Editor becomes the interview subject! Erin James on her time in the Talent Development Project

We have read the words of Erin James in countless articles as editor-in-chief of this fabulous site, AussieTheatre. We’ve seen Erin onstage in The King and I, South Pacific, Love Never Dies, Cats, and even on our movie screens in The Little Death. So it’s about time our editor becomes the interview subject because we all know she has bounteous knowledge to share.

Erin James. Image by Blueprint Studios
Editor, Erin James. Image by Blueprint Studios

Mrs Editor is the subject this time to talk about the Talent Development Project (TDP). TDP – a mentoring performer program for high school students – has a knack for hand-picking talented high school kids who go on to big things. In the musical theatre world we have the likes of Trevor Ashley, Lucy Maunder, Amanda Harrison, Kirby Burgess and Erin – who was part of TDP in her final year of High School.

This school holidays, TDP are opening their doors to anyone aged 14-24 to attend a week-long Open Talent Workshop from 12-16 January at The Aspire Hotel, Ultimo. This means those who have never been part of TDP’s extensive performer program can have a taste of the tutoring Erin and co. enjoyed. Applications close 17th December so get in quick! Registration links below. But first, here’s the low-down of Erin’s experience in TDP and some clever life lessons she learned as part of the program.

Who was Erin pre-TDP? What performance training had you done prior?

I began with tap when I was five. Newcastle – my hometown – is famous for its tappers (Tap Dogs, Bootmen, etc) and I was lucky enough to learn from some of the greats. I sang, danced, was involved in the youth theatre YPT (Young People’s Theatre), studied piano, musicianship and classical voice all before my TDP days. I was involved in some youth productions and a few professional shows in the Hunter Area, including Opera Hunter’s West Side Story back in 2001. This production co-incided with my early TDP days and also my HSC. Crazy times!

How long were you part of the program?

I was in the program for one year — I commenced mid way through my year 12 studies and graduated in 2002.

Can you give us a snapshot of the TDP program? What kind of things did you focus on?

That’s such a hard question, as there are so many different aspects of the program that are so valuable for the students involved.

Basically, for two days every month, my cohort would come to Sydney from all across the state and workshop, create, learn, present, perform, perfect. In my class was Travis Collins (country music star), Samantha McClymont (country music star) Julia Stone (of Angus and Julia Stone) and many other wonderful performers across various genres so we all came to the program with different musical interests and passions.

What was wonderful was that we were all exposed to each other’s work each month and encouraged to try new ideas, new interpretations and had the opportunity to work together with our peers in a way that simply never happened in our own regions of the state.

We were given widespread advice across so many areas of the arts and performance industries every month and had unprecedented access to professional advice. It really was, and still is, an amazing program and it has helped so many artists from public schools in Australia get a kick-start in the industry.

Erin James in The Little Death.
Erin James as Monica in Josh Lawson’s feature film The Little Death.

What was a highlight of the program?

For me, there were several. One was being involved with Schools Spectacular as a featured artist. Another was the opportunity to showcase at the end of the program in front of agents and members of the industry. But a major highlight was the post-graduation opportunities afforded to TDP alumni, especially the ASCAP/TDP Bound For Broadway scholarship I was lucky enough to be awarded in 2007. Travelling to New York to work with composers, teachers and musical directors on Broadway was one of the most spectacular experiences I have ever had. I shared my month in New York with fellow graduates Kirby Burgess and Lucy Maunder (oh, and do we have some tales to tell!) and we performed a cabaret at Don’t Tell Mama at the end of our stay. Talk about a highlight!

Interestingly, this trip began my association with AussieTheatre. Founding editor Troy Dodds asked me to write a blog about my time in the US. I can’t believe that was over 7 years ago!

What were the three most important lessons you learned in TDP?

– Always prepare to the best of your ability – you never know who might be watching.

– Never underestimate the value of networking

– Although they may feel like your competition, your peers and colleagues are often your greatest supporters and champions.

Who were some of your most influential TDP mentors?

Mary Lopez, Francine Bell, Ken Laing, Peter Cousens, Avigail Herman… the list could go on and on, really.

Erin James as Ensign Cora MacRae in South Pacific. Image by Kurt Sneddon
Erin James as Ensign Cora MacRae in South Pacific. Image by Kurt Sneddon

Who were your peers? Familiar industry faces?

In my year, there was Julia Stone, Travis Collins, Samantha McClymont. The years above me included Belinda Wollaston, Shaun Rennie, Trevor Ashley, Amanda Harrison, Human Nature, David Harris, Darren Coggin. The years below me included Kirby Burgess who is currently starring in Dirty Dancing, Lucy Maunder who plays Rizzo in Grease, singer/songwriter and incredible actor TJ Power and many, many more.

Since TDP what has been a career highlight?

I have been very fortunate to have worked in many aspects of the arts since I graduated from TDP and subsequently, WAAPA. Musical theatre has been a passion of mine for a long time, and I was beside myself when I was able to work with Lisa McCune and Kate Ceberano on South Pacific as Dance Captain and also understudy for Nellie Forbush. However, my biggest highlight has been the film The Little Death, which was released this year. I worked opposite fellow TDP Graduate TJ Power and we were both lucky enough to be nominated for an AACTA award for the film in the supporting actor and actress categories.

What’s the one thing current Erin wishes she could tell past, pre-TDP Erin that would help her in this industry?

Listen to your mother – she knows more than you think. And always know your worth.

The Open Talent Workshop gives kids a one-week taster of the larger TDP program. What kind of people would benefit most from the workshop?

Anyone who is interested in the arts and entertainment industry. Anyone who is inquisitive. Anyone with a passion for their craft. It’s such an incredible learning experience and it’s invaluable for our future artists.

That good ol’ final question – what advice would you give those about to undertake the workshop in order to get the most out of it?

I was given some great advice at TDP early on: the industry is subjective, and so are the consultants who work with the students in the program. We would often find that on one day, in the same session, consultants wouldn’t always agree with each other when giving feedback to students. My advice would be to trust your instincts and to take all of the advice given to you with an open mind. It’s sometimes more useful to receive differing feedback because it allows you the perspective to see things from many angles. You can’t please everyone, and it’s important to remember that, but you can be true to yourself. Strive to be better every day, and you will benefit greatly from the program.

To follow in the footsteps of Erin and her colleagues, enrol in TDP’s Open Talent Workshop at talentdevelopmentproject.org.au

Maryann Wright

Maryann Wright is a performer and writer. She has a Diploma of Musical Theatre from Brent Street and a Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications) from The University of Sydney. Recent performance credits include Heart of a Dog (Australian premiere), Carrie (Squabbalogic) and Urinetown (Brent Street). She is currently shooting new Australian pilot TV show Subject To Change playing Karly.

Maryann Wright

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