The I Call My Brothers Director steps out of the chair to share her memories of playing at the National Theatre of Belgrade, and what it was like moving to Australia as a child.
What sector of the arts industry interests you most?
My mind goes to the various arts – apart from theatre, which is my main work and passion – visual art, dance, music, film… Not only are these inspirations in their own right but all are influential and necessarily present in creating the architecture of a piece of theatre. I’m most interested in blurring the boundaries between forms, disciplines, sectors and looking for intelligent and soulful integration, collaboration and fusion across them in the making of work.
When did you become involved in the arts?
My late great aunt was a well known theatre and film actress in Belgrade, Serbia, where I was born. When I was little, I used to go backstage with her at the National Theatre of Belgrade and I still remember the smell and feel of it. There was a huge gong, narrow hallways, people dashing around in costume and the dressing room with the mirrors framed by lights. I sat in front of the mirrors, putting pretend mascara on my eyelashes, like the actresses. When I was seven, I got a non speaking part in one of their plays, a small section that was a dream sequence. I will never forget waiting in the wings, holding my stage mum’s hand, seeing the fringe of her shawl quivering and then plunging into lights with a sea of faces in the darkness. It all happened then. I bought my first bike with that pay-packet which could have been part of the enticement!
MTC CONNECT was created to celebrate the diverse backgrounds of Melbourne’s theatre artists. Can you tell us more about your background?
We moved here from Belgrade when I was eight. The classic migrant story – to start a better life. Mum came across to join her father who lived in Canberra after her marriage with dad ended. A few years later, dad joined us and they remarried here. I went to their wedding! I didn’t know much English but learnt fast through sheer necessity. My grandpa told me on day one that I would be teased at school for being different, coming from another country, not speaking English. I was scared. He was the janitor of the school I went to and spied on me in the classroom to see if I was ok. I remember telling someone my name was Nell, as she offered me my first taste of Twisties. I remember throwing out the salami sandwiches behind the bushes. I worked hard to assimilate, to minimise the teasing. I shushed my loud Serbian speaking mum who wore big hats and dressed all in purple. I only got to embrace and celebrate that difference in my late teens after I went back to Serbia. It informs my work in ways that are hard to explain.
What inspires you as a theatre artist?
Oh… everything, really. Life, the ordinary in the day, the huge existential questions, the small moments between people, brilliant art, of course, and… to be honest, art that really doesn’t work at all. Sitting in a darkened theatre with others puts me into a place of dreaming, my imagination runs free and inspiration comes.
If you could change one thing about Australian theatre, what would it be?
Hmm. It’s not about what individuals or companies are doing or not doing. Australian theatre artists are as brave and wild and raw and brilliant as any in the world. It’s about where art sits in our nations psyche, therefore its place in our political system, therefore the funding that is apportioned across the arts. I find it hard to think about too much (but we must) – it’s such a big issue and seemingly transformation is elusive and far off on the horizon.
What is one of your favourite past theatrical experiences?
Hofesh Shechter’s Uprising at Melbourne Festival a few years ago. A stunning fusion of choreography and musical composition both made by the director. Seven male dancers and a heartstopping percussive score. Short, sharp and furious. It shook my body and senses.
What interests you most about the MTC CONNECT program?
It’s just fabulous to begin this dialogue and to grab it by the balls really. Are we allowed to say ‘balls’ on the blog?! MTC CONNECT is a provocation to action around bringing the cultural diversity of the street – in Melbourne and in our country – onto the stages and into the audiences of the MTC. I’m interested in it being a bigger and more long term investment than simply working with culturally diverse artists on projects – although that’s a great start. MTC CONNECT can open up an interrogation on why we are not seeing diversity represented. Notoriously minority groups have more challenges in getting seen and heard in the mainstream. Language, lack of opportunity and experience, confidence, a sense of other or not belonging can all be obstacles that become a vicious cycle that rob our main stages of integrated diversity.
What are some of the things you would like the MTC CONNECT program to work towards?
Developing an ongoing, in-house strategy, by consultation. Creating a role e.g. cultural associate, to facilitate and implement the process. Working collaboratively to push for securing a three year funding program with sponsors. Small things, really! Having some limited experience within the company, which has been incredible, I have discovered it is a huge ship and all departments are at capacity, working so hard. How do we make more room, that would be the question?
I Call My Brothers is now playing at Southbank Theatre, the Lawler until 1 May.