PART 2: Personal experiences as a female actor and director - incl. audience backlash and onscreen nudity
Emily: Recently you have directed and co-directed two different shows, one with Damien Ryan, how have you found the shift between roles of acting and directing? I assume you trained at WAAPA as an actor?
Lizzie: Yeah I did. Directing is still something that is sort of an experiment for me. It’s not one or the other, I’m still definitely an actor, I’m just broadening my experience of theatre in general. I wanted to be involved in theatre – that’s what I’m passionate about, and if I can work in it from any angle in an artistic role, then I’ll go for it. It was really interesting to try directing because there are a lot of directors out there at the moment and in the past 10 years who have been very focused on the director’s vision, it’s been very concept-driven work. There’s been a wave of director’s theatre coming through, and that’s certainly not where I come from if I’m considering working as a director. I’ve always felt like the greatest quality a director can have is their ability to get the best out of their performers and creatives, and how they’re able to communicate with people in a way they respond that aligns with the director’s vision for the play. Having been in lots of rehearsal rooms and seeing the way people communicate, I was interested to see how I would go at that. I really enjoy helping people and trying to get the best out of them in terms of acting. I feel like as an actor it was never something I was natural at, I am more of an introvert and it was something that I worked very hard at when I was at drama school because I always had a passion about it. At school nobody thought ‘that person is definitely going to be an actor’. That was something I wanted to pass on to people when I worked with them. I think the big lesson that I did learn, is that the director really needs to have an overall view of a show, which has been interesting to learn – I have greater respect for directors now. As an actor I’ve benefited from this understanding because after I directed Shakespearealism and then went back into acting for a bit, I really focused on being able to serve my function within the play rather than just giving the best performance I could. Really being aware of the purpose I served in the play and making sure I served that honourably. That was a really helpful lesson in taking a little bit of myself out of the work and trying to fulfil the writer’s requirements of that role a bit more, it made it a little bit less personal. You don’t want to just show the good sides of a character or let your character take over.
Lizzie: Yeah it was.
Emily: You were such a powerhouse in that play, I loved it.
Lizzie: Thanks! I watched the archival footage of it, and there were so many things I looked back at and thought ‘that wasn’t achieving what I thought it was at all’. It made me think, how can I serve her function as a counter-point to Kate?
Emily: That play was super interesting, because honestly, I found Kate’s famous monologue at the end so grating, because you took a traditional approach. You expect everything to have a contemporary twist, as if the audience and the actor have an in-joke where you know she doesn’t really mean what she’s saying, or is being sarcastic etc. It took me a while to think about what a tragedy it is that she does perform that monologue sincerely. It took me a while to adjust but it kept me thinking about it for quite a long time.
Lizzie: That’s good. It’s in the play, so it would have been a cop-out to look at it in any other way. We tell stories about all sorts of people who make terrible decisions. It doesn’t make sense to say, just because it represents misogyny or racism we shouldn’t perform it. Although we do seem to be quite earnest about Shakespeare, people are precious about their Shakespeare. It was so interesting to engage in that conversation during the show, because especially a lot of young women felt very incensed and angry, because Kate can be seen as a role model. I’m glad it made you think about those things.
Emily: It definitely did.
Lizzie: It was interesting because a lot of older audience members looked at the relationship between Kate and Petruchio and they thought, well the story isn’t just about ideals, it’s about the compromise you make to find love or companionship in their life. Younger people who often tend to be more idealistic seemed to feel more outrage by the play while there was an acceptance from a lot of older audience members. That was one observation I made.
Lizzie: I was the last creative to come on board with that. Andrew Henry had got the rights for it and Damien was attached to the project and asked me to co-direct with him. I was interested in co-directing so I could bring a different perspective to the show, and I think that was what Andrew and Damien welcomed in having me on board. A lot of people felt very upset about that show as well, and it’s been interesting going from Shrew to that within a year, and I don’t think people enjoy seeing misogyny on stage anymore. Even if you are portraying misogyny as something you don’t think is right, people seem to be tired of seeing it on stage at all.
Emily: I don’t think it helped with Look Back in Anger that Osborne’s writing keeps the female characters quite quiet. That can be hard when they don’t seem to have a strong voice.
Lizzie: I think the female roles are the most interesting to play though, and John Osborne seems to have written these amazing roles to spite himself. He wrote the play while he was going through the breakdown of his marriage, so it’s very toxic.
Emily: It was very autobiographical wasn’t it?
Lizzie: Yes very. It’s about his hatred towards his ex-wife, just as their marriage was falling apart. So it’s not an objective viewpoint of growing up as a young man. On stage being silent doesn’t mean that you’re less interesting. I found myself more drawn to Alison during Jimmy’s rants because there’s more possibility for understanding her internal world, of course that is dependent on the actor’s choices. But I suppose that is the interest for me in doing this play now. If you read the play, you can see what Jimmy says, but the whole time you’re asking, ‘but how does Alison feel about that?’
Emily: Why does she stay?
Lizzie: Why does she come back? What happens after? But a lot of people felt very upset about that play.
Emily: It’s fascinating.
Lizzie: It’s interesting that when the play premiered in the 50s, seeing a working class man standing up on stage with a righteous anger, it was shocking and it was something you had to give a level of credence to because it’s a voice that we don’t often hear, and still don’t often hear very much. But because that voice was also represented by a white, heterosexual man, which is a voice we feel a lot – that’s a tiresome element of the play that I think needs re-examining, or has worn out and is less interesting to hear. It doesn’t have the same resonances for us.
Emily: I think that’s very true.
Lizzie: There were things that you could get away with about gender, back then, that you couldn’t now. The things that Jimmy says about women seem to be more shocking today, perhaps than they were then.
Emily: Possibly because those ideas continue to exist, but in a more latent fashion.
Lizzie: Exactly, we really don’t stand for that now. I think if a modern writer wrote in the same way, people would be very scathing of it as a contemporary voice. That says something about how far we’ve come I think.
Emily: Yeah, I guess it’s the balance, because theatre doesn’t exist to put forward a utopian version of society, it exists to reflect back what we’ve got. I’d imagine that there is still a strong portion of our society that continue to hold the same views, and it makes me question how much our theatre is dictated by an educated bunch etc.
Lizzie: It’s looking at the views we’ve inherited, and I think that’s worthy of examination. We don’t put working class views on stage much in Australia, nor are audiences filled with working class individuals. It’s a chicken and the egg situation because we don’t put those stories on and their lives aren’t reflected-
Emily: And theatre is expensive and it’s not in areas that are accessible to everyone.
Lizzie: Exactly. That’s what’s so interesting about the Old Fitz – it’s in a pub, it’s right outside these massive homeless shelters, it’s quite a different area for theatre to be. It’s got a great history to it. The kind of stories that the Old Fitz puts on are born out of that culture, and back in the 50s this really shocked people. Before they would have these grand poetic Tennessee Williams masterpieces, and here was this really small chamber piece play about young people in a very intimate space, that’s blossomed into the sort of works that have been taken on by independent theatre. It was great to return to that, 60 years later at the Old Fitz.
Lizzie: Yes that was a big thing that came from the first WITS forum – here I was trying to just get women more opportunities, and all of a sudden there was a whole other can of worms that is actually very serious that we’re not addressing.
Emily: This is unique to an acting space – we know already in workplaces sexual harassment is not dealt with well, but this is a specific issue, where in no other context do you rehearse rape-
Lizzie: And it doesn’t even have to be that where you experience your boundaries being pushed. It was something that I have experienced, more in film and television than in theatre. I did Underbelly: Razor and had my first sex scene coming up. I’d never done anything like that before and was feeling very nervous about it. I was playing a prostitute, of course, so I had a little chat to all the women who were playing prostitutes on set and had been longer standing characters, to ask them how did they feel, how did they tackle it etc. And every single woman I spoke to said that they had cried afterwards and it was a really unpleasant experience for them. That was an eye-opener.
Emily: That’s awful.
Lizzie: Also because going on the show you had to sign a contract. Previously when first going on to the show people were saying they were okay with it and then they actually weren’t okay with it and were freaking out on set when it came to that time. You want to work, and then the opportunity can be a lot more frightening than what you thought it would be. I found there was a feeling that I should be okay with this and I should be comfortable to do it like it’s a normal thing. I don’t think I’d ever do it again, because it actually had a really bad backlash on the internet. As much as the contract says the production company has control of the material, online they don’t have control of the material, so for a while if you googled my name only screenshots of my sex scene came up. So for my family and my friends was very distressing – and for myself. So I don’t know if I would put myself in that position again. But the actual experience on set I didn’t find so bad, but I think that’s because I had prepared myself for the worst of it. I would have had no idea that anyone else would have found it psychologically harmful or depressing unless I had asked them about it.
Emily: A lot of these women didn’t have good experiences, do you think that was something specific to the way it was dealt with in that situation, or is the experience itself traumatic?
Lizzie: No I think the experience itself is very confronting. Playing a prostitute in the 1930s and the way those characters have to be treated in those scenes, what the scenes require, naturally for the women felt more degrading. My character was a famous high-class prostitute and that was glamorous and fun to play for me, she was a very fascinating person. So in my scenes I was treated more respectfully and was filmed more glamorously, whereas some of the other characters were more downtrodden. I remember that being an aspect to it. It was handled well. Because film and television is much more male-dominated women can feel more challenged by these issues. At the time when I was doing it, Game of Thrones was becoming popular and I was in my early 20s and was constantly getting briefs saying ‘Nudity Required’, you have to sign a contract before you audition. At the time it was in vogue that you can break into the industry, but your body is a selling point for the show. It’s a cost in working in this industry because actors can feel really powerless, so regardless of how you feel about nudity, you feel like if you’re going to continue to invest in your career you feel you should take the opportunities that come.
Find out more and buy tickets for Festival Fatale here, and celebrate unapologetic and bold theatre created by Australian women for everyone. It's on 29-30 October at the Eternity Playhouse, 39 Burton Street, Darlinghurst.