Bernadette’s home in Melbourne, with dog Smidge.
I am nervous when I drive to meet this month’s chat-ee, as this is the first subject I have NEVER ever met. I also happen to be a HUGE fan of hers, after seeing her Helpmann nominated role in the one-woman triumph that was Songs for Nobodies. Written for the vocally impeccable Bernadette by playwright Johanna Murray-Smith, this sell-out production made me weep for relief in discovering it’s very existence.
Joining Bernadette and her dog Smidge in the sunny front room of her Melbourne home, we talk about the process, challenges and ongoing success of this one-woman showcase, as well as her surprising foray into the corporate sector, and most interestingly for me, her agreeance that versatility and exceptional talent in the Australian industry can actually hinder, not help…
This series was created to investigate actors, but technically Bernadette is new to the acting game. If ever there was an artist to break my self-imposed rules, it’s Bernadette Robinson.
Starting out with Streisand
MA: Growing up, what did you think you would be?
BR: I always wanted to be a singer and an actor. But it was not our background at all. My father is a doctor, my mother a nurse. We loved shows but no one else is musical in my family – and I’ve got 6 brothers and sisters. But we always watched shows, and listened to records and movies and things.
MA: Who were your heroes? The people you looked at and thought, ‘I’d like to be like that’?
BR: Streisand I loved. Still do.
BR: My parents had such an enormous collection of records, so there was Judy Garland, there was opera and country – my mother loved Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette.
MA: Because it’s rare…I mean, singers can usually sing a certain way or maybe a couple of ways. Maybe to a lesser degree. But the fact you can sing in ALL those styles EXCEPTIONALLY well is very impressive.
BR: Well that’s why I particularly wanted those five women (in ‘Songs for Nobodies‘) because their styles are SO different.
MA: Even just the placement for where you sit a voice for those styles. So different. It’s, um, amazing.
‘Actor’ or ‘Singer’ (the answer is always ‘both’)
MA: I was really excited to interview you today, because I saw Songs for Nobodies last year – a couple of times
BR: Oh good.
MA: And it was the best piece of theatre I had seen in a long time. My favourite thing in theatre is… I really enjoy shows that are ‘genre-less’. Not in the sense that there is nothing to hold onto, but rather that they don’t sit neatly in one world. More is possible. I look at ‘Songs‘ and it is theatre, but there’s sung music… but it’s not cabaret strictly. And I love that. I’m sure it’s a marketing person’s nightmare because they don’t know what ‘buzz’ words to put on the brochure, but I think that stuff is more compelling and inspiring. I was just blown away by it… But I was astounded when I went online to stalk you
MA: You’re not an actor by trade-
MA: That production was your first acting gig?!
BR: Well, yes. I’d did my first show, which was called, You Might as Well Live, which wasn’t really acting. It was similar as in it was a tribute to great singing stars. It was Rodney Fisher who directed that, in Sydney, but that was way back in 1993.
MA: What singers were in that show?
BR: Ten different ones. All the ones in Songs for Nobodies but also Karen Carpenter, Mama Cass, Marilyn Monroe, and an Australian opera singer named Marie Collier. But there weren’t the fantastic monologues from Joanna Murray-Smith.
MA: Was it a cabaret or was it theatre?
BR: It was theatre. At Glen Street theatre, part of their subscription season.
MA: Oh, wow
BR: Yeah, it was their biggest selling show of the year. I got fantastic reviews for it. But it was about singing much more than the acting.
MA: Did you study?
BR: I studied voice and opera and classical music at the Victorian College of the Arts. And I probably should have just gone and studied drama instead, because I could already sing. And then it would’ve completely changed my road I suppose. But I always thought of myself as a singer.
MA: Do you still think of yourself as a singer?
[pull_left]I have always had to make my own work. Always had to[/pull_left]
BR: NO! I don’t because, so many actors have said, ‘your acting is…’ well, they say great things about my acting, so… And also, when I did that show with Rodney, he knew me as a singer, and people get caught up with the idea of ‘oh, she can sound like this person or that person’ so that’s what they focus on. But when I went to see Simon Phillips at The Melbourne Theatre Company, he’d seen me as a singer and said he’d love to work with me, but it had to be a play, because it’s Melbourne Theatre Company. So that’s why we ended up getting Joanna Murray-Smith.
Songs for Bernadette
BR: I’d seen a snippet of Bombshells (by Joanna Murray-Smith) on an ABC program and thought she’d be fantastic. She wrote the first piece for ‘Songs‘, the character Bea, as an audition piece for me. She did that initially because she said, “I don’t know if you can act. I’ve only seen you sing”.
MA: As someone who hadn’t maybe done a lot of rigorous acting work, or actor-training, how did you prep for that audition?
BR: Joanna said, “you don’t have to learn it off by heart, just come in and read”.
MA: Did you learn it off by heart?
BR: I learnt if off by heart.
MA: Of course you did!
BR: My sister who had done drama said I really should, because it will free you up, and you can do more with it rather than keep looking with your head in the book… It went very well. I was pleased. And Simon was saying, “let’s do it!” But Joanna is so in demand, so prolific. And she said, ‘I really will have to put it on hold for a while’. So for the next three years-
MA: THAT’s how long the gestational period was for Songs For Nobodies?!
BR: Yes. Because if it wasn’t ready then Simon would have to put off the whole slot in the program for another year. I kept missing out. Then Joanna wrote to me and said, ‘Look, I really feel bad but I just don’t think I can do this. I don’t feel the spark. And I’ve got to feel the spark to be able to write something’. And I was SO sad. I asked someone else who ended up not being right. So then I wrote back to Joanna another year and the subject of the email was ‘A Plea from Bea’… and I said, “Please. Please can you write some more?” And she relented.
MA: When did she feel the spark?
BR: Well I don’t think she ever did feel it!
MA: Oh no!
In the end she said she would focus on the people, the ‘nobodies’ not the singers.
MA: That was her concept? To come at it from that angle? That’s the most genius aspect of the whole project.
BR: She did. I know. Well, she did not want it to be a tribute show.
MA: Did you pick the women, or did she?
BR: I did. I picked the singers. But the characters, the ‘nobodies’ are hers.
MA: How do you begin to build those characters?
BR: From the page. From Joanna’s writing.
MA: Do you listen to tapes?
BR: No! No, no. It’s all stored away. I listen to everyone. It’s all in life. My full-time job is just listening and watching and observing. In fact my husband can’t bear it, because I’ll overhear a conversation and get distracted, or we’ll be watching a movie and I can’t stop commenting on what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.
MA: That’s so funny.
BR: It’s very aural for me I suppose. I probably do have a process, but I don’t analyse it very much. I think I just soak it in, and then let it out. But I do have to really really get it into my system. Learn it off by heart. On the page, Songs for Nobodies was terrifying, because Joanna would email me reams and reams of stuff. She writes this much (gestures widely) and you end up with this much (gestures small). The first week of rehearsal was just editing down all the material, trying stuff out. So I never left the table for the first week.
MA: Joanna Murray-Smith is a wonderful writer
BR: I know!
MA: You’re so lucky
BR: SO lucky!!
A Broadway Baby. Or not.
BR: I got into Cats while I was still at college, and then I met my husband, Paul Noonan, who used to be in rock/pop, but he was also classically trained and he was playing in the orchestra for Cats. And I found Cats really boring. I had to do it for a year. And I just don’t think I could ever do that. Ever again.
MA: So the whole 8-show-a-week scenario…
BR: I don’t mind the 8 show a week part – if the show is about me!
But I don’t want to do it when thousands of people could do my role and have done and we’re all the same.
MA: Yeah…my first and only ‘big’ piece was South Pacific recently, and it’s… it is a different thing… it’s a different part of your brain.
BR: I think lots of people can do that work…and I could…but I’d rather do what I can do that no one else can.
MA: You’ve always made your own work?
MA: And that’s why it’s hard going back into a big vehicle.
BR: Yes, it’s really hard. I found it really soul destroying by the end of Cats. I was bored. Really bored. It becomes just a job. I did a radio interview in Sydney with James Valentine. In the same slot he had me and a Broadway woman… a Tony Award winner…She’d sung for the animated film Anastasia…
MA: Liz Calloway!
BR: Yes. She was lovely.
MA: I did a concert alongside her in Adelaide in 2010. She’s gorgeous.
BR: So lovely. But she did Cats for years and years, and she said that people ask her how she could’ve done it for so long, and she responds with ‘Well I have a really nice house out of it’…so that’s the way people deal with it.
MA: I guess you have to weigh up what you want and when.
BR: After Cats there was a place called The Tilbury, and I did lots of shows there. Then I moved back to Melbourne, and I moved into completely different things. I did contemporary opera. Traditional opera too. I just sort of wanted to do something different from what I had been, so I got into that, and it was very interesting. But all along the corporate stuff was bubbling!
Let’s Get Serious – The Corporate World
MA: How do you even get into the corporate world?
BR: It was a so lucky. My agent at the time in Sydney had a woman on her books that was booked for this Qantas function. And she had to cancel. So the agent said, “Can you go and do this performance for them?”
MA: All great show biz stories start with that story!
BR: Yes! And it was SO good. I did all sorts of stuff I’d done at The Tilbury. Different voices. It went over really well. And the gentleman at Qantas who had organised the event said, “If your ear is good enough that you can sound like lots of different people, do you think you could sing in different languages…?” and I said, “Probably”. And he said that they were planning an inaugural flight to Taiwan, and it would be a really nice gesture, as it’s a big event with politicians and the mayor and so on, if you could sing one of their famous Chinese songs.
MA: Have you always been able to mimic really well?
BR: Pretty well, yeah. Even though I wasn’t aware of it. I thought I was a singer. And I am, but I also could do voices-
MA: And accents are easy for you?
BR: Yeah. But I never pursued it. I just sort of thought, ‘that’s interesting’, but people would say, “You know you do actually sound exactly like such-and-such”. Anyway, that’s how the Qantas stuff came about.
MA: And whilst you were doing this corporate stuff, were you thinking, ‘oh, I wish I was on the telly’ or…
BR: I’d love to be in films, but I didn’t pursue it. Because I don’t think I’m that ambitious, clearly. And work would come along and I’d think, ‘yeah, that’d be good’. And I was VERY spoilt. I mean, that corporate scene…After Taiwan, it just opened up, and that whole 14 year period with Qantas, they were absolutely wonderful.
MA: So that was like your full-time job?
BR: It kinda was. They pay a fortune. Paul would come and play for me and we’d be flown business or first class to a place, have a week there all paid for with a good fee – and then next month Italy or wherever.
MA: You were never bored?
BR: No! Because it was glamorous and you get paid loads of dough for a 20 minute spot. It was high pressured though. The events were a really big deal, and I always sang in the language of where we were. I mean, I sang in French in Paris to French people at The Australian Embassy. And then I would sing Japanese in Tokyo. Hindi in Mumbai. So, you’ve got to be spot on with the work.
MA: Would you undertake listening to a native speaker?
BR: I did, yes. I would get a taped recording of a native singer and copy their pronounciation. Hilariously, my kids went to the local primary school and we have just about everybody from every background there. Every nationality. So I would just find an Indian man and say, ‘Can I sing this to you?’ and he’d help me!
In the Australian industry, versatility is a curse? Discuss!
MA: Would you do a show now where you don’t sing at all?
BR: I don’t think anyone would want me for that.
Look, the reviews were very good, and they really were kind about the acting, but without the singing… Again, I think other people could do that. Not sure.
MA: What are your aspirations then beyond this project?
BR: It’s interesting you asked me about those big shows, I mean, I would’t mind being asked. I’m never asked in for those things. Ever.
MA: That astounds me. I come from a ‘straight’ acting background and then accidentally fell into musical theatre… now no one will see me for straight acting work.
BR: Isn’t it funny?!
MA: It’s so compartmentalised.
BR: So annoying.
MA: But what I did think was interesting, and it may be because I’m from Sydney and not Melbourne, but when I spoke to musical theatre people in Sydney and said, “I JUST SAW THIS PHENOMENAL WOMAN IN THIS PHENOMENAL SHOW. YOU ALL MUST GO AND SEE IT!!!!” and most of them didn’t know who you were. And I just thought, ‘how on EARTH is it possible that you haven’t been in a heap of big shows?!’
BR: I am never considered. EVER.
BR: It is. I have always had to make my own work. Always had to.
MA: There are so many amazing artists in this country that HAVE TO make their own work. It’s almost like they are too good.
BR: Yeah… I think they think, ‘oh she does all those voices so she can’t sing’. Of course the truth is – if I can do all those voices, I CAN sing.
MA: Do you think versatility is a curse in the Australian industry?
BR: I do! I do.
MA: I was having a similar discussion with an Australia artist that has since re-located to America and is doing very well… And he was saying that it can feel like in Australia that you go in, you act the scene well. Then you sing the song well. And they go, “oh, what about this? Can you sing this different character?” and if you do that well, it’s almost like they feel discombobulated by that! Like it’s probably easier to just cast the person who could do that one bit well and nothing else.
BR: I think you’re so right. If you just do the one thing. Then it’s fine. Then it’s, ‘oh she does that’. And you can see the effects of that. You can see it in Melbourne. In Australia. Someone gets the role. And then they get the same sort of role the next time.
MA: That’s right. And then that becomes their battle. I mean, I’ve talked to actors in this series who have a lot of success in one particular role who would love to do (and are certainly capable of) other things, but that’s what they get.
BR: It’s infuriating.
MA: Well, it’s ‘small’. It makes our industry feel small.
BR: People, as you say, just don’t have the vision.
MA: I also think we, as artists, help this mentality along unfortunately.
MA: I was doing a show a couple of years ago. An ‘actors-who-sing’ kinda show. A two-hander. And I began to notice that a lot of actors who would come to see it would say stuff after like, ‘wow, you can really sing’, but a lot of musical theatre performers would say, ‘wow, you can really act’…
MA: They were literally identifying the thing that perhaps was not their strong point. I don’t know, is that some sort of weird reflection of an insecurity? Or having to put people into a box?
BR: Yes, it is that. ‘I’m an actor so she can’t be good at acting but I’ll let you be good at singing’! It’s safer then. You’re not threatening. So true. But I was lucky because a lot of actors were very generous with their compliments about Songs for Nobodies
MA: Because a lot of actors couldn’t do what you do in it. Even just the dialect work. The text is layered, layered, layered. It’s quite a skill set. I think you could take the music out and it would still be compelling. I do.
BR: Oh good. That’s lovely.