Saturday, February 20, 2010

THEATRE BY FRANK McKONE How to become an emerging theatre director by the age of 32 – Kelly Somes

Following the success of Lloyd Beckmann, Beekeeper (reviewed by Peter Wilkins in The Canberra Times and by me on this blogspot), I thought to open up our critics’ blog to more than our standard reviews.  Readers may like to know something of the people behind the scenes.  What is the life of a professional artist like?

I should begin by revealing some personal interest in Kelly Somes, since she attended my audition training class in Year 12, 1995. What happened to the quiet, unassuming girl whose first role was as a witch, in Year 7?  Well, Kelly became one of the best examples of my advice to take time before making the decision to audition for professional training.  At 18 anyone over 30 seems already over the hill, but now Kelly sees herself as one of the young ones just beginning to establish herself professionally.

The steps she took on the way, her decisions, are of course unique.  What I noted, though, is that at every point she focussed on how she understood herself at that time.  This is not a story of unmitigated ambition, of determination to win out at all costs, of  achieving predetermined goals.  It’s a much gentler story than the world’s go-getters would understand.  As she spoke it seemed to me that she put into practice what Laertes struggled with – “This above all: to thine own self be true.”  Polonius may have been pompous and overbearing but this advice, taken with common sense, is worthwhile.

Kelly did not rush into auditions but enrolled in Arts/Law at ANU.  However, she found that Theatre Studies was a continuing interest, leading her to drop Law in favour of an Honours in Theatre.  In Years 11/12 she had experienced acting and directing, indeed she had directed some work while still in junior high school.  For her the undergraduate work, directing short pieces with her student colleagues and then directing a full length play for her Honours was to me an interesting example of the education process – spiralling round the same kind of work but at a new and more mature level each time around.  It was pleasing, though a little humbling for me to hear her praise for the quality of her university teachers, Geoffrey Borny, Tony Turner and Cathy Clelland.  Yet, with a degree and now a clear interest in directing rather than acting, where would she go?

To support herself had to be the immediate answer, so for three years she worked in Canberra, as much as possible in theatre.  Administration work paid her way, while directing in the family theatre company, Free-Rain, continued to build her experience. My review in The Canberra Times of her 2002 production of Hotel Sorrento (by Hannie Rayson) reveals an aspect of Kelly’s interests which she had to face when she made the decision to apply for the directing course at Victorian College for the Arts (VCA) in Melbourne. 

I wrote "Somes claims to have set the play in its period, when Margaret Thatcher was still in power in Britain: a point which is important to the politics of the play.  At the same time, though, to deal with the family's memories and emotional conflicts, she has seen the characters as costumed figures against a blank background, making the whole set white except for the symbolic painting of 'Hotel Sorrento' (in which all of the older generation pictured have now died).  Though this is ostensibly a good idea, the contrast in the first act between scenes in British London and the Australian beach village of Sorrento is not made as obvious as the drama demands.  Or, on the other hand, a much more stylised set, using perhaps something like a Whiteley painting as a model, might have given the design the visual life it needs."

In her VCA interview she was asked why she had not applied for animateur training rather than directing, since she had a clear interest in design.  But by this time, and confirmed as she progressed through her VCA training, her deepest interest was working directly with people within the settings she could imagine.  Perhaps the central question she resolved during her time at VCA was whether she should centre her work on text or action.  I am not surprised, since Lindy Davies was Head of the School of Drama, that Kelly now sees movement as the core of her work, both as the underpinning of text and as a ‘text’ in its own right which the audience can read.

It was this understanding which gave strength to the production of Lloyd Beckmann, Beekeeper which had stirred me to find out how Kelly had got to this point.  And where to now? 

Kelly Somes now works in Melbourne as a freelance director, concentrating on newly written work and on women’s theatre.  Some work is with cooperatives, where pay is equally shared, and some is by invitation to take paid work as director or dramaturg.  She spoke of having to learn how to promote herself and her work, having to become objective about her strengths and weaknesses, and especially of “opening up yourself to critical comment from new people, not just the trusted people you already know” and learning to make “judgements about other people who might be the right people to judge you”.

There is still a quietness, an unassuming quality in Kelly Somes, and I suspect a satisfying career ahead of her.