Dear Lucy. Dear Holly. Dear Ashton. Dear all the young women who are in the process of becoming actors.
This is to those of you who dream of being famous; or like me, simply long to be a part of the theatre. The ones who also think they might one day want to have a family. This is my story. I tell it to you because when I trained to become an actor, none of my female teachers were parents. When I entered the theatre professionally, there were only one or two women whom I admired as successes who also had children. And it was complicated for them.
I was born in the early seventies. My mother was a feminist. I know this because she told me off when I was six years old for saying that sweeping was women’s work. I also know it because she told me I could be anything I wanted―provided that wasn’t a nurse or a teacher. I didn’t realise then how new feminism was. My mother was a trailblazer in her own modest way. Women had only started fighting for equal rights in the workforce a decade or so before I was born. We don’t have a sense of the past as children. We assume that the way life is for us is the way it has always been. I assumed, because my mother worked and told me that I could be anything, do anything, that women had successfully been doing that for generations.
How do you define success—as an actor, as a woman? I wanted to become an actor because I wanted to be a part of a community that accepted me. Because I saw Star Wars when I was five years old, and wanted to dissolve into the theme music I could hear swelling up through the floor boards of my bedroom from the stereo in the living room downstairs. I wanted to be an actor because it was something more than stifling suburbia; more than terrifying Australian sports culture and tedious, bourgeois, good-girl-private-school studiousness. Because Shakespeare was able to articulate all the huge emotions I was experiencing, and gave me the words to express them. Because I was good at it. Because people praised me for it. Because it was the first place, after being unwillingly transplanted from my home in Canada to a foreign land, where I felt I belonged.
I was born in Toronto to an Australian mother and Canadian father. My mother had travelled to Canada after training as a nurse in Sydney. She married my father in 1970. They had two children, me and my younger brother, before divorcing seven years later. I remember how my mother’s Australian accent set her apart from the Canadian mums; in comparison, her voice was beautiful, lilting, exotic. When she spoke, I wasn’t a dual citizen, but a “jewel citizen”; something to be infinitely proud of. She gave me a pair of duty-free pearl earrings when we moved to Australia in 1982. My new step-father had successfully pursued work in Sydney because she longed to return home. Even at the age of nine the pearls felt like a bribe; compensation for being taken away from Canada and my real dad. I thought duty-free was ‘Judy free’ because of her Australian accent. I didn’t know who Judy was, or why her pearls were free, but they were far too big for my little, perpetually-infected ear lobes. My memory of leaving Canada is standing in the airport bathroom with tears streaming down my face as she forced the posts through my pus-encrusted lobes, promising me, “They’re Judy Free! They’re cultured pearls!” They eventually ended up in her jewellery box.
Australia wasn’t a happy place for a long, long time. I didn’t fit. The crows sounded like strangled babies. The hot dogs had red, leathery skins that squeaked between my teeth. The ketchup was sauce. The children called me Yank. My year five teacher would send me to the corner shop at lunch to buy his smokes, which he taught me to hide under my jumper on the journey back. There were school uniforms, class captains, sports captains, assembling on the hot bitumen playground at ‘attention’ and ‘at ease’. The sap from the gumtrees formed hard, sticky balls that would hurt when a boy threw at you. The spiders could kill you. People burned their garbage and the melting plastic smelled like vomit. If you didn’t play cricket, footie or netball, you didn’t exist. Christmas was in the summer and the only way to have a real tree was to wire three scrawny saplings together.
But my class did a play in year six and I made people laugh. I felt like they saw past my crooked teeth, thick glasses and funny accent, my preposterous height and clumsiness. By seeing me as someone else, for the first time they saw me.