Spend a moment immersed in the wisdom of Ana Maria Belo and one walks away with renewed respect for those who have attained longevity in their artistic career. Belo is an artist who has overcome great adversity in her field and her perseverance and achievements are inspiring.
Belo’s flowing fiery locks and graceful demeanour have been featured in several television and stage productions. Her professional acting career began with the Bell Shakespeare Company in 1999 and she jokingly slid off of her chair as she calculated how many years ago her debut was.
“I’ve been performing ever since I can remember. I was always the first toddler up dancing at a wedding. Always creating new characters to show off at school. Always entertaining my family with some little production. It was pretty easy to tell that I would have a creative career of some sort,” Belo remarked as she reflected on the initial hurdles she encountered early in her career. “I remember not getting into NIDA after my first audition when I was still in Year 12 and I thought about doing a child care studies course at Uni. My high school drama teacher threatened to pull me out of it if I enrolled. Luckily I didn’t have to. I got into the Performing Arts Certificate IV course at David Atkins Dynamite Dance studios, then NIDA. The rest is history,” Belo recalled.
“I guess for me there was never a plan B. I think if you really want to have a career in this industry, especially in this country, then there is no space for a plan B”
Ana Maria Belo
When I asked Belo about her muses, she cited laughter and passion as her inspirations. “If I can make you laugh I feel like I’ve achieved a great deal. There is an internal buzz I get from performing and working on a project. I chase that feeling every day.” Belo said. She even got the comedic tick of approval from John Cleese and described auditioning for him as one of her career highlights. “His laugh is unlike any laugh I’ve heard before. It’s like a wheezy hyena. At the end of the audition he said, ‘I have no notes. You are very funny.’ Had I died that day I would have died a very happy woman,” Belo mused.
“Being a professional isn’t just about being paid,” Belo radically remarked. An unusual comment from someone whose livelihood is dependent on sporadic contracts in an industry where, too often, artists are not paid fairly for their work, however, her clarification revealed a professional and humble outlook.
“Goodness I’ve done many a passion project, some for little or no money. I think being a professional is how you conduct yourself. How you nurture your own talent and how you treat others. There are so many moments that take my breath away. I feel very fortunate to have worked with so many people on so very many amazing productions. You’ve got to really immerse yourself and give it your heart and soul. It’s really difficult at times but the reward is amazing. I’ve been very lucky. When I’m not acting I’m teaching acting,” Belo explained.
Her longevity in the performing arts industry has given her a unique insight into the changes around her. “I’ve seen so many changes I have no idea where to begin. Technology is an amazing thing. Faxes!! We used to get audition scripts via fax machine. Ever left a fax script in a car on a hot day? The whole thing goes black. Ha!” Belo laughs. “In terms of people, I feel that we are becoming more inclusive. Or I like to think we are. I still think we have a long way to go yet, but we are definitely moving in the right direction. Women, diversity, we are taking greater risks with our work and what we put out there for our audiences. It’s a very exciting time in our industry at the moment.”
“The fact that I can only think of five Deaf actors in Australia is proof that there is not enough support out there,” Belo laments. “My career started before anyone knew I had hearing loss. Still today there will be people reading this saying ‘oh wow! I had no idea!’ I can’t imagine what would have happened if it were the other way around? Would I have the same opportunities? The same career?
Belo hopes to see more Deaf actors on stage and on screen and an increase in support programs for Deaf people. Throughout her acting and teaching career she has taught thousands of students and has only encountered two with hearing loss. “I imagine the parents of those children felt the same way as I did. They don’t see any deaf actors on screen so why would their child be on there. That breaks my heart. We should be able to recognise some part of ourselves in the characters. There are so few Deaf characters out there. I really wish there were more!!”
“Theatre, TV and Film are meant to be a mirror to life,” Belo insisted as she pondered the pockets of society that are underrepresented in the performing arts. “I would love to see our industry flourish. I would like to see our industry really ask the questions it needs to ask in order to be more inclusive. Inclusive of race, religion, gender, disability and sexuality. I don’t feel that the right questions are being asked- therefore there are no right answers.”
Forging a professional career in the arts is challenging but more so when you are faced with the deterioration of your hearing. Belo experienced this hardship firsthand at the age of 14. It was gradual at first then tragically expedited in 2012. Belo painfully relived her experience:
“I started losing my hearing when I was 14. And at that time it was so gradual that I didn’t even notice it. I went to NIDA, trained on my deaf ears, sang in musicals and no one noticed. I also didn’t tell anyone, mainly out of fear. Back then I was really good at musical auditions. I always got a recall. Then in 2006 the audition forms changed. There was a question at the back. ‘Do you have any known hearing loss?’ I answered yes.”
“I sang while the audition panel read my form. They were all whispering to each other. I can read lips. They were not okay with my deafness. I didn’t get a recall. I stopped getting recalls then. I took it personally so I stopped singing.” Ana Maria Belo
“I became really self-conscious about my hearing. I stopped singing but I was still creating and performing. I wrote and produced short films. I did plays and TV. Then in 2012 I lost quite a bit of my hearing in one go. I was at a wedding and the music was so loud that I suffered distortion and swelling for nine weeks. And that’s when I had to get hearing aids. I genuinely believed my career was over. I felt like I had these two giant elephants on my ears. I couldn’t think of one actor on TV with hearing aids. So why would anyone give me a job?”
Belo was nearly ready to give everything up then participated in the Larry Moss masterclass. “I went kicking and screaming but [Moss] did something. He introduced me back in to the industry. He made me not so scared of what people would think. He turned my negative into a positive. I had to learn how to hear again. And learn how to speak and sing again. How I interpret sound now is completely different to how I did before. In a lot of ways my hearing aids have made me a better performer. For example, I don’t need to see your lips moving as much. I can hear what’s happening on stage when I’m back stage. I can have my eyes closed and still hear you.”
It’s taken over five years for Belo to get comfortable with her hearing aids and to accept them as a part of her. She has returned to singing lessons and just finished performing in her first musical with hearing aids. “The producers did everything they could to help me get through it. I now have a vocabulary of what I need to ask for when I do the next one. I’m very grateful for that.”
When I quizzed her about her next projects, she was tight-lipped, “There are some very exciting things ahead but right now I can’t say anything about them. Just…. watch this space!” Belo exclaimed. Upon interviewing Belo, I sat down at my piano, grateful for her unguarded wisdom and the fact that I could hear the music.