Time Out Melbourne

The RocKwiz doyenne describes how drama saved her life, her new role as director of Fringe production How to Get Rich and her love of impro

You’re about to direct Aleisha McCormack in her one-woman show How to Get Rich as part of the Fringe Festival. Is being a director like being the responsible parent?
Absolutely. It’s a bit more ‘caretaker’ in this particular role, as it’s a one-woman show, but the best directors are parents: the patient parent, the good parent. They can see when something’s a bit annoying, but say to themselves, “Now’s not the time to bring that up; I’m just gonna concentrate on the big picture, we’ll get to the little picture later.” It’s really about making someone feel safe to try new things.
So when Aleisha asked me, at first I thought, “Ooh, I don’t know if I can do it”, but then I thought, “yeah, I know enough about theatre to do stuff.”

It’s an interesting story – meeting someone from overseas on Facebook and then taking a punt on traveling to meet them.
And it’s all true. Aleisha was a radio producer in Tasmania and once a week she’d talk on air about her personal life. Then one day she’s on Facebook and comments on a friend doing something, and then Rich comments on the same thing, and they start commenting, and finally people say, “Perhaps you two could just talk in your own private time.” I think to a degree we’re all hopeless romantics, and now that there’s Skype, it’s just a completely different concept to writing letters. So she thinks, “I’ll take the chance and go and meet him.” So the plane trip, on stage, is all her worst-case scenarios of what might go wrong.

It mirrors your parents’ situation in a way – they were from two different cultures and met on a ship.
Yeah, my mum happened to meet my dad on the boat when they went over. She was from Queensland and he was French, she loved the French language, she’d done it at high school and uni, she was quite fluent in it, but wanted to go to France and learn more. Then she met my dad on a boat. Up until that point she’d thought that all French men were short, with moustaches and berets. Then she sees him and he really did look like a young Gregory Peck… and everyone looks good in a tux.

I myself fell in love with a guy overseas and it didn’t work out, but you still go for it. Why not give it a crack? It’s not as though you do it all the time, like it’s some sort of mental problem.

What’s next for Aleisha?
Well, The Circle just finished up, and she’d been working on that. I think it was a great show. I think Pam Barnes, who put all those women together, always had switched-on women, whether the girls were Meshel, or Georgie, or Yumi, or Aleisha, or Collette, or Chrissie initially – and bar the advertorials, which is what paid for it, you had a good time. I actually do think TV like that can serve a community service, in that there are people at home that feel a bit disenfranchised, and a bit lonely; maybe because they’ve got a new baby, or whatever, and there are these fun ladies being quite direct, and all quite different… and it’s shit that it ended. A lot of people lost their jobs; a lot of crew and a lot of producers and stuff.

I think it's a really exciting thing sometimes to be forced to stop and be a bit lost. Aleisha’s the sort of person who would think, “What move do I make next?” The next show she wants to do is about being a mad competition enterer. She's won stuff that you go, “Actually, that's quite annoying really, to have to go on that weird trip to Adelaide for two days.” But she has a high strike rate and has done some rather funny things to get there and has won very odd things, like having to be in catalogues.

Your mother was a language teacher. Do you think you inherited her love of linguistics?
In my thirties I did a couple of jobs for Foxtel and Arena, a show called Kate and Julia. We had a great time, and then when we were told there wouldn’t be a second series, I just though, “Oh fuck it, I want to do something different.” So I did an ESL course – English as a second language – and actually went to London to teach English to people who had just come to do hospitality, so Poles and South Americans. I loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it. And then I taught in Eastbourne, to Russian kids, Italian kids.

I’ve got a lot of energy for that kind of thing. I speak French, and also with the Eurovision Song Contest, because we’ve been presenting if for SBS for four years now, every time you go, you pick up a bit more. In fact, I’m going to my second Swedish class tonight, if you must know, at the CAE. Eurovision’s in Sweden next year, so I’m just going to get a little taster of it. I might go there a bit early next year, and do a course there. It’s such a pretty, musical language that’s fun to say, and I’m a big fan of Danish and Swedish television, and film, so I love it. I watch so much I thought, “I must be fluent by now.” But I’m not. Just to test your intelligence is great though.

Do you have any other things that you’re kind of on a mission to learn?
I reckon you don’t stop learning, always. Just when you think, “Oh, I’m on top of this hosting thing now,” you have a bad night and think, “Oh, maybe I’m not.” I’m actually applying to volunteer in Romania at the end of the year to teach. I wanted to volunteer in Europe; I didn’t want to volunteer in Asia or Africa or South America, where it’s really popular. This particular project that I’ve found, they’d like someone who can do a bit of drama, a bit of English and a bit of French, and I thought, well that’s perfect. It’ll be for four weeks, I’ll be staying with a family I don’t know, but I’ll just harden the fuck up.

Other than that, there are a few fun little things that have been pitched to different stations. Some might come off, some might not. But I will say, sometimes having a certain amount of celebrity gets a bit overwhelming. Sometimes you say, “Do I want to take the next step?” and you have to be a little bit aware of what that can mean. I like the amount of people who recognise me, and that’s quite enough. I’m hoping that going away to teach will make me miss performing or re-evaluate it. Always break from the routine!

You went to drama classes in your teens and then on to the VCA. Fond memories?
I went to a girls’ school and, you know, everyone thinks you're a certain type of person and you think, “I'm not really that person,” but you’re kind of trying to fit in and you can't. And because we didn't have drama at school I had to go and do it on a Saturday somewhere else, where Nicole Kidman did the morning classes and David Wenham was in my class in the afternoon. And you could be someone else. You could be the real you. You went somewhere where everyone was interested in drama, no one was bitching all the time.

Did you have to hide that side of you at school then?
Well, no, it just meant that when you went to school you felt less alone in your brain because you knew you had this other place where you belonged. So for me, happy memories… it doesn't even begin. It was life saving, really. Then I went to Sydney Uni and did heaps of stuff there and loved it. I went to uni with Robyn Butler, who's in The Librarians, and we did our first solo show together. She did a monologue, I did a monologue, then we did a little bit at the end – and it was the biggest challenge I'd ever done on stage. I was 21, and didn't know if I could do it.

So you know how Aleisha’s feeling.
Yeah, completely. I've got an idea to write a one-woman show about being French and Australian, but I haven't got my head round it. So in a way, when she asked me I thought, “Oh, this would be a good way to kind of flesh it out and figure out how you want to do it.” I think maybe I want to go to somewhere where no one knows me, like France, and do it in French.

Do you think having a history of theatresports, as you do, sets you up for anything – RocKwiz included?
Absolutely no doubt. I used to think VCA was very formative, and it was, but all the impro stuff and all the theatresports stuff, I just reckon they should do it in schools and they should do it at work. Friends of mine, as impro people, get hired by Telstra and other companies to come in and help them loosen up in the workplace.

So it makes you think outside the box?
It also just makes you stop judging everybody else's... if you and I were to start a scene, and the situation is we're in a cafe and we've come to meet, I don’t know if you’re going to talk first, you don't know if I'm going to talk first, but let's say the first thing that you say is...

Should we get a coffee?
Right, so all I need to worry about in an impro is to not be funny, not pull focus, and think, “Jenny's just said to me ‘Should we get a coffee?' What would be the normal thing that I might say?” People think you should go: “No! Let's jump out of the window!” but that’s not in the normal circle of expectation. Whatever you come up with, it's got to be something that pushes the scenario forward and doesn't block it.

So if I say, “No, let's not get a coffee,” okay, we can work with that, but I could have said, “I’d love to get something to drink but I'm not drinking coffee anymore.” It gives you something to work with. “Why aren't you drinking coffee?” “Didn't I tell you?” You can start slowly, but we start to find out what the status is. So are you top status? Am I bottom status? Are you my sister? Are we related? Are we lovers? It just might be someone is always playing the upper hand. So if I start feeling you play the upper hand, I yield to it, don't fight it. And people don't understand that – they think that if you drop your status that you're weak, but we're playing a game. You can always end up flipping it, by revealing a secret.

So how is this not a box of tricks that's fun to open? The thing that we have to try and teach people who do it is to not panic, don't go too fast, don't try and be funny. Funny things will come out of it. So it's about patience and about saying yes.

It sounds very cooperative, but do you always get your egomaniacs trying to slip you up?
Totally. Yes and then you have to say to them, “I don't like playing with you, we're not playing together again.” Or you have a word to them; you should be able to. You know, fuck we're supposed to be communicators and improvisers. I know that I've gone out there and showcased and probably taken centre stage and all that, but I do also enjoy being low status for a while. Because my job is so high status that I love being the stupid one that's lagging behind. Don't we all love being different things?

I want to go to San Francisco and top up with some older performers who have been around a little bit longer. It should be part of any training. A lot of the Saturday Night Live people are alumni from a place called Second City, and getting in is very difficult. Bill Murray went through there, Dan Akroyd, you know...

How long have you lived in Fitzroy for?
Seven years. I like to be able to walk into town. It’s surprisingly quiet in my street, even though it’s a two-minute walk up to Brunswick Street. I love that it still feels old, and it looks like – because I’m from Sydney originally – it looks like Melbourne when I got here in 1991. Mario’s is still there, the bookstores, Café Nova is still there…

You actually did a tourism TV advert for Melbourne, didn’t you?
I did. I was an ordinary girl getting on a tram in the suburbs, running into town and being amazed by all the things that the city can offer her. It was freezing cold and we were pretending it was summer, so they gave me a spray tan ’cause I was quite white. I felt very proud to be doing something for Melbourne. And then they did the boy version, our lovely friend Damien Richardson, he played the boy, and every now and then we’d say, “They should do one where we meet!”

So you've got the RocKwiz Live: Some Kind of Genius tour coming up.
Every weekend for the next three months. No social life. But it’s like a big holiday, there’s no doubt about it. And we all know each other so we know when so and so needs to be quiet, we know who’s the chatterer. Brian is this glue; he’s the pied piper. He’s divine. He’s on. He’s not just there for a pretty face. It’ll be fun, because we know the audiences are fun and they’re full and they’re there –and that doesn’t always happen, and one day it won’t. Pinch yourself before it ends.

First published on . Updated on .

By Jenny Valentish   |  

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