Transcript of Callan Purcell
This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity. Listen to the podcast (37:39)
Jackie – The following podcast is brought to you by the Creative Arts Curriculum Team from Secondary Learners Educational Standards Directorate of the New South Wales Department of Education. As we commence this podcast today, let us acknowledge the traditional custodians of all the lands on which this podcast will be played around New South Wales. Their art, storytelling, music and dance along with all First Nations people hold the memories, the traditions, the culture and hopes of Aboriginal Australia. Let us acknowledge with honour and respect our elders past, present and future, especially those aboriginal people in our presence today who have and still do guide us wisdom. Welcome to the creative cast Podcast series. My name is Jackie King and I'm a creative arts project advisor with the New South Wales Department of Education. Today we are having an industry chat with an inspirational young actor who has regularly assisted school co curricular programs. His credits include working with Frantic Assembly and the Australian Productions of Jasper Jones, Hair, Bran Nue Dae and the upcoming hit musical Hamilton, Please welcome Callan Purcell. Hi, Callan. Thanks for joining us today.
Callan – Thanks so much, Jackie. I'm really glad to be here
Jackie – I am really excited to have this conversation with you today. I've watched you grow up on the stage in Newcastle Theatre, and I've just had a read of your bio. And you have done so much in sort of the time that we've been apart, I almost feel a little bit embarrassed that I didn't know some of this stuff. I just want to read a little bit of that bio and then we'll talk to it. So it says that Callan is a proud Wiradjuri man who grew up on Awabakal country. He works as a director, playwright and workshop facilitator for young actors and theatre-makers. In 2018, he graduated from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London and then I feel bad about that because, in my head, I had you pegged for a finishing school around that time - but you finished your drama training at that time. You've worked alongside Complicité Knee High Theater, Told by an idiot, the wardrobe ensemble and engineer collective. You've written a show, the Naked Bunyip Dancing, which I did know because I knew that YPT in Newcastle is putting that on next year. So that's very exciting. And then you've got acting credits with the Frantic Assembly. You're in the Rime of the ancient Mariner, Jasper Jones. And Hair, the musical. And then the bio that I'm reading is from Bran Nue Dae, where you were playing Slippery; obviously, that season has been cut short because of covid. But for someone who I thought was so young, you've done so much already. Congratulations.
Callan – Thank you, Jackie. Yeah, I've been keeping busy since leaving high school.
Jackie– Obviously, your new news is being cast in the new Australian production of Hamilton, which we only touch upon slightly because I know you're not allowed to talk about it too much, but congratulations. That's very exciting.
Callan –Yeah, thank you. That that was a long audition process. But it's cool to have that news out in the open now.
Jackie –Very much so. So I would like to start by delving into some of that career that you are building and that you've started to build and look at some of the work that you've done. So it says that you're a director and playwright and so in 2014. You worked with the Australian Theatre for Young People to write that play Naked Bunyip Dancing. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
Callan – Yes. So actually, with ATYP. I worked on a piece called Between Us, which was a series of monologues from different writers around Australia, and it was performed in 2015. And it now that peace is published by currency press, and it can be performed by all HSC students for their final years.
Jackie –Wow, that's really cool. So that monologues that can be basically adapted for IPs. That's fantastic. And your show Naked Bunyip Dancing, was that put on in 2014 as well?
Callan – No, that was performed in 2019. But basically, it was a piece that I was introduced to. A book that was given to me when I was 12 by my Year six teacher and that's been in my life since then. So what? 2006? And since then, I've been workshopping that with kids in public schools and new theatre companies and then in 2019, it was performed as a full-scale play, and then it's had more workshops. And like you said before, ATYP is now going to be performing the next evolution of that piece.
Jackie –That is really exciting, that piece has been developed, and it's getting a lot of work, which is great. What were the steps that you took then to be going to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London? How did you end up there?
Callan –Actually, it was so topsy turvy, because I remind myself that progress isn't linear just to jump back a tiny bit further. In 2016, I lived in America and a student exchange in Illinois, and I kind of got the travel bug. So then, when I was 17/18, I wanted to leave school and audition for NIDA and I applied to audition for NIDA twice, paid for the fee to audition, and I cancelled. I chickened out both times, and so then, after leaving school, I wanted to become a summer camp counsellor and go back to America. So I went and worked at French Woods Festival of the performing arts as an assistant director. It is a performing arts camp. When I was there, I met a really great friend of mine, Sinead O'Connor. And she was a WAAPA grad, and she was about to go study her masters at Central - so I was a bit lost. At that time, I was 19 and didn't know what I was doing, you know. I was about a year out of school now, and I looked at Central, and I saw a course there called Bachelor of Acting, and it was specializing in collaborative and devised theatre. And I knew that for me, acting wasn't enough to fill my soul and, well, what I wanted to do for the arts and for myself. It was an ideal course because it not only gave me actor training, but it gave me tools to create my own work and to be kind of, you know, an autonomous actor who could read the room and drive the room myself instead of waiting for someone to tell me where to stand waiting for an agent to tell me when I have work, or when I don't. The three years there were really rigorous training periods. I'm still percolating different lessons that I've learned and also sharing those lessons with all the students that I come across. So it was really only the beginning of my training was when I went to Central, and that's kind of happening every day as I go along.
Jackie – I love that because learning doesn't stop when you finish a course or when you finish school, like learning is lifelong. And so I love that you've touched on that, and you're saying that you're still developing those ideas that you learned in that drama school because it's really important. And that's really cool that it is about group devised or collaborative devised theatre to as well, not just acting, so I can see that that is what you've done a lot of. Obviously, once you've you finish that, can you talk to working with the Frantic Assembly?
Callan –Yes, it was a piece called Fatherland, and it was a musical. It was a physical theatre musical, and basically this image that they had. They had a core group of actors. It was at Lyric Hammersmith, and then there was a seriously huge number of men, young men and older men that came along to a series of physical theatre workshops where there was a range of different bodies of experience in the theatre. Different occupations, different nationalities. We all came together to create this experience of fatherhood and of relationships between men and that idea of brotherhood, too. It was really it was just I think I was just in my last few months of drama school at the time, so I was still really green. Um, and it was great to be able to be in the same room as Scott working on a new project for them because I understand that Frantic Assembly is a great physical theatre company that does devise through physical theatre and have that kind of outlook that every anything and everything can be physical theatre. Just it's just what the imagination kind of limits or let's free, which we can see what that physical theatre is.
Jackie – Fantastic. That sounds so exciting, and it's great to be able to just go in and create and not have an idea where it's actually going, I suppose. Um, so you do work on plays as well? Jasper Jones. Um, I know our school or the school that I was at used to study Jasper Jones. So you did that at the Bondi Pavilion? Did a lot of schools come and watch that when you did it?
Callan –Yeah, they did. It wasn't particularly. I think you know the hardest audiences are young people because if they don't like something, they'll let you know immediately. And I guess, and we'll touch on it a bit later. But I love working with young people or performing for young people because it's so humbling. And I was like, There's a particular show. I was like, I'm making art. I'm being serious about being an actor. And it's the moment where Jasper jumped into the river, and there was this sequence that we made that we created were just kind of floating in the water, and it was like time stopped, and this expression on my face made the students laugh. And I was like, Wait, why are they laughing? This is serious. This is the thing, and that it was such a great moment to realize that this isn't about me. It's about, you know, the reaction of the students and what they're taking on at that moment in particular. I got a lot of I got a few messages actually after that, via Instagram and Facebook from a few students who were particularly touched by the story. And I think that those people are those you know, those little moments that will, like, stay with them for the rest of their life. Whereas like, you know, Bell Shakespeare's the actors that come to the schools, They were the ones that changed my life, So I was really pleased to be able to do Jasper Jones for those young people. That's exactly what it was for.
Jackie – How cool is that? Your story reminds me of a time I was doing Les mis in the early two-thousands. Actually, I think it was in 2000, and we're doing it at the Civic Theatre in Newcastle, which was so like it was a huge experience for us as actors at the time and the we did a school's performance, and at the point where Gavroche got shot, the kids, the gun went off, and it was very loud because they were using real guns in the show and the kids then all laughed, and we were like, 'Oh, my goodness, how can they be laughing at that?' But I think it was more so that it scared them. And then they laughed at at at their uncomfortable like they were uncomfortable. So they laughed. And I think sometimes kids do that. They laugh inappropriately, but it's because they're uncomfortable.
Callan – It just doesn't shifts them out of their comfort zone. So, yeah, it's like coping mechanism, right? Like to kind of be able to digest what's just happened, and at least they can do that in a safe space, as opposed to feeling that they aren't allowed to express themselves authentically at that moment. So, yeah.
Jackie – I didn't know that you toured for Hair the musical. So you've done a few musicals as well, and obviously, you were meant to be in well; you started Bran Nue Dae at the start of this year. How does it compare doing musicals as opposed to, like some of your devised theatre that you're talking about with Frantic Assembly?
Callan – I think the difference only is the product. I think because, you know, you go in and as an actor with collaborative and devised theatre training, you still come in with ideas and dreams and a sense of the whole project, as opposed to just your role. I think it's, you know, there's that saying you rehearsals, you're not there to learn your part. You're there to learn everyone else's part. You go back to rehearse is to play, and so we're there just to throw in as many ideas as we can to make sure that this piece, whatever form it is, comes to life and does the story justice. The only difference really was that we already had a script. But then again, the Hair script is so loose. Anyway, the writers, funnily enough, we're still sending rewrites of the script. So it's again how you were saying learning is a lifelong thing. Apparently, so is the Hair script, and so, like different evolutions of that which was really cool. What was really nice was that I think being a collaborative and devised trained actor in that room, understanding what I Callan Purcell can bring to that space. And so, actually, we began each production wherever we were, with an acknowledgement of country from myself as Callan the actor. And then we kind of evolved into the world of Hair, which gave it a kind of a 'So we looked through the play through the musical through social ends of Australia'. And what? How that relates to America in during the Vietnam War and that kind of stuff, which it was so potent, and more powerful that way, too.
Jackie – I wish I'd seen it. That's cool. And I can't believe that the writers are still sending rewrites of Hair. Isn't it a seventies musical?
Callan –Yeah, because we asked and it was the 50th anniversary. But it's beautiful, I guess because they were like, 'Oh, yeah, maybe we could do this. Maybe we could do that'. But it's the reality that you know that the right item is just as valid as the director, who is just as valid as the stage manager and the actor and the designers, and we see that through collaborative and device theatre. It's an equal playing field. And actually, the most important thing is the story and how that affects the audience as opposed to the performance of the actor or the vision of the director. You know, it kind of lets the ego go out of the room. And again, let us focus on that story
Jackie – Thinking about your career and how you got there - I know you from having been in Newcastle Theatre from a young person. Can you talk to sort of the steps or what inspired you to sort of taking on acting as a career from a like a young person? When did that sort of happened? Did that happen through schools? Or was it more through your extracurricular work? I know what you've worked with ATYP, but I think you worked with quite a few of the local theatre schools, too, didn't you?
Callan – Yeah, most of them. I was at Hunter drama for a while when it was Hunter Region drama school. And then yeah, I was working at tantrum for a little bit there. I've worked in upstage new theatre as well. In Maitland. Yeah, so most of the major kind of youth theatre companies and youth theatre schools. They're currently working with typical productions in Wyoming as well, directing a new show for them there. I guess I've always done performing us all the time. I've never really, you know, you hear the stories about lawyers becoming actors and stuff, but it's just I've just been an actor who's turned into more of an actor, I guess. But, like I started dancing first at Australian Dense and Talent Center in Cardiff when I was like eight and then got into Hunter School of the Performing Arts, Uh, when I was 10 for dance. Then I moved over to acting or drama when I was 13, going into high school. And so then I kind of picked up acting then and a bit more singing and directing my first show when I was 18 there from my HSC there before I left. It's always just been a habit for me, I guess, and it's kept me out of trouble, and now I can pay the bills doing it, which is sick.
Jackie – That would be a very nice feeling because there's a lot of actors who are not paying the bills with it that are just doing it for love. So you went to HSPA? Obviously, you had, your schooling was very much driven by the performing arts. You did all of the performing us. Did you do music, dance and drama HSPA? Or how did your schooling look? Like
Callan – I left dance, and I never did music at HSPA. I didn't do dance in my year in high school, and it was just acting. Yeah, I just focused on that. I guess there were the school musicals we did Les Mis, West Side Story. But other than that, no, I didn't do any dance or music for my HSC. Actually, I didn't end up with an HSC. I didn't have enough of the, you know, the credit things that the elective Yes. I did outdoor rec course through Tafe, which was incredible, really good. And then I did drama. PDHPE, English standard.
Jackie – Okay, so, through HSPA, they would have had a lot of creative arts programs that you could be involved with throughout your school – like extracurricular programs in the school.
Callan –Yes, there have always been opportunities for high schoolers to be able to do ensembles, whether that's in like year 7, 8, 9, 10. And then there were also the theatre tech ensembles, theatre tech groups where young people could learn about the tech world in theatre, which was great. So those who wanted to work behind the scenes, I do remember, in particular Daniel Cavanagh. When he came to the school, he facilitated a music theatre workshop in music theatre classes at lunchtime, which was really great because there were so many of us that were kind of craving that youth music theatre sector in Newcastle. That wasn't necessarily as strong as it could be. So we could have that at that time, and as well we have star-struck. We have school spec. We have the state drama festivals and also dance festivals, and all of the choir groups. Stage band Um, it always came from the teachers, though, listening to the students and seeing what they needed and what they wanted to do to better themselves and better their skills.
Jackie –That's really cool. And obviously, being a performing arts high school, I expected that there would have been a lot of opportunities to do lots of different things. And I suppose that's really helped you or prepare you for the world of acting or the world of theatre, as you do now. Because you're not just you are not just an actor like I know that you've done lighting and I know you've done sound. You've done directing. You've done writing. You seem to have a real holistic vision of the theatre, and I don't really want to say a jack of all trades, but a little bit of a jack of all trades. You kind of your career has touched on a lot of different aspects of or a lot of different jobs within the theatre. Am I right in saying that?
Callan – Yeah, absolutely. I started to I did do lighting and sound when my voice started to break because I didn't know what else to do. Also it was that weird age gap of, you know, where there aren't really many parts. You're either too old to play this puddle too young to play the other part. So, yeah, that's when I started to consider more offstage things as well, which just gave me such an appreciation for other elements of theatre. I definitely understand what you mean, though; that saying Jack of all trades master of none is definitely something I grapple with from day to day. But the reality is that I think we're moving into a world where you must, you must, uh, work and play with so many different facets of theatre, one to keep you saying and to to keep you on top of what people are asking for in terms of skills and stuff. So, yes, you can be as I am a writer, and you can be an actor, and you can be a workshop facilitator. But I do that because I want to, and that's what aligns with my morals and my values.
Jackie – Let's talk about being a workshop facilitator because that's where our paths have crossed again. Just recently, you came to the school that I was at to help some of the students understand one of the HSC, please, that they were just struggling with. And you were very gracious with the students and generous with your time to come and facilitate that workshop. And you created it just for our special, like our group of students. But I know that you have also worked with Daniel Governor at Newtown Performing Arts High School, doing their after school work. So you've done a lot of work in the extra-curricula of high school since you have left school. And since you've done drama school, which is really nice to be giving back, how would you like to describe what you've done? Or can you talk about the work that you've done at Newtown Performing arts high school and then at other high schools as well?
Callan – Yes, I think it kind of it's in two streams. There's either I come in and strictly develop, deliver a workshop of sorts with theatre skills, like through physical theatre or Shakespeare or music, theatre or voice and movement and then the other branch is coming on board as a director to kind of facilitate a lab where the students and I can create a piece of work where there's shared ownership over it. I think any workshop that I run ever is always. There is always a sense of curiosity and asking questions that begin with what if and I wonder. It's so important to me that I'm not coming in as a guru with all the answers, because nine times out of 10, as you know, Jackie, that the students are teaching you so many things with the questions they ask because they've got the ear to the ground knowing that you know what, what's rippling amongst teenagers and what the trends are and how they express themselves. So I guess they are a lifeline and direct connection into that teenager world and that we can, and I can create theatre through that kind of stream, which is really exciting because it's ever-changing. I'm always excited to bring in my skills that I've learned from drama school, and before then, I still use exercises I learned at ATYP. And, uh, you know, adopt a theatre as well when I was like, What, 11. So it's all, so it's just a huge bag of coming in and looking at meeting the students and saying, Okay, what do we need? And what do we want to celebrate in this room? You know, there are some classes that are physical theatre or physical comedy or their ace at writing scripts. So we look at using their strength to examine the things that they need to improve on and always.
Jackie – Then they will be shown in their best light, but also they will be challenged to improve themselves as performers and theatre-makers. How did you get into doing this sort of work in schools? Did you always have a passion for leading workshops like this? Or is it something that's sort of you were just asked, and you've made it up and and and you found your own way as you've gone?
Callan – I was really lucky that when I was 17, working with young people, and I think the reason why I got into it is that it's the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. If that's honestly, because I'm always then learning and experimenting and creating new work with young people that want to work and that have ideas and that have something to say, I just give the space and the structure to allow them to say it. And then we kind of form the works. So I was working at ATYP and then I started to go into schools in the Catholic system and the public education system as well, and it's developed from there. I've always kind of started from scratch, if anything, developing different workshops and catering them for different groups. It's always been really a freelance kind of thing and a word of mouth thing as well. Kind of going, hey, if you want me to do a workshop, I'm happy to come in for workshops as well, to come in and see how best to, you know, to develop the students and see what they need, as well as the teacher.
Jackie –Yeah, and I think that's sort of what happened at our school. We had a blockage of our play and how the students were learning about it, and I feel like you really helped everybody in the space understand the play a little bit more so with the workshops that you run. How do you find the students respond to that? Do they seem really appreciative of having another person in? They probably connect with you on different levels and what they connect with their teachers at school.
Callan –That's such a good question because I think it can go so many ways, and it has, like even yesterday. I teach. I do workshops for young from primary school students to HST students. And yesterday, I just asked the students to take their shoes and socks off for us to start, and even that they were screaming and they were so elated to be able to do that tiny little thing. So I guess my understanding is I come in to shake things up, if anything, and let them kind of be kids again. However, all they are and express themselves in different ways. I always have this image that I would love them to have the feeling of being upside down for a little bit and seeing the world from a different point of view. I come in as an inspirer. I work. I work in short, sharp intervals. I don't necessarily come in to deliver lectures or like long term kinds of things, but short bursts of inspiration to share my passion and love. And hopefully, that becomes infectious. Um, it does a lot of the time. We see that a kind of not forcing students into exercises, but definitely dropping them in the deep end and going kind of that yes and mentality that we get in. We get it done, and we start doing the things you know. Actors are actors; they do things they're not sitting and contemplating. We have enough time for that. Later I come in, I get sweaty, they get sweaty, and we have a chat after that, and we play. One challenge I do come up against at the moment is a reflection, and my expectation for the students to be able to articulate their feelings or their experience of what they've just done in the task is a little bit unreasonable at times, and I'm coming to terms with that and trying to figure out ways to get students to be able to really reflect on what they've just experienced.
So whether or not that's writing it down privately instead of just sharing with the rest of the group, maybe they can express it through, like, you know, an abstract word or just even a sound as opposed to words because, as you know to, they're trying to deal with their bodies changing and their brains changing and how they see themselves in relation to one another. So I'm definitely trying to make that more accessible, because for me, regardless of the ability or you know their intention to become an actor, the most important part is that they can engage and find a sense of development or a sense of journey through the task at the end of the day.
Jackie – That's really cool, and I would agree it's hard to get students to reflect on what they have done at times. Yeah, I feel like they don't want to talk out loud about it. So, yeah, finding something, finding another way to let them express that might be a way to go. Yeah, so you had obviously had an incredible experience with schools both at school when you were at HSPA and coming in and running workshops or working in the extracurricular side of the school, post your own school graduation. What do you see? Works really well for students to develop those gifted and high potential students who, uh, maybe have an interest in going into the theatre. What are some really good things that teachers who are listening might be able to implement straight away or be able to think about to bring into their school to really inspire their students to perhaps consider a career in the performing arts like you?
Callan – I guess the biggest thing I would say is that there is a difference between school drama and then the acting world outside, and that's absolutely fine. It's just, I understand. I understand that there are students that want more, and they're hungry for more. So there are so many different workshops that are outside of school hours through Australian theatre. For young people in particular, where you are working with professional actors and directors and technicians, that yeah, you kind of develop those types of classes and those productions so whether or not that's something that they can do and also I know the state drama festival and, like, you know, the national of the state drama company is a great opportunity for those who are looking to do something more, also potentially if there's funding for it. And if there's time and venues, whether or not that student wants to step up and director play, uh, and be a leader for that class and kind of develop a show that they want to do, that could be an exciting opportunity, because I think my understanding or my gut feeling, is that when we're in a drama class, that class is for everyone. And so regardless of the again the abilities or whether where particular students are at, we need to acknowledge that that is what they've got and that's what they're bringing, and that's enough as well. And that's what we're working with, because if we're always only expecting others to meet us, then that's not really fair. So we're trying to meet in the middle and create something that we never even thought we could make me.
I'd say look for things outside of that school to be able to let your let those students excel, because then they're going to bring those skills into the classroom, and then they're only gonna feed that into the other students and make everyone better off.
Jackie – You obviously about to get insanely busy with your rehearsal schedule coming up. But for teachers who wanted to enhance their programs by getting somebody like yourself in to do a workshop or to run some kind of after school type activity, how do teachers like to reach out to actors? How, like, obviously, I was able to find you because I knew you. But what are some avenues that teachers can go through to get in touch with actors like yourself, who might be able to come in and run a workshop to inspire their kids?
Callan –Yeah, you see that sometimes there are generic programs that people can come in and whatnot, but as you say, it's a specific thing for someone to come in and inspire them and create that connection. However long or short that connection, maybe, and I would also say potentially that teacher can step up and become the inspirer as well. If you can if a teacher sends themselves away to professional development, of course, either at night or other schools around and kind of share that the things that you learn, all the things that you love with the students, as I'm sure the teachers already do.
Jackie – Fantastic. Some great advice. Thank you so much for sharing your insights today. Really excited to get to know more about what you've been doing since I last saw you on stage in Newcastle too many years ago. I like to finish with what I call the final Fast five, and I found that they haven't been so fast sometimes. But let's see how we go. What high school did you go to?
Callan – Hunter school of the Performing Arts
Jackie – And your favorite subject at HSPA?
Callan –I really loved art because of the room, in particular, the wind that we have huge windows and the light was coming in, and it was beautiful. The setup was that it wasn't a conventional classroom, they were just tables, and they were just materials everywhere. And Miss Forbes would always come in with a beautiful smile. And that made me feel really comfortable.
Jackie –I was expecting a performing arts subject, a favourite teacher and why?
Callan – Miss Martin was a great support for me through my later years there. I think her son's name was Callen, so I think that's why we had that really nice connection. But yes, she was my PE teacher, and she treated me like a human instead of just another number within the students.
Jackie – What is you can choose which one you want to answer this best school achievement or your favourite school memory?
Callan – Jackie, I'm going to have to say finishing school. To be honest, I was ready to. I was ready to go, and I was so ready to go and just go and go and go and go. I was itching to get out, not because of the school in particular, but just because I was ready to take on the world.
Jackie –That's a good answer. I think that's an achievement for a lot of our students. Is just getting to that finish finishing line alright, and the final one takeaway that you can leave as advice to our teachers.
Callan – I'd say the students that you teach aren't necessarily the perfect actors, but they're the right actors for that room and for that class. So if you're able to perceive their physical and mental energy, no matter how that's delivered as an expression of confidence, then you'll be able to channel that into something productive and positive for the rest of the class. The last thing, too, is that show. Don't tell, you know, you always knew that the teacher was meeting business. Once you take the keys off from around her neck and get on the floor with you and have a go.
Jackie –Yes, taking the keys off too noisy coming from a music teacher were all about noise. Callen. It's been an absolute joy talking to you today. Good luck with Hamilton and the obviously the very busy rehearsal season that is going to be coming up for you. I'm sure it's going to be an amazing experience. It is definitely one that I'm going to be getting along to. I hope that our paths can continue to cross, and we can continue to work together to support our students in schools as well.
Callan – I've no doubt, Jackie, that's really exciting.
Jackie –Thank you.
Callan – Thanks.
Jackie –This podcast was brought to you by the Creative Arts Curriculum Team, Secondary Learners Educational Standards Directorate of the New South Wales Department of Education. Get involved in the conversation by joining the Statewide Staffroom as a source of all truths regarding curriculum or email. Our curriculum advisor, Cathryn Horvat using the email address firstname.lastname@example.org. The music for this podcast was composed by Alex Manton, audio production by Jason King.
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