Life’s Good: Nelle Lee (Interview 19)

Life is very good right now for Nelle Lee,  producer-actor, writer and one of the artistic director triumvirate of the very successful independent theatre company, Shake and Stir.

She and the rest of the company are on the first leg of their national tour of Statespeare and, earlier this week in a special ceremony, she was awarded the University of Southern Queensland‘s Young Alumnus of the Year Award and Faculty of Arts Prize. We catch up at Jilly’s coffee shop, just round the corner from Toowoomba’s Empire Theatre where Statespeare is playing this week.

Nelle arrives in a flurry, a bit late from an interview with a local television crew. It’s good to see her so energised and happy and confident. We eschew the contents of Jilly’s famous wicked-cake case, settle on coffee and start to talk. It’s been a while since we did this – apart from quick ‘hellos’ in theatre foyers across the years since her graduation from the Theatre program at USQ in 2004. It seems there hasn’t been a spare moment for her since then. Shake and Stir started (in a part-time way) in 2006, but has been going flat out since 2008-09, she tells me – not bad going. She’s modest about her achievements: ‘I have a lot of people to thank.’ She’s not yet 30, I think, and she can already claim to have a huge career hit on her hands with the theatrical start-up company that is Shake and Stir. The company gets no government subsidy or philanthropic money, and is entirely self-supporting.

Shake and Stir employ over 20 actors a year with 8 full-time positions. All actors are paid at above-Equity rates.

In addition to their mainstage performances in Brisbane and on tour – they do not have a home theatre base – Shake and Stir also run teacher professional-development workshops and after-school and holiday classes for kids either in-school or at Brisbane’s Old Museum. Whilst the focus of their performance work is on introducing young people to Shakespeare, they are also keen to do the same for other classic works. Their production of Animal Farm (another school syllabus favourite) is programmed for production later this year. But for now and for the next four months as they tour Australia, it’s Statespeare which was commissioned by the Festival of Cairns in 2008 and which has been hugely successful for the company ever since.

Statespeare came naturally to us at the time,’ Nelle says, ‘and so we wrote a play about the problem of Shakespeare’s language for kids who have to study the plays.’ She goes on to talk about the way the plays’ stories and ideas are so accessible once the language barrier is breached and the text unpacked. It’s the key message of Statespeare. (Here’s Greenroom’s review of the production). I’m keen to know where the original idea for Shake and Stir came from, and how it got traction.

After graduation from the USQ Theatre program with a major in Acting Nelle became involved with various education and indie projects but, as she puts it, was looking for something solid to get her teeth into. ‘USQ taught us how to work and emphasised that we would probably have to create our own. That didn’t scare me at all. I was ready for it.’

The idea for what became Shake and Stir came about through a chance meeting with Nelle’s now-co Artistic Director Ross Balbuziente, also an actor-writer with a business and marketing background. The third member of the Shake and Stir Artistic Directorship Nick Skubij was also at that party, and the three began talking about their work and aspirations. Ross and Nelle had a play they’d written, so they swapped and read them. It must have been the spark between like minds which ignited the determination of the trio to have a go. ‘We knew we wanted to do something. Here were the plays, and so we began.’

During the formative years Nelle, Ross and Nick worked absolutely non-stop. ‘We’d be working during the day and then go to rehearsals at night, or be at the computer, making contacts, talking to people and just getting the company going. I’ve never worked so hard in my life.’ It was clear as success came their way that Shake and Stir needed more attention and might even be ready to go full-time. ‘We pitched in $800 each to register the business and get letterhead printed,’ she says. Since then the learning curve for the young company has been steep.

Shake and Stir create their own artistic product and manage and market it entirely in-house. ‘If we need to do something, we do it ourselves or learn how by doing.’

I asked what had been the hardest part for them during the cross-over period from part to full-time. ‘As actors, it was saying no to jobs that came up and not putting ourselves forward for roles – just focussing entirely on the idea of Shake and Stir.’ The advice Nelle says she’d give anyone starting out was learned from this period. ‘Be prepared to work 100% on your project. Know it is going to be time-consuming and testing, and call upon every resource you have, including your contacts. It doesn’t happen overnight,’ she adds.

We talk about the importance of networking for a wannabe producer who has a good idea they want to push. She agrees. ‘I went to my old school Principal at Albany Creek and pitched the idea of after-school drama classes for the kids. They’re in the outer suburbs and we thought it a good idea to go to them rather than have them rely on getting to workshops in the city. We did the maths and figured we’d need 6 kids to pay for the hall hire. That first day 88 turned up.’ Clearly they had tapped into a need and it took off in several other schools afterwards.

In the beginning schools’ workshops paid for the company’s touring performance work. Now workshops and productions are fully sustained by box office income and fees.

Now that the hard establishment period is over I wonder what are the new challenges. The work is constant and still hard, but it’s employing friends which Nelle identifies as the ‘trickiest’ thing. What’s good are the rewards that have come from the company’s obvious success including recognition for the work and partnerships opening up. Nelle mentions a big and exciting project coming next year – still commercial-in-confidence, but stay tuned! ‘I am really loving what I am doing right now,’ she answers when I ask her about a career wish list. ‘I want to keep writing and producing work for as long as I can.’

Feeding the artist:

I discover as we work our way through a couple of coffees that Nelle is a bit of an old-fashioned modernist; she loves the classics for a start. As for reading it’s short stories, poetry or the sonnets or plays of Shakespeare. She loves classic pop music and ticks off the Beatles, Queen, the Killers and U2. She also finds inspiration in abstract and surrealist art and in contemporary dance. ‘Oh, and I love Google,’ she adds. ‘It’s my favourite website.’ She goes on, ‘I remember at USQ at one interview the panel saying I needed to read more about what was happening in the world, so I did.’ I silently give thanks for a student who listened and followed up! She is most stimulated to write, she tells me, when she has been in the company of other creative people. ‘I will go home after a show sometimes and just write and write.’ She mentions the plays of Helen Howard and Michael Futcher as particularly inspirational. Nelle also studied ballet for 11 years, and I find out she’s a snow-boarder. She has hired a chalet in the middle of nowhere in Utah for a family holiday later this year. They’re all keen skiers, apparently. She adores the outdoors and wilderness and loves long walks just to wind down or think creative thoughts, so she decided that a chalet in the middle of a snowy nowhere in Utah was the perfect place to be. ‘I found I could rent an entire chalet for about a quarter of the price of a hotel,’ she says. There’s a business woman and a romantic for you!

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One thought on “Life’s Good: Nelle Lee (Interview 19)”

  1. I think Shake and Stir could teach us oldies a thing or two on how to run a successful theatre company! Well done guys.

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