peta downes on what it takes to stand out in the dramatic arts
Peta Downes is one of AIM’s Program Leaders and is a theatre director, producer and tertiary arts educator of over twenty-five years’ experience. We recently sat down with her to discuss all things Dramatic Arts, what skills up and coming actors need to succeed, plus what she thinks about the current industry landscape.
What is it like being a female director in theatre?
There is a big conversation going on about the underrepresentation of female directors in theatre. Because I have been working at AIM for the last six years, I have been watching that conversation with interest but I am also part of it because I see my female director colleagues struggling to get gigs. I see these women working really hard to be visible through organisations like Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS).
I am also a member of Theatre Network NSW (TNN) board, which has given me a really good understanding of what the small to medium and independent sector is interested in talking about. I have attended theatre forums where I have heard about this and other issues first hand. What I am hearing at the moment is how we are just not getting enough money, but also the lack of skill to create new opportunities. The creative entrepreneurship of AIM’s Bachelor of Performance course is important because the government is moving away from giving artists money to make art and we have to prove that we can be fiscally responsible. We are pragmatic around managing these expectations with our students because they we know they won’t get a handout of cash when they graduate. The students who come to do this course already seem to know that. They know that if they have a much broader education than just learning to be an actor, they can continue to be employed.
A still from Blue Stockings, Dir. by Peta Downes
What do you love about working in education?
When I was a student I was really inspired by my teachers in the sense that I got real world skills from them. I was able to make my way into the world because of the wisdom they shared with me. For me, education is an exchange of ideas and saying ‘this is what I’ve learned, this is what I know’ and the questions I ask you will enhance what you already know and explore things you don’t know.
The biggest thing I take away from education is staying in the thought processes about what it means to be a director myself, because by teaching directing or acting, it reminds me about what I know and keeps me on a path of continuous improvement.
The thing that makes me get up in the morning and come into work at AIM is the fact that the students are really passionate and that makes me excited about the future of theatre here in Australia.
What does your role as director of The Boys entail and what does the show mean to you?
I think I am one of a handful of female directors to have ever directed this play. It was written in 1991 by Australian playwright Gordon Graham in reaction to the case of nurse Anita Cobby, who was abducted, raped and murdered by a group of men in 1989.
The playwright set this play not necessarily in any time or place. It is still relevant today because unfortunately it is the type of play that outlines circumstances which could be happening now and are happening now.
Like most people, I am disturbed by the level of violence towards women in society and the hunting of women that is happening. I was looking for a play for a small group of people because my colleague Dr David Fenton is directing Picnic at Hanging Rock with the rest of our second year group, so I needed a companion play that looked at social aspect of women. Because Picnic at Hanging Rock is about the way society constructs females and tells them not to speak, The Boys fit beautifully with that idea.
The group of actors that I have are in the exact right age range for the characters, except of course, the actor that is playing the mother is younger but she is talented enough to be able to play an older character! It is a challenging play in that the acting is also about taking into consideration the emotional life of the person playing the character too. Before we went ahead with doing it, I put it to the group of students, and we read the play together. I was open to finding something else but the group were amazing and agreed with me that it had to be done.
A still from Brave New World, Dir. by Peta Downes
In the play, you don’t see any of the violence, you just hear about it. You also hear and see people condoning violent language and violent behaviour, but also making excuses for men's behaviour and the lies we tell ourselves. It explores toxic masculinity and what happens when men gather - this sort of pack mentality that happens when behaviour is condoned and not condemned. It is a conversation that we need to keep having.
Effectively, I am the director of The Boys and the Executive Producer of both productions, which means I do all of the marketing and manage the production process. The way I produce the plays here at AIM is very similar to how they would be produced in an independent way, so students get first-hand experience in this. We also teach the processes that they would experience as if it were being produced by a subsidised theatre company.
What particular skills do aspiring industry professionals in your field need to develop?
Passion. They also need to read a lot and be aware of the world. You can’t make art that is a reflection of the world without understanding how the world works. I encourage students to read the news, see movies, watch TV and read books. Having that knowledge about the world is important but also knowing what has occurred in the past - learning about the different epochs of theatre or art that have happened in the world. We teach this obviously but we also encourage students to be curious.
We look for creative passion and wanting to do more than just be an actor. We look for people with creative vision and that may sound really daunting but what that really means is ‘can you tell me a story?’.
What is your top tip for a young person starting out in the industry?
Be brave. Believe in your ideas. Know what you’re talking about and I think that actually comes from getting an education. Instinct can only take you some of the way. A lot of students that come to us and audition know that they want to be part of the theatre industry but are not sure where they are going to land. I always think of this course as being like the sorting hat in Harry Potter. So many students start the course wanting to be an actor but after a few terms realise that they are a really talented director or designer.
A still from Anna Karenina, Dir. by Peta Downes
Passion, creativity and knowledge are all very important but at the end of the day you need to feel confident going into the industry, knowing what that is. If you don’t know how the industry works, then it is going to chew you up and swallow you or spit you out. If you have a really good understanding about where you will enter, you will survive. Which is why our Placement program is so important, because students learn about how the industry works and how to market themselves. You have to be a self-starter to survive.
If you could have dinner with any actor (alive or dead) who would it be and why?
I have always admired Cate Blanchett. I admire that she is not just an actor, she is a very astute business woman. She is creatively interesting and understands what it means to transform as an actor. She thinks about the entire physical change that needs to be made in order to convince people that she is someone else. She makes very intelligent, interesting choices.
Peta Downes is currently a PhD candidate with the Performance Studies department of the University of Sydney, where she is researching the impact of creative entrepreneurship on independent theatre practice in Australia. Additionally, she holds a Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Directing (QUT), a Bachelor of Arts Honours -1A in Directing and Educational Drama (QUT) and a Graduate Diploma in Arts Management (UTS). Prior to her appointment as Program Leader with AIM, Peta was the Course Manager - National Short Courses for NIDA's Open Program (2010-11) and Executive Coordinator - Creative Industries for University of Western Sydney (2011-2013). As an actor, she trained extensively in the Suzuki and Viewpoints Methods and performed with Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre Company in Brisbane, before being invited to train with director Anne Bogart and the SITI Company in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1999. She has directed for La Boite Theatre Company, the Queensland Theatre Company and the Bell Shakespeare Company and has developed and produced new theatre works with the Brisbane Powerhouse, Metro Arts (Brisbane), Darlinghurst Theatre and the Short and Sweet Festival. Additionally, she has trained acting and directing students and directed multiple productions for the Queensland University of Technology, University of New South Wales, National Institute of Dramatic Art, Central Queensland University (Rockhampton) and Charles Sturt University (Wagga Wagga). For AIM, Peta has directed productions of Her Naked Skin by Rebecca Lenkiewicz (2014), 13 by Mike Bartlett (2015), Twelfth Night (2016), Romeo and Juliet (2017) and The Taming of the Shrew (2018) by William Shakespeare, Anna Karenina by Helen Edmundson (2016), Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale (2017) and How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found by Fin Kennedy (2018).