This month’s artist is an accomplished actress of TV, film and stage who never seems to stop, and effortlessly traverses all the mediums available to performers – and artists in general as you will learn. Pair this vast talent with a dedicated work ethic and a gracious warm personality, and it is easy to see why I couldn’t wait to include her in this series.
My first main role was alongside Katrina in 2008, as we jumped into over 30 characters (and costumes) in Kookaburra’s I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and Songs For A New World which toured NSW. I was honoured to collaborate with her then (and six years later I fear I may spend the remainder of my career waiting impatiently to work with her again!) and I am honoured to share with you here her insights into Shakespeare, comedic timing, analysing lyrics and what being an artist means to her.
Ladies and gentlemen….Katrina Retallick.
Marika: You are the first person that I have had on this series that has trained overseas. Tell me about Central School of Speech and Drama…why you went there and what it gave you. Was that your beginning?
Katrina: Well, no. The beginning was kind of when I was seven years old [Laughter] and performing ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound of Music on stage in my Year One talent contest.
Katrina: That was when I kind of caught the bug, but there was a School of the Arts in Wagga Wagga where I grew up, which was an amateur theatre group and I had done West Side Story and Music Man and a couple of other shows with them, and I was involved in a children’s theatre workshop. We would do Noel Coward and [laughter] and I remember reading Private Lives when I was twelve and not understanding a single word of it. Singing and music…it was just something that I loved as a child, and I was spending all my time doing that and playing piano and guitar. My parents were driving me here and there to all kinds of lessons, and I was loving it. After high school, I went to Sydney Uni and did a regular kind of degree. I did an Arts degree. I majored in English Literature because I was really excited about writing and words and language, and Dad and Mum are both teachers and academics and they sort of said, “You have to have something to fall back on” – An arts degree…Very optimistic.
Marika: [Laughter] Let me guess, you fell in with the drama crowd…
[pull_left]Don’t worry about whether or not you think it’s funny, just play the truth of that character and the writing will take care of the rest[/pull_left]
Katrina: Well, yes. I did the dramatic society thing and I found my tribe. People who were also really inspired by performance. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe was my first play with them. I was like, “Oh my god, Tennessee Williams”!! I did a whole stack of Tennessee Williams there and the people that I was hanging out with, I don’t know, we were kind of real Anglophiles. We decided that Shakespeare was it, and I am still so excited by Shakespeare. We did Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth. I played Lady Macbeth. I had no idea what I was doing.
Katrina: I was just this little blonde bob…
Marika: Good training wheels.
Katrina: Yeah. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was excited by the language…it was such an exciting world.
Marika: This is in a period in which you hadn’t had any training formally?
Marika: You were just having fun?
[pull_left]Having fun, and studying Shakespeare and performing Shakespeare, and that’s the way you can get major benefits, I think. You understand it from the inside[/pull_left]
Katrina: Having fun, and studying Shakespeare and performing Shakespeare, and that’s the way you can get major benefits, I think. You understand it from the inside – well, as much as you can when you are twenty. I was really obsessed with England, so I thought, “I’ve got to go to RADA, that’s what I’ve got to do”, and also, I auditioned for the drama schools here in Australia and didn’t get accepted…so…I was still doing a lot of singing, singing in pubs, in little bands and singing a lot of Joni Mitchell. It wasn’t music theatre stuff but I have always loved singing-
Marika: -and you’ve always played instruments.
Katrina: Yeah. I thought it was about time I had an adventure, and so after uni I took off with a backpack and went to London to audition for quite a few schools. I auditioned for Oxford, I auditioned for Central, I auditioned for RADA. I had a call back for RADA, I had a call back for Oxford and then I got accepted into Central, but it wasn’t the three year course, it was a relatively new course – an Advanced Diploma of Creative Theatre. I was very excited about the course but I didn’t really know what I was getting into!
Marika: What was the course?
Katrina: It was mostly about devised theatre.
Marika: Like theatre making?
Katrina: Yeah, theatre making. What I actually wanted was some really old-school acting tuition. We didn’t get a lot of that and we were working with beginner writers and beginner directors, so the material we were working on, it was nowhere near what I had already experienced earlier and it was a bit frustrating. But we did get to have master classes with companies like Complicite and we worked with RADA people. Cicely Berry came to teach us. It was so thrilling. At night, I would go off and see Robert La Page work-
Marika: Oh London!
Katrina: Oh London! It was so amazing. It just opened my eyes and there was this city that was so ancient and yet so vibrant and so…
Marika: So full of theatre.
Katrina: So full of theatre! And not all of it was great theatre… I remember carrying that cultural cringe with me over there thinking, “What do I know? I’m just a little Australian…”
Katrina: But when I got there I was like, “actually, no, I can be quite proud of where I’m at right now, in terms of what I’m bringing to this”.
Marika: When I lived in London, I desperately wanted to do my MA in Musical Theatre because I had never done musical theatre and I was finding it hard to break into musical theatre here in Australia, and so I went to Central and Mountview and did the auditions, and I remember the night before, having a massive panic attack, and thinking, “Who the hell do I think I am? They are going to laugh at me”, because I had London and Central School up on such a pedestal – and I got direct offers to both [laughter]… As it transpired I couldn’t take the spots. It was very sad at the time.
Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight
Marika: Most people, I think, in our industry, perhaps I’m wrong, but they think of you as a musical theatre actress. Particularly because in the last couple of years especially, you’ve had leading roles in musical theatre. I think they would probably be surprised to learn that you’ve done a lot of screen work really, working on a sketch comedy series.
Katrina: I did four seasons on Comedy Inc
Marika: That’s a lot of screen time, really. That’s a lot of experience. Was that something that came along as you were floating?
Katrina: Yeah, I floated into that. I was on Backberner (a political sketch comedy series on the ABC with Peter Berner) for a little while, playing little roles. There was a Mattel spokesperson I remember doing and it was heightened comedy, it was satire and I really enjoyed that. I just wanted to work.
Marika: Did you see yourself as a comedic actress?
Katrina: No. I played Lady Macbeth, I’m very serious.
Marika: What did having to work on a regular weekly comedy series like that give you?
Katrina: It was great training. Really great training. I was already making bold choices along the way, pulling in place some technique, but it teaches you to make strong choices very quickly and also to connect it to the truth at all times. Don’t worry about whether or not you think it’s funny, just play the truth of that character and the writing will take care of the rest.
Marika: The comedy will stem from the truth of the situation.
Katrina: Yeah. So, quite often I’ve been feeling like the most unfunny person on the planet, but if the writing is good and you serve it truthfully then it should work. I was also in amongst comedians for the first time ever. They are unusual creatures.
Marika: I know nothing of that world. What is that community like?
Katrina: They are firing in all cylinders all the time. I remember doing a bit of Theatre-sports and feeling like a complete flunk at that. I was hopeless.
Marika: Theatre-sports is a phrase that instils a lot of fear in actors…You hear, “we’re going to do space jump”, and you want to die.
Katrina: Well, I loved it initially, but then I guess I kind of saw inside the magicians box of tricks and the people who are excelling at it, they go beyond that box of tricks, but I could only ever have that very limited tool kit. So, I was like, “Oh no, this isn’t for me”. I need writers that put amazing words into my mouth. But in terms of making quick choices, comedy is fantastic. Also, working on television is a real gift because people recognise you and they enjoy your presence without even knowing why. I walked into a jewellery store a little while ago and this woman looked at my face with recognition and she laughed, and I said, “Oh hi, are you having a good day?” and she said, “Oh, you’ve made me laugh. Just to see your face makes me laugh. How have you made me laugh?”, and I thought, “Gosh, I guess it’s the TV comedy show”.
Marika: It’s really amazing, isn’t it?
Katrina: Yes, and so I’ve had, you know, many great moments with people where they’ve just felt comfortable with me straight away and they welcomed me in and they’ve kind of, I don’t know, brightened up. That’s a real gift.
Marika: That is a real gift.
The Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth
Marika: There are so many amazing actors in this industry. Are there any that you stood in the wings and went ‘wow’!…?
Katrina: Nancy Hayes. I would watch her every night in A Little Night Music. I loved her work. Every night I would watch her and she would come off and go into the next scene or whatever and I’d be in awe. That was beautiful, watching her. I have had a lot of contact with incredibly talented people and everyone makes it look really effortless.
Marika: Well, that’s the trick isn’t it?
Katrina: Yeah, and I guess, we are in our element.
Marika: Do you identify the genre of musical theatre as being your medium…where you fit the most?
Katrina: It’s where I feel like I’m being exercised in every way and I come offstage completely spent and having given everything in my system to that.
Marika: It is certainly a different energy doing a straight play to a musical play and it’s only when you’ve done both of those that you sort of realise how different.
Katrina: Yeah, and I love straight plays as well, and I would love to do more of them. I really enjoyed that tour of The Day in The Death of Joe Egg that I did, and that again was black comedy and satire…but it didn’t feel like I was exhausted at the end of every show. In musicals, I guess I also like having that direct emotional line to the characters innermost thoughts. That makes the experience feel more rounded as well. Musicals are special in that way.
Marika: They are special. I think performers can cheat a bit more in musicals though.
Katrina: In terms of truth?
Marika: Um… I think I’m just saying that when you have beautiful music that can carry something, artists may rely on that to tell the story rather than remember to pull it apart lyrically and do all that work.
Katrina: Yeah, that could certainly be true.
Marika: You know when sometimes you watch a performer and think, “Oh, you are making a nice sound, but I don’t believe you”. I think if you took the music away perhaps you would find that it’s not as compelling…I don’t know.
Katrina: No, that’s true. But I think we know that as audience members when we are watching that. One thing I always do, I always speak my lyrics, use those lyrics as script.
Marika: In a show like the one you did recently, Falsettos, I don’t think you can cheat any of that. I think when you are in a small cast, similar to the shows we did together all those years ago, when you are working so intimately, and the audience don’t have a fly tower or massive amounts of visual trickery or, perhaps there is no big ‘I want’ numbers, necessarily. It’s more about story and character and driving the narrative…there is no cheating, there is no room for that because the audience are investing far too much.
Katrina: I think you’re right. Music has a way of transporting you to certain places and that might be a shorthand, but effective performances, I think, will always be connected to the truth.
The Circle of Life Theatre
Marika: So, if this series is called, How We Do What We Do, how do you do what you do? Do you have a specific way of working or do you float along?
Katrina: Float along. I mean, I have always known what I wanted to do and I love doing it but I haven’t been ambitious for particular roles until they present themselves to me.
Marika: And you approach each project differently in terms of process?
Katrina: Yeah, I mean, over the years I’ve collected some techniques, I guess you could call them. I always look through a script as to what over people have said about me, what I say about myself. The who, what, where, why, kind of stuff. I find that that just really helps to ground me. But…I approach things, I don’t know, kind of more from a visceral place. How I feel about the character and how they interact with people, fellow characters. What they are singing about and what they are speaking about. I don’t apply too much theory to how I make a character, I guess.
Marika: What aspect of your craft and it’s process do you love most and what aspect do you hate?
Katrina: You know, I was thinking about this recently. I love the life cycle of rehearsals. First of all, getting excited by a project, the script coming.
Marika: The highlighter coming out.
Katrina: The first dipping your toes into the world of what we are about to be immersed in and then, the first day of rehearsals and building something together as a team. This is why I love theatre as well, as opposed to screen perhaps, it’s because there is no editor, it always just stays in your hands. It doesn’t leave you at any point to be chopped up.
Marika: You’re not getting pink slips every other day…
Katrina: Oh yeah, the sides.
Marika: It just is what it is and you’ve got to make this things work.
Katrina: Then, coming into previews and never being ready. Not once have I felt, “oh yeah, I’m ready”. I’ve felt confident that an audience would take us to the next level, but I usually feel like, “Oh, you poor bastards”. You go out with pity for the preview crowd.
Marika: “We are a little bit undercooked…” That’s a good place to be though, when you are working towards opening night. Do you worry about that stuff or do you leave that to the director? Do you feel like you are an actor that kind of relinquishes that power to the director and allows them to shape your work and just trust that? Or do you feel like you are wrestling with the piece as a whole?
Katrina: You know, I’m probably more the former. I like to know what kind of piece I’m in so we can all be in the same piece, but I know that I have my department and that’s what I need to look after. At the same time I like to know what the world is. Of course there is a point in which you have to go, “Not my job, your job”, and trust that it’s going to come together and be coherent.
Marika: The life cycle of a play is delicious though, every bit of it. The opening night and then you get into the run and then you discover things on the way for keeping it fresh, and then the closing and the emotion, and then the people you keep and the people you think, “Probably won’t see you again…”.
Katrina: Yes! There are so many discoveries that you make along the way. I love all of it.
Marika: Anything you hate?
Katrina: Matinees. [Laughter] You know, when you have to come in at 11 o’clock in the morning and it’s not nice to be singing that early. I think one o’clock matinees of musicals should be banned. It’s just rude.
Marika: You’ve only come off stage at eleven o’clock the night before. It is rude.
The Artist’s Way
Marika: You are someone who plays instruments and I also know that you are a visual artist. I think it’s a really beautiful thing that you are, in every sense of the word, an artist. Do all these outlets feed into one another?
Katrina: Yeah…Well, I never used to think that they were terribly related…because I’d always draw. I’d go to life drawing classes in between shows and keep it to myself really. I wouldn’t do opening night cards of drawings, but it was always a thing that I loved to do. In fact, there was a little junction in my youth where I thought, art school or acting school? Because I loved visual arts so much, but acting just kind of fulfilled me that little bit more. Having just recently gone to art school, and spent time at The College Of Fine Arts, it was just a revelation to me. It was beautiful to immerse myself in that world for a short time.
Katrina: I’ve just started painting really, I’ve just been a drawer in pastels and pencil for a long time, but I picked up oil paints and they are very similar to pastels and I can manipulate them and they are quite soft and delicious, and I’ve always been interested in portraiture, in faces and body and expression. I think that’s a big thing, and I tend to really enjoy telling a story in the artwork so…
Marika: So, it is all connected.
Katrina: It’s all storytelling and that’s what I find exciting about that whole world of art. I’m just dipping my toe in now, I’m a beginner, but I really enjoy setting up a scene. It’s quite theatrical really. It’s almost like I’m writing a play with the pictures.
Marika: I think it’s rewarding for any artist, regardless of their discipline, to have other things – whether it’s that you love cooking or you love gardening or whatever it is. I think it’s really important that we feed ourselves in other ways because what we do, with our fragile egos and wobbly self esteems and often not knowing what’s happening next…there is so much fluidity, that I think it’s so important to have other things to feed your soul. Creatively speaking. Whether that artist self is expressed in how you decorate your home, or walk your dog, or make your kids’ lunch boxes. They can all be creative pursuits in how you approach them.
Katrina: Also, I don’t need anyone else to make a picture. I don’t need an agent, a playwright, a director, and fellow cast mates.
Marika: That’s powerful.
Katrina: Yeah, and so it is very empowering and it’s exciting, and I don’t need anyone’s validation either.
Marika: Or applause.
Katrina: I don’t need applause. Yeah. I’m happy for people to hate it. I don’t care what they think. I just want to make it.
Marika: And that’s arguably the best way to make art.