How We Do What We Do: Erin James with Marika Aubrey

This interview is the final chat in our series exploring How We Do What We Do. It feels perfectly appropriate that we conclude my interview collection of incredible artists with the actor who is behind this series being commissioned in the first place – AussieTheatre’s Editor-In-Chief Erin James, who is currently enjoying a wave of huge success having co-starred with some of our country’s finest performers in Josh Lawson’s feature film The Little Death – and being nominated for an ACCTA Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Erin has performed in many major musicals – Cats, Love Never Dies, South Pacific and The King and I, but it was her pivotal role as Monica (David Stratton himself noted “James is simply wonderful as the rather shy young woman forced to describe some pretty full-on sexual activity – this segment alone is worth the price of admission”) that has captured everyone’s attention and can only lead to more wonderful work for the gracious, hardworking and talented quiet achiever.

On a final note, I want to thank Erin and everyone at AussieTheatre for having me and this feature series on the site. It has brought me great joy and insight, and I have been astounded by the response of readers – I thank you most of all.

Ladies and gentlemen, join us for one last discussion about how we do what we do!

The Multi-Tasking Child

Marika Aubrey and Erin James
Marika Aubrey and Erin James

Marika: So…it’s exciting that I’m doing How We Do What We Do with YOU.

Erin: I know! After all this time!

Marika: After two years, it feels very fitting that we’re ending this series with the person who helped me create it.

Erin: I know. I’m very honoured actually.

Marika: Tell me about where you grew up and how you got involved in this business of show – what your journey has been…

Erin: I imagine it probably is similar to yours… a little bit.

Marika: We should probably disclose right now that we both grew up in Newcastle.

Erin: And we both went to the Young People’s Theatre…

Marika: And yes, we kinda knew each other as children!

Erin: Yep!

Marika: Can I let readers know that you were Annie in a production of Annie, and I was the housekeeper, and one of those ladies in the radio show that go doo doo doo…What are they called? The lovely Boyland Sisters. I was a Boyland Sister!

Erin: And you were beautiful.

Marika: Ha! You were Annie. I don’t think anyone cared what I was doing dear.

[laughter]

Marika: I remember thinking you were really good even then… And then?

Erin: Well, I grew up in a suburb called Eleebana, and I danced as a child. I went to Young People’s Theatre. I learnt piano. I did singing lessons, musicianship; all the fun stuff.

Marika: Ha! That started early then, didn’t it? You were a multi-tasking child, and now you are the most multi-tasking artistic force of our entire industry.

Erin: Stop it! …I was also doing physical culture at the time…

Marika: Of course you were. What made your mum enrol you in dance class?

Erin: I was bored, I think. I learnt to read very early and I remember my mum telling me she thought I was having a nervous breakdown because I came up to them when I was four years old and told them that I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. They were like, “What? What can’t you do, you crazy child?” And I said, “I can’t read! I have to go to school next year and I can’t read yet!” I had no idea that that’s what you learnt at school. I thought that you were expected to know.

Marika: You were going to turn up on the first day of school and not know how to read – and at four years of age this scared you?!

Erin: Yep. So I taught myself. I had been teaching myself to do so.

Marika: You are Matilda. You’re actually the real life Matilda. Are you magic?

Erin: You just wait.

[laughter]

Marika: …So off to dance class with you…

Erin: I learnt tap from a lady called Janelle Buckhingham, and one of her good friends was Renee Perry.

Marika: Sister of…

Erin: Dein and Sheldon Perry. I kind of was exposed to that style of tap from the outset, and loved it, and then – I think Janelle was the one who suggested I go into ballet because my arms were terrible! So I went into ballet. Eventually after high school, I went to the Newcastle Conservatorium Of Music. I did a year of classical voice.

Marika: That’s serious.

Erin: Yeah, it was very serious, and it wasn’t really my thing. I enjoyed it and I really liked all of the musicianship of it all.

Marika: You are a music nerd, that’s true.

[laughter]

ErinJames_MarikaAubrey_SouthPacific_CORA
Erin James and Marika Aubrey as Ensign Cora MacRae and Lt Genevieve Marshall in South Pacific. “CORAAAAA!”

Erin: Thanks. But I don’t know, it didn’t feel right. I auditioned for WAAPA telling my mother ‘I won’t go, I just want to see if I’m good enough…’ Then I got in and I was like ‘okay see ya, bye bye!’

Marika: Is that really what set the path then? It wasn’t really a conscious I-want-to-do-musical-theatre, it was more that you got in, thought ‘I’m good enough, actually yes, this is what I want to do’.

Erin: Yeah. I mean I’d always been interested and I always wanted to be on the stage. I love the performance aspect of it all, but I also like all the other bits and pieces too. The creativity involved in it all. I was never quite sure as I was growing up how it was going to evolve for me. I don’t think I really ever thought about it that deeply. I just loved it.

Marika: What would you be doing if you hadn’t gone to WAAPA, if you hadn’t become a performer? I usually ask this, and most people suggest a completely different path, but I know that you have always studied other things in parallel to your performing work.

Erin: I actually don’t know. Goodness, that’s a very difficult question. You’d think that would be an easy one.

Marika: No, I don’t think it would be easy for you. You could do anything!

Erin: Well I guess there have been times that I haven’t been performing. I love teaching high school music and drama. I love watching the children that I teach suddenly come to a realisation, and I love the idea that I have helped that. That’s amazing. I don’t know though – Mum and Dad were both science majors at uni. Dad’s a science and maths teacher. Mum’s a dietitian. My brother’s a physio. So I can see how I probably would have ended up down a scientific path. I was always really interested in science as a kid, and I used to go to the library and read books about lightning when I was in Year 2. I remember going to the library and finding them and being so enthralled by it. I wonder perhaps if I had have not been sent into dancing lessons as a restless five-year-old…I reckon it might have been something in the science realm.

The Little Death…A Big Film Role

Erin James in The Little Death.
Erin James in The Little Death.

Marika: Let’s talk about how you recently made your feature film debut. This was your first feature film?

Erin: It was my first anything on screen!

Marika: This would be the right moment to congratulate you on being nominated for the AACTA Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Feature Film for The Little Death

Erin: Thank you.

Marika: …which is an extraordinary achievement and very well deserved. You are amazing in the film. You are amazing. The whole film ends on your face. I was beside myself just watching it. So tell me about the process of getting that job and what the experience was like.

Erin: Having auditioned for musicals for so long, and doing that for so many years, auditioning for a film just was beyond my comprehension. I hadn’t really had any experience doing that. This role came up that needed to use Auslan (sign language for the deaf), which I have studied…

Marika: Multi-tasker…

[pull_left]I love the performance aspect of it all, but I also like all the other bits and pieces too. The creativity involved in it all. I was never quite sure as I was growing up how it was going to evolve for me. I don’t think I really ever thought about it that deeply. I just loved it[/pull_left]

Erin: …as a result of another acting job that I had years ago. I got the script actually after TJ Power, who I play opposite in the film, called me a couple of weeks earlier and said he needed some help with his Auslan. I helped him, and then I got the script to read the opposite part a couple of weeks later. I went in and I prepared for it as best as I could and I did the audition and it was just the most delightful experience. It was lovely.

Marika: Auditions for film and TV are so much less arduous, I think, than MT.

Erin: I’ve only auditioned for a few…

Marika: Not for long Erin!!!

Erin: In my experience they do seem a lot less arduous, I guess. You go in, you do your stuff, you’ve done your work, you prepared. They let you do all the material you prepared.

Marika: Indeed.

Erin: And then you leave. Then it’s in someone else’s hands.

Marika: It doesn’t feel nearly as personal.

Erin: No, and I think it’s a good thing. I think it was Bart Sher, the director of South Pacific, who said that it’s important to be able to walk out of an audition and spit on the ground, and then walk away. Like to be able to go “that’s done” and move on.

Marika: Great advice.

Erin: And that’s exactly kind of how it felt. I went off on another tour and was in the middle of regional Western Australia when I got this email on my phone from the director, Josh Lawson, saying “I haven’t heard from you, do you actually want to do it? Why haven’t we heard back from you?” I had gotten this film and I had no idea for three days because I was in regional Western Australia with no phone reception!!

Marika: Right, wow. What was Josh Lawson to work with as a director?

Erin: Oh my gosh, he is the most divine man. He knew it was my first film and he knew it was my first experience on a set like that, so he would give all of his instructions to his crew, and then he’d come over and explain what he meant in layman’s terms to me, so that the next time I’d understand what the terminology meant. That was delightful. He’s so beautiful as a director. Because he’s an actor himself he can see what he wants to get from you, and he knows how to elicit a response by talking to you like an actor.

It Don’t Mean A Thing If You Ain’t Got That Swing

Erin James as Ensign Cora MacRae in South Pacific. Image by Kurt Sneddon
Erin James as Ensign Cora MacRae in South Pacific. Image by Kurt Sneddon

Marika: So I want to talk to you about the ‘S word’ – Swing. Being a swing. I want to talk to you about that because I haven’t ever had a swing plot, but I have witnessed the insanity of talent that is required to be a swing. I feel like in this country, from what I’ve observed, the swing is almost an afterthought in the hierarchy of musical theatre…. I think the swings should be up at the top of the triangle, but that isn’t the case. I wanted to talk to you about what that experience is..

Erin: I really enjoy it, and I’ve been lucky enough to do it in a couple of shows now. Cats, Love Never Dies, and The King and I. A swing spends a lot of time learning everybody else’s roles. They’re kind of the glue that holds the company – the ensemble especially – together, I think.

Marika: And you’ve really enjoyed being a swing?

Erin: I love being a swing. It’s unfortunate that in Australia they’re not recognised as they probably should be. It’s disappointing to have young people coming into the industry and first of all not know what a swing is.

Marika: No, I imagine people reading this now aren’t even aware. So the swing, for those of you who don’t know, is the person in a show that learns everyone else’s or at least many people’s roles in the show, particularly the ensemble or support roles, and has to go on for them if they get ill.

Erin: Occasionally lead roles as well, but it’s most likely that a swing will cover the ensemble. In my last show I covered 14 roles.

Marika: That’s so mental. That’s so much work.

Erin: It is a lot of work and it’s a lot of preparation.

Marika: And a multi-tasking brain!

Erin: Yeah, but I find for me it’s what keeps the show interesting. Like when you do 500 shows of Cats.

Marika: You’re doing a different show every night.

Erin: Yeah. Often I would go on in that show for six different plots in an eight-show week, so it would be a completely different experience every day, whereas if you’re doing the same role for 500, 1000, 2000 shows, it’s thousands of performances of the same thing.

Marika: Yeah. I think I first became aware of the – for want of a better word – stigma, when I heard other performers saying “I don’t want to swing again”, or “I’ll only go for that if they don’t look at me for the swing”. It’s kind of this chip on their shoulder… they feel resentful or possibly see themselves as above it.

Erin: Yeah, I think there needs to be something addressed in Australia, about how people view the swings, and how educated the ensemble members are, particularly new ensemble members are, about the swings. It’s very much, as you say, a triangle hierarchy, and people aspire to be the leading role. But there are some people who are just so freaking good at compartmentalising their brain and doing the swing thing, and it’s thrilling when you get to go on! And that’s another thing that I think is troublesome sometimes, is that people don’t go off in shows because they feel like there’s a stigma attached to going off if they’re injured or off if they’re sick.

Marika: Yes, I mean we have those two schools of thought. I noticed that as well, that one school of thought is you should be – and I’ve met particularly a lot of older actors who feel that if you are ill just suck it up and get on and do your job, rain, hail or shine. Then I’ve met other people who very strongly feel that if you’re ill, please don’t come to work because you’ll infect the cast – that it’s good for you to take shows off and rest. So there’s those two opposing ideas, often within the same company.

Erin: It’s also that it takes some time to realise that it’s your job, and we’re covered under the same conditions that workplaces around the country are. Anybody has entitlement to sick leave, and if you’re sick, you should take it, I think. That’s the way I view it, and that’s what the swings are there for. It should never, ever be about being worried that someone else is going to do your job better than you. It’s always going to be different.

Marika: Absolutely.

Erin: It’s the swing’s job to step in.

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, You’re Only A Day Away

Erin James. Image by Blueprint Studios
Erin James. Image by Blueprint Studios

Marika: So in five years’ time, leaving aside all the other circumstances that life can bring, what would you like to be doing career-wise?

Erin: I would really like to do more film and TV. I would hope that being able to do more of that might eventually help me get back into doing musical theatre in a different kind of capacity. I don’t really know, but I would really love to do more film. I just adored the process.

Marika: Do you think The Little Death is a game changer for you in that way? I have a feeling in five years we’ll look back on it and it very well could be.

Erin: I do hope so, but I mean even if not, it’s still a pretty amazing thing to have done.

Marika: I do have to ask you how do you do what you do? Is it stuff you learnt at WAAPA? Is it stuff you’ve learnt on the job? Do you have a particular process, and if you do is it something that you can articulate, or is it more bits of everything?

Erin: I probably should have thought about that before I got here…

Marika: Funnily enough, no one thinks about it even though this series is called How We Do What We Do. It’s a really hard thing to articulate for most artists that I interview.

Erin: It depends upon what it is, I think.

Marika: I imagine the skill set for swinging is really different from what you use for film?

Erin: Yeah. So for example going into a show as a swing, my process – particularly in rehearsals – is all about detail then. I know it’s always about detail, but for me as a swing in a big musical when you’re covering a lot of people, is to be on top of everything from the start, notes and my plot bible and everything, so that when you get to the theatre you don’t have to be worrying about that kind of stuff if someone goes off during the previews and you’ve never actually set foot on the stage.

Marika: What about for something like The Little Death?

Erin: For The Little Death it was… again it’s about detail. It’s about knowing the material inside out and having choices at my disposal, ready to go. Discussion too. We made time to talk about it, and think it through. I had enough time to be familiar with the material so that whatever they asked me to do on set, I feel like I had thought up a couple of different options to play with. I don’t know how I do it though. I guess I’m always thinking about it, so the process is actually just part of how I am.

[pull_left]…It’s about detail. It’s about knowing the material inside out and having choices at my disposal, ready to go[/pull_left]

Marika: What’s the greatest joy of your job and the greatest challenge… What do you struggle with?

Erin: Time!

Marika: Yes…but you do run an industry website as well as often doing eight shows a week, as well as studying…you never have just one thing on the go. You’ve always got 42 things that you’re doing.

Erin: So it’s probably my fault!

[laughter]

Marika: What’s the best bit?

Erin: The greatest joy of my job I think is the fact that it’s never, ever the same. I love the fact that in the creative industries we have to be so versatile, and that makes it so enjoyable. There are so many different aspects to what we can do, whether it be in musical theatre or film, or whether it be with creating something or directing something, or helping to maintain something, or even on the other side with writing about it and promoting it and supporting it and championing the arts. I think the joy is the fact that I am able to be in an industry that I just f**king love so much.

On The Flip Side…The Final Chapter

Erin felt the need to finish off our final HWDWWD by asking ME a few questions…

A celebratory 'clink' in honour of a wonderful series. Marika Aubrey and Erin James feature in the final How We Do What We Do.
A celebratory ‘clink’ in honour of a wonderful series. Marika Aubrey and Erin James feature in the final How We Do What We Do.

Erin: So how am I shaping up to your other interviewees?

Marika: Very good work James.

Erin: How many of these have you done now?

Marika: You’re my 23rd.

Erin: Holy moly, has it been that many?

Marika: I’ve done one a month for two years. We’ve skipped November this year so we’re actually finishing at 23 rather than 24. Oops.

Erin: Are there any glaring similarities between the 23 people?

Marika: Everyone – and I think this is probably something you have to have to be doing this – is pretty determined and tenacious. There were a couple of people who were like ‘nah, it just sort of fell into place’, but by and large everyone’s worked quite hard. But I also think that’s because I’m attracted to those actors…One of the conditions of this interview series was that I had to have a genuine desire to talk to the person. I often fielded emails from publicists asking me to do an interview with a person that was in a show they needed to promote and I turned them down because it was never the goal to be a publicity puff piece. If I didn’t really want to talk to them I couldn’t do it. I think that’s what works in the series, because you can tell that I’m actually genuinely excited about them. Well that’s what I hope has come across.

Erin: Yeah, I mean the series has been so well read – the traffic on all of your articles is huge.

Marika: The funny thing is now when I perform shows, people come up to me in foyers and they don’t talk to me about the show or what I did in the show; they talk to me about the series and how much they enjoy reading it!

Erin: I’m curious about the reason you started it… you had read something of a similar ilk somewhere else?

Marika: Yes, Sacha Horler used to do a series in the Film Ink magazine. As a teenager I subscribed…I was really obsessed with the film industry and all the actors. So she’d have a coffee with a colleague and they would chat about things, and then there’d be a silly selfie at the bottom of it. I used to get the magazine every month and go straight to that article, because it sort of talked about them working together and their processes and stuff. I just found it really interesting. I felt like we didn’t have anything like that for our local Australian actors in theatre. Something informal and easy to read. Nerdy I guess, but not up it’s own arse.

Erin: No, and I think that’s why everyone talks about it so much, is because it is so candid. It’s so beautiful to be able to read, and you can kind of hear how people say it.

Marika: That’s true… Perhaps because it’s a direct transcript and not manipulated in any way…you can hear people’s voices.

Erin: Yeah, it’s incredible. It’s so poignant to be able to read some of that stuff.

[pull_left]I think for most of the actors in this series it’s been a lovely honest moment to be circumspect, and to look back on how did I get to where I am, and how do I do what I do?[/pull_left]

Marika: And I haven’t – unless someone has felt this way and hasn’t told me – I haven’t in the whole time had a subject feel that they were misrepresented. In fact I almost always get an email or a phone call from the actor I’ve chatted to telling me how pleased they are with it which is really nice. I think often you can’t help but be a little bit ‘placed’ when you talk to press. I mean I have been misquoted in articles in the past, and it makes you feel sick to your stomach that someone takes what you’ve said…

Erin: And manipulates it.

Marika: …and manipulates it to sound like something else. It’s rotten. So I think for most of the actors in this series it’s been a lovely honest moment to be circumspect, and to look back on how did I get to where I am, and how do I do what I do?

Erin: Are you glad you did it?

Marika: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been my nerdy delight because it’s borne out of my curiosity, and that’s why I’ve enjoyed doing it so much, I mean, I’m really bad at doing the foyer thing.

Erin: The schmooze?

Marika: The schmooze, because it’s about nothing. But I really love quiet, one on one, deep conversations, usually fuelled by red wine, that go into the night. That’s where I live. So every single person I’ve spoken to has been someone that I have secretly really wanted to just talk to quietly with a glass of red wine. I have had this fabulous excuse to contact people like Justine Clarke and Bernadette Robinson – people that I’ve really admired from afar – and have that conversation. That’s just theatre nerd heaven.

Erin: I feel like this series became much bigger than we thought it was going to be, which is really thrilling.

Marika: Yeah, I’m glad. I’m glad people are as nerdy as I am. And I just want to say here publicly – thank you to all the artists – particularly the ones who didn’t know me. They said yes to this stranger, and met me and spilled their guts. So thank you.

Erin: Thank you from Aussie Theatre too. It’s been amazing.

Marika: Most importantly, thanks to all the folks who have read the series, and taken the time to let me know that they enjoy it, or tweeted, or come up to me in a foyer. It’s been an absolute joy to have those responses and to know that people are getting inspired as well.

Erin: You’re amazing, Marika Aubrey.

Marika: You are, Erin James! That’s a wrap on How We Do What We Do!

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Marika has written 23 articles on AussieTheatre | Read more articles by

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