WITS’ Siren Call

The siren sits on the rocks and sings to passing ships. Sailors, intoxicated by her song, wreck their ships on the rocks and die. It’s a common narrative of feminine sexuality and power that ultimately teaches men to fear and suspect women of ill-intent. We see it in mythology, we see it in classic literature (think Lady Macbeth and Queen Gertrude), we see it in film (the femme fatale of every film noir ever made, the way the slut is always the first to die in any horror film, and you only survive at all if you’re a virgin). We experience it in our own lives, when a school girl is told to wear her skirt longer because the boys and male teachers can’t concentrate, or in the undeniable double-standard where women can’t simultaneously be sexual beings and romantic partner material.


We experience the fear of the siren call in how our culture responds to women’s activism. Just over a year ago an irresistible song rose up from Women In Theatre & Screen, and  thousands of women have joined the chorus. From the first tentative strains, the fear of women and their power has inspired everything from gentle mansplaining how we really don’t understand our own oppression, to outright drunken vitriol. Our first great offence was holding a women-only forum. As I said in my “maiden” speech for WITS, despite common misconception, when women unite it is not all cauldrons and witchcraft and cursing men. Sometimes, indeed always when it comes to WITS, it is celebration, pro-activity, self-empowerment and self-advancement. It is creating new spaces for women, not thieving spaces from men.

The fear of the siren is rooted in the misconception that honouring women’s power and creating space for women which, as over 50% of the population, is rightfully theirs anyway, necessarily means dis-empowering men and claiming their territory. The extraordinary success of Festival Fatale (consciously provocatively named!) under the consummate leadership of Lizzie Schebesta, which showcased so many diverse artists, including a few men, and engaged an even wider and more diverse audience, proves the point I made at the second WITS forum, that putting women front and centre does not mean robbing men of their opportunities. What it means is growing an audience by demonstrating their stories matter, and by extension growing the industry, and this is good for everyone.

Since those first forums, the blatant adversarialism has died down. I like to think that by creating opportunities for women that have in no way disadvantaged men, that by adding to the landscape, we’ve alleviated some of those fears. And to some extent, I think this is true. But the complacent non-effort of some cultural leaders, allowing their representation of women to diminish with their seasons for next year as WITS women Maryann Wright and Michela Carattini identified  (shout out to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company who smashed gender parity outta the park with 60% women for next year!), tells us our adversaries are still out there, they’re just not singing their song as loudly anymore. I imagine they hope to fly under the radar. But the numbers speak for themselves.

WITS will keep singing its song. It is, like the siren, irresistible. It is sexy. It is powerful. It is magical. But it is not dangerous. The siren doesn’t want to destroy you – she just wants to share her music with you, because it is beautiful. Remember how the siren’s song drew you in, and how the power of that call is what terrified you in the first place? Let her sing on your stage and on your screen and imagine how she might entrance, inspire, and entice a new, engaged, hungry audience.

Happy Belated Birthday, WITS

Just over a year ago WITS burst onto the scene in Sydney. I delivered this speech at the first forum. I am so proud of that event, and everything that has come out of the energy we raised in that room. I am so proud of the incredible team that now drives WITS – Lizzie Schebesta, Maryann Wright, Ildiko Susany, Matilda Ridgway, Michela Carattini, and Suzanne Pereira. We fight the good fight for a better industry for all. I am SO proud of Lizzie Schebesta in particular and the incredible leadership she showed as Artistic Director of the inaugural WITS Festival Fatale.

WITS First Think Tank at The Seymour Centre in The York Theatre. 

I’m Erica Lovell, I’m one of your facilitators for this evening. Essentially, I’m your Tony Jones. So if it all goes to hell — it’s my head you’re after! Joining me are my co-organisers and facilitators of this meeting, Lizzie Schebesta, Clementine Mills, Maryann Wright, and Libby Munro.

I want to thank all of you for being here on what is, at least for theatre professionals, your weekend. I know a lot of you, and I know many of you will be thinking “well, don’t thank me! Of course I’m here! I’m a woman!” Well, yes, of course. But when you consider that we only got the vote in this country a hundred years ago, and we live in a society that still silences women with the stories it tells and the stories it doesn’t tell, it is astonishing that a group of 300 women can gather to talk about women’s rights without raising suspicion and conjuring images of witches around cauldrons, chanting “hubble, bubble, toil and trouble,” and messing things up for men. Well, mostly.

We have been asked many times why this meeting is for women only. For the most part, people understand and support the decision once we explain that we are not excluding men because we think they are all misogynists and woman-haters, nor because we are all misandrists and men haters, but because women are taught from a very young age to be silent, taught by the fictional stories we are told in books and television and theatre, and the cultural stories we watch playing out between the men and women in our lives, and because we are working in an industry fuelled by charm and amiability and friendship, because of these things, it is imperative that a forum about giving a voice to women actually gives a voice to WOMEN. Purely. Without interruption, without—as much as possible—that cultural pressure to be silent. Without the threat of professional retribution. And the threat is real – we have already had women contacting us with important and damning information but asking not to be named for fear of professional backlash.

There are media present today. Please know that they are all women, and all here to support you, and have all been asked to respect your anonymity if you choose to take the mic at any point tonight. If you are comfortable being named and quoted, please state that clearly before you speak.

We have a responsibility, as professional story-tellers, to tell stories that are complex, and beautiful, and helpful. The stories we tell men and women are the stories they well tell each other, and their children. If in 2015, we are still receiving casting briefs that say “She’s cute, but not hot. He doesn’t have to worry about his friends fantasising about her” — because a woman’s character is entirely defined by how much men want to have sex with her— then there is something wrong with the stories we are telling. If in 2015 we are seeing Sofy Be Fresh commercials telling us that a natural function of the female body, one which allows the production of life, is shameful, disgusting, and turns us into slovenly, unattractive, lunatics with poor personal hygiene, there is something drastically wrong with the stories we are telling.

As professional story-tellers, we are uniquely positioned to push for change. Because art doesn’t just mirror life, but life mirrors art.

We want you to know that if you’re feeling frustrated, angry, indignant—we honour that. Because it’s justified. There are less women on stage and screen than men: you are not imagining it. And if you’re struggling to find women writers and women directors in your season brochures and in the rolling credits, it’s because there’s not many there: you’re not imagining it. And YES – it is because sexism is systemic in our culture and in our industry. Do not allow the culture to gaslight you. Your perception on this one is CRYSTAL. CLEAR.

So if you want to rage, we understand.

Right now, however, we need to keep motivated, because ultimately, action is the only thing that breeds change. Also, we literally don’t have time — either tonight or culturally — to let ourselves be immobilised by our anger, however justified it is. And who here wants to prove our detractors who believed this would just be a bunch of witches and bitches having a whinge — or as I like to call it, a righteous vent—- but who wants to prove them right? I don’t. Let’s celebrate our vision for the future of women.

Girl in the mirror

I read an essay once that argued that lying is never acceptable because it distorts a person’s perception of reality and robs them of the right to trust their instincts. We’ll come back to this at the end.

Picture me, sitting at a desk at the back of a classroom of teenage models. The task I’ve been set by my employer is pretty simple: get them to talk. With enthusiasm. Get them to talk with enthusiasm, to present well, to be engaging. Get their hands out of their pockets and their eyes off their shoes. Get them to stop being teenagers? Maybe.

Acting teacher brain translates to: Get them to connect to passion.

They’ve been set some homework the previous week by the other teacher: compose a thirty second spiel/commercial for a product and be prepared to present it to the class. A simple enough task.

The presentations begin and the usual obstacles present themselves: this one fidgets out of nerves, this one is monotonal, this one slouches, this one looks at her feet, this one says “um” and “like” too much. And the usual cause is identified: they don’t care about the task.

“Ok,” I say. “So why did you choose to write about shampoo then? You had all the options in the world. You could have written about animal rights, your spiritual beliefs, the situation in Ukraine. Why shampoo? I mean, shampoo is great and all, but it’s hardly something you’re passionate about. I don’t think anyone is passionate about shampoo. I mean, Jennifer Garner doesn’t give a **** about shampoo, no matter how much she looks like she does when she’s being paid a squillion dollars to say she does.

“Well we had to choose a product.”

So I strip it back. I’m not going to get these kids to enthuse over shampoo if I can’t get them to enthuse in general. So we start chatting about their passions. I’m trying to get them to unpack what passion is, what belief in something is, in the hope they can “endow” shampoo with their passion for, um, One Direction or something.

“Why do you model?” I ask.

Few of them have a satisfactory answer. Some identify a love of clothing, a passion for expressing themselves with fashion, and that’s great. I’m seeing some eyes light up.

But one of them says, “I used to watch fashion shows as a kid, the runway stuff, and I would feel ashamed of what I am. So I model to be better than myself.”

I blink. “What do you mean?”

“The way I look.”


I’m so thrown and disturbed I actually blurt that out, sans censorship.

“You know that is the least healthy reason in the world to be a model, right?”

There’s a nervous laugh.

“No, I’m serious. This industry, broadly speaking–I mean this mediated, televised industry, where your product is your self–it’s a massive invitation to compare yourself to other people. You can’t escape it. Whether you’re an actor or a model or a musician, people will compare you to other people and you will want to do it yourself. But you can’t.”

Awkward shifting. I glance around the room.

“Look, beauty is a construct. Do you know what I mean by that? It’s made up. A hundred years ago the models we see on the runway would have been considered emaciated and incredibly unattractive. So it’s made up – it’s not real. And even when you accept the made-up spoon-fed signed-sealed-delivered message of what beauty is for this thirty seconds, even that is fake, because it’s photoshopped and made-up… With make-up.”

“But I mean I’m not as pretty as…”

“STOP. Look at me. Look at my face. Do you know how long it took to do this? My eyebrows are not this striking. I coloured them in. My skin is having a tantrum today, so I’ve covered it in foundation. I’m wearing blush and eye-liner and mascara. This is not my face.”

She then said something even more disturbing. She said, “I thought you weren’t wearing anything…”

I choke on my own tongue for a minute before glancing around the room. “Pipper–light foundation, mascara and a little blush, yeah?”

Pipper nods.

“Danielle–mascara, eye-liner, foundation, and gloss?”

Danielle nods.

“There is only one girl in this room not wearing make-up, and it’s the one who thinks she’s ugly… I am NOT saying you should wear make-up, let’s be clear about that, but you need to know that the standard of beauty you are holding yourself to is FAKE, from conception to execution, the whole damn thing is FAKE.”

She stares for a moment. I think I see some tears.

“NEVER compare yourself to another woman. You don’t know how long she spent in the mirror that morning feeling ugly and trying to cover it up. And in this industry, in this job, it is SO much more important that you resist that urge. You’ve chosen a career that is by nature superficial–and I don’t say that in a derogatory way, it’s simply the truth: modelling and fashion as an industry is concerned with exteriors. The ONLY way to survive is to make sure you balance that with an equally strong reverence for what is inside you. It’s a cliche but it’s true.”

I’m going to stop quoting myself now and just say it.

NEVER COMPARE YOURSELF TO ANYONE ELSE. Set a standard for yourself. Meet it. Exceed it. Set another standard. Repeat.

AND NEVER look at a photo and think “I wish I was” because that model wishes she was too.

We are lied to and we lie to each other every day in every photo with every lash of mascara. We distort our own perceptions of reality.  I’m not going to stop wearing make-up, I’m not that virtuous, but can I set a challenge? Can I ask everyone, men and women alike, to look in the mirror for thirty seconds each morning, NO MAKE-UP, and find one thing about that face you like?

Some thoughts for actors starting out or continuing or wondering or doubting or whatever.

I’ve always loved teaching. I’ve done it since I was 19, when I first gave a half-baked singing lesson to a friend, mumbling something incomprehensible and not-quite-correct about breathing with your tummy. Since then I’ve had the honor of teaching and mentoring hundreds of young performers, both singers and actors, and sharpening the essay-writing skills of many a confuddled HSC student groping their way through the pitch black forests of Shakespeare and, in recent years, Lurhmann. I like it. Somethingsomthing legacy somethingsomething gives life meaning somethingsomething.

Today something really flattering happened. A younger friend, who I’ve known since she was an ambitious sixteen year old doing her work experience placement on Little Women (in which I was playing Amy March at the time), called me and asked for advice with her career. I was honoured, and a little confused; I’m still very much mid-career myself. But the specific request was something I know a very little about, so I put my healthy apprehension and self-doubt aside and called her back.

She wanted to know about being a cross-over artist (a performer who works in many different genres, eg. working in ‘straight’ theatre AND musical theatre, for screen AND stage) and, in particular, being an actor who didn’t go to drama school.

Anyone who knows me knows the latter is a pet topic of mine. Let me be clear: I cannot over emphasise the importance of training for any performer. To presume to be an actor or a singer or a dancer without ever setting foot in a class is an insult to all the talented and skilled actors out there who have sweat blood honing their skills to give you their Hedda, their Lear, or even their fifty worder on a soap. Even my first job at the age of nineteen, a Nescafe commercial in which I spent the bulk of my time making out with a future power ranger and had maybe two words of dialogue, was not won or executed without some learned skills. But I absolutely, emphatically, do not believe that a conventional three-year full time tertiary drama course is the only way to get these skills. (Stella Adler agrees with me, by the way, just for a little logos).

As a teacher, I can tell you that education, be it primary, secondary, tertiary, vocational, creative, scientific, part time or full time, is not a one-size-fits-all muumuu. Unfortunately the primary and secondary system requires that we squeeze a bunch of square pegs into round holes, however nobly our teacher-training endeavors to train us to round out those holes… But as actors, we have a variety of different shaped holes (this metaphor is falling apart but I’m going to stick with it…). Because we’re not cutting people’s brains open, we’re not defending people’s legal rights, we’re not fighting wars (well, not literal wars), we have some freedom with how we train. If I play Hermia differently to you, no-one is going to hemorrhage to death. We’re not James Bond, we don’t need a 007 License to ACT! (Unless you’re Pierce Brosnan. Or Sean Connery. Or Roger Moore. Or…)

What we need is talent and some skill to channel it. And someone to give you a chance.

I, personally, am not cut out for drama school. I don’t know why, they wouldn’t tell me. Thank god there are other ways to learn to act, or my passion would have gone unsated and I’d be a miserable shell of a human being. So, drama school wasn’t an option, but I loved university. I loved the option to choose to specialise in Shakespeare. I loved independent study. I will be forever thankful for the skills in analysis, critical thinking, research, interpretation, and synthesis that my studies in academic theatre, English literature, and media gave me. A skill set remarkably similar to that required by actors. And studying education I’ve learned so much about psychology, working in teams, and gained a bunch of “class room management” skills I see directors using on me all the time (I’m hip to your tricks now!). Over the years I’ve spent more hours in acting classes, masterclasses, short courses, and long part time courses than I can count. I never stop drawing on the skills I learned through that eclectic selection of theatre and screen training.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

You might be right for a drama school, and if you’ve got your heart set on that path, and you win a place in a school, GO.

But here’s the thing: to use actor speak, the objective needs to be TO GET AN ACTING CAREER, something you might achieve by going to drama school or just getting out there and working. If your objective is “get into drama school” you’re putting your success as an actor in someone else’s hands. You’ll have your autonomy compromised enough in this industry without surrendering it before you even start.

So, I guess my first piece of advice to this very talented young performer was TRAIN. Do train. Please. Seek out amazing teachers. Read books. See plays. Watch films. Training as an actor is mostly about training your BRAIN. You read Stella Adler and so much of it is “diarise this” or “think about that”. Your brain is your closest ally and your first tool. Keep it sharp. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from an acting teacher was “Read about everything. Not just acting,” (Paraphrasing Clarence Deny in the NIDA Young Actor’s Studio, 2002); drama is life plus, so you need the plus. Expect more of yourself than you can possibly live up to, and forgive yourself when you don’t. But don’t make the mistake of putting your fate in someone else’s subjective hands.

My second piece of advice? Be nice to people. Seriously. And genuinely. Don’t try to be friends with everyone, especially if you don’t actually like them. That’s fake and it smells. But do be kind-spirited and supportive. This industry is soul-destroying enough without performers devouring each other for breakfast. I met a chick at an audition for a musical once, and we whinged together about the dance routine. Ten years later, having stopped performing and started directing, she remembered me and gave me my first job in straight theatre, and from there has grown a wonderful working relationship with The Ensemble Theatre (shout out to Anna Crawford!).

And my third piece of advice is DO THINGS FOR FREE. I know, I know, and I agree. Actors shouldn’t have to give their skills away for free any more than a lawyer or a doctor should. Keep your integrity, absolutely! Don’t just do any crappy theatrical adaptation of Mills and Boon that comes through your email, and feel free to turn down rubbish short films promising you “exposure”. But if a good writer asks you to do a play reading for them, and the pay is in cheddar and shiraz, DO IT. Do independent theatre – it’s where the exciting new minds, and the dedicated passionate established ones, are flexing their muscles. It’s a small industry. People see those things. Plus it’s a chance to sharpen your skills, something we have precious little opportunity to do in this country.

Did I mention TRAIN? Yeah. Keep learning. It never stops.

And finally, teach. As you learn, pass it on. It forces you to think through what you do and why. As you work with students, you have a magic opportunity to see the flaws in your approach and refine it. And don’t be ashamed of the flaws; every theory has flaws, that’s why it’s a theory and not a fact. Just as Mamet and Strasberg followed Stanislavsky, and Chubbuck follows them, something always follows. The only unforgivable sin as a teacher is the presumption that your theory is the ultimate and the last. Absorb as much as you can, synthesise it into something that works for you, offer it to your students, and they will pick and choose and synthesise too.

I’m a mid-career actor and a mid-career teacher. I’ve got a stack to learn and do, and if I do my job properly, with everything I learn I’ll realise how much I still don’t know. But what I’ve said here is what I think I know. Do with it what you will.

Truth Beauty And A Picture of You

Truth Beauty And A Picture of You – Tickets on sale now!

Next stop Newtown.

I’m so excited to be returning to this project. I workshopped the script two years ago, and nagged my agent and Neil Gooding for months when I heard whispers of a production. The nagging paid off, and I get to sing Tim Freedman’s beautiful music, say Alex Broun’s beautiful words, and inhabit that quirky creature Beatrice again. Can’t wait.

Be sure to check this out.


Next to Normal

As some of you will know, Next to Normal would have opened this weekend just gone.

I haven’t posted on the cancellation of the show yet because I wasn’t sure what I was allowed to say and, to be honest, was for some time too emotional to speak about it.

Please know we are still grieving the loss of this show, the loss of the opportunity to tell this beautiful and important story.

I want to thank our director, Tyran Park, for remaining so passionate about the show that never was, except in his own exceptional imagination, and supporting us through the last couple of months. His love of the show and his cast has not waned.

I also want to thank my on-stage mother, Michelle Doake, whose friendship has been invaluable as we dealt with the emotional and professional challenges that come with losing a show.

This must sound like we are speaking of the passing of a dearly loved friend or family member. Well, that’s what it feels like. We even had a wake. There was wine and cheese and a good deal of crying.

Much love to everyone who has kept and still keeps the faith in this little gem of musical theatre, Next to Normal. I honestly believe our production had the potential to change the face of musicals in Australia forever, to bring the genre the respect it deserves, both from the public and in the industry.

Erica. xxx