Recently I asked Brigid Sullivan about her experience acting in Pioneers In Petticoats. Here is what she told me.
What was your journey towards becoming an actor?
First; my father was an art director so I was on shoots and sets as a young child, and I wanted to do what Dad did. Secondly, as a child, I really responded to the element of make-believe and believing in the moment and loved it. Thirdly, I had begun classical ballet, was very keen on it and showed some aptitude, but at 12 or 13 I started to do theatre. Comparing it with ballet, I thought acting seemed easier and it didn’t force you to make a choice at a young age about what you wanted to do that you might not be physically suitable for.
I trained at the Ensemble Theatre and am a firm believer in the benefits of following the discipline of a three year course of training, though its not for everyone. It also gives you some tools in a very competitive tough profession. I was fortunate to have been at the Ensemble when Hayes Gordon was there; he was inspirational and a pioneer in Australian theatre.
What is your theatre background? After the Ensemble training, I became part of the Studios Rep run by the Ensemble at the old Independent Theatre, now taken over by Wenona School. I did a couple of shows with them, then a few years with a touring Shakespeare company, then found my way into film, and some soapies. Casting directors were often very friendly and liked the Ensemble actors, so they gave newbies bit parts to enable them to apply for an Equity card which you needed before you could get work. Then in the early nineties I went to the UK, based myself in London, and worked there. I toured around the British Isles in some traditional and some experimental plays, mostly playing English and American roles so my accent skills came in handy. I chose England above the US on the practical basis of being able to get a working visa for England.
I ended back in Australia because I eventually became homesick for my family and friends. I found work and then met my husband. Really, I came back for my family, the weather and the lifestyle! England is a much larger market so you do get more consistent work. Back here, having overseas experience can be resented by some people, but by and large it does help, because you are confident that you can get work in that larger market place. And in England there is more work to see, and you have access to European work too.
What do you enjoy about being an actor? The audience response. It is much more immediate when you are in live situations, but in film and other media you still get that feedback but at second-hand, and later. With a younger audience, children are more open to coming along with you for the ride.
I also love the chance to take people out of themselves for a brief moment. As an actor you’re not solving cancer, or building a building, doing something huge. But you can take someone to another place. As performance media have changed, you can now work with people who have jobs in intensive care, to train them, help them manage their stress levels and do their jobs better.
Stage, screen or both? Both; they are different media and give you different sorts of satisfaction. With digital media now you can go back and fine-tune your performance; when it was film-based you rarely got a second chance. In screen media there is the discipline of acting while so much technical stuff is going on around you, for example placing something on a table without it looking weird because the camera is focussed on a particular spot from a specific angle. With onstage work, the feedback and buzz when a shows goes well is an amazing adrenalin high.
What attracted you to audition for this show? I loved the sound of the stories; they seemed to be real story-telling by the camp-fire, and exciting because of that. The wording of the audition notice was also very clear and professional, showing that the company understood the process of putting on a play and had respect for people in the process. I had also known about Wendy’s prolific writing output in books and at Marian Street Theatre for Young People, and liked the idea of working with people from different generations I like challenging self.
Have you done any other shows like this? I haven’t done a one-woman show before apart from stand-up comedy. I have played multiple roles in shows but only with other actors.
What is different about a one-woman show? You do feel a bit more under pressure, and you have more awareness of the audience because there are no other actors to play with.
Was the process of rehearsal different in this show? Not really, but it was more intense, because it is just you and the director, so you are really drilling down. Jess is a meticulous director, so I was often very tired after rehearsal.
What is the most satisfying part of this show? The audience, and working with the team. Jess is very hard-working and talented, the script is beautiful, Dee and Andrew are great to work with, and so is the audience. But it is a big call asking people to watch just you for so long. Will they come along for the ride? Will they be moved, cry, and laugh at what you’re doing?
What are the greatest challenges about the show? Being just one person on-stage. As an actor its a lot of dialogue to memorise, and you memorise it in a different way. Well, you use the same tools, but the triggers to memorise the words are slightly different because there is no dialogue. There is also the challenge of having enough rehearsal time; in Australia you rarely have enough. But you need to juggle and manage. I was also nervous about singing, because I come from a musical family but am not musical myself. So it was scary, but I think about the singing as coming from a character and then its fine. I also had to find the rhythm to pace myself for the show, and leave enough energy to act all the characters.
Do you have a favourite character? I like them all for different reasons. Mary Bryant is so feisty, resilient and able to endure; Lola Montez is fabulous because she is a show girl and has so much chutzpah. Eliza Hawkins is lovely and helpful. And Fanny is the geek, a character I knew because I was the girl who is good at school but rubbish at everything else. Fanny is the outsider who casts an eye on all the others round her.
Is changing character on stage hard to handle? No, because you make simple clear choices about what to do. I quite enjoy it. I struggle with being clumsy, so I tend to panic about the logistics and worry something will go wrong. But I go back to basics, think who I am.as a character, where am I going, what is my objective? The costume helps me a lot too, because it makes me walk and move differently. It supports me in becoming the character.
Is changing the physicality of the characters tricky? Initially, but not when I have found the best possible choice to make the change clear for the audience. I have done a lot of event and physical theatre work, which helps me in this play.
Is it a demanding show physically? Yes, because there is no breather in the play. And I’m a gritty actor, and I’m not 25 any more.
What scenes do the audience respond most to? They respond to different parts of the different characters. Mary’s journey is about cocking two fingers at authority, and the audience responds to the thought of her lost husband, home and children, and her tenacity. With Eliza, the audience responds to her ability to look on everything as a big adventure and embrace it. They love the silliness and showgirl nature of Lola; the sheer entertainment of it and the way Lola acknowledges that she’s hamming things up. With Fanny they are looking at a life being constrained by others, and people respond to her loss at the end.
What are the hardest parts of the play to remember? Well, the emotional arc of each character is clear, but it can be tricky to nail the exact words when there are so many. The sections using dialogue are generally easier to remember.
Have you ever forgotten your lines on-stage in Pioneers? Momentarily, but you know where the story is going so you can find a way through.
How do young audiences respond to the show? The show changes slightly when its a younger audience. I play Mary Bryant’s losses lighter, make Lola Montez more of a silly, funny lady; and the kids laugh at the silliness. They also enjoy the participation like pretending to row.
What are some of your favourite questions about the show? When children ask if the stories are true and I can answer that they are. They are amazed. Whats your favourite costume? How long did you rehearse, where do you get your costumes, how do you find out about an accent? So I can tell them a bit about the process of being an actor and how a show is made.