn't want to do what people expected of me. I wanted to do the things that frightened me, the things that I wasn't good at."
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In London, the stage came to life and so did Damien as a performer. Not only did he find his calling on the stage, but fear became nothing but another door in life; one of those doors leading to the comedy world. Getting cast in Shakespeare and Noël Coward plays, Damien's big break came with a company called Hull Truck Theatre.

"I discovered that I love comedy, but I was frightened of it because it was written for me; other people had written stuff that I had to make funny."

 

But you're still wondering about the clown thing, aren't you?

It started with a fateful show in Edinburgh featuring the Spymonkey company. Damien laughed, halfway between hysterics and disbelief, at how "five idiots trying to re-tell Moby Dick" could be so funny. Digging into their background, he discovered that they were clowns—and not necessarily in the red nose, floppy shoes, circus sense—most of whom had trained with the legendary "master clown" Philippe Gaulier.

Once again, Damien grabbed his passport and stepped right into fear's path, on the route to Paris.

Damien-Warren-Smith-Clown-Collage
 
"The way that Philippe would prod you and try and guide you as a performer was exactly how I was as a kid. And from that point on, I couldn't really work for anyone else anymore. I just wanted to make my own work."



From Philippe Gaulier's training, The Plague of Idiots formed, a clown troupe with Damien and a handful of his fellow clowns-in-training. For a while, they bathed in success, touring festivals across the UK, Europe, and Australia. But soon each had to return to their respective countries—except Damien who, of course, landed in Berlin, juggling open mic comedy nights while taking a well-deserved break.

Then Garry Starr was born: "a failed Shakespearean actor who thought he could save theatre by performing every genre on his own."

 

Working with director Cal McCrystal (who has also been a physical comedy consultant on films like The Dictator, The World's End, Paddington, The Amazing Spiderman 2), they devised a one-hour show called Gary Starr Performs Everything.

It did well. Very well.

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Booking his first show at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, only 10 people rocked up on opening night. But as the reviews rolled in, soon Damien was performing to a packed out venue, with audience members having to stand because of no seating. It grew even bigger, selling out the Malthouse Theatre, nominations for Best Newcomer and the Golden Gibbo award at Melbourne International Comedy Festival, then the UK with Brighton, Buxton, and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, earning nominations and awards along the way.

25 consecutive nightly performances. All of them, bar one, sold out. No flyers, no PR.

And there were other moments that gave Damien joy too.

"A year after I performed my show in Albury, I was staying in Beechworth. I was walking around town, thinking that I need to make a show with a social impact, when a car drove up to me. It was a woman my mum knows, who had seen my show The year before.
She told me that on the way home from the show, she said to her husband, 'I'm quitting my job. I'm going to open a restaurant, because I haven't laughed that hard in so long.'


For some reason, I'd thought that my show wasn't having an impact on people because it was fun.
But the fact that I was doing the thing that brought me joy was enough to inspire somebody to make changes in their life.

 

"Collarts is once again stretching me outside my comfort zone."

 

Cal McCrystal went on to become an important collaborator in Damien's life. Under a year after Garry Starr Performs Everything, they created Garry Starr Conquers Troy. And again in 2019, Cal asked Damien if he'd like to be the clown in a big show at the iconic Venetian Resort in Las Vegas. So with his passport, like deja vu, Damien packed his life up in a few suitcases and headed to the U.S.A.

But then COVID-19 hit.

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Returning to Australia after only six months, Damien knew he didn't want to sit still. Over the years, he had become interested in filmmaking, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do something about it.

"I'm more interested in telling stories than just being a warm prop in other people's shows."


He had already started writing scripts, mostly filmed short sketches to promote his live comedy shows, and bit by bit, he had discovered that he wanted to move from the passenger's seat to the steering wheel. He wanted to tell stories from beginning to end, but it was trying to learn the skills to do it—the writing, directing, editing, colour-grading—that he wasn't sure how to tackle.


"I was really only going to do THE SCREEN & MEDIA diploma. But having started the course and meeting Sean [Cousins], who's the head of the course, and tutors like Tristan [Meredith] and Darcy [Yuille], I realised very quickly that I was in a fortunate position."


Recognising Damien's comedy background, Sean convinced him to stay on for the Screen & Media degree, understanding that with the filmmaking skills under his belt, Damien could leave the course and put it immediately into practice with his creative networks.


"Collarts has really helped me go from just dreaming up ideas to actually fulfilling them by giving me the skills that I needed. I did not know how to write a PROPER script. I didn't know how to analyse storytelling before this course."



And although he hasn't graduated yet, the education is already showing results. Dance Robots, a short film Damien created as part of his Smartphone Filmmaking unit, took out Berlin Flash Film Festival's Monthly Category Award in 2020.

And that fear of the unknown that Damien has confronted time and time again to achieve his dreams? It's not gone either. It's encouraged.

"The fact that every unit has made me want to do something new with my career until the next one comes along says that Collarts is doing something right. Because they're not just teaching you the skills. They're inspiring you to want to do it.

 

Now I've just got to choose."

 

WRITTEN BY JENNIFER PARK
IMAGES PROVIDED BY DAMIEN WARREN-SMITH
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