Michelle Miall (Interview 23)

Image: Elleni Toumpas

It’s a cold, wintery day as I speak with Michelle Miall, director and Matilda Award-winner about her work – her current production is Colder for the 2011 La Boite Theatre Indie season which opens next week.

Michelle is a QUT graduate with a BA Drama Hons (Theatre Studies). By her third year, she found herself focussing on directing and writing, and this prompted a decision to continue on to an Honours year in Popular Theatre. ‘I was (and still am) interested in bringing audiences to the theatre who don’t normally go, who feel excluded by it or like it is irrelevant to their lives.’

By the end of that Honours year Michelle confesses, ‘I was jaded, as though I had intellectualised everything I loved about theatre. It was as if I had this tiny view of the world from my little place in it. I wanted to go out and experience more.’ Feeling she needed a bigger palette from which to draw her passion and, like many Australian artists before her, she headed overseas to London.

After working on one production as a stage manager (from which, she adds,’ I got a very cool eyebrow scar from a falling lighting rig during bump out’) I moved outside theatre and got caught there for some time.’ She travelled, worked in fashion, then advertising, then investment banking.  The work funded her travel, and the travel fuelled her imagination.

Eventually, however, she realised that she had stopped introducing herself to people as a theatre worker. ‘They didn’t know me as an artist, and I had stopped calling myself one because I wasn’t practising.’ She says it felt as if she had lost part of herself. ‘It was then that I knew I had gone far enough from where I belonged, and I wanted to be back in the arts. I knew theatre was where I wanted to be.’ She headed back to Australia in 2005.

‘I started writing again, started thinking about ideas for creating work but it took me a while to get back into the scene, and even longer for me to reconcile the time I had lost in the drive for career and achievement. I felt people had overtaken me and I hadn’t worked in years. Eventually I came to realise how vitally important that time away had been for me, how it had played a major part setting me on the trajectory I’m now travelling.

‘The time I spent overseas traveling, working in other fields, experiencing the world from different angles, developing interests I never knew I had – it all brought me to where I am now, personally and artistically. I think I have an understanding of people, of myself – that I wouldn’t have had, had I not gone AWOL when I did. I couldn’t focus as I can now, if I hadn’t had the chance to do what I did. I filled out as a human being, I learnt a lot about myself, I learned to appreciate the bigger picture. I call it my “early career sabbatical.”‘

Michelle won two Matildas in 2010 for a production of The Pillowman for the independent company 23rd Productions. She acknowledges that this provided a big boost for her in terms of profile and recognition. ‘It’s a wonderful feeling to be given recognition and affirmation from your peers.  But, at the same time, it was something that I didn’t want to sit and dwell on; it made me feel a bit awkward and left me questioning if I was really deserving of it. I guess I feel that I’m only as good as the work I’m making, so I can’t rest on past accolades and say “that represents me”. In terms of new opportunities, it certainly helps to add that credit to my bio in applications and proposals, but really everything I’m doing has come about through hard work and nurturing relationships.’ Michelle has also been the recipient of a JUMP mentorship award. This has enabled her to continue developing those relationships.

JUMP has been the ideal rounding off of my year, and is threading through all of my projects. Being able to develop a relationship with Wesley Enoch (Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company) through a formal mentoring program, and having that feed into all of my work across this year and into next, is just amazing.

‘It all began with me proposing that I develop my adaptation, Locard’s Principle, (from the verse novel Faith by Alicia Bennett), through the JUMP program and a mentorship with Wesley. Then QTC were successful in applying to the Australia Council for a creative residency for the project too.  So now my adaptation – which has been on the slow burner since 2007 – suddenly has this incredible support behind it, and I have a mentor who is there for me through all of my endeavours.’ She and Wesley and I catch up at least once a month to talk about bigger questions around her career and arts practice. He chats about his own experiences, offers advice on ways Michelle can develop her profile and work and she feels she can call on him about issues she might be having with specific projects.

‘Recently we were both in Sydney and caught a performance of Baal. Afterwards Wesley ushered her around the foyer introducing Michelle to everyone. ‘He’s a wonderfully enthusiastic and generous person personally and professionally.  It’s helping me take that next step of raising a national profile for myself, and establishing new connections outside of Brisbane, as well as having the guidance and support of my mentor at hand.’

Michelle’s current project is directing Colder by Lachlan Philpott for the 2011 La Boite Indie season. It’s the first cab off the rank in the second year of the program, and Michelle says she’s in the Colder ‘bubble’ right now. She’s also in preparation for The Removalists, which starts rehearsals for QTC Education the week after Colder opens. She adds that it too is ‘cooking away in the back of my head.’

We talk a little more about the La Boite Indie experience. ‘It’s great to be a part of it!  In some ways we’re still guinea pigs – but it means there’s a dialogue between us and La Boite, which is great as it continues to feed the development of the program.’ This year’s Indie shows are back to back, and Michelle is delighted that the four production companies will be able to show their support for one other, and ‘create a buzz around it being as we are, in a kind of mini-festival.  I think it’s a great opportunity for the Indies to tap into new audiences – people who might subscribe to La Boite’s mainstage productions but wouldn’t necessarily go see an independent show otherwise.  There’s a sense of bringing those two worlds together here.’

Feeding the Inner Artist

  • What are you reading?

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere – which I am loving!  It’s a total departure from my usual reading tastes. I often go for non-fiction, or historical fiction or character based stories – but never fantasy or sci fi or whatever you might call this genre.  I love the imagination in it, and his writing style – just wonderful.  I have a few other half read books in progress at the moment too, including 50 Cent’s The 50th Law and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

  • What are you listening to?

Most recently I’ve been listening to a selection of Rufus Wainwright’s CDs – and I just love him.  Our central character is a fan so I wanted to get inside his head.  I had that wonderful moment of putting it on and thinking “Ah, this is so David,” quickly followed by “How have I not found this before?!”

I love architecture and discovered a fascination for it during my years traveling and living in London, and further living in Canada; seeing different styles, understanding the context in which they developed, appreciating the old against the new.  Then I went to the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2009 and discovered Frank Lloyd Wright’s work; love his buildings, his homes.  The curved lines of the Guggenheim took my breath away, the different perspectives they afford.  Developed a love for modern architecture that I never thought I’d have.  Also love modern art – have started a collection of coffee table books picked up from second hand stores that I flick through when I want to see things differently.

  • Where do you like to be or do to get in the creative groove?

I need to let my brain loose – sometimes I feel conflicted between the left and right sides of my brain.  I have a capacity for both creativity and fastidious organisation; I have to make sure I let the correct side work at the right time!  I’m working on ways to enable this – working with Margi Brown-Ash this year to open up and trust that creative instinct; practising exercises from Julia Cameron’s books; listening to classical music (finally grew into that one after years of changing stations on mum’s music in the car!).  I need to clear out the housekeeping in my head and let it expand beyond right or wrong, good or bad.  I like to get outside, look at the world around me – sometimes just moving out of my usual physical space really makes a difference.  I like to tend my little potted balcony garden listening to Joni Mitchell, or sometimes I’ll play with my art supplies and easel – it’s a good way for me to move outside of getting it ‘right’ because I have no concept of ‘right’ in visual art, it’s all play for me!

  • Is Brisbane a good place for the theatre worker right now? Why, why not?

I think it is; there’s a lot happening up here now, and that’s been bubbling away over the past five or ten years.  Brisbane’s developing a really rich subculture of inter-arts practice, independent theatre, experimental practice, exciting and cutting edge initiatives.  Companies are bridging the gap between tertiary study and industry, between independent and mainstage work – we’ve come a long way in dispelling the myth that because work is ‘independent’ it’s not ‘professional’, and we’re looking at how we can educate and entice audiences to enjoy both.  I also think we’re starting to break through preconceptions about Brisbane; that the travel of artists between Brisbane and Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, has started to show just how much is happening up here.  The artists who have moved down south aren’t just leaving for good; they’re coming back, creating an exchange of ideas and work between the cities and that’s awesome.

  • What’s next for you?

Straight into rehearsals for The Removalists with QTC.  After that opens, I have a few weeks to stop, breathe and get myself organised before I head off on my trip for the Lord Mayor’s Fellowship!  I’ll be away for about 10-12 weeks, and when I return from that I’ll be working my adaptation for JUMP and the QTC residency, which will culminate in a reading in early 2012.  It’s a busy year!



Colder on Facebook

Michelle’s tumblr

Michelle on JUMP