It was 2014 when Emily Havea first walked through the doors at MTC HQ. ‘The last time I was in this building I had just graduated from NIDA and I was coming in for a general audition. I remember being so nervous waiting in the corridor.’ Eight years later and she’s back making her MTC debut as Joan in Fun Home. ‘It’s so funny walking through those corridors now. Last time I was here, I just hoped they like me. And now, because I have done this show in the Sydney season, I feel completely at ease. It’s a bit of a full circle moment.’
Havea has achieved a lot since her first visit to MTC HQ. Originally from Bendigo, she now lives in Sydney and has spent the last 10 years working across music, theatre and screen. I ask her to briefly take me through her career and she begins by talking about Black Swan State Theatre Company’s production of Oklahoma! ‘At the end of 2020 I was the first woman of colour to play Curly McClain, the leading male role, which is huge. It put an entirely queer lens on the show.’ Another highlight was Grounded, produced by Riverside Theatre of Parramatta in 2019. ‘Grounded was a one-woman show. Eighty minutes of me on stage playing a US drone fighter pilot,’ which she describes as another ‘huge undertaking.’
Before these shows Havea toured Australia in 2016 as one of Bell Shakespeare’s Players. As part of a touring ensemble she performed Shakespeare to schools and communities across Australia for nine months. ‘It was so awesome to have been able to see the country and do my job at the same time. I’m really grateful for it.’ This experience surely provided the perfect preparation for her to play both Caesar’s wife Calphurnia and Caesar’s teenage nephew Octavius in Bell Shakespeare’s 2018 tour of Julius Caesar.
But her favourite project to date is Brown Skin Girl, a production she performed and wrote with Angela Sullen and Ayeesha Ash. The show melds together visual art, spoken word, music and movement. Havea explains, ‘It’s about the experience of growing up as a person of colour in Australia and dissecting race in this country.’ After performing across a bunch of festivals throughout Sydney, Havea beams as she tells me it has recently been ‘picked up to be turned into a TV show by Village Roadshow, after we got some funding from Screen Australia.’ She adds, ‘Standing in the centre of my own story was the most satisfying experience I’ve ever had as an actor. It makes me realise I need to write more and tell my own story alongside telling other people’s stories.’
Telling rarely told stories
Right now, however, she is telling Alison Bechdel’s story. ‘What excites me most about working on Fun Home is that it is a story about a queer woman who's an artist, and it's a story through her lens. It’s exciting to put this theatricalisation of it on a mainstage because it makes these kind of stories more accessible to society.’
The musical sees Alison writing and drawing her life story – moving between past and present – reliving her unique childhood in the family’s funeral home, her growing understanding of her own sexuality, and coming to terms with seeing her parents through adult eyes. Havea plays Joan, who Alison meets during college. ‘As a role, Joan is so grounded and centred. She is sure of herself and stable within her sexuality,’ Havea divulges. She says it is quite a gift of a role, because other characters in the show ‘are kind of floundering or trying to find themselves and existing through epic change.’ Joan, however, is ‘an activist and stands up for what she believes in’ and part of her place in the story is to contrast against Alison’s internal world of turmoil.
To prepare for the role Havea balanced research with performance. For her, ‘Research is useful up to a point, but putting your own essence into a role is what makes it ultimately come alive.’ So even though she spent time reading up about activism in the 70s and understanding the world that Joan situates, she ultimately ‘put the research to the backseat’ and let the world of Joan take over.
Breaking the musical theatre mould
Fun Home covers a lot of ground in just over 90 minutes. I ask Havea why she thinks the story is able to move from the light to dark, sometimes in a matter of seconds. ‘I think it’s successful because as humans, that’s how we process things.’ She explains that when we are in the throes of something serious or tragic, it’s often humour, laughter or joy that breaks that tension. ‘I think we need moments of reprieve and often laughter can also make things truer or more tragic – if we’re telling a darker story, we try and play the opposite of that at the same time to ease the person in.’
And what is Havea most excited for audiences to take away from this show? ‘I am most excited for audience's expectations of what a musical can be to broaden.’ Fun Home simultaneously breaks the mould of a traditional musical and excels in all the essentials that make musicals so wonderful. ‘It's not something that we see too often. And for my personal satisfaction as an artist, having 3D complex characters is super exciting for the form of musical theatre.’
Fun Home is on stage at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse.
Published on 18 February 2022