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An ‘Extraordinary Journey’

Pamela Rabe is a star in Australia and now, Jamie Portman reports, the Canadian actress is coming home and bringing Virginia Woolf with her.


When Pamela Rabe left Vancouver for Australia in 1982, she knew she was embarking on “a great adventure.” But she still didn’t know whether she would make it as an actress. Today, she is one of Australia’s most acclaimed performers — with some 50 plays, six films and eight television productions to her credit. She has a devoted national following Down Under: teenage girls adore her and send her letters and wait at the stage door with flowers.

Yet in the land of her birth, she remains an unknown — a situation the Shaw Festival plans to remedy this summer when she reprises one of her greatest Australian successes, a one-woman version of Virginia Woolf’s classic A Room Of One’s Own, at the intimate Court House Theatre. For Rabe, it is as though the wheel has come full circle.

“What has happened is amazing, actually,” she says in an interview. “I count my lucky stars. It’s been an extraordinary journey.”

Rabe was born in Oakville, an hour away from the Shaw Festival, but was raised on the West Coast. She attended the Vancouver Playhouse Acting School and had roles in several productions at the Playhouse itself.

She also fell in love with Australian-born director Roger Hodgman, who was head of the school and later artistic director of the Playhouse. When Hodgman returned to Australia in 1982, she went with him. A year later they married.

Pamela Rabe 2000

Looking back, Rabe says her real acting career started with her decision to go to Australia.

“It was pretty terrifying, but it was very exciting. I had reached the point where I was straight out of the Playhouse school and it was clear that I was going to have to leave town, no matter what. So where would I go? Would I go to Toronto? Would I go to the States?”

She knew about the explosion of cultural activity in Australia. “I thought it would be a great adventure.” More to the point, she had to find out whether she could make it as an actress. “I was creating a career. No, I was exploring whether I really had one.”

As it turned out, her career took off like a comet as she demonstrated a dazzling versatility, proving she was equally at home with the classics (Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming Of The Shrew), contemporary works (The Heidi Chronicles, The Beauty Queen Of Leanne) and musicals (A Little Night Music, Mame). There was a bouquet of acting prizes, culminating in the Australian Institute’s 1997 Best Actress Award for The Well, in which Rabe — who was then 37 — played a 55-year-old.

But in many ways, her greatest triumph has emerged from the most improbable of materials. A Room Of One’s Own, which she will unveil July 15 at the Shaw Festival, is essentially a dramatized version by British director Patrick Garland of novelist and critic Virginia Woolf’s legendary 1928 lectures to the women of Girton College, Cambridge. It is far removed from a conventional theatre experience, but when the tall, raven-haired actress first performed it in Australia, it struck a nerve and became such a critical and commercial success that she toured the country with it.

“A young producing team approached me to do it. It was their first gig as producers, and the script came out of the blue to me. It had been done in England by Eileen Atkins and the first time I saw it was when they sent me the script. I was enormously flattered and excited by it. I had no idea of how it might work — it’s not a play. But I was really interested in exploring it.

“Audiences responded in an extraordinary way. It’s unlike any other piece I’ve been involved in. It’s a speech. It’s a lecture. But … somehow, existing in a theatrical space, it offers an extremely personal meeting with the mind of Virginia Woolf.”

Pamela RabeRabe says Woolf was speaking from the perspective of an author who believed that “a woman must have money and a room of her own to write fiction.” But in a broader context, she was raising issues which were of great concern to women 72 years ago and remain so today. “She’s talking about economic freedom, intellectual freedom, emotional freedom, about the responsibility to create in whatever way that you can. She’s saying there’s a sort of lineage that we’re all part of, that all of us — both men and women — have a responsibility to create the female Shakespeares, to ensure great works from women, to find a voice for women. It certainly is relevant to today — and that startles people.”

Doing A Room Of One’s Own in a theatre creates “an absolutely live connection” with the hundreds of people in the audience, and in Australia the effect was extraordinary, Rabe says.

“I got more letters from that performance than for anything else I’ve done. And yet they weren’t really writing me, although I had made no attempt to do an impersonation of Virginia Woolf. I was just a conduit for her ideas. Yet they were really writing Virginia because they felt they had met her mind and were having a dialogue with her. So it’s a piece that has this extraordinary liberating and empowering effect.”

Until this year, Rabe’s main visibility in Canada came in the 1993 period movie Sirens – in which her visibility was considerable indeed. “I was this artist’s wife — very silent and very nude,” she laughs. But at least, she adds mischievously, it offered proof to her family back home that she was actually working. “Until Sirens, none of them had seen me perform. For all they knew, I could have been washing dishes in some hotel in the outback!”

Rabe is back in Canada at the invitation of Shaw Festival artistic director Christopher Newton, who invited Hodgman to direct this year’s musical, She Loves Me, and Rabe to reprise her Virginia Woolf triumph and also appear in Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart.

But as much as she’s revelling in her Canadian homecoming, Rabe feels as intensely challenged by the mind of Virginia Woolf as she did when she first performed A Room Of One’s Own in Australia. She hopes that by working with a Canadian director — Micheline Chevrier, who recently stepped down as head of Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company — she will gain fresh insight into the material.

“When Chris asked me to do it here, I was adamant that I didn’t want to repeat the Australian production. I wanted to work with a Canadian director and designer because this was a predominantly Canadian audience.

“When I first did this piece, I was immensely challenged, ex-cited and terrified. Funnily enough, I feel exactly the same now.

“I feel this great responsibility because its unlike any other theatre experience I’ve ever been involved in. There’s no room for lies with it. You’re dealing with the audience eyeball to eyeball. There’s no pretense here, no sense of that fourth wall we talk about in theatre. I am in the same room communicating with you.”

A Room Of One’s Own begins previews at the Shaw Festival Court House Theatre on June 27 and officially opens July is. It will continue until Sept. 22.
Ticket information is available by calling 1-Soo-5u-SHAW

Source: The Ottawa Citizen | 26 June 2000

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