By Anna Robb
When I came up with the idea for TheatreArtLife, I knew at some point, I would need to expose myself, promote myself and become a face of the brand. After all, having joined forces with Ashley Sutherland-Winch, every step of the core mission behind TheatreArtLife would be a reflection of our beliefs, ideas, and passions.
In asking our contributors to expose themselves, openly and honestly, I could hardly hide in the wings keeping myself out of the stage lights. Having spent an entire career doing just that, being the pragmatic and practical stage manager that I am, this exposure above all was what I feared about the project the most. I did not worry about failure or success, money or time invested, only the personal exposure. Matters of the heart. Of my heart.
At the same time, I have never been afraid to jump off a cliff not knowing where I was going to land. In 2016, when I had reached a ceiling in my personal evolution, I knew that the next step was something that challenged this fear. TheatreArtLife was certainly going to be that cliff.
So, let me lay it out for you all now, not in bits and pieces over the next few years but straight up. One thing I have learned in connecting with people is that they will never open up to you unless you expose yourself first. By allowing yourself to be vulnerable, you then create the space for others to feel safe doing the same. Anyone who follows the work of Brené Brown understands this.
So here it is:
I was a fan of Mariah Carey in my teens. My sister, Beth, who used to share a room with me growing up, knows that when I like a song, I play it over and over and over and over until it is dead. I don’t need variety in my music. Still, to this day I will go jogging with my iPod and listen to the same song possibly 4 times in one run and for about 2 months solid till I feel the need for a change. As a result, my entire life can be defined by a soundtrack of significant songs I have connected with.
Opening Track: Looking In by Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey’s Daydream album was renowned for Fantasy, One Sweet Day and Always Be My Baby. At age 16 my “play it till it’s dead” song from Daydream was not one of the popular singles, but the last song on the album called Looking In. I’m telling you this because the lyrics from this song that have played in my head for my entire career are:
“It seems as though I’ve always been.
Somebody outside looking in.”
I did not come from a performing arts family. I grew up in rural Victoria, Australia surrounded by rolling hills and farmland and Australian Rules Football. I read voraciously and lived and dreamed through the tales of Enid Blyton and C.S.Lewis and basically any book I could get my hands on in the Mansfield Library.
The very first show I can remember seeing was the local production of Fiddler on the Roof. I must have said to my Dad that I wanted to be a part of “that” because he took me to the very next community meeting of the Mansfield Musical and Dramatic Society (MMuDS) and I ended up onstage as a highland dancer in Brigadoon some months later.
Over the next few years, I would be involved in all the local MMuDs productions and my high school productions, dabbling in acting and singing. I was a shy kid, with glasses and braces and I have no idea what possessed me to be involved. I don’t particularly remember enjoying performing onstage. Perhaps it was more the fact that I was pushing myself outside the comfort zone that became the enticing factor. Tracing my decisions and steps over the last 20 years prove the comfort zone is not something I like to sit in.
When I had finished high school and it was time to pick a university course I enrolled in a course called Bachelor of Arts – Design for Theatre and Television and still I did not know that there was this job called stage manager. Soon enough, I was surrounded by theatre geeks. You know the kind, the ones who had done lighting in high school and participated in Rock Eisteddfods. (The Rock Eisteddfod Challenge is a series of dance and drama events staged worldwide by school pupils as part of the Global Rock Challenge). I liked the theatre geeks, I just didn’t understand them, so, I hung out with the students who studied agriculture and pathology and I drank beer and played netball. I was a country girl after all.
Next Track: Another Chance by Roger Sanchez
When my university studies were complete, I set out cautiously to join the entertainment industry. I’m not really sure if I went out to prove to the industry or myself that I could be a stage manager. Either way, I was out to prove something. Of course, no one was going to take a stage manager straight out of university, at least not in Australia, so for the first 2 years I rigged lights, was a mechanist (carpenter) for various mid-range theatres, soldered microphone cables over maintenance periods and did a couple of low paying stage management gigs.
During this time, I worked for Sidetrack Theatre Company in Marrackville and worked closely with a man named Ian Bowie. Together we would deliver the entire production elements of Sidetrack’s play season. He would design the lighting, and I would play the sound. I would do the stage management things and he would build the sets. Out the back of the tin shed theatre, he would show me how to build the perfect scenic flat as he would tell me stories of life on the road. He used to tell me that women could do anything. When he said that, I remember feeling for a moment, that perhaps I could belong, doing what I was doing.
When I had moved on from Sidetrack, I had taken another stage management gig where post season, I was told by the production manager of the show that I would “never be a good stage manager because I wasn’t enough of a bitch.”
“Sorry, I didn’t know that was the prerequisite for becoming a stage manager, let me crawl back into the hole of insecurity I had just emerged from,” I thought to myself. Like most things, you can take comments like that and let them consume you or you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going. So, I did. After all, I needed to pay rent. No time to wallow in self-pity.
After some time passed, getting work became easier. I didn’t have much downtime, a social life, or a large friend network. I was a slave to the freelance world, taking work from wherever and whenever it came.
Next Track: Ordinary People by John Legend
When I moved to Las Vegas and started working for Cirque du Soleil, this became the first time in my working life, that I had “weekends”. Sure, they weren’t the standard Saturdays and Sundays but they were two days off in a row where I wasn’t required to work. This was such a novelty for me because when I was in Australia, any days off were hustling for more work or prepping for the next job. I finally had to ask myself a question, “what does Anna do when Anna doesn’t work?” It turns out that camping, hiking and rock climbing are my favourite pastimes when not working. While I enjoyed this time, I still felt that it was temporary. I was at a Thanksgiving BBQ one day with a bunch of friends and I looked at the people around me and I thought, “wow all these people are so nice, why do I feel like I don’t belong? I don’t belong here.” I resigned shortly after.
When I received the opportunity to create the Franco Dragone show, The House of Dancing Water, I put my heart and soul into the project. My commitment to this project saw me move to Belgium, then to Macau, working countless hours maintaining the operation of this beast of a show. Even through these years I believed my work was not who I was and who I was, was not in my work.
I distinctly remember the day I realized that my perceived choice of “work” was actually my choice of “life”.
Next Track: We Found Love by Calvin Harris
Shortly after I had become a mother, I was invited to a “mums and bubs” afternoon tea in Macau. I took my newborn son around to spend some time with a group of expat ladies who had also had children born in the same year. As I sat there listening to them talk, I was struck by the feeling that I did not belong. I literally had nothing in common with these women. Sure, we had all given birth, we were all living an expatriate life, but that’s where the commonality ended. I excused myself and went home and cried. I didn’t know how to be a mother, an expat, and work in live entertainment. The only role model I had was my stay-at-home mother in a small country town in Australia. Here I was, a full-time working mum, working nights 5 days a week, an expatriate with an American boyfriend, raising a son in an apartment in China.
That was when I realized. I was never somebody outside looking in. I was in. I am in. This is my life.
Since leaving home, I’ve never had weekend activities, Tuesday night sports and Sunday family dinners. I will probably never have these things. For the past 10 years, I’ve never had a New Year’s Eve/Day, a Christmas or an Easter, without having to work. I’ve missed weddings, births and funerals of family and friends.
But, I have lived on four continents. I have participated in the creations of some of the largest shows in the world. I have spent seven consecutive Christmas’ in seven different countries. I have worked with people of all different colours, races, languages and cultures. I have spent 16 hours a day doing something I have loved as a preference to 8 hours of working on something ordinary.
What I do for work is intricately woven into the fabric of my life. Now as a mother, I will raise my children in this environment, because I have to; because this is my life. TheatreArtLife.