An insight into the world of theatre with Danielle Louise Maas
Danielle is a performance-maker and educator working across theatre, opera and musical theatre, with a passion for devising and collaborative creation.
As a professional practitioner, she has worked in various capacities for Sydney Theatre Company, City of Sydney, Sydney Festival, the Biennale of Sydney, Sydney Fringe Festival, Sydney Architecture Festival, Carriageworks, Hayes Theatre Company, the Old Fitz, Old 505 Theatre, PACT, New Theatre, TAP Gallery, Tamarama Rock Surfers, Adelaide Fringe Festival, Camden People’s Theatre and Hampstead Garden Opera.
It was a pleasure to chat with Danielle about theatre both in Australia and internationally, and how up-and-coming professionals can make it by doing what they love.
What initially drew you to theatre?
I have been an actor since I was 12. I loved acting in school and outside of school; there wasn’t really anything else I could see myself doing for the rest of my life. Although if I didn’t end up working in theatre, I probably would have been a lawyer - there is a lot of synergy between those two things. So much of law is about storytelling and humanity - being able to see a narrative within a bigger picture and form a perspective within that narrative, which isn’t much different to theatre.
I did a Diploma of Acting at Sydney Theatre School, and then a Bachelor of Performance here at AIM. I really enjoyed the interdisciplinary aspect of it. I liked that I was learning how to be a theatre maker because I was always someone who never wanted to do just one thing - and I still don’t.
I am drawn to theatre because I think theatre has an important role to play within our society. Theatre gives us an opportunity to come together in a live sense, which I think is increasingly important. There is space for surprise, catharsis, joy and terror. I think it is telling that theatre initially emerged from pagan rituals and religious ceremonies.
Theatre obviously precedes television and radio, but I think there is something very primal and human about theatre. The most powerful thing about theatre is the audience: they are right there in front of the performers, and they can, at any moment, disrupt what is happening on stage. I’ve made work where as a performer and theatre maker I directly interact with the audience - I’ve been on dates with audience members on stage, borrowed their clothes, stolen their food, been heckled by my mum. Audiences have much more power than they realise, because even if they sit there quietly, anything could happen.
The thrill of making live performance never goes away: I don’t really know who I would be without theatre.
How has your career panned out thus far?
I’ve trained in multiple institutions and in multiple contexts. I trained in Sydney and then I did my postgraduate degree at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama in England. London is obviously at the cutting edge of theatre and is the gateway to Europe - there is a great exchange and flow of information and creative practice.
My work has always been defined by moving across different forms, ideas and roles. I am not someone who has a practice in doing just one thing. A big part of what I do has been performing and writing my own work in collaboration with other people. In my earlier career it was about gender, sexuality and the politics of feminism. As I have gotten older, I find myself increasingly attached to other people’s projects. Normally I will work as a dramaturg or an associate director.
I’ve worked a lot with different directors. I like to, when I am not making my own work or actively directing something, attach myself as an assistant or associate to projects so I am always working. It is totally different to making your own work. The ability to make something that is yours and then support someone else's vision is a healthy flow for me. Teaching at AIM is good for exercising those muscles.
This year I have worked on a number of musicals. I was the associate director on American Psycho at the Hayes and then Razorhurst which was a new Australian musical. I was also the associate director on a wonderful play called Mercury Fur at Kings Cross Theatre.
I am also currently observing Titus Andronicus at Bell Shakespeare. 2019 has been a year of observing and supporting other people’s work which is a good time to distill and reflect because as I am doing that, I am preparing to direct a couple of new works in 2020.
What are you excited for in the future of theatre?
Travelling overseas to study certainly opened my mind up to a whole other world of how theatre is made. Theatre in Australia can be quite safe, and I think there is opportunity to diversify our approaches to form and process.
Personally, I am really interested in the premise of theatre that is more accessible for audiences and for its makers. There is an idea that theatre can now exist on your smartphone and that you can engage with it whenever you want. There is theatre that might go for 24 hours, where audiences can turn up, leave and then come back. There is a whole world of theatre that I am waiting to hit our shores in Australia.
What does a typical day look like for you at the Australian Institute of Music?
The thing I really like about my job is that no two days are the same, which sounds strange in an environment where you have routinely timetabled classes, but there are many things that happen each day that surprise me.
The main thrust of what I do is teaching acting and stagecraft in dramatic arts and musical theatre. That involves planning classes where you teach people how to integrate their voices, bodies and minds. A big part of what I do is about storytelling and authenticity, really trying to find the specificity within someone's instrument. It is quite a holistic process, which is why no two days are the same.
Outside of that, I also teach written communication and creativity. A lot of that will involve research, understanding all the ins and outs of language, how the creative mind works and how to communicate.
A big part of what I do in the classroom is facilitating the relationship between who you are as an artist, the work and the process - bridging the gap between those three things. There is a lot of reading plays, and marking, and meeting with students if and when they need it - because so much of what I teach is more life skills than anything else. So much of art and creativity is simply a reflection of life.
What do you love about being a teacher?
I love watching the ‘light-bulb’ moment, when I can see students finally grasp a concept and they can see the value in it. I also love the moment when a student is perplexed, and an idea has totally changed how they were feeling about something.
I like the symbiosis between professional practice and being a teaching artist. I can walk into a classroom and teach something, and then go out into the real world and see that all the things I’ve been teaching are indeed best practice in my industry. I like that degree of professional accountability that comes with my job as a teaching artist.
What particular skills do aspiring industry professionals need to develop?
Empathy and perspective. Diligence as well. Understand the tools of your trade.
What is your top tip for a young person starting out in the industry?
As someone who works across theatre, opera and musical theatre, the most important thing that anyone who wants to get into that art form can do is to feed your soul.
If your creative diet isn’t fulfilling, then you are not going to have the energy or the motivation to do it for the lifetime. Read all the plays, scores and anything you can get your hands on. Go to the theatre, and it doesn’t matter what you see. Go to art galleries, go watch concerts and dance.
Understanding history, culture and what is happening in the world is important. Understand what stories we have been telling about ourselves throughout history - everything that is happening in the world today is built on the back on what has come before it.
Do you have a favourite play?
It tends to be whatever I’m currently working on – so at present, it would be Titus Andronicus. It is a wonderfully theatrical and gory play. The one I’d next like to work on is Dalia Taha’s Fireworks – I think it’s the most criminally underrated play of this century.