Meet Annie Aitken: Rob Guest Endowment Finalist 2018

The Rob Guest Endowment commemorates the life and achievements of one of Australia’s most respected musical theatre performers, Rob Guest, who passed away suddenly in 2008.

Now in it’s 10th year, the six finalists compete for a prize of $20,000 intended to help them gain the performance experience, media training, guidance and a public image to become a leading artist in the Australian musical theatre industry.

Previous winners have included Georgina Hopson, Daniel Assetta, Joshua Robson, Samantha Leigh Dodemaide, Glenn Hill, Blake Bowden, Francine Cain and Danielle Matthews.

Over the next two weeks, in the lead up to the November 19th final, we will be getting to know each of the six finalists a little better. Now it is time to meet out sixth and last finalist: Annie Aitken.

Annie is a 2014 graduate of the VCA Music Theatre course. This past year she’s starred as Cunegonde in Candide alongside Alexander Lewis and Caroline O’Connor (Sydney Philharmonia Choirs) at the Sydney Opera House, was in the original cast of the World Premiere of  Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical (STC/Global Creatures) and was in the Australian premier of A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder (Miss Evangeline Barley), and Oklahoma!, both for The Production Company.

She made her debut as a leading lady in 2017, originating the role of young Nellie Melba in Melba at the Hayes Theatre Co., starring opposite Australia’s legendary soprano Emma Matthews. Annie was honoured to be nominated for Best Female Actor in a Lead Role in a Musical at the Sydney Theatre Awards 2017 for her performance in this role.

Other professional credits include Bunny in the Helpmann Award winning Sweet Charity Tour (Hayes Theatre Co./Tinderbox/Neil Gooding/Luckiest Productions), Reno’s Angel: Chastity in Anything Goes (Opera Australia/GFO) and understudying the lead roles of Maria and Liesl Von Trapp in the London Palladium production of  The Sound of Music (GFO/RUG/David Ian Productions).

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Perth, as one of four kids in a tight-knit family. I have three wonderful brothers and although we are very different, we are super close. I have a little old dog named Epony-Rae (we were religious Kath & Kim viewers when we named her), she’s a Bichon frise X toy poodle. I’m a passionate person, rather obsessive, I’m always laughing, although some might call it cackling, often at things other people don’t find funny but will have me in stitches. I love my family, my friends, I love adventure, thrill-seeking, traveling, and Rupaul’s Drag Race. I work as a nanny in my spare time. I’m competitive so I love escape rooms, board games, sudoku and Kakuro puzzles. Generally I crave a challenge. I’m also a self-confessed music theatre nerd, I listen to MT scores in my own time. I’m naturally blonde, not a red-head, but inspired by famous red-head siren Christina Hendricks’ change from natural blonde, I followed suit seven years ago and haven’t gone back.

When did you know you wanted to be a performer?

It feels cliche, but I have always known. My family can attest to this, having made them sit through many one woman shows at home as a youngster, and year after year of dancing and singing concerts and competitions. I don’t come from a family who worked in the Arts, my Dad’s an obstetrician and played footy for Carlton in his youth, Mum was a nurse, my older brother works for DFAT, so it definitely came out of left field. To be honest, I’m quite stubborn, so once I decided this was what I wanted to do, I threw myself in head first and made it my everything. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a passion for expressing myself through music, singing, dancing, acting and performing. I was known for it at primary school and high school. I was an extrovert and a drama queen from a young age and was never one to shy away from the spotlight, so it was probably inevitable.

What is your training background?

I left home at 17 to move over to Melbourne and do my three year bachelor of Fine Arts in music theatre at VCA under the tutelage of Margot Fenley, Martin Croft, Natalya Bobenko, Stephen Grey and Danielle Carter to name just a few of the incredible teachers there. Prior to that, I’d been in dance classes since I was 3 years old and have been training in classical voice for the past 12 years. I currently have singing lessons with Peter Rutherford in Estill and classical technique, but have also learnt from Heather Brooks, Rosie Harris, Chris Nolan, and Linda Barcan. Last year I spent a month in New York undertaking training in the Michael Chekhov technique at the Michael Chekhov School of Acting and did the Singing Athlete workshop with Andrew Byrne. I also saw 23 shows, which I consider one of the most valuable ways to learn about my craft. I’m very passionate about solid technique as a strong basis for performing and also believe that the best performers never stop learning and finessing their skills. My music theatre role models whom I’ve been lucky enough to work with are testament to this, being of such a high skill level and with so much experience, and yet still constantly endeavour to improve and learn. That is how I’ll always aim to be.

What does Rob Guest’s legacy mean to you?

Although I never had the pleasure of knowing or working with Rob, I have been lucky enough to work with many of his dear friends and colleagues who keep his memory alive through stories of their experiences with him. From all accounts Rob was the most kind, generous and warm human being. He treated everyone as equals, had great respect for every single member of a company and always encouraged, fostered and supported the next generation of performers. He lead by example of how we should treat one another within the industry and what it means to be a good company member. I’ve worked with many past RGE recipients and finalists and can say that not only are they stupendously talented, but that I’ve witnessed these qualities of kindness and generosity that Rob possessed lives on in each of them. I truly am proud to be a part of such an important legacy.

This can be a tough industry. What keeps you going?

Good question. I’m not sure I’ve completely discovered the answer to this one, it’s still a work in progress. I think the key ingredients for me are balance, perspective and support. Finding other purposes in life outside of my work is important and believing in my own self worth outside of any achievements or success within the industry. I’m lucky to have an incredibly supportive family and community of friends, both within and outside of the industry (great for keeping perspective) and a great agent who is on the same page as me and always on my side and someone I can honestly and openly talk to. I choose to surround myself with good human beings who keep it real, make me laugh, and who believe whole-heartedly in me, which has proven especially important in those time when I am question my belief in myself. I also have mentors who have been in this industry a lot longer than I have like Verity Hunt-Ballard, Christie Whelan Browne, Marina Prior, Caroline O’Connor, Johanna Allen to name a few, so I soak up their wisdom and advice as often as possible. I learnt through some tough experiences that I always need to put my mental health first. It’s easy to feel powerless as an actor in this industry, but I’ve made a conscious decision to believe I always have a choice. Being more proactive with my career and deciding it’s ok to say no, which is something that’s never come naturally to me. If I don’t think a particular job or contract is right for me, or it might impact my mental health for whatever reason, I am comfortable with saying no. Some of my favourite roles I’ve played and the best shows I’ve been involved with, which consequently were my happiest and most rewarding experiences, came from saying no to what seemed like the easier and more obvious path at the time. Stepping into the unknown by not letting that fear of being temporarily unemployed control my life and trying to let go of caring about what others think is pivotal. All much easier said than done of course.

What is the best advice you have been given?

That’s a tough one, because I have received so much invaluable advice from so many wonderful people. Something that has resonated with me recently was when I was working on Candide for Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. We had only 10 days to rehearse (ludicrous!) before we performed the show at the Sydney Opera House with a 70 piece orchestra and a 350 member choir. Caroline O’Connor told me about a little something she does during the rehearsal process (and I hope she doesn’t mind my sharing this) that is especially helpful when she has short rehearsal periods. She writes on the back of her hand what day of the rehearsal process it is, as a reminder to herself. If it’s only “day 2”, there’s no need to scold yourself for dropping a line, stuffing up a harmony, can’t land the gag or feel like you haven’t quite found the character yet. It’s reassuring to know that someone of her caliber, with her wealth of experience, who is so outrageously talented and hard working, still needs that reminder that it is a process. Taking the pressure off myself and shaking off my intense perfectionism has been a constant battle for me, so this method is something I now use for myself that will always remind me of Caroline, and acts as a testament to how much we achieved in such a short period of time.

You recently appeared in Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical, what was your favourite thing about working on a new Australian work?

I’m extremely passionate about new Australian work and have been since my experience working on James Millar and Peter Rutherford’s ‘A Little Touch of Chaos’ at VCA. I find that nothing compares to being involved with bringing a new piece of theatre to life. I was also fortunate enough to originate the role of Nellie Melba in Nick Christo and Johannes Leubber’s Melba at the Hayes Theatre. Unlike working on established shows, new musicals are evolving in the rehearsal room, so as an actor you actually get the chance to put your own stamp on the work and make bold choices. It’s a thrilling feeling performing new work to an audience because they have no preconceived expectations of what they’re about to witness. You’re not being compared to the original Broadway lead or the voice on the cast recording. For Muriel’s, we got to do our own Original Cast Recording, which was so exciting since it’s rarely done here in Australia. Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttal’s score had such an exciting modern Australian sound, I’ll never forget the feeling and reactions we all shared in our Sitzprobe hearing that band play the amazing score for the first time. And to have Kate (who I’ve idolized for many years) write specific harmonies for you feels pretty damn special. I also relish getting to speak and sing in an Aussie accent. Majority of shows that come here are exports from the US or the UK, so it’s refreshing to tell the stories of our own Australian identity where the settings, scenarios and characters are recognizable and relatable. I believe it’s important for audiences to see Australian stories represented on stage. Being part of the creative process of building something from the ground up is the most rewarding and challenging experience and I always seek out these opportunities.

What has been your most rewarding onstage experience?

I have had many rewarding onstage experiences but two stand out to me the most. Playing Nellie in Melba next to the one and only Emma Matthew’s in the beautiful intimacy of the Hayes Theatre was incredibly special. Getting to tell this true story of an early Australian feminist icon who faced great obstacles because of her gender at the time, and singing this beautiful new score interspersed with Opera arias was once in a lifetime. I remember feeling more so than ever that I was exactly where I was meant to be. Despite performing through very severe bronchitis and being on constant vocal rest outside of the show.

But nothing can compare to performing the famous aria, ‘Glitter and be Gay’ at the Sydney Opera House, supported by a 70 piece orchestra, as Cunegonde in Candide. It was the most nerve-wracking

and thrilling moment in my career so far. It felt like a culmination of many dreams and years of hard work. Without fail, every time I finished the six minute aria, I had given my heart and soul (and my larynx). I was sweating profusely from the adrenaline alone (the running around and jumping on boxes whilst singing a few high E flats may also have contributed).

What was your most memorable night in the theatre – as an audience member or as a performer?

I’ve had so many memorable nights at the theatre, both as a performer and an audience member. It’s my greatest love. One that stands out was during my travels to New York last year. I saw 23 shows in the month I spent there. I was determined to see Hamilton, having religiously listened to the cast recording since it came out. I knew getting tickets without taking out a giant loan was near impossible, but my friend Jordan and I gave the cancellation line a crack. We left our place in Brooklyn at 4am to subway into Manhattan, arriving outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th St just after 5am. Thankfully we were first in line. We waited until 1pm when we lucked out with two house seat cancellations. The girl behind us in the line only arrived half an hour after us but had to wait until 6:30pm to get her cancellation ticket, so we were extremely lucky in hindsight. actually came around and filmed us. They were doing a piece on rush/cancellation lines on Broadway. It’s a big thing over there and I highly recommend doing it for the experience alone. A great way to meet other die-hard theatre fans and an awesome time to see Manhattan when it’s completely desolate besides a few street sweepers and the blinding lights of Times Square. It’s like a modern day ghost town. And as the day goes on there’s fascinating people watching opportunity. The show itself was mind blowing! It’s hard to describe the genius that is Hamilton. One has to see it to truly understand the magic. I’ve never seen anything like it. One of those rare instances where it not only lives up to the hype, but exceeds it in ways I couldn’t imagine were possible. I was in shock for hours after the show finished. It changes the game and possibilities for the music theatre genre. I was so overwhelmed by how insanely amazing every element was that I had to see it again to take it all in. So back to the cancellation line I went. It was well worth all 15 hours of waiting.

Matt Edwards

Matt is a past owner of AussieTheatre, working as digital director from 2011 to 2019. He is also a performer, most recently appeared in the Australian tour of Mamma Mia! and previously in the Australian/NZ tour of CATS and Enda Markey's acclaimed production of Blood Brothers. As well as performing Matt keeps himself busy in the digital side of the arts working with web design agency Emptyhead Digital

Matt Edwards

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