Justine Clarke is hands-down one of Melbourne's most beloved children's entertainers (as well as keeping adults enthralled in dramas such as Tangle), so an in-person performance is a multi-generational must.
She's sold out three dates at the Dallas Brooks Centre in East Melbourne, but has announced a fourth and fifth show at the Playhouse, Arts Centre. Here she'll be backed by a three-piece band and will be bringing to life her new, self-penned kids' book: Gobbledygook is Eating a Book. Her kids' album, A Little Day Out with Justine Clarke, is out now.
Justine, do you think it’s getting tougher to coax kids – or perhaps even parents – into the theatre these days?
Certainly not in Melbourne – in Melbourne they come out by the thousands and that’s wonderful. I think Victorians see the cultural importance of going to a live event, whether it be a sporting event or a cultural event. The city’s planned out in such a way that makes it easier to do that as well. Sydney can be a bit unpredictable. I’m just glad that people can come and join in and listen to the music that they listen to with their kids at home, and share in that and make it a family event. There’s a need to connect on that level; I don’t think we’re going to be stuck inside our lounge rooms watching everything on TV. There’s an energy around live music that makes people want to come together.
I have a responsibility to the parents to give them as good a time as the kids too. Half the theatre is the parents sitting in the seats. So the drum that I bang is about live music and that’s something that neither parents nor children nor preschoolers get enough of. I always like to take a little band with me on the road so that everybody’s getting the most out of the experience.
In sitcoms and comedy films, if anyone has to perform in front of children it’s always a tough crowd. Do you ever have that experience, where you’re just not getting any reaction?
No, not at all. Kids are sitting on the edge of their seats ready to have fun; they’re not sitting back waiting for you to entertain them. The thing is, you can’t ever stop and wait for applause because that’s never going to come. You’ve just got to keep going.
That’s gratifying. Does it come as a rude shock, then, when you perform for adults?
I just finished a run of a play at Sydney Theatre Company, and yeah, it is different. It’s almost like you’re doing a different job. The skills that you use and the muscles that you flex are really different.
Good to hear music for kids isn’t all about The Voice and stardom. Were you ever tempted by the glitzy pop star career when you were a teenager or when you were a kid?
Well I was on Home and Away when I was a teenager so I did have a couple of offers to put out pop songs, but it never felt like it was me. It felt like someone else was trying to package me in some form. I’ve always had quite a personal relationship to music. I’ve never felt like it was something that I could just pretend with. I couldn’t act like a pop star, you know? It wasn’t my thing.
In October you put out Gobbledygook is Eating a Book. What are the key ingredients for writing a kids’ book?
I think the main thing is having one central character that is the focus of the story and then for that character to go on a journey. I think that’s probably a good start.
This one just started out as a song about gobbledygook – just words. Then I thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be good if the gobbledy gook was a monster called the gobbledygook and then all of a sudden the gobbledygook was a book-eating monster and he thought that you had to eat books in order to talk, which isn’t the case. But he has a friend who teaches him about the joys and wonders of reading – which I think is kind of pertinent because this year is the national year of reading. I have a two year old now, so I’ve read the story to him a few times and he likes it. So that’s good.
Were your parents quite entrenched in the industry?
Yes, in various ways, my mother was an actress; a child actor originally. Then she became a dancer and danced for many years in Victoria, then in Sydney, and she became a choreographer. Then my dad, too, I found a little article about my dad – he was in a vocal choir called the Harmonics. He must have been about ten. Later on he was the secretary manager of the RSL, so he booked all the acts – and in the ’60s there was live music everywhere in Sydney. The RSL had a lot of money then so they were big venues. He would sing, be the opening act for the big shows. So it’s definitely in my blood.
With today’s marketing, he could have been the next Justin Bieber. Your life could have been so different.
Yeah, or One Direction!
Having been on Play School for 13 years, do people tend to approach you in the street in quite a confused and emotional fashion?
It’s often mums who recognise me and then they’ll point me out to their child. I always find it really lovely actually. It takes some convincing before they believe it is me. It’s either that or then there’s the person who just sort of comes up and starts talking to you like you’re their friend cause they know you well, and you’re in their lounge room and it’s perfectly normal for them. Either way, I do enjoy every encounter.
To some kids you must be as fantastical as big Ted, so to actually see you walking down the street would be really surreal.
I never would compare myself to Big Ted. He’s huge; he’s an icon. I think it’s a disconnect for them to see somebody who is on television and then see them in real life. Especially because I don’t have makeup on or have just the Play School clothes on, I might just be in just in everyday street clothes – and so it takes a while for them to make the connection.