Drawing Deep

From Yukon to Melbourne, it’s been a roller-coaster ride for AFI Best Actress Pamela Rabe

Pamela Rabe couldn’t be in Melbourne to claim her Best Actress gong at the Australian Film Institute Awards on Nov. 14. And despite her prerecorded acceptance speech, the star of The Well didn’t even know the award was hers. At the time, the Canadian-born performer was 900km away, treading the boards as Noel Coward’s capricious Amanda in a sparkling production of Private Lives, and discovered she’d won the AFI “about 30 seconds” before taking her bow at the end of the play at the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Theatre.

“I knew for sure by the look on [actress] Kirrily White’s face when she came out to join us for the curtain call,” Rabe says merrily. “Just this beaming big red smile!” But it wasn’t until STC director Wayne Harrison stepped onstage to make a congratulatory speech that the news was official. “I’d also found out that day that I’d just won the Best Actress award at the Stockholm Film Festival,” an ecstatic Rabe continues, “so I was already a little bit happy.”

Pamela Rabe | Photo by Philip Le Masurier (1997)

No wonder. But even before the awards, 38-year-old Rabe’s haunting star turn as The Well‘s Hester and her stunning supporting performance in 1996’s Cosi had put her on a cinematic roll. A striking, softly spoken, supremely urbane woman with long, gleaming dark hair and a thoughtfully edgy manner, she bears not the slightest physical resemblance to the spinsterish Hester, into whose fraught soul she so compellingly delved in the dark, suspenseful drama. (more…)

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Pamela Rabe & Roger Hodgman – The Two of Us (1997)

Pamela Rabe, 38, is one of Australia’s top theatre, film and television actors. Roger Hodgman, 53, is director of the Melbourne Theatre Company. They met in 1979 in Rabe’s home town of Vancouver, married five years later and now live in Melbourne. Hodgman is currently directing Private Lives at the Sydney Theatre Company and Rabe is playing the lead role.

Pamela: Roger was the first love of my life. Still is. I was a student and he was a teacher. I was quite bowled over by him and his skills; I still think he’s the most extraordinary teacher I’ve ever had. It always takes me a long time to realise someone’s coming on strong to me. So I was drinking in every word of praise and didn’t realise this was just the pick-up line.

Then we were worried what people would think. And, with backstage gossip always about how the director gets to sleep with the actresses, for a while you’re just a cliché. People snicker.

It is difficult being a director’s wife. It is still always, absolutely, the first thing that comes to my mind whenever I’m offered a role at the MTC. Whatever people say, I can’t help myself feeling I have some sort of unfair advantage. And, with every year, I’m much more aware of my inadequacies and vulnerability, so that doubt gets worse. But it’s part of the package; I don’t know any confident actors. (more…)

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Ruth Cracknell: an actor’s friend and inspiration

Accent: Super models

Ruth Cracknell: an actor’s friend and inspiration

Actor Pamela Rabe continues a series of reflections by prominent women on the “super models” who inspired them.

About the second day I was in Australia, my husband — well, he wasn’t my husband then — took me for a walk around Sydney and to Crows Nest. It was very hot and I was very jet-lagged, and he took me to a gallery.

As we were thumbing our way through some etchings, he nudged me and there was this very elegant patrician presence in the corner of the room with white-blonde hair. He said “that’s Ruth Cracknell, she’s a very famous actress”.

He had told me about her in Canada in the late ’70s. She had played the lead in an Edward Bond play that I was very fond of called The Sea. This obviously sowed a seed of great awe in me, and there she was,and I was actually in her presence.

I was aware of Ruth from then and I think I had seen her on stage a number of times, and on film. You can’t collide with Ruth’s presence without being affected in some way.

I have always collected tall women in my life. I don’t think I’m particularly obsessed with my height — I was brought up with my father’s advice: be proud, walk tall.

When you are tall, people assume that you should be majestic. It is funny because so many tall women feel different, I think, especially when they are defining their sexual attractiveness — when you are in your teens you just want to look like everybody else.

Pamela Rabe | Photo by theage.com.au

There are so many pressures to be smaller, bend down, try to blend in with the crowd, be feminine (whatever that means) — to actually keep your head up through that is hard. (more…)

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The Reluctant Celebrity

Pamela Rabe used to be self-conscious about her Canadian accent. But she took Australian citizenship because she wanted commitment.

Pamela Rabe probably won’t thank me for this, but she is probably about to become a household name. She is in two movies and two television series, all in the same year.

She won’t thank me because Pamela Rabe is not one of those knocking on the celebrity door. She is thrilled that her work as an actor might be recognised, but any “fame” that might come with it is an uncomfortable notion.

The two movies, already well-received, are Cosi‘, and Vacant Possession‘. The television series, both for the ABC, are Mercury‘, and The Bite. Pamela Rabe is a baddie in both the television series.

She’s not when you meet her. She is soft and smooth and tall and very striking. She is also reticent, which is why I trod the careful path first, through early days.

There was a certain effort to keep us occupied,” she said. I had asked her about her childhood in Canada, where she was the seventh of eight children. “We were sent off to things like music.

With so many children, they were able to form an orchestra of sorts. There was a trombone, a French horn, a saxophone, a flute, classical guitar, even bagpipes.

Pamela was on the French horn and must have been good, because she went on to play in a junior symphony orchestra in Vancouver. “That experience of being a group and creating something had a big impact.

What Pamela means is that her family was not particularly artistic, and so it might have been the music that put her in the right direction. All her brothers and sisters ended up as scientists or paramedics.

It sounds like a successful family,” I said.

Nobody’s a drug addict, nobody’s in jail, nobody’s dead.(more…)

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Three Chatty Women With Style

Three tall women discuss acting, memories and the pointlessness of critics.

Three women are having a natter around a restaurant table. Death is on the agenda. Ruth Cracknell, Pamela Rabe and Pippa Williamson are discussing the recent death of Williamson’s cat. The conversation moves to a dying man’s final words, cremation and fear of death. It’s a way for us break the ice.

They are all appearing in Edward Albee’s play Three Tall Women. It was typecasting. “I’m the short one. I used to be, and probably still am, five feet eight and three quarters in the old term,” says Ruth. Pippa is: “Five, 10 and a half, though I’m probably shrinking.” Pamela: “Just under six foot. I’m not aware of it until people comment. And when I see photographs of myself.”

Ruth says she wouldn’t be short for quids. Her height didn’t damage her career even in the early days. “It was great for Greek tragedy and Shakespeare. Great for radio.”

“You played the seven dwarves didn’t you, Ruth?” Pamela asks.
“Yes, I played Grumpy.”

The character of the matriach played by Ruth in Three Tall Women is inspired by Albee’s dislike for his adoptive mother. But, much to his surprise, audiences have found her fascinating and even warmed to her.

Are memories of family difficult to communicate to others or were his feelings hard to translate? Pippa says everybody’s stories about their lives are fiction.

Pamela Rabe, Ruth Cracknell and Pippa Williamson | Photo by Chris Beck

“It’s how you frame it. How you see it is not necessarily how somebody else saw it,” Pippa says. “My aunts and uncles have a totally different view of my grandmother than my mother has. Each of them had a subjective view of their mother … When you see it in the context of her life, you see what made her who she became.”

Pamela continues that thought: “And that in itself becomes a form of acceptance on behalf of the writer — that he should even choose to investigate what has gone into making this woman.” (more…)

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The Passions of Pamela Rabe


Pamela Rabe’s performance in the new Australian film Vacant Possession caused excitement at the Sydney Film Festival, yet she insists she is addicted to the adrenalin of exercising her soul on the stage.

But after playing such powerful figures as Virginia Woolf and Strindberg’s Miss Julie, why is Rabe in raptures about playing a mysterious young woman simply named “C” in Three Tall Women, a new production by the Sydney Theatre Company?

“It’s an extraordinary piece,” says Rabe of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer prize-winning play. “Albee’s deliberately ambiguous about the characters, other than stating their ages. The moment you try to explain them or nail them down you ruin it.”

Rabe has dubbed the play ‘Waiting for Godot for girls”, and the parallels are clear. As the protagonist is a 92-year-old bedridden and dying woman, there is a minimum of high-kicks. It is a play of the mind with a built-in twist.

Rabe is quick to pluck out the thorn of sexual politics. “It’s not just about women. It’s a beautiful play about human beings.” she says. “Not a lot happens, but you learn a lot.” This is Rabe’s first professional crack at Albee, one of theatre’s most skilful and visceral phrasemakers.

“With most plays a certain amount of editing or pruning will go on, but he’s a master at naturalistic dialogue,” she says. “Phrases are repeated, some trail off. It’s never random or arbitrary, but a bugger to learn.”

Pamela Rabe | Photo by Paul Jones 1995

Stage height … Pamela Rabe. | Photography by PAUL JONES

Rabe admits she finds the play a technical challenge, a theatrical relay event in which the almost musical exchange of verbal batons leaves no room for prima donnas. (more…)

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Carving Out Her Own Room

Actor Pamela Rabe left Canada for love. She now lives and works in both Sydney and Melbourne, yet feels she hasn’t fully moved into all our theatre spaces, writes BOB EVANS.

AS a bald statement, Virginia Woolf’s assertion that for a woman to write fiction she must have “money and a room of one’s own” can sound so blue-stocking bourgeois and so positively Bloomsbury that the first impulse is to write it off as yet another bit of British elitism.
But that impulse evaporates if you read A Room Of One’s Own or see the dramatisation of Woolf’s two lectures to the women students at Cambridge on which she based her book. The play, with Pamela Rabe acting the role of Virginia Woolf, opens this Thursday at the Belvoir Street Theatre. Rabe has appeared twice before on stage at the Belvoir. The first time her identity was concealed under a mask of Japanese inscrutability as she played the Mama San in Daniel Keene’s adaptation of Cho Cho San for Playbox. She was still a virtual unknown in Sydney when she next appeared, playing Alice B. Toklas, companion to Miriam Margolyes in the role of Gertrude Stein. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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