A few months ago, on a misty, cool morning here on the hill, thoughts turned to a time when the (then) third and final year acting majors at USQ were preparing for a big outdoor production of Macbeth as part of the (then) Shakespeare in Queen’s Park Festival in Toowoomba. Seven years on I was thinking that way probably because the (then) Producer in me would be anxiously scanning the skies for signs of rain during the lead up to and performance season.
I’m sure it’s a scientific furphy, but ‘they’ say that in seven years all the cells in our body have reconstituted themselves, so that means we are all different – but the same! Seven like three, is a special number … but I digress. That was (then); this is (now).
At that point I wondered about some of that class of 2007 and where they were and how and if they had changed much from those days. I contacted a few and this is one that I’d like to share with you. It’s from the delightful Melanie Zanetti who, in that last year of training was, in my mind, destined for a successful career as an actor. Mel would be the one who’d come in early each day to work before classes commenced. I would hear her doing her voice workouts down the corridor as I unlocked my office door. Her intelligence, talent, and ability to engage at the right level on performance projects were, I thought, the ‘right stuff’ for a young artist about to enter the profession.
Mel responded (auspiciously I thought) that she felt that in this year she was, “moving into a new stage of learning and understanding in regards to acting and life in general,” so these questions, she went on, “were coming at the right time.” When I contacted her she was in LA, “taking part in my first pilot season,” after which she was due a few weeks later to head back to Australia (where she is now) to finish pick ups and special effects scenes on a feature called The Contents.
I asked her whether what she was doing now was something she thought she might be doing 7 years after leaving USQ?
“Not at all! Although thinking back I didn’t have any expectations. I was just so immersed in the course, especially in third year, and I wasn’t really thinking too much beyond that at the time (I’m not sure that is a good thing!)”
So, what was the biggest discovery you made about your career or yourself as an artist in the first few years after completing actor-training?
“Work begets work. Always be working on something, even if it’s taking classes, writing, working up monologues. I worked out if this is what I love and want to do, I needed to try and always be in a state of readiness, physically, emotionally, mentally which can be hard cause life happens but it’s about organizing, simplifying and detoxifying so this is possible.”
What has been the most satisfactory project or career move you’ve made in the past 7 years?
“I’m naming two starkly different projects: Firstly Pygmalion at QTC, brilliant script, wonderful cast and creatives, fabulous gift of a role which stretched me to the next level as a performer and costumes that made my inner five year old want to piss her pants with excitement. Then my first feature, a zombie action film shot in Asia with Dolph Lundgren. It was a total baptism of fire. I worked with some amazing people, got to travel, learning on the fly about camera technique. It was so much fun and a huge period of growth. I also got a sawn off shotgun.”
What do you wish you’d known more about when you finished your training or, to put it another way, has anything about the art and craft of acting really taken you by surprise in the interim?
“I wish I’d known more about acting for screen. Our course didn’t really cover it in any depth and learning how to let the camera in rather then moving out to meet the audience has been a big journey over the last 18 months. Making bold, truthful choices within the size of the style of the medium is the challenge I’m working on right now. Oh and letting go of trying to control everything in my work. Also in life. (Ha!)”
What’s the biggest compliment about your work that you’ve received from a colleague?
“A director I very much admire said this in an interview regarding my work:
She’s visionary, brave, gutsy and ballsy. I admire her tenacity and hunger for her craft, she sinks her teeth into a role and works her butt off to give it everything she’s got. She definitely punches above her weight.
What do you admire in fellow artists?
“Vulnerability, creativity, comic timing, courage, bold choices, diligence, intelligence, passion, ferocity and generosity. I have had the absolute privilege to work with so many older incredibly generous actors, generous with not only their wealth of knowledge and skill but their encouragement and humility and desire to keep learning at any age. Artists who will meet you on the floor, let you in and are willing to go all the way with you.
This is one of my favourite queries to artists young and old, and I put it to Mel. What are the important ‘support systems’ for you as an artist?
“Gratitude. Yes getting in routines with exercise, yoga, mediation, green juice, probiotics, writing, enough sleep, good mentors, being really organized, spending time with loved ones, all of those are really important for me, but gratitude is the easiest way to re-centre back to the present as it focuses in on the abundance of right now. It gets me out of my head, out of anxiety and the uncertain, often fickle nature of this industry. And it’s a practice, you have to work on it everyday, but it’s so worth it.”
And, of course, the one you’re always asked but which is really important: What advice would you give to an artist in training but put it in a few words of advice to yourself as you were in March 2007.
“Fortune favours the brave and the prepared. Do the work, even if you think you have no chance of getting the role, you NEVER know where it will lead. I know this as an absolute from first hand experience.
She goes on. “Always try to work with your betters, there is no better way to improve. There is no finish point as an artist, there is ALWAYS more to learn, consistently look for opportunities to expand your skills/craft/understanding/empathy. Know the industry you are working in! Who is doing what? Who runs what? See as much theatre/film/exhibitions as you can and work out what you love, what inspires you? Get really connected with what you ACTUALLY want to do, not what you ‘should’ do. Put yourself forward! Be industrious, if your an introvert like me, have a nap before entering opening night foyers. Learn how to approach people whilst remaining centred and who you truly are, people can smell desperation a mile off.
“OK, and this is a huge one. Do not tie your inherent self-worth to your work. You create work, it’s an expression of your creativity/intelligence/hard work etc, it’s not who you are. If you do buy into that lie it can be a terrible slippery slope into anxiety, depression and a never ending emotional roller coaster. From someone who has been there, don’t do it.
If you are not failing ever it means you’re playing it safe, you’re not showing up, you’re not taking risks, you’re not pushing yourself. Learn to dare greatly and fail spectacularly. I wish someone had told me this 7 years ago.
“Vulnerability is the birth place of creativity, innovation and connection. It’s so important, truly terrifying and the only thing we want to watch. Below is a talk by Brene Brown on dealing with the critic. She pretty much says everything I believe on the subject with a clarity I have never been able to muster. Every artist should watch it, I cannot recommend it enough, it’s seriously changing my life.