It’s been a while since I’ve written about any books, but two of the most recent non-fiction works I’ve read have inspired me to explore the relevance and importance of context in literature.
When a family friend and former bookshop owner recommended Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, it came with a comment that it might provide insights into life in Iran and the cultural differences we could face when relating to Iranians now.
Since moving to Melbourne I’ve become friends with quite a few people from Iran and it’s been interesting to see how different people react when they hear that. Particularly – and I kind of hate saying this – people from small towns or regions where there is not a lot of cultural diversity. But you can’t know what you don’t know, which is one of the reasons I love reading non-fiction works.
Anyway, when I was reading Nafisi’s memoir, I found myself not only engaged by the difference in experiences she had living and working in Tehran, but also questioning what it is like their now.
Reading Lolita in Tehran primarily deals with Nafisi’s time teaching Western literature and living in Tehran, between 1979 and 1997. There are insights into the political context, particularly during and after the revolution (1978-81), university regulation, religious beliefs, small rebellions and society in general.
It definitely opened my eyes to how different life can be when you are born in a different part of the world. While it’s easy for us to pick up a copy of Lolita or The Great Gatsby or any other novel considered a classic, at the time that Nafisi reflects on in this memoir it was often a struggle to find these books and even illegal to read some of them.
Still, Nafisi saw value in considering these classic texts of the Western world, and her passion for them saw her fight to teach them and highlight similarities and differences between the cultures of these works and the ones she was experiencing. It’s a fascinating insight into life in Tehran at the time and how our social context can affect the way we read literature.
But I would argue that it’s not an insight into life in Tehran now. It’s from a time in the past and, while there were events that have undoubtedly affected Iran since Nafisi wrote her work, unless we experience life in Tehran firsthand it’s hard to say what it would be like there now.
Change and Cultural Perspectives
What similarities are there between the Tehran Nafisi lived in and the Tehran people know now? What differences are there? How has history affected this city and country in the years between?
These questions have always fascinated me when it comes to context and history. But our perspectives on these questions are also shaped by our own contexts. I have no experience of Tehran, but I do have an opinion on it based on what I’ve read and the Iranian people I’ve spoken to. That opinion is (and should be) constantly evolving the more I learn.
I’m still aware, however, that someone who has lived in Tehran would read Nafisi’s book with a different set of eyes and thoughts on it. Maybe they would agree, maybe they wouldn’t and maybe they would see more of what has changed and what has stayed the same within that culture.
These things are what I experienced when I picked up another memoir, Tracks by Robyn Davidson. It’s the story of Davidson’s nine-month journey from Alice Springs to the west coast of Australia (ending up at Hamelin Pool, some 750 kilometres from Perth).
In Tracks, we hear about Davidson’s two-year preparation for the journey, which started with a move to The Alice in 1975. She writes about her experience as a city girl moving to the outback, her journey to learn more about camels and finding the four that would travel with her and her faithful dog Diggity.
She also writes about her experience a woman in the Australian outback in the late 70s, and her observations of how Aboriginals were viewed and treated. While the majority of the book, to me, was about Davidson finding a relationship with the land (and this country), there were some very fascinating and poignant insights into Australian life.
Some of what she wrote about different Indigenous communities (and they ways they were viewed), for example, sounds like they could have been pulled from discussions today.
“It also became apparent to me that the majority of whites now involved with the Aborigines are fighting alongside them to protect what is left of their lands and their rights, and eventually to reach the point where the blacks are autonomous,” she observes at one point.
“Whether this is possible, given the rural white backlash, the racist attitudes of Australians generally and the genocidal policies of the present government, and given that the rest of the world seems neither to know nor care what is happening to the oldest culture in the world, is a doubtful thing.”
I’ve heard many people say similar things over the past few years, though perhaps using slightly different language (people appear to be more cautious about using terms like “blacks” and “whites” in my experience).
I think just as many people would agree and disagree with her statements now as they would have done then. The big difference, as far as I can tell, is that there does now seem to be much more open conversation about Aboriginal culture and the socio-political issues they face.
The government has apologised for many of the wrongs done to Aboriginals since colonisation (for what that has been worth). There are ongoing discussions and concerns. People actually do care about what is happening to and for Aboriginal people, and I got the impression that the concern I’m aware of now was incredibly rare at the time Davidson was writing about her experiences crossing Australia.
My point is that some of Davidson’s observations still ring true today, while others are not as relevant now. And I have a stronger opinion about it than I did with Reading Lolita in Tehran because I do live in Australia. I wasn’t alive when Davidson started her journey, but my opinion is informed by the Australia I’ve grown up with.
As a result, I know firsthand what I see as different and what I see as the same in our culture. But someone who has never been to Australia, who read this book, would get a very different picture of this country if they took Davidson’s observations as true for today. I think the same can be said for me or anyone else reading a memoir like Reading Lolita in Tehran and assuming that is what life in Iran is like.
There are many reasons that I love reading, but one of them is to learn more about people and the world, both now and in the past. Memoirs can provide unique insights into a particular time and place (then and now), but above all they provide insights into the life of one person. Through that person (the author), I learn more about myself and the world around me.
As children we all play these different games; cops and robbers, doctors and nurses, superheroes and villains and many others too. While a lot of people would say we stop doing this at some stage and “grow up” I think we still do it as adults, just in a different way and to a different extent. We behave in certain ways based on the people around us. How you behave at work, for example, could be very different to how you are at a party.
I think of it as showing different sides of ourselves, and it’s something most actors are very familiar with because we have to do it more consciously and (often) to greater extremes. In order to be truthful under the imaginary circumstances we often have to do things very different to how we normally would. And say things we wouldn’t normally say (and find a way to believe them in that setting so that the audience believes us). I think Meryl Streep contextualises it best:
“Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.”
The challenge comes when you’re playing someone really different to who you normally are. Like a generous, nurturing actor playing a serial killer, or someone very shy playing a power hungry narcissist. How do actors find that in themselves?
There’s all kinds of different techniques that you could use, but at the core of it I think is finding something that could or would make you feel that way. I remember one actor I was working with saying that when he had to kill someone he thought about how much he hated mosquitos and how satisfying it was to kill them. That was something in him.
My friend, actor and creative director of Meisner Melbourne, Clare Dea, has taught me that we can find and explore these parts of ourselves by being open to them and not judging them. She says we have all these different parts in ourself that can influence the ways we act on screen/stage and in life. For example, we all have a part of ourselves that is very critical (you know, the one that critiques your work or what your wearing or what you’ve just said to someone?), and a part that is very supportive.
This is just one way to contextualise who we are and what we do in any situation, and it frames what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
Once we start growing up, we come across lessons about certain behaviour. It’s “bad” to be rude or aggressive and “good” to be polite and friendly. So the parts of us that are rude and aggressive get pushed aside in favour of the “good” parts. And suddenly we’re judging parts of ourselves.
As an actor that is incredibly detrimental to the craft. One of the most important things for acting, as I see it, is to be emotionally available and open to expressing whatever is required in an honest way.
As many acting coaches, teachers and the developers of techniques practised all around the world have said, it is bad form for actors to “judge” their characters. So how does it affect us as human beings if we judge parts of ourself?
I don’t have an answer, but I do have some observations around this question. Years ago I was incredibly judgmental about being (what I perceived to be) selfish. To the point that I would stay hours late at work to make sure everything was right or give up time I’d set aside for myself to do something for someone else. I was always so worried about everyone else, and it got to a point where I got really, really sick. And suddenly I forced to look after myself. I realised that it wasn’t selfish, it was responsible. A friend said to me at the time “How can you help other people if you can’t help yourself?”, and it really hit home: because I was scared of being selfish I’d gone so far the other way that I never did anything for myself. So I found a balance.
That’s just one example, but I’m pretty sure everyone could think of other events in their lives that have had similar outcomes based on judgments, fear or both. The easiest thing is to ignore these feelings, to just go on in the same way and deny that there is any judgment or fear. But that denial can be really counterproductive.
I recently read a Huffington Post article by Anthony Meindl where he talks about embracing all of life, even the parts that suck. I think the same thing applies to our selves. “By embracing our lives totally (even the stuff that “sucks”),” he writes, “we get through them.”
“The Armed Forces have no other choice. If they’re out in the Iraqi desert or in the mountains of Afghanistan, the only way they’re going to get through those challenging experiences is by embracing them.
But for us with our modern conveniences and propensity for denial, we can distract ourselves, numb ourselves, fool ourselves over and over to avoid, disconnect, ignore, postpone, procrastinate and put our heads in the sand when we don’t want to look at what is. And that’s ironic since the denial of something simply extends its presence.”
The thing is, judgment is judgment whether it’s about yourself or someone else. And denial is denial whether it’s about a situation or something in ourselves.
So maybe the real question I should be asking is this: how does it affect us as human beings if we embrace all of ourself?
In the last two weeks I’ve had several inspiring conversations about life and how to live. Almost all of these discussions have explored the idea of having things other than work and/or passions in everyday life, and I think that is a really important lesson for me to learn.
Both actors and writers draw on experiences for their work. As an actor, knowing how I behave in certain situations when I am my authentic self means I can make choices about what parts of me I use and find out how that affects my behaviour. As a writer, well I think Stephen King put it best when he said you write what you know (to paraphrase). I also think that in both fields you also get to explore imagined circumstances, but what you know is always an influencing factor.
This idea of life experience, of “needing” it for my craft, had a huge impact on me from a very early age.
When I was in my teens I used to do certain things for the sake of getting life experience as an actor. I knew that as a young person (especially as someone younger than the majority of my peers) that I needed to get as much life experience as possible to enrich my acting life.
I was reminded of this fact at the recent Howard Fine Master Class in Melbourne, where Fine himself joked that “sometimes we live so we can act” (I may be paraphrasing). I also realised that sometimes I still do that. Definitely not as much as I did, but it’s like one of those habits you get so used to that you barely even notice it. I’ll stay out all night and do a walk of shame because I feel I “should experience it”, or go on dates with someone I’m not sure about because so many scenes involve an awkward date…these examples are pretty tame but I think it’s clear to see where I’m heading with this (and maybe by extension where I’ve been).
While I could chalk any of these acts up to “living” or “trying something new”, there is usually this small part of me recording each experience and filing it away for future use in my acting or even my writing. It’s really hard to switch that part of me off and just be.
So there is this risk that I will spend too much time focused on my acting life and not on my actual life. But the problem then is that it is really easy to become disconnected from reality, to find that the only time a connection is strong is in acting work or training or writing (to some extent). And that is not a way to live.
What I’ve realised over the last few years is that it is just as important to make time for my actual life as it is for my work/creative life. I remember talking to a friend about this very thing last year. After returning from a lengthy work trip, my friend was feeling adrift and somehow lacking. I knew the feeling well. I suggested finding things outside of work because, like me a few years before, work and work-related activities (including research, reading, meetings, training etc) took up the majority of time. And it makes a difference to “live a full life”, as Howard Fine also said during his most recent time in Melbourne.
Finding perspective and balance
My good friend, acting coach and actor Clare Elizabeth Dea told me earlier this year that if you spend all your time doing acting stuff, that you lose perspective and get so caught up wanting to be given every opportunity that you forget to enjoy the moment, the smaller successes and the process itself. How true that is, not just for actors but for anyone who spends a lot of time on one thing.
It’s like focusing too much on one thing means that you lose focus. You lose perspective. It doesn’t even have to be work.
Several years ago at the Brisbane Writers Festival I went to a talk with three successful photographers. One of them said that he had recently started making a point of leaving his camera behind when he did things with his family, because “when you are taking photos you’re viewing things from the outside, not experiencing them.”
This sentiment seems to be everywhere at the moment. Sophia Ford Coppola expressed it during the release of her latest film, The Bling Ring. Writer and deputy editor at Mamamia, Lucy Ormonde, noted how much smartphones and social media have changed the way we experience things (or don’t).
Research has found over-use of technology to sleep problems, stress and depression and, while the explanations of these links vary, one theory from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, suggested that it is because people are reaching out to their friends and family primarily through technology instead of face-to-face, or IRL.
All of these things suggest that we are getting caught up in doing certain things, for whatever reasons, rather than being and experiencing.
I don’t know that there is a right or a wrong way to live but I think it’s important to have a full life in every way. And yesterday I came across some words from actor Ralph Fiennes that sum it up perfectly:
“The people I consider successful are so because of how they handle their responsibilities to other people, how they approach the future, people who have a full sense of the value of their life and what they want to do with it. I call people successful not because they have money or their business is doing well but because, as human beings, they have a fully developed sense of being alive and engaged in a lifetime task of collaboration with other human beings — their mothers and fathers, their family, their friends, their loved ones, the friends who are dying, the friends who are being born. Success.. is all about being able to extend love to people… not in a big, capital letter sense but in the everyday. Little by little, task by task, gesture by gesture, word by word.”
So here’s to success!
For a while now I’ve been exploring what an actor is and what actors do. I previously wrote about the craft itself, particularly how important it is to be emotionally available and find connections with people. Now I want to look at what I could and should consider “work” as an actor. A big part of it (and the part most people, and maybe most actors focus on) is a production. If you have a show in rehearsals, on stage or in some part of production for film/television, well that’s work.
But last year I started to think that it might be more productive to think about the other things an actor does that count as work. There’s not a whole lot of roles up for grabs and competition is high, but does that mean actors stop working when they aren’t cast in something or going to auditions?
The way I see it, auditioning and/or getting a role is just the top layer of what an actor does for work. Because we have to keep our instruments sharp no matter what.
That means doing activities to stay emotionally open, finding and preparing monologues or scenes for auditions, taking classes, reading plays, watching films, television shows and live theatre, talking to other actors, directors, writers, producers, agents…the list goes on.
Then there are the other practical things an actor has to do. We should work with our bodies (whether that means working out, doing yoga, dancing etc), stay on top of our finances (particularly superannuation, which can be erratic for actors not on a long-term, contracted role), maintain and update our headshots and regularly re-edit our showreels…there are so many things that can and should be considered part of the work for an actor, and they are often overlooked by actors and observers alike.
Acting is an interesting career choice, to say the least. Actors often have “day jobs” to help pay the bills, and I suspect we spend a lot more than people in other industries when it comes to training and development. But it is a labour of love. I don’t think anyone truly committed to being an actor would invest so much time and money otherwise.
Redefining The Term “Working Actor”
Traditionally, a “working actor” is someone who has a current gig or gigs in some shape or form. Someone who has got their break and is making the most of it.
As a result of this perception, and our own inherent insecurity and self-criticism, is easy to get caught up on the roles you miss out on, or the fact that you haven’t been in production for a while. But it is also counter-productive and often short sighted.
Some of the best work I’ve seen actors do has not been in any production at all. I remember a moment during the Howard Fine Master Class I audited last year when one of the actors had just had a breakthrough about their prep for the role in the scene. Hearing the actor talk about what they’d just realised, seeing their elation and the exhaustion that came after doing such great work made me realise THAT is the work. That’s what we do, whether it’s on set or in a classroom.
Howard Fine outlines this further in his book Fine On Acting: A Vision of the Craft (written with Chris Freeman), arguing that people who are not prepared to do all of the work rarely have a sustainable career.
“Let me be clear,” he writes, “this is a process and a lifetime of hard work.”
“Acting is a comprehensive art form. You have to know so many things in order to play a wide range of roles…You really have to think about a career, because what are you going to do if you have a little splash of success? Are you going to go back to waiting tables after you’ve been famous? It’s a very interesting thing that I have seen time and again, where somebody had some initial success and they just weren’t prepared for the long haul.”
What I take away from this perspective is that it is not about whether or not you get a break (though that definitely helps), but what you do for your career. And that can come in many different forms, because acting is about being human.
Explaining Acting Work To Other People
So here is the part where it can be a struggle for other people. If all of this – performing, auditioning, rehearsing, training, reading plays, learning lines, auditioning, keeping fit, getting photos done etc – is work, why don’t we get paid for it all? Other people in other jobs get paid for all of their work, right? So if you spent more money than you make on acting (or close to 50/50), doesn’t that make it more a hobby?
The truth is there is never enough money in this industry for us to get paid to work on ourselves. There are very few companies willing to invest in our professional development, so we have to do it ourselves. But the actors who are committed to their craft 100%, they are not doing it as a hobby, as something “on the side” from their office job or hospitality and retail work. They are doing it as their chosen career and profession.
I sometimes struggle to explain this idea to people, so I like to use an analogy to help convey how I see the acting profession. Last year I watched a documentary about elite athletes training for the Olympics. Many of the individuals and teams spend years and years training. Some, like female gymnasts for example, have spent most of their lives training for this one event.
Often they have to pay a fortune for their training, the costumes, the meets and the qualifiers that help them on the road to the Olympics. And then only a few go on to the actual event that the whole world can see.
When I realised all of this about Olympians, I couldn’t help but draw some parallels to acting. We spend so much time and money training, go to hundreds (thousands) of auditions and then one day get to do something that our friends and family (and many strangers) finally get to see.
Not every actor will get the role they want when they want it, just like not every elite athlete qualifies for the Olympics. Some athletes end up as coaches or commentators on the industry, just as some actors may teach or become critics at some stage of their careers. But all of the work we do to get there still matters.
I was recently lucky enough to go to a workshop with the very talented actor, producer, director and teacher Ted Brunetti, who is a faculty member at the Howard Fine Studio in LA and Melbourne. During his time in Australia, Ted held a workshop in association with Equity called “Be Prepared To Work – Not Audition”.
One of the first things Ted said to us that night was that “every appointment you get is an opportunity to work,” including auditions. He said one of the biggest problems actors have is treating auditions as a stepping stone to “something else”. What I took away from him was that the expectations can hinder the preparation.
“Auditioning is working for free,” he said. “Working leads to payment”. We just don’t know when we will get paid. But as Ted put it (with an apt analogy of his own):
“Most of the work to get a rocket to the moon happens on the ground. Once you get the bastard up, the energy is negligible (in comparison).”
Ted Brunetti has been applying and teaching this philosophy for years and a quick chat with a few of the other actors in the room suggested we all felt instantly better thinking about every individual task as part of our work. It makes it so much easier because you can apply the same standards and value to every thing that you do. In turn, that takes the pressure off feeling like every audition or interview or networking event you go to has to have some kind of outcome. It doesn’t, because it is the work and you can get out of it whatever you put in.
Since that class with Ted (which was around the start of June), I’ve avoided using the word audition at all – partly because it sometimes frustrates me to have people ask “How did the audition go? When will you know if you got it?” and partly because I probably have some judgement around the word that could influence my actions before, during and after the event.
So on Ted’s advice, I’ve tried to refer to everything I do for acting as “work”. And something interesting has happened. I work harder regardless of the job at hand, I don’t feel as down if one gig doesn’t lead to something else straight away. I’m enjoying myself more and I am giving 100% all of the time.
I think the lesson I’ve really learnt in the last year is that as an actor, it is not what you are working on, but what you are doing for your career that matters. If that’s a gig, great. If it’s reading, teaching, watching movies, documentaries, television shows, learning about the industry, researching funding bodies and theatres or developing an arsenal of characters, shooting a showreel, shooting an ad, getting an agent, signing up to the union, organising finances, training, teaching, devising, networking, writing…well, all of that can be just as fun.
I know not all actors will read this and agree with what I’ve said, and I know that not everyone will get it, but it is working for me. And what I keep coming back to, whether I am motivated and inspired or feeling disheartened and frustrated, is a particular line in Howard Fine’s book that sums up exactly how I feel about acting:
“This is a journey worth devoting your life to.”
There is no definitive answer to that question but it’s one that has come up a lot for me over the last few weeks. My answer is constantly evolving as I do more and work with or talk to more people, so I thought I would share some of my current thoughts on the subject and hopefully shed some light on acting as a craft and profession (or open up the discussion for people).
Acting has two sides to it, there is the literal process of “acting” and there is the business side. But let’s start with the former (I’ll explore the latter in part two). I think every actor has their own idea of what acting is, and probably everyone who has ever seen a movie, watched television, been to a play or studied acting has an opinion about what it involves.
For me, I go back to a definition I’ve heard many times, particularly in the context of the Meisner Technique and Practical Aesthetics:
“Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances”.
That means finding ways to believe and behave in an honest, authentic and organic way within the constraints of the work you are doing as an actor. It means every moment is different, so every take of a film, every night of a play and every rehearsal is as varied as life.
The approaches that actors take, however, can vary significantly. So you have a range of techniques and methods that actors will subscribe to and promote, as well as artists who explore everything and approach each role differently.
In my training with Meisner Melbourne, Clare Dea built on the idea of “living truthfully” through work on the self. We explored different parts of our selves to find emotional and personal states different to how we normally are. I remember when I started training with Clare I was very scared of feeling anger, bypassing it and going straight to tears. But after a few months I had found parts of my self that were open to feeling and expressing anger including, for example, a Bitch and a Protector.
Something really important that Clare drilled into me is that every emotion is important. Some of them don’t feel nice, and a lot of them we judge (which I have written about before), but as an actor it is vital that I am open to feeling every emotion and exploring them 100%.
This framework resonates with me but I’m also aware of other ways that you can “act truthfully” in any given moment. When I audited the Howard Fine Master Class in Melbourne last year, one of the things I took away from Howard Fine, David Coury and the actors working with them was that you have to be open to figuring out what works for a particular role. There’s not really one formula that will get you there every time.
I could, for example, find one role that hits close to the bone with me and brings up emotions and reactions organic because of the familiarity. Just recently, actually, I was working on a role that reminded me of the project I used to run for young people at risk of homelessness in Brisbane. I didn’t really have to do much work on my mind state to feel like the lines I said were truthful in the moment.
At other times actors get to explore things so alien to them that imagination (and a strong hit of empathy) may be the only way to find the truth. For example, I was once cast as a returned medic from the war, suffering post traumatic stress disorder and rebelling against a family that didn’t understand. I’ve never been to war. I’ve never had post traumatic stress disorder and my family is pretty cool, so I had to explore ways to find the truth of the character in myself (which I did find, and I think it is one of my strongest roles yet).
When I was in my first year of uni I was working on a scene with a girl where we had to have a fight. I was lucky enough to have the very talented Andrea Moor (actor, director and teacher) as my teacher and in the very first rehearsal she showed the class she stopped me two lines in. I was standing down stage and my scene partner was sitting up stage.
“Ah, you’re doing something a lot of young actors do Amy. Why did you walk away from her?” she asked me. I said it was because I was angry with the other girl in this scene.
“Would you do that in real life?” Andrea went on to explain that so often young actors (and some very experienced ones too) will think it is better to internalise their character and emotions, to “work off themselves” in a sense. But, she said, it is more powerful to work with the other person in a scene. She got me to try the scene again, staying with the other girl and responding to her. It suddenly felt so much more real.
That one moment inspired me so much that I went on to do more training with Andrea, who has worked with the Atlantic Theatre Company to bring David Mamet and William H. Macy’s Practical Aesthetics technique to Australia.
At the same time as I was working with Andrea, I met a much more experienced actor in the same course as me who had trained in the Meisner Technique at the New York Playhouse. Kate taught me the basics of repetition and working with her reinforced how important it is to connect with the actors you are working with and to react truthfully to what they do, moment to moment.
The importance of connection has stayed with me since then, and it’s something I’ve been able to explore in theatre productions, short films and particularly in training with Meisner Melbourne, Howard Fine Acting Studio Australia and, most recently, with Brett Cousins at Red Stitch Actors Theatre where I’m currently doing an acting intensive.
When I first spoke to Brett, one of the things he said to me was that “connecting with people” was something he loved about acting, and a lot of the work we have done so far has been around that idea of connection.
After the first session with him, while we were tidying up the lovely Red Stitch theatre, we got to talking about what acting is in relation to different techniques. Something I’d realised during the class was that physical activities (which are designed to get you “out of your head” and into the moment) can help create the action in a scene, but it is always the other people that take precedence. It’s really easy to get caught up in the “doing” of a scene and, indeed, some people describe acting as literally “doing” something. But whatever activity you are doing becomes secondary when you have a connection with someone; instead of doing something, you are being. And that, to me, is what acting is really about because by being truthfully in the moment, you can connect with not only the other actors, but also the audience.
NOTE: There is so much more I could say about the craft of acting, this is really just scraping the surface and a reflection of where I’m at right now, so I’m very interested to hear other perspectives and views on acting.
Let’s just kick back with a few stubbies, chuck some shrimp (prawns) on the barbie and have a bit of a chinwag about our culcha, orright?
If that sounds Aussie to you, I’d suggest looking further than the iconic institutions that are Crocodile Dundee, Croc Hunter, Cath and Kim et al. There is so much more here and recently I’ve given more thought to what makes up Australian culture.
Years ago I actually wrote about the multicultural element of our society, particularly in relation to film and TV casting, but since then I’ve travelled and lived overseas, moved cities and met hundreds of people from all around the world. As a result of life experience my view of culture has somewhat changed, to say the least.
The problem is that I can’t encapsulate Australian culture accurately with one definition. It’s just not that simple. There are so many layers to our history, to where we’ve been, the people that make up this land, the ones first connected to it and the ones that have since found something on these shores that resonates with them. I can’t simplify that down to one, bite-sized explanation of Australian culture.
What I can do, however, is bring my own interpretation to the table. I recently had a discussion with another creative who brought up her perspective on our culture, which she said was very lacking (based on lots of years of travel and reflection). Lots of people agreed with her, but I chose not to say anything and let it sink in. That’s where this post began.
What our culture is to me
Australian culture is a mix of people, ideas and life experiences. Every day I meet people who have lived their whole lives in this city, moved from countries around the world, come from the countryside…the variety is profound. I love it. And not all of these people identify as just Australian.
I have friends who were born here who say they are from elsewhere because they’re first generation Aussie (and grew up with another cultural element at home), I have friends who moved here when they were kids and do call themselves Aussie. I know people who have become Aussie citizens and engage with politics here more than people born here; and those born elsewhere who are now permanent residents and care as much about our country as the place where they were born.
All of us, together, make Australia what it is. And it’s not some kind of hotpot, pastiche culture, but one united through diversity. One that changes all the time and, with it, so does my awareness of what makes up our culture. But here are a few of the elements specific to me now…
Australian culture is to me, working hard at whatever you do. It’s also knowing when you can get away with taking a break (because hard work all the time is HARD, and burns you out). It’s seeing the grass as greener elsewhere, and striving to get there even if you find that once you have arrived, the neighbouring field is even greener.
It’s often also hiding behind hard work, giving credit to the result rather than the effort, in an attempt to avoid being seen as a tall poppy ready to be cut down.
It’s trying new things. Think about all of the different restaurants you can go to in a city, or even a small town. My home town, Bellingen, is just over 2000 people and there are restaurants serving Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Italian inspired food. There’s the standard pub fare, a Swiss patisserie (which is practically an institution there), hearty pies and fish and chipperies. Melbourne is even more diverse, and so was Brisbane when I lived there.
It’s not just food where this idea of giving things a go takes hold. I see hundreds of Aussies come to salsa and bachata (another “Latin” dance style) classes, or going to free seminars at the Wheeler Centre and elsewhere.
Australian culture, to me, is also a connection with the land. It’s more common now (thankfully), to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land by name before events.
On the European history side of things, there is the connection to farming. We have such high quality dairy and meat produce; we are aware of the differences between free range and caged, between organic and hormone free or pesticide-sprayed. And where we lack information there are organisations doing research and exposés to enlighten us. It might sound silly, but when I lived in Vancouver, I disliked the milk, the cheese, the meat. I don’t consume a lot of any of those things normally, but when I do I like to enjoy them, rather than have tasteless versions.
Then there’s the military history, the Aussie Battler image that can be proud and heartbreaking at the same time. We’re loyal and have a history of uniting for things we believe in.
What I’m also discovering is that Australian culture has a place for creativity and art. Almost everyone I know does something creative either for work or in their spare time. I know accountants who dance, engineers who play music, politicians who paint beautiful artworks, everyday people who write the most wonderful memoirs and novels and many, many others that attend art events. Lately it also seems like every second person I meet writes beautiful poetry.
In the last couple of years I have been lucky enough to see some amazing new Australian works. Mainly in theatre, but also film and television and live music. I grew up with my teachers at school and my lecturers at uni telling me that Australian culture didn’t accomodate the creative arts. Either that has changed or my view of culture has adapted to include it, because it’s everywhere I look now. Yes, we have a long way to go (especially with funding), but people are interested by creativity and engaged by it. And there is lots of great Australian art being developed and produced. Maybe it’s not yet easy to find, but it is there and that in itself is exciting.
The old idea of Aussie culture
My perhaps optimistic view of Australian culture isn’t the full picture and I’m very aware of that. There’s also the red-blooded, masculine, stick-it-to-the-man, convict-history side of things. It’s still out there.
A few days ago I was on a train in the city and a man in his 20s got on wearing a shirt that read: “This is Australia – We eat meat, we drink beer and we speak f*ckin’ English!”
I literally recoiled when I saw it. He was wearing it on a very ordinary day, no cultural celebrations in sight, just because he wanted to I guess. I was angry at first, but then I realised if that’s what Australia is to him, then that’s what it is to him. We can choose how we interpret culture, just like anything else in life.
The thing is our culture is not tied together the way some other cultures seem to be. We don’t have centuries old buildings and texts in cities the way that many other countries do (though there are some amazing indigenous sites and sacred areas around the country). But it’s not a “clean slate” either, because there is history here.
What we do have, though, is an opportunity to interpret Australian culture however we want to interpret it. There will always be people who don’t see our culture the way that I do, but I’m okay with that. As long as I can share and express how I see our culture, and as long as I respect that others can do the same, I know that there is something here for all of us.
“Stay away from your dreams,”
“It’s like a moth to flames.
Instead of warmth and happiness
It will lead to burning pain.
The closer you get,
The greater the cost
Until your dreams turn you to dust.”
But I am not a moth,
My wings are not upon my back.
They are my heart,
And my dreams are the breath that lifts me up.
I may rise only to fall,
But so do waves upon the beach
So do leaves and rain and even the sun
Has an arcing trajectory.
I would rather live
My life, my truth
Than be afraid to die and so
Live chained as Caution’s pet.
There is always risk,
And I want mine to be the risk of my life.
I want leaps of faith to carry me to places
That mean something.
If the burning comes, and there is pain
(Which is inevitable)
I know it will pass.
And I would rather feel than stay
On the edge of the shadows.
I would rather burn,
Falling like ash, crying out
After reaching the flames,
Than always wonder what would happen
If I followed that path,
The road I’m “not supposed” to travel,
As the cautious may say.
Fear is in the corners of the rooms,
But moving past those edges,
Brings clarity, sharpness
To overcome the gloom.
We are more than moths,
More than dreams and fears,
More than the many little things
That make up our daily lives.
Everyone has a way to shine,
A different light to guide them through life,
And while fear may hide the things we know we love,
There is always a way to follow passion,
To find what resonates.
When you know, you know,
And the truth came to me
In a childhood dream.
Fighting off the monsters in my mind,
I stood my ground, declaring:
“I am what I am. You are what you are.”
Somewhere round the age of five,
Those words rang in my mind,
Through the dark of a starry night.
Even then, at such a tender age
I knew I’d found my truth,
What I want to do
For every moment of my life.
That is enough, I am enough,
And knowing that, I also know
All the flames in the world are on my side.
This poem was written after reading an opinion piece from Mamamia’s Jamila Rizvi. Her thoughts, and the other content in the article got me really fired up…Even the page heading – “Find the thing you’re passionate about in life and do it only on nights and weekends” – sparked something in me and I knew I had something to say about it. So that’s part of this poem.
I was also very inspired by a three day workshop I just did with international voice expert David Coury and a group of wonderful women at the Howard Fine Acting Studio Australia (HFAS). The lessons are still sinking in, but I know the work we did has changed me for the better, and that it comes through in my voice (whether written, spoken or otherwise expressed).
I’ve been blessed to know from a very young age that I am an actress. I’ve let fear overcome me before and tried to take a different path, only to find the way blocked. Following my passion is both the easiest and hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I love it and I want this for my life.
Please note this post deals with topics that people may find distressing.
I don’t usually write about topical issues. I tend to steer clear of volatile and emotionally fraught topics, particularly when I’m not an expert/someone qualified to talk about a particular issue, but the latest controversy involving John Laws is something I really feel like I need to discuss.
Firstly, I’d like to stress that the old school, conservative shock jock is not on my Favourite Persons List by any means, and has actually made my Horrible Persons list a few times. I mostly ignore it when he makes the news. But yesterday he copped a lot of flack for the way he handled a call.
In this case, a woman phoned up and recounted on air her story of a childhood of sexual, verbal and psychological abuse. It started when she was six years old and went on until she was 16 and left home. It took her years before she started to cope with it and, as she said to him towards the end of the conversation, she still has days where it gets her down and it’s hard to deal with it.
What caused the backlash against Laws though, were his questions through the conversation. Before getting to them, I want to include the actual audio, because it was a live-to-air conversation, and I’d encourage anyone interested to listen to get a better idea of the context.
Around 2:30 into the audio above Laws asks: “Was it in any way your fault”, and “You weren’t provocative?”, to which she responds “I was a little girl, so I don’t think so John.”
It was these questions that riled up the media. There’s a fairly comprehensive post on Mamamia that does a good job of defending her and criticising him. The argument writer Jamila Rizvi puts forward is valid, but I feel like it’s misdirected. Let me explain further.
When I first read Laws’ questions and comments, I was outraged.When I listened to the audio, however, I was mollified. His tone of voice doesn’t imply accusation at all. He sounds concerned. He also sounds like he has no idea how to respond to her story.
So rather than assume Laws is some kind of narrow-minded, victim-blaming misogynist, can we please calm down for a minute and consider this from his perspective?
He gets a call, out of the blue, about a serious and traumatic issue, and has to somehow handle it live on air. Laws doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy you’d want to have a heart-to-heart with, especially not an emotional one. His interests tend to be more of the political nature. To me, it would be like breaking down in front of one of my friends who I know doesn’t deal with emotions very well: awkward for everyone (especially them).
From my perspective, Laws asked those questions because he had no idea what to do. If you listen to the way he is responding to her, it sounds awkward, like he is trying to keep control but has no idea how to do so.
The first thing I thought after I heard the conversation was “good on her for sharing her experiences”. The second was “poor Laws had no idea how to handle that”. Some people don’t do trauma well, and I’m not justifying that at all. I wish everyone would develop their sense of empathy further.
I remember once when I was going through a very tough time, I opened up to a close friend about what I was going through. After I’d finished sharing my experiences, as I dried my eyes, this friend gently patted me on the shoulder and asked if I’d considered seeing a psychologist. It was awful; all I’d wanted was a friend to listen to my story and give me a hug, and instead I got a question that seemed to suggest I was beyond my friend’s help.
When I brought this up with my friend, the explanation was: “I don’t do emotions well, so even though I want to help, all I can do is ask a question like that”. So I explained why I’d wanted to talk, and we both went away with a better understanding and more empathy for each other.
While there is no doubt Laws lacks empathy in this situation, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t empathise with him. He was put on the spot, and probably thought she should have been talking to a counsellor rather than a guy known for controversial radio discussions.
I remember times when I’ve said the wrong thing or asked horrible questions without realising it because I didn’t know how to deal with a situation. I felt awful afterwards, but it taught me the importance of putting myself in someone else’s shoes. In this case, I put myself in both the caller’s shoes and the host’s shoes. And the lesson I learnt is that empathy goes both ways. It relates to everyone, not just the people we like.
So rather than criticise Laws for his blunt (and, yes, potentially horrific) questions, I would just like to say that I hope the awkwardness I heard in his voice inspires him to become more empathetic.
The other night I was catching up with another actor and the topic of auditions came up. The more we talked, the more I realised I had to say about auditions, and she actually suggested I blog about it (thanks Cara).
A bit of background to the conversation: we’d both just been to an industry seminar with writer, producer, director and mentor Bobby Galinsky, where he had voiced observations around how actors often treat each other at auditions.
While you’re fast friends with actors you have to work with, often you see people at auditions “competing” with each other. Like Bobby, both me and Cara feel that is a problem.
For one thing, it’s not up to you who gets the part. Usually the casting agent or director will have an idea of what they are looking for, or what they want, and you may or may not be right for that. It has very little to do with who else is going for the same role.
I’ll admit I’ve been intimidated by other actors in auditions before, and that there have been times in the past when I would only half-jokingly say something about “the competition”. But since moving to Melbourne, training and auditioning more here, I’ve come to apply my community values to the arts industry. Including audition settings.
The last two group auditions I had, for example, included actors that really impressed and inspired me and I made a point of telling them. I wanted to share with them how much their work had affected me, because it did and that’s always a good thing.
But another part of this whole “audition competition” rhetoric is that who you are is always going to be different to who the other actors are. Cara and I have been to the same auditions, and I’ve run into other actors I know a few times as well. Sometimes we even go for the same parts. But even if we’re reading the exact same part, it doesn’t matter. We’re different people, with different approaches to the work, different circumstances and life views…it shows up in the work.
I think at some stage you can get to a point with your acting where the focus isn’t on giving a “good” or “bad” performance, but an honest one. That could (and maybe should) mean it’s different every time, even for you. So how can you compare yourself to someone else? How can you compete with them when what you’re doing is 100% truthful to you?
If anything, I think that maybe the bigger issue is competing with ourselves. I get nervous before auditions, even though I enjoy them for the most part. I know that nerves are a sign I care about what I’m doing, but it doesn’t help.
The first time I met Cara, actually, I was doing a workshop with David Coury, a voice expert, teacher and the Howard Fine Acting Studio’s Voice Director. I told him my current problem was that I rushed through auditions, particularly after I’d done the monologue/scene etc. I felt like it was hindering me. He showed me that seeing the entire thing as one whole experience (not a segmented process with a “performance” element) could help things flow more freely. He also reminded me that I’m not there for the casting director, director or anyone else, but for myself.
I understand that so much more since reading Howard Fine’s book on acting. In the chapter on auditions, he says you shouldn’t go into an audition needing something from the people there.
“You must actually walk into the room and not need anything from anyone. One of the biggest mistakes actors make is that they walk into rooms and send their awareness around the room, and try to figure out what people are thinking about them…You have to be able to walk into a room and not be the needy person.”
The way I see it, auditions are another opportunity to act, to play. Yes there are stakes, but there are always stakes in this industry and I’d rather go into an audition with the goal of expressing, enjoying (and maybe impressing) myself, than worrying about everyone else. If you are free, that speaks for itself and gives people the chance to see what you are like as an actor.
Something else I’d really like to touch on in regards to auditions is how you see the process and how others see it. At the moment I go into auditions feeling like it is (as I said above) an opportunity to play. It’s a part of being an actor.
It’s also an opportunity to make connections with people in the industry, and to expand your networks. In that sense, I am excited to get auditions, and for me the desired outcome is to give 100% in that moment. If I do that, I’m happy because I know that more opportunities and growth as an actor comes from giving 100%.
So with that perspective in mind, I feel that there are a number of positives that can come from any audition, whether I get the role I’m going for or not. I’m still new in Melbourne, after all, and directors may not know how invested I am in my career, or whether I’ll put in the hours, or that I treat unpaid work the same way I treat paid work (because I LOVE the work).
Similarly, I don’t know what directors are like, or how I would fit into theatre companies or film productions here until I meet them. So I want to get to know these people in the industry and show them my work, and auditions are a great place to do that.
I’ve had a few really inspiring auditions over the last six months, ones that have left me buzzing for days. None of them have led to me being cast in the roles I went for yet, but I’m still happy and excited when I think about them and the feedback I got from them. When people take the time to call you and give you in-depth feedback and say with sincerity that they want to work with you, that to me is a win.
But not everyone sees it like that or understands this perspective. A lot of my friends who are not in the industry (or only peripherally), give out condolences when I say I didn’t get cast. The intentions may be good, but it’s hard to swallow sympathy when you don’t feel like you need it, and easy to dwell in those initial feelings of disappointment when others are expressing them for or with you.
I think if you invest in an audition 100% then you are bound to feel some disappointment when you don’t get cast, but it is fleeting compared to the inspiration and motivation that can come from a good audition. I’m in this forever, not for a moment and I’m realistic about the industry.
Where I stand with the audition process at the moment is summed up particularly well in Howard Fine’s book, where he stresses that “you only have one chance to make an impression”.
“You are not going to get every part, that’s the way it works, but you want to go in every single time, firing on all cylinders, and do the best possible work you can, and having a positive attitude, you will get some attention.”