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A Woman of Substance

Pamela Rabe has been busy. Her latest roles include Norman Lindsay’s wife, a mental defective and Virginia Woolf. MICHAEL SHMITH meets an actor to be reckoned with.

Like a lot of performers, Pamela Rabe saves her extrovert side for the stage. I am not sure who the real Rabe is, but the person curled up in the opposite chair looks as if she would rather be at the dentist than an interview. “This is terrifying,” she says, eyeing my tape-recorder as if it might bite. “Anyway, it won’t pick up much, as I tend to Mumble.” ‘Mumbles — just discernible — there are, along with lengthy, Pinteresque pauses interspersed with bursts of great eloquence and a couple of surprisingly raucous gusts of laughter. There is an edge of insecurity, too; but one tempered with a quiet confidence and laconic sense of humor. Every now and then, she stops to appraise what she has said, as if she is rewinding and replaying an internal tape-recorder, and corrects it.

Pamela Rabe | A Woman of SubstanceFor example, after explaining the difficulties of acting in front of a camera instead of behind a proscenicum, and how she finds it “fascinating but terrifying”, Rabe stops, thinks, and says quickly: “Don’t write any of this; its just boring.” Later, after saying, “The world has got to be a better place if we were all actors for a while”, she stops again. Whirrrr, click, then, “What a stupid thing to say”. We agree, yes, it was slightly. But her remarks on film-making and stage-craft are well worth cataloguing.

Rabe’s first film, John Duigan’s ‘Sirens’, in which she plays Rose Lindsay, opposite Sam Neill’s Norman, opens in Melbourne next week. The film also stars three models, including Elle Macpherson — “A beautiful woman, in all senses of the words,” says Rabe. ‘Sirens’, was shot last year in the Blue Mountains amid an atmosphere Rabe describes as being like summer camp — “Duigan has that effect. He’ll hate me for saying this but he is locked into an adolescent world. But we had a wonderful time, giggling and playing.” But underneath this jollity there was, for Rabe, the daunting process of making a film. “One assumes, when somebody is a competent actor, the seed of performance comes from the same place. But the technical execution is completely different; you hope the people constructing the film will choose the right bits.” Filming, she says, taught her something about her attitude towards her own work — that the control and power you may have on stage counts for little on screen.

“For her first six months or so at the school, no one was quite sure how good she was. Then she played in Edward Bond’s ‘The Sea’ . She was extraordinary; people were knocked out by the maturity of her work.”

“The trouble is, the camera looks at you when you don’t want to be looked at. On stage — maybe I’m flattering myself — you operate on the delusion you can throw the focus elsewhere … the actors themselves are in charge and are responsible for subtlety and seamlessly urging the audience’s eye, then helping them follow though.
“In filming, the camera does that and you have no responsibility or obligation — in fact, you are discouraged from being involved and you have to stop thinking like a stage actor. Also, I have to say you have a lot of time on your hands when you film. Since my part was minimal, I had much more time to think and worry. I can be very dangerous to myself if I’m left to think.”

Since ‘Sirens’, Rabe has made another film, Margaret Nash’s low-budget ‘Vacant Possession’, about a woman who confronts the ghosts of her past when her mother’s death draws her back to her childhood home in Botany Bay. Rabe is presently rehearsing for the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Louis Nowra’s new play, ‘Cosi’, in which she plays one of seven mental patients (the others include Nadine Garner, Kym Gyngell and Charles Tingwell) rehearsing for a production of Mozart’s ‘Cosi fan tutte’.

In September, Rabe appears with the MTC again, as Virginia Woolf in Patrick Garland’s one-hander ‘A Room of One’s Own’. “I am excited about it,” she says. “It is not a dramatic presentation but a rendering of two addresses Woolf made to two Cambridge colleges. which she fleshed out and turned into a publication. She had such a wonderful, circuitous, playful mind; a quite teasing way of worrying her way through, which appeals to me a great deal. Suddenly I feel I have met a brilliant person and someone I would very much liked to have met. I would like to have perceived her ideas directly.”

It IS interesting how Pamela Rabe’s personal and professional histories combine to make her the complex person she is. She is Canadian birth and (apart from a couple of productions in Canada) entirely Australian by profession. She was born outside Toronto, the seventh of eight children. When she was four, her father, a civil servant in public works, took the family off to the wilds of the Yukon where he ran the Pacific region and was partly responsible for building the Trans-Canada Yukon Highway. After a couple of years, they settled in Vancouver on the west coast. Vancouver was not, she says, the artistic capital of the universe. “Not much culture there, but a fair amount of pottery. When the cold snap came in September, they would put the hose on and it would freeze overnight and there, next morning, was the hockey field that would stay there for six or seven months. Other than hockey, you would go to the church hall to watched rented films, mostly Disney.”

She is not sure how she knew she wanted to be an actor, the creative blood not running strongly in the family veins. “My first role models were movie stars and radio personalities. Then I went to high school and university, which started to show me something called theatre. I had wonderful drama teachers in high school, which led to university and very much New York, Yale Drama School style of teaching. At 17, 1 was taken to a play. I didn’t get the blinding flash but thought: This is different’.”

She was thinking she would go to an American drama school when she heard of a new school affiliated with the Vancouver Playhouse. It was run by a Welshman, Powys Thomas, who was brought out to direct the National Theatre School in Montreal; disenchanted, he left to create a smaller school of 10 to 12 pupils doing an intensive two-year course, allied with practical experience at the Playhouse. It took two auditions but Rabe got in, whereupon her life would change in two dramatic ways.

The first change was in theatrical style. From the American system, Rabe found herself suddenly dealing with the British approach, courtesy of an English-born teacher, David Latham (he now heads the School of Drama at the Victorian College of the Arts), and the director of the Vancouver Playhouse, Australian-born Roger Hodgman, who had been teaching in England. She and Hodgman fell in love and, in 1982, a year after she graduated, came back with him to Australia, where they married. Hodgman, the director of the MTC since 1986, has an exact memory of the first time he saw Rabe perform, at an acting workshop at Vancouver University. He thought she was outstanding. “She had some of the things she has now — a fantastic sense of humor, a fierce actor’s intelligence with a great emotional courage. I remember saying to David Latham: ‘There is this brilliant young woman …’ “

Pamela Rabe | A Woman of Substance

For her first six months or so at the school, no one was quite sure how good she was. Then she played in Edward Bond’s ‘The Sea’ . She was extraordinary; people were knocked out by the maturity of her work. She has always surprised people with the range of things she can do. There is the danger of thinking she can do only certain things, but she is quite able to transform herself into different characters.”
Hodgman says that he and Rabe are successful companions but also good friends. “We share similar tastes and not a hint of rivalry. I dread her coming to plays I have directed because she is going to be ruthlessly honest. But I love it, because she has such a clear eye for what’s wrong.”

Australia was not easy at first. “I convinced myself it wasn’t going to be traumatic but it was,” Rabe says. “I got to the point where I couldn’t speak to anybody, because if I opened my mouth, I immediately branded myself. I became housebound for a while. Then I saw a sign for the ANZ Migrant Advisory Service. I went in and I remember thinking ‘how silly’. This woman looked at me: ‘You speak English. You’re not a migrant.’ People assume if you’re English-speaking in an English-speaking country, you’re in a kind of grey area.”

John Sumner, the then director of the MTC, gave Rabe her first job in Australia — the foothold. “He created a role for me in ‘A Winter’s Tale’. Some poor girl got chopped down from four lines so I could get two.” More work came in, proving Rabe’s theory that the powerbrokers in Australian theatre like the shock of the new — “get them new and at once”.
And she was new. “And exotic, in as much as Canadians can be exotic.”

Now, 12 years and more than 30 plays later, Pamela Rabe is a fixture in Australia’s theatrical life. She has played everything from Kate on a motorcycle in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, to the Wicked Witch of the West on a broomstick in ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Rabe has also deliberately broadened her geographical base —mainly in order to avoid the “Mrs Hodgman” label — to the extent of moving to Sydney for a couple of years. “And when I came back to Melbourne, I got it for being an interstate actor coming back,” she says somewhat ruefully.

But the offers come in as steadily as ever and she is seldom out of work. Yet insecurity lurks. Rabe says: “I define my worth by working” but is frightened by competition. “I suppose it’s coming from a large family, where you think if you can’t win, don’t compete.

“The work behind you goes for nothing. There is nothing tangible,” she says. “All it takes is for you to be a little off with the combination of the role that’s offered and your own state of mind, and suddenly you’re nothing. It keeps you on your toes. It is actually a very small group who go to and produce the theatre. A small group with very long memories.”

“SIRENS’ has already opened in Canada, which means Pamela Rabe’s family has had the first chance to see her act, apart from her mother seeing her in a couple of student productions. “This is for them, extraordinary to see me — and a lot of me — in ‘Sirens’. They can’t imagine what my life can be like in Australia. In their mind, all I’ve done the whole time is stand naked on a cliff top.

“My mother left a message on answer-machine, saying she had gone to see it. Mind you, the Iast movie she had been to was ‘Sound of Music’, and left halfway through because she found the experience overwhelming. She said she might have to go back to see ‘Sirens’ again, as she couldn’t really watch the film because she was so nervou so worried about what I might do in it.”

Rabe is rather relieved her family haven’t seen her on stage. “I would be terrified if my parents saw me acting. I feel grateful that they’re not here to watch me doing things. But I don’t think about it much. Until I get those messages on the answer-machine.”

By now, Pamela Rabe has forgotten the tape-recorder and Torqmada questioning, and is talking speed. “Acting gives you the opportunity to become an instant expect on something for a limited time. It’s like Tinkerbell — just touch everything, but not immerse yourself. I love acting so much. It is such a compassionate trade.”

Here she says the world would better if we were all actors and lets loose with a self-deprecatory laugh and tries to rephrase. “We are constantly putting ourselves into other people’s shoes. If we all did that … And peters out. Another laugh. “You’re kind of grateful if someone wants to watch you do that. Acting is deeply masturbatory.”

‘Sirens’ opens at Village cinemas on Thursday. ‘Cosi’ opens at the Russell Street Theatre on 3 May; ‘A Room of One’s Own’ opens at Russell Street on 7 September, following a regional and interstate tour beginning in July

The Age / April 23 1994
Photograph by Cathryn Trent

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