How to be disciplined and professional: Rachel Cole with Caroline O’Connor

Welcome to Stage Door Shrink, a regular column penned by Rachel Cole aimed at helping performers chortle their way to a #win.

A note from Rachi:

Caroline O'Connor
Caroline O’Connor

I am annoyingly disciplined, scheduled and prepared. If I match with you on Tinder and we start chatting, I’ve probably looked up your HSC result on the NSW Board of Studies archive, to find out what I’m getting myself into. Really, it’s the only reasonable thing to do.

I have not always woken up and scheduled my day to include daily podcasts, pooch walks, singing scales, piano practice and fortnightly leg shavings. I was lazy at school. I spent year 12 making out with my secret boyfriend in the common room, and jigging physics to play basketball on the roof. (Do the kids still say jigging?) At Uni, I disliked the mature age students who sat down the front and actually listened in lectures, asked questions, and were genuinely interested in what we were learning. I was all about ‘getting by’ – sitting in the back row so nobody could see my bacne or judge me for wearing silver converse and a Supre singlet.

The thing is, working hard is the natural expression of loving what you do. Discipline is choosing what you want later over what you want now. Consciously choosing to sing scales for an hour a day, choosing to go to dance class, choosing not to complain, choosing to learn that script, because you want success more than you want a re-run of SVU, or you want to lose weight more than you want that entire loaf of corn bread #shreddingforcats. Think of discipline as the bridge between your goals and accomplishment. Once you have used discipline to form those habits, it should take much less effort to maintain them.

Caroline O’Connor is widely regarded as Australia’s leading lady of musical theatre and has a reputation for being the all guns blazing, ever professional, loveable workaholic. She came from a family who adored music and dance. Her family had a ‘good lounge room’, that fancy room where you weren’t allowed to sit unless you had visitors or were listening to good music. After being introduced to Irish dancing and ballet as a child, she was later accepted into the Royal Ballet School and moved to London to study. She could always envision herself on stage, but had no intention of being the next Elaine Page, so when she did end up playing lead roles, it came as a surprise. She worked in England for 14 years before returning to Australia to play Anita in West Side Story. The rest, as they say, is history.

Advice from Caroline:

Work Hard

Growing up as a ballet dancer you learn to shut up, watch and learn. There is no ego; only discipline, technique and music. Fortunately for me, I was never someone who needed to be pushed to go to class, or practice, because I loved it so much. Some people take naturally to being pushed, and thank God, because I would not have achieved half of what I did, physically, without that discipline.

It’s not in my nature to be half assed; developing those habits at such an early age has helped me wonderfully. Once you have used your discipline to form good habits, the hard work looks after itself. Remember, nobody can make you get off your bum and go to class but you.

Caroline O'Connor in Gypsy. Image by Pamela Raith
Caroline O’Connor in Gypsy. Image by Pamela Raith

Be prepared

Do your research before rehearsals start. I usually find that learning all my material before rehearsals start, allows me to make the most of the rehearsal period. I’m off book, but the margins of my script are filled with notes or ideas. I haven’t decided which line reading to play, but I go to rehearsals and play; trying different things in that low-pressure environment. Sometimes you don’t find the best line reading until you have an audience and you suddenly think ‘ah-ha! There’s the joke’.

Stop whinging at work

It happens constantly, and now I just walk away. People whinge about being tired, the director, the audience not responding etc., anything really. Stop bringing everyone else down. You have to find a way to do a show 8 times a week, give it everything and enjoy what you are doing. If you are tempted to complain, think back to the audition day for 5 seconds and remember how much you wanted the gig.

Listen

Us performers are very good at talking, but a much more useful skill is listening. Listen on stage to your scene partner, listen in the wings to other singers techniques, listen to the audience to see how they’re responding that night, listen to see if you need to give the joke more time or give the glorious silence a moment longer. Until my responsibilities became greater, I would stand in the wings and watch and listen to exceptional performers and just learn and soak it in.

Connect

You can’t move people with technique or discipline. If you want to win a medal, it’s great, but if you want to win a heart, forget it. Spend time on the lyrics and text. We spend so much time perfecting our dance technique or vocal range, but so little on a lyric. Understand that it’s all about story telling. You cannot fool an audience into feeling anything- they are smart. You have to give a genuine performance.

You are your own product

I am my own business and I have to look after it myself. This means I need to decide, how do I want to be seen? And how to balance that with being myself? Most things you do are part of your business- and I don’t mean your vocal range, but how you look, how you talk to people, your work ethic etc. Your best audition for your next role is your current one, so work hard and be good to work with. I will give absolutely everything I have on a daily basis, and expect nothing in return. The audience and the cast can trust that. I wake up every morning, test my voice and feel for aches and pains. I am anal about my sleep- it is very precious to me, with good sleep I feel alive every evening. I get to the theatre 2 hours early and do my own vocal and physical warm-up, listening to my body to see what needs a little extra on that particular day. All to deliver a good product ever night.

Don’t be in such a rush

If you’re always thinking bout the future, then you’re not appreciating the moment you’re in now. I’m so grateful that I covered leads for 10 years, because there was time to learn without much pressure or expectation. Getting to the top isn’t the problem, staying there is. When I was younger, I partied all the time. In London in the 80s, you go to the pub every night after the show. Now as a lead, I have to be more careful: the show comes first. I can have a drink on Thursdays and Sundays but probably not otherwise, because of the responsibility. Enjoy those early days.

Say yes to everything

I never said no to anything when I was younger – touring, foreign countries, understudying – I’ll take it. I had the opportunity to do so many shows and work with so many different directors, choreographers, musical directors and creatives. They all have different techniques. The skills you pick up are astounding.

Discover your currency

I had the range of a soprano, and every time I went to a singing teacher, they tried to make me sing Soprano, but I didn’t want to. I was drawn to the funny character, the friend and the one who got the laughs. The thing, which makes you feel alive- find it, work hard at it and stick to it. That’s when the magic happens. If you’re busy trying to be someone else, it will never work.

Don’t get bored

Your work is as interesting as you make it. It’s natural in a long run to get tired with the repetition. But no one else is responsible for how you are feeling. So, reengage yourself- do some more research, find out about the historical period, the costumes, what else was happening at the time. I like to look to the giants of the past: Ethel Merman, Chita Rivera or Julie Andrews who did a show run for 4 years, 8 shows a week and gave it their all every time. Every night before a show, I have a peek at the audience to remind myself why I’m there.

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Author

Rachel has a degree in Psychology from The University of Sydney but is currently masquerading as understudy for Miss Honey and Mrs Wormwood in the Australian production of Matilda the Musical. She likes to think about what makes people tick. She also likes: Podcasts, politics, pepperoni pizza, property, puns, puppies and cheap things. If you know of a political podcast full of puns we can listen over a cheap pepperoni pizza while we walk a cheap dog looking at cheap property, we might just be fast friends. Follow Rachel on Instagram at: @rachelacole.

Rachel has written 28 articles on AussieTheatre | Read more articles by

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