How We Do What We Do: Kate Mulvany with Marika Aubrey

Kate Mulvany is the ultimate storyteller. She is also, in my humble opinion, one of the most talented gals of our generation. Kate is best known as the creator and star of The Seed, her critically acclaimed and hugely successful play that is well on it’s way to ‘classic’ status in the Australian canon.

Marika Aubrey and Kate Mulvany
Marika Aubrey and Kate Mulvany

With an acting CV that boasts screen work (The Great Gatsby, The Little Death, Griff the Invisible, and Underbelly), and some incredible stage credits (Lady Macbeth last year and recently Dorine in Tartuffe, both for Bell Shakespeare, The Beast for MTC, as well as a long list of roles with Belvoir, STC, and Griffin), Kate seems equally as comfortable and wonderful in either medium, whether she is spouting her own words or another’s.

It was a huge pleasure to grab a coffee with this lovely lady and hear more about her obvious love of work, the (now) comical rejections she received early on in rural Western Australia, and what inspires a human who inspires so many others in turn.

Tiny Town, Big Imagination

Marika: Anyone who has watched your episode of Australian Story or The Seed knows you are from Geraldton – there’s a lot of biographical information about you out there in the world…

Kate: [Laughter].

Marika: I don’t actually know anything about Geraldton. Is it big or small?

Kate: It’s tiny. When I lived there it was about 6 hours north of Perth but they fixed the roads and now it’s about three and a half hours, apparently.

Marika: How was the seed of a career planted in Geraldton? Wait, see what I did?!

Kate: There you go! Well, Geraldton is a town of industries, it’s a town of mining, fishing and farming. It’s not a town of artists.

Marika: Is there a local amateur dramatic society?

Kate: There is, Theatre Eight. They refused to take me. Yeah. They didn’t want me.

Marika: [Laughter]. I love these stories.

Kate: They were doing the Sound of Music and I went in for the part of Brigitta.

Kate: I went in. I sang…

Marika: Are you a singer?

Kate: No. No! Shocking, shocking voice. My dad thinks I sound like that guy from Paint Your Wagon [*sings “I was born…”] That guy. I have a very deep voice. I went in for Sound of Music and they said, “No”, but I did play the French horn. So, they got me into the orchestra. I watched the girl who got the role for like fourteen nights playing my part.

Marika: [Laughter]. And you would have done it so much better.

Kate: Oh, she was pretty good – she could sing. To make up for it, my mum was the school teacher (it was a very small town then, a town of about 19000 people), and she said, “Look, I’ve got you a part in West Side Story”, but she was at a boys school. It was 200 boys and me, the teacher’s daughter, and I got to sing Maria, in that very deep voice. Out of 200 boys, I had the deepest voice on stage.

Marika: Nepotism at its best. That’s brilliant.

Kate: I kind of stayed away from musicals after that because…Look, I’m no triple threat. [Laughter].

Marika: How do you even begin to go and do drama classes in that sort of area?

[pull_left]I think my love of drama and stories came from being stuck in a cold, white, sparse hospital room in a children’s hospital[/pull_left]

Kate: I didn’t. I think my interest in drama came from when I was a child. I was very sick in hospital with cancer and I was bored. I was bored and I learned that I could impersonate Frank Spencer. The nurses would laugh and I found if we were laughing together, it didn’t hurt as much – the chemotherapy and when they had to hold me down.

Marika: Smart kid.

Kate: Frank Spencer got me through a lot, and also, I had to learn to read very early because I was just stuck in a hospital bed. I learned to read and so I loved the whole notion of storytelling. I think my love of drama and stories came from being stuck in a cold, white, sparse hospital room in a children’s hospital.

Marika: You had to add your own colour?

Kate: Yeah. And when I’d go back to Geraldton, I lived in a very multicultural community. I was surrounded by Sicilians, Vietnamese, Africans and an incredibly large beautiful indigenous population. The stories I got from them as well were amazing, and of course they all wanted to tell me a story because I was the little bald kid who wasn’t going to be around for very long. [Laughter].

Marika: Is it always the story telling that is the starting point for you as an artist?

Kate: It’s all about the story telling. What a beautiful job to have. Whether you are the one being the character that is in that story, or if you are the person that is creating that story. It’s the best job in the world and I can’t believe I have it. I know I’ll have it for the rest of my life and it all started, probably, from a place of a lot of sadness, but that sadness ended up being a beautiful advantage to me and to my family.

All Praise The Geraldton Soccer Club!

Kate Mulvany
Kate Mulvany

Marika: How did this love of storytelling journey then from the hospital bed into something that you thought, “Oh, actually I could do this”. I find that jump really interesting because I imagine there are a lot of people who take drama classes or love being in a school play, but there is that jump…that moment that you realise that you might be able to do it all the time.

Kate: Yeah. Do, you know…I’ve never actually ever said this, but I thought about it the other day. My dad was very involved in a local soccer club in Geraldton and we’d spend hours at the games and I loved watching the soccer, but I mean, I’m talking hours every weekend. All day, every day. Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays, we were at the soccer, and so instead we used to, my friends and I, we would run away and create stories on the pitch and in the change rooms. We had these amazing, huge, grounds and they became forests and it became Cinderella’s castle up the top of the soccer pitch and… all of that kind of took over and I did that for many, many years. Then at school, my teachers recognised that I could write very well. They put me up a year because of that. So, my maths is shocking, always has been, but I kind of forged ahead with my writing and my English. I had this year up my sleeve, I guess, by the time I got to drama school, where I was young, unpopular, nerdy and drama was another way to lose myself. I then started the drama classes. I failed for the first three years at high school, in drama, because my teacher said, “You are a terrible, terrible actor”.

Marika: What?!?

Kate: Yeah. She didn’t like me very much, but then that’s okay. She left and I got this amazing teacher called Miss Kerr, and she turned up in Geraldton from Perth and she was so cool and so beautiful and so savvy, and she said, “You are really good. Let’s work together”, and she kind of emboldened me, I guess.

Marika: Then a theatre degree at Curtin University for four years?

Kate: Yeah. Theatre and script writing, and I studied under Elizabeth Jolley and Heather Nimmo, the amazing playwright…

Marika: Did you always know you would be an actor and a writer?

Kate: No. I didn’t think I’d be either.

Marika: There is a quote you said that stood out to me from Australian Story, “I don’t think I ever had it in my head I would be an actor”.

Kate: Never. No. It was just something to do so that I wasn’t going to be a cray-fishermans wife or a farmer’s wife or a miner’s wife, or work at Target, which I had been doing for five years in Geraldton, in the underwear section. I didn’t want to do that anymore and my mum, who was obviously a school teacher, said to me, “You are doing your high school exams and if you fail them, you are doing them again, you are doing them again, you are doing them again, you are doing them again. You are getting us out of this town”, and I had that kind of pressure on me because she wanted to escape as well.

The Writer Acts and The Actor Writes

Kate Mulvany at the Great Gatsby gala
Kate Mulvany at the Great Gatsby gala

Marika: How do you balance the writing with the acting stuff? Does the acting stuff just sort of come and then you fit the writing around it, or is there any structure to it?

Kate: It just comes. I work very well to deadlines. Writing, of course, gives you very set deadlines, as does acting. You know you have to have your lines down by week three preferably. So, I’m very disciplined by that, very, very disciplined at being able to meet my deadlines and make sure that everything is getting the right attention. I have, in the past couple of years, had to start saying no to a lot of things because I used to be a ‘yes’ girl and now I’m just turning into a “I can’t do that but I know someone who can” girl.

Marika: I think it’s part of getting older too and just going, “I can work every hour of the day, but I just don’t want to all the time. I love what I do, but I want to have dinner with my partner sometimes and I want to read books now and then and I want to be a human as well”. That’s the difference between your 20’s and your 30s.

Kate: It is, isn’t it? Exactly. [Laughter]. It really is.

Marika: That’s the only distinction I can find. I find I’m getting much more compartmentalised as I get older… Like I really protect my Sunday morning with my partner, for example.

Kate: Yes.

Marika: And even if I want to get work done, I tell myself, “No, no, no. It’s Sunday morning and that’s for papers and coffee”. I just go and switch off.

Kate: Yeah, and I don’t think anyone wants to be working on a Sunday morning. I think even the harshest boss doesn’t want me to be doing that…and there are no real harsh bosses in this industry. We are all in it to help one another rather than to knock someone on the head with a large mallet. I found myself a couple of years ago really burned out and exhausted and it was around that time that doctors and my partner said, “you need to just take a step back and say no”, and I’m so glad I did because I feel great now.

Marika: I mean, the good thing about what we do too is that you can work extremely intensely and then have a period where you can sleep until lunchtime every day if you want…unlike people who have regular set hours…We can get quiet and that’s actually lovely sometimes.

Kate: Yeah. I know that I can sleep until lunchtime for the next two days and then I have to start work on the next show. [Laughter].

Inspiration and Perspiration

Marika: I think a lot of people reading this will be like, “oh my god, I would love the career that she’s had”, like the way that you have worked with so many amazing companies on so many really amazing projects.

Kate: Yeah, I’m so lucky that they went with me. I really do pinch myself every day. Like recently, I was on stage with Jennifer Hagan in Tartuffe (Bell Shakespeare) and I’m going, ‘I just love this woman’. It’s Jennifer Hagan! The grand dame of Sydney theatre and Australian theatre, who had a really similar start to me in Perth.

Marika: Yeah, right.

Kate: And is just a naughty, cheeky, gorgeous, delightful woman. A true diva in the way a diva should be. Not in the way the word ‘diva’ has become, I mean strong…

Marika: Gravitas.

Kate: Yeah, an amazing, funny woman and every night on the stage I’ve been standing there, you know, being awful to her in character, but in my head I’m going, “I love you so much”. People like her, people like Jackie Weaver, people like Martin Vaughn, Max Gillies, Max Cullum, Judy Farr…these older…Gail Edwards…the older people who have been around a little bit longer that I just learn so much from and continue to use them as inspiration. They are also good to have a cheeky wine with after a show and hear those great stories.

Marika: It would be remiss of me, given that this series is called ‘How We Do What We Do’, not to ask…Do you have any particular way, as an actor, of working? Is every project different? Could you articulate how you do what you do as an actor, in terms of process?

Kate: I’m a very late putter downer of the script. I can only learn on the floor. I love sitting around and talking about things and doing the beats and all that. I love just getting up and exploring on the floor. I guess I don’t like to over think things too much. As a writer and as a dramaturg, I do a lot of research, but as an actor I prefer to…

Marika: Just know what you need to know?

Kate: Yeah, it’s very gut driven, my acting. Whereas my writing is very research driven. It’s very different, I guess, but they do feed into each other. In terms of actual process of getting on the stage, the older I get, the more nervous I get.

Marika: That’s apparently very common.

Kate: Is it really?

Marika: I was talking to a director, actually, who worked with…it was a play with a lot of older women. He reckons it gets worse as we get older, because you generally have bigger breaks in between projects, so you feel more nervous when you come to it. And you have a reputation to protect. There is a story about Ethel Merman, she was in her 80’s and about to go onstage with a younger performer at a big benefit, at Carnegie Hall. She turned to this girl and said, “Do you think they’ll like us?” I just think that sums it up. She is in her 80s and she is Ethel-fucking-Merman, and she is still scared. So, I don’t think that ever goes away. [Laughter]. We’re doomed.

Kate: For me, it’s more about, I hope I don’t fuck this up for everyone else. I hope I don’t fuck this up for you. I hope I don’t fuck this up for you. I hope I don’t fuck this up for you.

Marika: Did you ever fuck up though?

Kate: I’ve fucked up plenty of times. [Laughter].

Marika: Everyone I know (and the more famous, the bigger the fuck up, generally) has a horror story of a colossal mistake. It’s worse in music.

Kate: Oh god. I think in those moments of anxiety, you have to remind yourself, it’s a crazy audience member who sits there thinking it’s going to be seamless. There are fuck ups every night.

Marika: Yeah, we had a show with no set in South Pacific last year, at the Opera House I think…Anyway, they couldn’t get the back stage lift working with the set on it, so we had no set for act two. We just had a blank beach and a palm tree. It was the best night ever, just brilliant. We all just turned into kids putting on a play.

Kate: I love that.

Family Portrait

Marika: What is your proudest career moment so far?

Kate: Oh, I don’t know…My proudest moment…it would be The Seed, I guess. It would be the day that my parents saw The Seed with 16 Vietnam veterans and their partners in the Blue Room Downstairs Theatre. They had driven across Australia to see it. They didn’t know what they were in for.

Marika: How privy was your father to what that show was before he sat down and watched it?

Kate: Not very. I mean, I offered the script to him and mum, but they said, “No, we trust you”. I said, “yeah, but it’s going to be really hard because it’s got an interval and at the end of the interval…you might not like what I’m saying at the interval, but I promise you by the end, it will be fine”.

Marika: It’s a really interesting one.

Kate: Yeah, and I got a standing ovation in the downstairs theatre, which is tough to do because it’s so cramped in there… but the only two that didn’t stand up were mum and dad and I kind of went offstage and my knees actually gave way. I went back onstage for a second encore and I said to fellow actors, “Mum and Dad aren’t standing up”, and they said, “don’t worry about it”, and then we went out into the foyer and dad was walking around like he was Ryan Gosling or something

Kate: I said, “Mum and dad, why didn’t you stand up?” and they said, “We couldn’t. Our legs were like jelly. Finally someone told our story and it was our daughter”. So, that was really lovely…I guess my pride comes from the fact that every week I get emails from around the world.

Marika: So The Seed still happening in other places?
Kate: The funny thing about The Seed is one of the monologues in it is one of the most used monologues in acting school.

Marika: That’s lovely.
Kate: One of Rose’s monologues. So, I get a lot of students contacting me or I get people who are victims and survivors of Agent Orange, which is what the play is about, contacting me because I’m the ambassador of a charity that deals with Agent Orange orphans. The follow on effect has just been absolutely inspiring and totally unexpected and I hope it keeps going because I never expected that when I first put pen to paper

Marika: There is a delicious but very different process making your own work.

Kate: Oh yeah, well, you would know all about that. I mean, you do it all the time.

Marika: The show I wrote last year, that involved a lot of stories from my grandfather, of the war and being a slave, and so on, and I did have a moment of feeling very worried about… I didn’t want him to come and see it necessarily and I was very worried about my aunt coming to see it, because…

Kate: Yeah, because its family.

Marika: Yeah.

Kate: And when you were performing it, did you feel the same? In the shows that they were watching, did you…? There were moments when I felt like I stepped out of myself.

Marika: My mum was the first one to see it. She flew to Adelaide to see it, but she is my mum, so I knew that she would be able to detach from his stuff and see it objectively. She was proud as punch and I was like, that’s all I need. My aunt did eventually see it in Sydney and I was really worried she would be horrified, because she is not a big theatre-goer, she doesn’t see a lot of stuff and I thought she would feel a bit angry that I had taken… something that was ‘ours’, and private at times, and made it something else…telling it to people in a theatre. But…she was great. She loved it. She was just proud.

[pull_left]Families are pretty resilient. I found that the thing that was hard for my parents was that it was me telling my side of the story, and that was confronting for them, but in a totally cathartic way[/pull_left]

Kate: Yeah. Families are pretty resilient. I found that the thing that was hard for my parents was that it was me telling my side of the story, and that was confronting for them, but in a totally cathartic way. It was like, “oh, now we are all on the same page”. And I would never hurt my family. That was seen as a play of absolute pride and if anything, it’s a political statement…I get letters from Vietnam veterans kids saying, “I’ve read The Seed or I saw The Seed and I went and talked to my dad, who is a Vietnam veteran, and I haven’t spoken to my dad for 25 years and I spoke to him after watching the play”. I am so pleased that at least the dialogue starts because someone saw a piece of theatre.

Marika: And it resonated. It’s the magic of what we do.

Kate: It is. It really is.

Proud Aussie

Marika: When your name is mentioned in foyers or at the pub, there is generally great respect, admiration and usually a few, “oh, I love her”s from people who don’t know you. Then, the people who do know you also exude a lot of praise and awe. Are you aware of that reputation that you have?

Kate: No. That’s so weird. [Laughter]. I hope I don’t disappoint them.

Marika: What do you want the legacy of Kate Mulvany to be in our industry?

Kate: Oh my god. [Laughter]. I don’t know. I guess… I want to be known as an Australian artist who has supported Australian theatre. I will tell you something I love about Robyn Nevin, for example. Robyn does Australian plays. She does Australian plays and gets an audience in because of that. People wouldn’t normally go to a classic, but they come to an Australian play because Robyn puts herself in it. I love that, and if I can either be the person who has written that play or be Robyn down the line, that’s pretty important to me. Does that make sense?

Marika: Yeah.

Kate: I am so proud of the industry that I’m in that I just want to be known as someone who was proud of the industry they were in, because this industry has saved me, in a way, from a possible other existence – and I’m just so glad that we found each other.

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