Interview for MTC’s Backstage:
From work experience to work, career pathways in theatre can be full of surprises and, sometimes, déjà vu.
‘It feels so full circle!’ says actor Izabella Yena, walking into the same rehearsal room where she did work experience six years prior. Now she’s in the cast of The Violent Outburst That Drew Me to You, Finegan Kruckemeyer’s offbeat comedy and the centrepiece of MTC’s 2019 Education program. ‘It’s a really special thing to feel as if I’m sitting across from my 17-year-old self doing the very thing she was dreaming of.’
In 2013, Yena spent a week observing rehearsals for Other Desert Cities, rubbing shoulders with Sam Strong and Robyn Nevin. She read the play several times before starting her placement, and researched every aspect to make sure she could follow the conversations around the table about the work. ‘Everyone really took me under their wing and made sure I felt comfortable,’ reflects Yena, ‘whether that was asking my opinion, explaining techniques or simply showing me around the building.’ Yena remembers going side stage for a performance at the theatre, and being amazed at how the work transformed from rehearsal to performance mode. ‘It made me appreciate how collaborative the process was.’
After Year 12, Yena auditioned for the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and was accepted into the following year’s Acting cohort to study a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She graduated from VCA in 2016 and went straight into a show at Theatreworks. ‘I kept working as much as I could across both film and theatre for the next few years,’ says Yena, adding that she even did a handful of creative developments at MTC before successfully auditioning for The Violent Outburst That Drew Me to You.
On a lunch break at the MTC café, Yena bumped into a familiar face: Jess Keepence, the stage manager on Other Desert Cities. Keepence remembers Yena as a friendly teenager who was keen to soak everything up. ‘It’s so fantastic to see that she followed through with her ambitions that she had in secondary school and is now an actor!’ Keepence has been working at MTC on and off over the past decade, beginning as an assistant stage manager/dresser on Poor Boy.
Also a graduate of VCA, Keepence went to high school in central Victoria and did work experience in Year 10 at the Ten Victoria television station and studios in Bendigo. ‘I remember going out with the camera team to make a commercial for a local motorbike dealer!’ she recalls. Now at MTC, Keepence enjoys the energy that work experience students bring to the room. ‘What we do is a pretty secluded little world,’ says Keepence. ‘If students have a passion for theatre in high school, it’s good for them to be able to see it as a profession in all its various facets.’
Yena’s stage manager for The Violent Outburst That Drew Me to You is Lisette Drew, who has always been passionate about stories and storytelling. In high school, drama was one of her favourite subjects, so much so that during Year 11 Drew studied a subject at TAFE called Entertainment. ‘It was in that class that our lecturer introduced us to backstage career paths,’ says Drew, who promptly moved to Melbourne immediately after high school to study a Bachelor of Production at the VCA. ‘I was not sure exactly what I wanted to be, I just knew I wanted to work in theatre.’
In her first year at VCA, Drew studied all different aspects of theatre; lighting, sound, costume and design, but it was stage management that really felt like her true calling. ‘In my final year at VCA, I was a secondment on MTC’s Moonlight and Magnolias, and from that first show I knew MTC was a company I would like to work for in the future.’ In her first year out of university, Drew travelled to Scotland and England with Opera Australia and The Australian Ballet, ‘but even with such exciting adventures working overseas, I always seem to return home to MTC.’
Drew, whose own work experience was with a film festival in her hometown of Newcastle, says students help the cast and creatives at MTC to see characters and storylines in a new light. ‘In a rehearsal room, we go over and over scenes several times to get them right, being so close to the work can sometimes make it hard to see an outside view. When a work experience student observes rehearsals it helps us see it from an outsider’s eye, after all, they are our first audience member!’
Now in the second week of rehearsals for The Violent Outburst That Drew Me to You, Yena and Drew are being joined by Year 11 work experience student Sophie O’Brien. She has made the journey to Melbourne from Warrnambool in regional Victoria for the week with her family to get a glimpse into the world of theatre-making from an insider’s perspective. ‘I’m really enjoying learning about the different pathways that professionals have taken to get to where they are today,’ says O’Brien. ‘It’s so inspiring.’
O’Brien participated in MTC’s 2018 Betty Amsden Youth Scholarship Course, and she’s excited to be back. ‘I fell in love with the Company last year,’ says O’Brien. ‘It was my first brush with professional theatre. I learnt so much about all jobs, big and small, that go into making a successful production. The Scholarship Course really helped open my eyes to the industry.’ Now she has her eye on a career in stage management. ‘As much as I love performing, I’m really interested in stage management. Even though it’s challenging, it’s really rewarding and a labour of love. Although you’re not the face of the show, you’re bringing all the elements together and making it work.’
O’Brien says she’ll be returning to Warrnambool with a plethora of knowledge from a variety of areas. ‘I’m excited to share my newfound skills with my Theatre Studies class and community. From watching Prue Clark (director) work, I’ve learnt how to be a dynamic and adaptable leader and decision-maker, but also a friend.’ She’s also learnt new acting skills and techniques. ‘When rehearsing scenes, the cast will make offers and experiment with different approaches. I’ve learnt that it’s ok to try new ideas and fail, because you learn from those to find a better solution to the scene.’ It has been a jam-packed week for O’Brien, but she’ll never forget the first day of rehearsals when fight choreographer Lyndall Grant ran a movement session with the cast: ‘We learnt how to safely kick someone in the nuts.’