Izabella Yena regularly attended MTC productions as a student in high school. In 2013, she had her first insight into the process behind-the-scenes during a work experience stint with the Company.
‘I used to catch the train into Flinders Street when I was doing work experience,’ she says, ‘and I’d walk to Sturt Street – because it wasn’t often I was in the city, so I wanted to make the most of being here – and as I would walk past the Arts Centre with all the posters, I’d be like “I’m going to work there one day, I’m going to work there one day!”’
And now that wishful mantra has become a reality. After appearing in MTC’s 2019 Education production, The Violent Outburst That Drew Me to You, Yena is set to tread the Arts Centre Melbourne boards for the first time in MTC’s Australian premiere production of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes this year.
However, before that dream comes true, she’s living another at The Sumner, officially making her MTC mainstage debut as Alex in Home, I’m Darling, the story of a contemporary husband and wife attempting to live as if in the 1950s.
‘I got a bit emotional the first day we bumped in here. It was weird. I mean, I saw Toby and Nikki in The Cherry Orchard and studied it,’ she notes, referring to her fellow cast members Toby Truslove and Nikki Shiels, who play Johnny and Judy, the married couple. ‘I was in year 12 year. And I wrote essays on them!’
Has she told them that?
‘Yes,’ she exclaims, laughing. ‘Toby was like, “Oh my God!”
Fun onstage and off
She’s also seen Peter Paltos in ‘heaps of stuff as well’ and is clearly familiar with the work of both Susie Youssef and Jane Turner. ‘I banned myself from watching any Kath & Kim while I’m working on the show,’ she shares. ‘I was like “don’t do it. It’s too dangerous!”’
It’s clear the love and respect she has for her fellow cast members is mutual. You can see it on stage, and Yena confirms that they all get along very well. ‘It’s terrible, it’s really hard coming into work,’ she jokes, with an infectious laugh. ‘But it translates to stage because we’re just comfortable with each other. We trust each other on stage and we can just have fun and play with it and know that if something slips up that someone else will be there to help you. It’s just fun.’
While the play is a lot of fun, it’s definitely a comedy with a serious side. Yena agrees: ‘You get your comedy, for sure, but you can’t have comedy without tragedy, or similar. They exist because of each other, so that’s enjoyable, to have that journey, and that payoff, for the audience as well as for us.’
The outsider’s perspective
Along with Jane Turner’s Sylvia, Yena’s character offers a voice of reason, or an outsider’s perspective on the central couple’s lifestyle choice. ‘Alex is from a completely different world. She just doesn’t understand it [Judy and Jonny’s decision]. So she’s the one we can associate ourselves with the most. She speaks for the audience, she is the outside eye.’
‘It’s not something she believes should be glorified or ignored ... You can’t be selective about what you take from the decade, because that’s a privileged choice. It’s white feminism.’
Explaining that when Alex first meets Judy, her initial reaction is ‘oh, this is a cute little hobby’, Yena notes that it turns into shock when it becomes obvious that Judy truly believes in the so-called 1950s values. ‘Those values clash with Alex’s world view,’ she explains. Alex is the one who initially calls out Judy, commenting that the 50s would have been an awful time for people of colour, or those who were queer or any kind of minority. ‘It’s not something she believes should be glorified or ignored. I think it’s Judy’s ignoring this aspect that really gets to her,’ Yena elaborates. ‘You can’t be selective about what you take from the decade, because that’s a privileged choice. It’s white feminism.’
Accentuating her difference
Asked about her approach to Alex as a character, Yena says her accent was the first step. ‘Because she’s so contemporary, the voice samples I listened to were different to everybody else’s because of how language and voice change over the generations.’ She explains that in her work with voice and dialect coach Geraldine Cook-Dafner, they discussed ‘that really direct bluntness that is so common among young Londoners. It’s that Gen Y kind of thing as well. So that was my first key in. The way she speaks, the words she uses, it’s all business.’
Continuing, she explains that she started listening to the way her friends spoke as well, especially when they were expressing opinions. ‘I would ask a provocative question or something about politics and I would listen to their response. And often it was really direct, but not aggressive. And there was this confidence in their own opinion, in their own belief. And from that, I took opinion being fact as a character trait for Alex.’
Yena also notes that Alex is ‘only ever described in suits’ and that her head-to-toe black wardrobe – costume designer Renée Mulder’s addition – is not only ‘very business, it also really makes her at odds with everything else. She just stands out like a sore thumb. And she is; she feels completely uncomfortable. So she tries to assert her space but that’s just her façade, her way of hiding that she deeply disagrees with this, or can’t see the reasoning in it.’
Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes
Home, I’m Darling is a play that brings a unique approach to discussions of contemporary gender politics. When Yena takes to the MTC stage again later this year, it will also be in play that takes on contemporary gender politics, but that’s where the similarity ends. Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, from award-winning Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch, will see Yena starring opposite Dan Spielman in a two-hander that turns the student–teacher romance genre on its head.
‘It feels very far away,’ she says. ‘It feels like it’s not going to happen, like when you’re going holidays but it doesn’t feel like it until you’re actually at the airport. But I’m really excited. Actually, I’m equally terrified and excited. Which is why I know it’s going to be okay. Because I’m scared.’
Yena explains that she works best under pressure, ‘wherever that comes from – often myself. Being afraid means I haven’t done it before, which is exciting. It’s new, it’s a challenge. And it makes me work harder so that I feel confident in myself. But it’s a healthy amount of fear, although maybe fear isn’t the right word. But that’s also why I do acting – because it’s scary! Every time I’m about to step on stage I feel like I might die, but then it reminds me that I’m alive.’
From stage to screen
2020 will also see Yena’s big-screen debut, with her appearance in the upcoming Phryne Fisher movie, Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears. ‘I have more experience in theatre so I feel more comfortable on stage than I do in front of a camera,’ she says. ‘But five, six, seven years ago I had chronic stage fright and couldn’t get on stage. So I think it’s just about practice and being scared and overcoming it and just doing it until it feels natural.’
Acknowledging that she genuinely loves both stage and screen, Yena is effusive. ‘I just still can’t believe that I’m here, to be honest – I just think it’s wicked! In many ways I still feel like a student. But the way I lull myself into overcoming that is saying, “Well of course I’m a student: there’s heaps to learn.” Not a student in the traditional sense but a student of life. How can I know as much as everybody else because I haven’t done it as long as them. So I just take what I can from them, whatever they offer and I learn and absorb it. As my science teacher in high school used to say “be a sponge, Izabella, be a sponge”.’ Clearly, it’s working!
Published on 10 February 2020