As I Skype with Niki-J Price she tells me she is enjoying a little stillness in the Brisbane rain – ‘a bit of a homesick moment,’ she says – she’s Welsh by birth. Niki-J’s taking a short break from rehearsals as part of the Empire Burning company. There’s a run-through that night, ‘and it will be my first ever appearance on the Sue Benner stage.’ Niki-J is one of the cast in Eugene Gilfedder’s new play which opens on Friday at !Metro Arts as part of their Independents’ season for 2011. ‘I’m more than thrilled to be working with such an amazing cast. What a gift it is to be sharing the stage with some of Queensland’s finest male actors – including young Finn (Gilfedder-Cooney) who is not afraid to take such bold steps.’ I think to myself that she is probably going to be right at home in this company. Niki-J herself is a fine actor – on stage as bold and courageous as they come.
I’m keen to find out more about her and to find out what feeds her artist’s imagination. I begin by asking her a question that’s been puzzling me for ages. What’s the ‘J’ in Niki-J stand for? She tells me it’s for ‘Jayne’ but she only added it when she was 18. ‘At the time I thought a second name would be nice,’ and so she became Nicola Jayne Price – a good Welsh name, I note and one that morphed over time into Niki-J.
As a child, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. ‘It was a small, mid-Wales country town – all a bit incestuous; you’d walk down the street and see someone you were related to.’ When she was 13 she discovered the local youth theatre, and that was it. It was there that her eyes were opened to a wider world, and where, she confesses, she learned to drink and smoke. The first play she appeared in happened to be Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, the same play, incidentally, in which she appeared in December last year for Fractal Productions in Ipswich and at the Old Museum in Brisbane.
During the 5 years she worked in the local youth theatre – which included two stints with the National Youth Theatre of Wales – she found herself ‘falling away’ from her peers in the country town. She headed to London aged 18 and studied acting and musical theatre at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. She describes as ‘comfortable’ the six years that followed graduation from Mountview. She achieved her certification as an instructor from the British Academy of Stage and Screen Combat, and taught at most of the drama schools: Guildford School of Acting, The Drama Centre, E15 which she describes as, ‘a bit method’ – as well as at Britain’s oldest theatre training school Italia Conti, where it was all ‘young girls learning how to dance and throw a few punches.’ During this time she honed her skills in ‘lots of workshops’ and in youth theatre. In 1999, her skills in stage combat took her to the Banff Centre, Canada for an international fight conference. There she met Australian actor and fellow stage combat instructor Scott Witt. ‘We had a lot in common, mostly because there was a lot of testosterone and scary American dudes throwing punches.’ Scott was teaching clowning and she assisted one of his projects. On her return to London they kept in touch, and she came to live in Australia finally in 2001.
Through Scott, Niki-J met Bryan Nason, someone who would go on to be important in her professional career. ‘Bryan had called a meeting for a project he was planning for 2002 : Monkey and his Magic Journey to the West. I asked for an audition and was cast but, to my surprise, I didn’t get a fighting role.’ It was the beginning of a professional relationship through Grin and Tonic and friendship with Bryan that continues today.
Niki-J’s professional career in Queensland since then has encompassed stage and film work, teaching, fight direction, song-writing, singing and voice-over work. Her latest acting credit will be as Agrippina, mother of the Emperor Nero in Empire Burning – a world premiere. ‘When I first read it, I knew she wanted to play her.’ It is also the only female role in the play, and I ask her what it’s like being the only woman in the cast? She tells me she’s just come back from getting her motorbike fixed. ‘You should see the way the guys in the workshop look at me – a woman riding a bike – outrageous! The way the male actors respond is entirely different.’ She goes on, ‘It’s different with actors, though; I don’t feel lonely or ostracised or excluded, but I do feel a sense of softness in the guys whenever they are talking to me offstage. Maybe I’m their comic relief!’ she laughs. ‘Being surrounded by male actors highlights to me how lonely Agrippina is in the company of men. She feels she has to be defensive and protective of her son.’
Niki-J’s done her research on the historical person of Nero’s mother. She tells me that the real Agrippina was quite a woman! ‘There’s so much juicy information – incestuous behaviour – which isn’t dealt with in this play,’ she adds. ‘Women are complex enough as it is without adding another psychological layer!’ In order to deal with the many male figures in her life the real Agrippina had to learn the art of control. ‘It’s been a battle for me to find out how to play it without being angry,’ Niki-J says. ‘Agrippina’s subtle, smothering and manipulative and it’s all in order to get power. If she doesn’t get it, then she’s happy to live through her son.’
Empire Burning is ‘text heavy’ she explains, and it’s also written in blank verse. ‘I just connected with the language – all the years of doing Shakespeare with Grin and Tonic supported me. The words are beautiful, and the play is clever and intelligent; I understand exactly where Eugene is going with it.’ There is a challenge, however. ‘Eugene wants it to sound as natural as possible – almost conversational.’ As to the production Niki-J is full of admiration for Freddy Komp‘s visual design. ‘Last night we were shown Freddy’s projections, and I’m just gobsmacked at the design work that is possible in theatre now. The set is quite uncomplicated and, although it is set in Nero’s Rome, the costumes are contemporary. There are hardly any props or furniture, although there are some wonderful columns that Eugene has managed to salvage from somewhere.’ She finishes up, ‘I have been trying to focus on my scenes; the text is tricky and finding my own dynamic journey has been a challenge. Watching everyone else finding their feet over the last week or so has been fascinating. With less than a week to opening I’m still exploring her stillness and letting the power of the text work on me.’
Feeding the artist:
What are you reading right now? I usually have about 7 books on the go, and especially children’s books. One that I’m reading now A New Earth by Eckhardt Tolle talks about living in the moment about the ego, and about human ‘being’ and not human ‘doing.’ It’s what I’m aiming for.
What kind of music do you enjoy? All sorts except Country and Western – it’s mood dependent really. I’ll put on Michael Jackson in the kitchen and Tai Chi music for peaceful times. For crazy times – more contemporary stuff. I studied piano for 11 years, am a self-taught guitarist and I play the ukelele when clowning. There is a saxaphone in the cupboard which I am considering dusting off soon.
What are you listening to right now? Edele – on a friend’s recommendation. She’s a Brit, a Londoner, with an amazing raw and natural voice. There are some pretty complex chord progressions and she has done what most clever bands do – get a 3 chord formula and work a great melody around it. I’m really loving it.
What kind of art attracts you? Photography especially of nature.
What kind of dance? I go crazy in my kitchen sometimes – just boogie on. I did try doing a Tango class with clowning friends. I have to say I thought it would be a bit more passionate. I wouldn’t mind doing a bit more, though. I do love being uninhibited and moving any way you like.
Your favourite architecture? The wonderful Gothic stone buildings that you find in France in particular.
Niki-J is an actor, singer songwriter, musician, stage combat instructor and fight director. Other areas include dialect coaching, direction, voice overs and safety/movement consultation. As an actor, N-J has performed in various theatre and films in the UK, Europe, Canada and Australia. Her recent performances include roles in the QPIX film True Love, Fractal Theatre’s Under Milk Wood, 4MBS’ The Merry Wives of Windsor, in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus with 4MBS Classic Players at the Theatre Royal in Hobart, Canberra Playhouse and for Merrigong Theatre Company. N-J has also appeared with Mad Cat Creative Connections in Minefields & Miniskirts, aSpire Theatre Arts in The Passion and Queensland Theatre Company in We Were Dancing, A Christmas Carol and Puss In Boots. Other works include Trocadero Productions’ The Duchess of Malfi, 4MBS Classic Players’Romeo & Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Prometheus Unbound and Much Ado About Nothing, The Forwood Movements’ The Laramie Project, Grin & Tonic’s Monkey, Excerpt and A Midsummer Nights’ Dream.
Written and Directed by Eugene Gilfedder
Performed by Damien Cassidy, Dan Crestani, Michael Futcher, Eugene Gilfedder, Finn Gilfedder-Cooney, Sasha Janowicz, Niki-J Price and Steven Tandy
Sound Design by John Rodgers and Ken Eadie
Lighting Design by Geoff Squires
Visuals/Projection Design by Freddy Komp
Duration: 90 minutes (no interval)
BackChat: Wed 18 May, Artist Q&A post performance
Cheap Tuesdays: $12 (door sales only)
Season: Fri 13 – Sat 28 May 2011
Preview: 7:30pm Thu 12 May 2011
Opening: 7:30pm Fri 13 May 2011
When: Wed – Sat: 7:30pm
Where: Sue Benner Theatre
Tickets: Adults $20/ Conc. $16/ Preview $12/ Group (10+) $12
Bookings: (07) 3002 7100