Backstage at Priscilla: Adele Parkinson in conversation with Emma Powell
Tap on to Australia’s most iconic bus and meet the cast riding aboard as they travel the country in 2018. Each fortnight, Priscilla cast member Adele Parkinson switches gears to interview a member of the team and share their stories and insights from behind the scenes of this fabulous Aussie musical.
Remember eisteddfods? Growing up on the Gold Coast, where opportunities to dress up and get on stage in front of a captive audience were otherwise rare, I loved eisteddfod season and took it seriously.
One of my early eisteddfod memories was a mime performance I did with three fellow co-curricular-queens in year two. I played one of the robbers in a three minute mime involving an art heist. We were in it to win: we’d developed the narrative through extensive improvisation at both little and big lunch, we had a clear three act structure, plus our scene had backbends and a cartwheel in it. We were sure that our physical storytelling of an age-old tale about two robbers, a detective and a gallery curator was going to blow the adjudicator away.
On the day of the eisteddfod, after a brief physical warm up and a lot of juice, we were ready to show those other seven year olds how it was done. Our number was called and we moved on to the stage like mini mime athletes.
The scene was a triumphant success. We were so committed you could almost see the laser beam security circuit. We didn’t hold back with the facial expressions (I maintain that half the wrinkles I have today are from that one performance) and pulled off our tricky twist-ending (the detective and curator were robbers too! Surprise!). By the end of the section (kudos to every parent who has ever sat through a whole hour of seven year olds doing mime) it was clear: Team Art Heist was the most committed, prepared and talented of the teams. The taste of victory was on our lips.
However, like in our scene, we were robbed – by the only group of boys in the competition.
Their scene about hunting crocodiles not only lacked structure and an actual plot, it was basically a rip-off of Steve Irwin’s show on mute. Two of the boys spent half the scene laughing at the kid playing the crocodile while one of the boys spent the entire three minutes standing at the back of the stage gesturing expressionlessly.
Throughout school the little inequities continued: Bradley dances front and centre in the concert not because he’s most deserving but because he’s the only boy; the year nine drama boys are invited to be in the senior musical to fill the numbers while the girls are told to wait for next year. In isolation, these examples are petty and don’t actually matter. What does matter though is that these inequities teach girls to grow up expecting that boys will get special treatment, despite their own efforts.
Until I think about it, it’s barely on my radar that more of my male actor friends are working in musicals than my female actor friends. Like me, I think many female performers just accept that our industry is ‘harder for women’. This week though I was inspired to ask: why is it so ‘hard’ for women in musical theatre and what power do we actually have to improve our situation as female performers?
To help me find answers and solutions, and considering yesterday was International Women’s Day, I thought I’d better interview a woman (my first in this series). Here I introduce to you, our Shirl in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the divine Ms Emma Powell.
In addition to her 25 year career as an actor in musical theatre, Emma Powell has worked in PR, toured as a company manager, written and produced her own cabarets as well as a musical comedy, Busting Out. Like a fairytale, Emma was first ‘discovered’ by an audience member in an amateur show.
“I was 24 and playing Eponine in a community production of Les Misérables. The Company Manager for Pirates of Penzancecame to the show and asked me to audition for Pirates. I got the job and we went from there.”
Prior to this, she’d been working in a PR firm, but her passion for the theatre didn’t start then.
“I’ve loved live theatre since I saw my first production of Oklahoma at the Arts Centre. I was about 10, it was New Years Eve, and by the end of the show I was feeling every positive emotion a person can feel. I decided I wanted to do what those actors on stage were doing because I wanted to make people feel the joy that I was feeling.”
Since then she’s had success touring in Pirates of Penzance, Les Misérables, Mamma Mia, Fiddler on the Roofand recently Kinky Boots. She’s appeared in shows with the Production Company, written and produced a handful of cabarets, and raised her very own child. But it hasn’t been an easy road.
“In 2006 I was coming off the back of a few years of touring and I had no work coming up. I was in my late thirties and there just weren’t a lot of good, challenging roles around.”
Emma knew her strengths and limitations as a performer and wanted to create something that would work for her.
“For years I’d been thinking about making a Puppetry Of The Penis type show, only the difference would be that my show features boobies! I figured if men could get away with it, maybe women could too.”
As a single mum, Emma says her options were to either write a hit show or go back to uni and describes Busting Out as a last ditch effort.
“A phone call helped me to discover my first ‘tit trick’. I was in the shower when the phone started ringing. As I ran out to answer it, I heard this clapping sound. I called it ‘the sound of one tit clapping’. It was then that I started thinking of more tricks and gags and realised that maybe this could work.”
The rest is HERstory. She entered Busting Out into the Melbourne Comedy Festival, got producers on board and developed the show to include another woman. It was a massive success, touring Australia, the UK and to the US.
Many female actors reading this will be familiar with Emma’s predicament back in 2006, and in 2018 the situation hasn’t much improved. There are nine musicals currently touring Australia plus one that has been cast and is soon to start rehearsals. Of these ten shows, there are just 61% of the jobs for women that there are for men in the casts overall. Of these shows, women make up 45% of supporting roles and only 27% of leading roles. These numbers shouldn’t be surprising considering the stories we’re presently telling: the story of the sweet Transvestite, Mormon Missionaries, the street rat from Agrabah, three Queens on a Road Trip, Green Day, and The Four Seasons. These are men’s stories with male dominated casts.
Fortunately, we have female-driven stories playing around the country too (Beautiful, Mamma Mia – both of which have balanced casts – Calamity Jane, The Wizard of Oz), though there are no current examples of female dominated casts touring Australia. What’s most worrying about these numbers is that, with so many talented women vying for work in casts and so few jobs available to them, women who are harassed or bullied in the workplace would rather say nothing and keep their job than speak up and risk being replaced.
It’s a complex topic, and one that Emma attributes largely to a lack of support for female writers. “In terms of creating new work I think there needs to be an increase of support for women to tell their stories. Ultimately, it’s show business, and it takes time, money, energy and support to get a musical to the point where it will make money. If circumstances were different, maybe I could have written a couple of musicals by now. I was a single parent touring with a child, homeschooling her during the day and I needed the support of my mum, who became her nanny while I was working. It was really hard and I think a lot of women don’t put their hand up because of that.”
“Producers need to make a conscious decision to bring in shows that have equal opportunities. The Australian industry is beholden to the industries in New York and London but there does seem to be an unconscious bias that male-driven shows present less risk to producers. Women have always been the primary ticket buyers in the country so I think we shouldn’t be afraid to bring more female-oriented shows to Australian stages. We have such an abundance of female talent in this country so there’s less need to import artists. It makes sense to me.”
Emma’s daughter is now 19 and plans to follow in her mum’s footsteps and work professionally as an actor in theatre. I ask Emma what advice she would give to a young actress like her daughter.
“One of the best things you can do is to find what’s important to you and make a little show about it. For me that was Busting Out. It feeds you, both creatively and literally. Writing can be a very lonely exercise but developing a show should never be a solo process. You need to find people to help you: whether that’s a mentor or a team of creative people guiding you. It’s amazing what you can create when you ask people for help.”
Priscilla Queen of the Desert is playing at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre from 21 January, 2018.
For more, go to priscillathemusical.com.au