By Alexandra Suttie

Are you an actor? A director? A writer? A theatre maker? A woman? A man? A person?
Everyone can take something away from this delicious interview packed with advice, influence and insight from the ladies making Inferno: A Double Bill happen.

From the acting team you’ll hear from the Crestfall cast: Marissa O’Reilly playing Alison Ellis, Marissa Bennett playing Tilly McQuarrie and Freya Pragt playing Olive Day, as well as Woman in Purgatorio. And after you’re done and longing for more – follow the links to find out what they think of the characters they’re playing.

You’ll also find wonderful words of wisdom from directors Jayde Kirchert (Crestfall) and Celeste Cody (Purgatorio) plus two very special women from behind the scenes: Janel Gibson (stage manager) and Fiona Spitzkowsky (production manager Purgatorio).

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Q: What is one of your proudest moments working in theatre?

Marissa O’Reilly:
I know for me, it was last year working with She Said Theatre. And it was pretty much an all-female production. So five women on stage discussing … similar topics to Crestfall. It was women being violent and vulgar and strong and lost in the world.
It was important because you don’t see that. And people were confronted by it. And I got to play someone I would never be cast as. You know, a violent sociopathic gang leader who said the c-bomb every few words and the f-bomb every few words. And women are never portrayed like that in theatre because it’s not attractive and I think it’s important to see those types of women on stage. Some people loved it, and some people hated it.

Freya Pragt:
I guess the most memorable would’ve been last year. I did a tour of the 26-Storey Treehouse around the country. And I guess I didn’t really have any idea of how popular and big the show would be until we played Canberra which was a 1200 seat venue, it was our first major venue and yeah, we felt like rock stars because the kids were just going crazy. And it was really exciting for us because we realised how much the stories matter to so many kids and it was really great to be proud of something like that.

Marissa Bennett:
Mine … was for a few years as part of International Women’s Month. I was co-directing a production The Vagina Monologues with a group of non-actors.  Mainly from the legal fraternity: solicitors, lawyers, county court judge, we had a Labor MP.
And the two years that I did that for was particularly good because, it was almost like working with children in a way. Their enthusiasm, the challenge of finding ways to communicate with them when we didn’t have a common language. The joy with which they approached the work and the inherent intelligence that they brought to it as well.
And some of those monologues in that show … are very funny, some of them are very dark and it was just quite lovely to spend a prolonged period of time doing a project with all women, which you don’t come across particularly often.

Fiona Spitzkowsky:
Last year I directed The Taming of the Shrew, it was the first time I had really taken ownership of a project, from the conception to delivery. It was an adaptation with some fairly major conceptual and tonal changes that dressed the classic comedy as a story of domestic abuse, using comedy and an in the round staging to draw the audience in and then implicate them in the abusive relationships presented onstage. A lot of people questioned my choices and motivation, including the actors at first. But by the end of the season the cast and crew were all on the same page, defending the show with a common line of argument. It was so incredible to see that through the time we had spent looking at the text, developing the characters and sharing our own experiences of gender politics, family dynamics and violence, we had come to a point of mutual understanding and support which gave us a platform that could be used to effectively (we hope!) communicate with others . It was a hugely satisfying moment as a theatre-maker to see such a united and passionate group of artists.

Crestfall actors Freya, Marissa O, Marissa B

Crestfall actors Freya, Marissa O, Marissa B

Q: What do you think the biggest challenge women face working in theatre and why?

Marissa Bennett:
In a lot of aspects it’d share similarities with film, if you’re going to get cast by a major theatre company. You might be too blonde or too fat or too thin. Those are realities, which are as much a part of theatre as they are a lot of the time in film. I think in terms of just, from an actor’s point of view, in terms of the number of roles that are out there for women of, in particular for particular ages, there is less out there than there is for men. And I think as a woman, depending where you are in life there’s a certain juggling one has to do if you’re a mother or a mother to be. Or if that’s something you want you might have to come up against a great difficult decision.

Jayde Kirchert:
Tradition. Both in terms of entering leadership positions, but also in the kinds of roles they have traditionally had available to them as actors. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of great people - men and women - working hard to make change happen, but the ingrained (constructed) ideas about leadership and what it means to be a woman take time to shift. 

Celeste Cody:
I think everyone in theatre faces challenges. We all have to constantly justify our choices. Theatre is becoming an area that is under-funded and under-supported. As a woman in this industry we face the added issue of gender bias, especially in writing, directing and other leadership roles and as a female actor, there are generally less roles for women and the roles that are available are often lacking in substance. 

Fiona Spitzkowsky:
There are a lot of really positive things happening at the moment for women in theatre, there are more programs to support female emerging artists, a push to have equal representation on the stage. But I still think that the biggest challenge is for women's voices to be heard. Theatre is a big, loud artform that attracts big, loud people and sometimes it can be difficult to stake a place in that environment: it takes a lot of practice and a bit of courage to raise your voice. Sometimes this can be a positive: I have often received really honest feedback on shows because people think they're talking to the FOH manager, not the director. But countless times I have found myself being talked-over in meetings, being interrupted while trying to answer questions, and sometimes used as the butt of sexist jokes. I find the way we frame discussions about gender politics in theatre frustrating at times, with a lot of emphasis on avoiding conflict. The reality is that for the voices of women and people at the intersections of all marginalised groups to be heard, the dominant voices will need to turn down the volume a bit.

Q: What advice would you give to women aspiring to work in theatre?

Marissa O’Reilly:
I don’t know yet, because I’m still starting. I don’t think I can give advice yet. I only just finished drama school and I came into it quite late. So I guess that would be my advice, live a little first. Because then you’ve got more to draw on. I would say before you go to drama school, travel and do things like that. Because then you can really have more depth to your performances. Live a little.

Freya Pragt:
Make sure you really want to do it. Definitely make sure you really want to do it. Because it’s never easy and it’s a constant battle and even when you think you’re doing really well it’s great but you never know what’s around the corner so keep a level head, make sure you want to do it and just create a good support for yourself. Surround yourself with good people.

Jayde Kirchert:
Do it. Actually just start doing it.

Janel Gibson:
I often remind myself, that ‘[w]orking in theatre can consume you, or re-fuel you. Let it be the later.’
What I mean by this is that theatre is a complex industry with high demands and high rewards. You not only give your time and money to produce a show, but you put your emotions into the work, your creativity. It asks a lot of you and can be physically and emotionally draining. On the other hand, it can bring you the greatest joy.
You can't last in the arts unless you are passionate about it. It's tough to make a name for yourself, to find the funds to test every idea. And if the process of creating doesn't leave you feeling excited, then the sacrifice may not be worth it. However, if you can make theatre that leaves you inspired, thought-provoke, happier or changed, it is a sacrifice worth making.
Developing theatre is like raising a child. When you create it, or help develop and nurture a performance, it is so satisfying because you are responsible for something beautiful. It's incredibly challenging, but you make it work.

Fiona Spitzkowsky:
Be as big and as loud as you can. If you have an idea, don't sit on it, don't ask permission, just run with it. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, and if you do, acknowledge it big and loud. 

Ladies...making theatre happen

Ladies...making theatre happen

Q: Who are you biggest influences and inspirations, and why?

Marissa O’Reilly:
Well I’ve always loved all the female actresses in the UK. So Judy Dench, Maggie Smith. Those ladies have always been my idols. The women of another era, because women were written differently then as well. Even though in society they had less power, women were portrayed with a lot more power. Like they had chutzpah and they had sass and they weren’t second fiddle. That would be the main thing. Trained actors that just play, and their voices are so beautiful.

Freya Pragt:
Women, people, that work a lot from job to job to job and never get deterred by never getting that so called ‘big break’ and things like that. So inspiration for me is hard working people that are quiet achievers. Particularly in the theatre field, so there’s no name to that.
Because it’s really, really hard to keep working. You get a job, and then you don’t and then you do and then you don’t. So the people that keep on going even when times are not as rosy as they think that they would’ve been, that they once imagined when they were in drama school. It’s really inspiring for me because they clearly want to do it, so nothing’s going to stop them doing it and I think that’s a really great attitude to have in the field that you want to work in.

Jayde Kirchert:
Lots of people influence me so these kinds of questions are tricky…I love the actors I work with. I love how creative and willing they are. The girls in Crestfall are inspiring me on a daily basis with their fearlessness and bravery in being true to the brutality and boldness of this play. I also love surrealist art. It asks us to question what we think is ‘real’ by allowing new combinations of things to co-exist. 

Studying anthropology has influenced me greatly. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict once said “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences” and I find this true of theatre as well…pretty inspiring!

I also love reading and listening to directors talk about theatre and its role within society. Anne Bogart, Peter Sellars, Peter Brooke, as well as academics like Erica Fischer-Lichte...there are more.

Celeste Cody:
I'm always inspired by my friends and family. They are such brilliant, creative people and they give me so much to draw upon as an artist. Also, I find cats amazingly theatrical.

Q: Any other words of wisdom for aspiring theatre-makers?

Marissa O'Reilly:
Women in theatre - we just have to make it happen ourselves. Because the institutions that are there at the moment, they're doing their best but it's happening too slowly. So people like Jayde, and my friends Penny, Seanna and Anna at She Said Theatre, you know, women are just trying to make it happen. Because we've got to.

Freya Pragt:
I just think women are a marginalised group, and we're constantly looking through the lens of the white man really...So it's exciting times for theatre and if funding could lift itself out of the ground then maybe we'd be on a really nice track but yeah, I don't really know, I just think take a chance on a women-driven team...keep in mind that women are people and they're not just women, they're a large part of the population so get with the program people!

Jayde Kirchert:
If you're learning then you're achieving, so failure is impossible. Don't be afraid of being heard ladies!

Janel Gibson:
Don't be afraid of risking it; sometimes the greatest achievements stem from the biggest flukes. The key is you have to be willing to take a chance on the unexpected, the uncommon, the unfamiliar. If you want to make something incredible, fresh, inspiring, you have to go where no one has gone before, and that requires taking risks.

Crestfall actors Freya, Marissa O and Marissa B with director Jayde

Crestfall actors Freya, Marissa O and Marissa B with director Jayde

Inspired? Don't miss out of Inferno: A Double Bill - book now!

Click to find out what Marissa O'Reilly, Freya Pragt and Marissa Bennett think about their characters in Crestfall!

And don't be shy - share your thoughts by commenting below!

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