Staying theatre sharp – NIDA graduate Shari Sebbens
NIDA Acting graduate Shari Sebbens had barely finished her training when she was snapped up for the Australian hit film The Sapphires.
NIDA Acting graduate Shari Sebbens had barely finished her training when she was snapped up for the Australian hit film The Sapphires. From there she has gone from strength to strength, keeping us glued to the small screen as Isolde in The Gods of Wheat Street and in her award-winning role as Julie in Redfern Now, as well as owning the stage in critically acclaimed theatre productions such as Radiance for Belvoir and The Battle of Waterloo with Sydney Theatre Company.
When NIDA News caught up with her recently she was between rehearsals and other commitments, buzzing with excitement for her latest project, Lee Lewis’ production of The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini for Griffin Theatre Company.
‘I love working with Lee,’ she enthuses. ‘It’s my second time working with her on a Griffin show, which is kind of special because my first main stage theatre debut was with Griffin for A Hoax.’
Shari is so full of energy for this new challenge, impressive considering she has only just wrapped-up a successful season of Battle of Waterloo, a brand new work by emerging writer Kylie Coolwell. When asked what it was like to be part of the creation of a new piece of theatre, she replied, ‘It’s pretty great. I have been lucky in that, apart from Radiance, the other main stage productions I have done have been new Australian works.
‘I feel like I’m getting a little more used to the process, because it is very different from having a classic script or a production that has just come out of a smashing Broadway season or from the West End. Having something that you’re showing to the world for the first time is a completely different experience.’
Shari says the opportunity to be part of the creation of a play is something she looks for, ‘although it’s not so much about having my own influence of the work. I’m excited to be a small contributing factor in the conversation about Australian theatre and what place that has in shaping our identity as a country.’
The importance of Australian storytelling and what that says about our nation is a topic she’s familiar with. In an article last year for The Sydney Morning Herald, Shari was not shy to voice her opinions about the importance of diversity in Australian theatre, and the need for more stories and more roles for actors from different backgrounds.
“While we’re definitely starting to see a shift, we need to see more faces of any kind on stage and more voices being represented on stage of any nationality. Although Indigenous storytelling is always going to be really important part of my career, it’s more about speaking for friends I know who are really talented – NIDA grads, people from my alumni – but who are just not getting the opportunities because they look a certain way or they might not be what people picture for a role in Chekov or something.
‘But the change is happening. In my experience, it’s women who are more concerned with diverse casting, in theatre anyway. Lee is an advocate for colour-blind casting. Sarah Goodes has just cast Anthony Taufa in Orlando alongside people like Jacqueline McKenzie. So this shift is happening and it is in every theatre company.’
A self-confessed theatre addict, Shari features in no less than three plays this year.
“I’m a big believer in keeping your theatre skills sharp because they help your film and TV craft. I made a promise to myself when I graduated that I would do a play a year, paid or unpaid. It’s just keeping practiced, and not letting a production suddenly sneak up and surprise you and you’re like “Oh that’s right, projection!” It’s trying to be a better performer at the end of every production than I was at the start.
‘But in saying that, stage and screen are totally different mediums and I believe you need to have a different approach. The rehearsal process for each was a big thing to get my head around. With film and television you don’t get a lot of rehearsal time. In theatre you get to work on your character journey every day with the other actors over four weeks. You don’t get to do that on set. You might be filming the last scene on the first day, so I need to do a little map in my head of where my character should be at psychologically.’
This dedication to her work has been an important part of Shari’s development, even before she came to NIDA. A Darwin girl originally, she says she always knew she wanted to go to NIDA, ever since her parents first called her in to the lounge room to see an episode of Drama School, a behind-the-scenes documentary about NIDA. She credits her readiness for the rigours of full-time actor training to the preparation she did in Perth before auditioning.
‘I always knew I was going to go to NIDA, I just didn’t know how or when or what. What prepared me for it was having a year in Perth at WAAPA doing the Aboriginal Theatre course. The head of the course drilled home in such a nice and gentle way the structure, routine and the idea of discipline so at the end of the nine months there I knew I could handle three years at NIDA.’
Shari says it was ‘terrifying’ making the transition to Sydney and is always amazed at the students who move interstate to focus on becoming an actor. ‘It’s hard when you’re an interstate student because you can’t go home to mum and dad on the weekend for a feed or to do your laundry. It’s a big thing that they’re doing. We had Ryan Corr and Bonnie Sveen who were 18 or 19 year olds, I at least felt like I was more of an adult at 22!’
Several years and some big career milestones later, what is Shari’s advice for the next generation of NIDA actors about to take the first steps on their own pathway?
‘Let yourself dream big. Don’t take it all too personally or too seriously – let yourself have a laugh! You’re going out into the industry and people would have you believe that they want you to turn on each other and compete with each other. But help each other with auditions, let each other know about auditions, just keep talking to each other and supporting each other.’
See Shari Sebbens in The Bleeding Tree at Griffin from 31 July–5 September.
Applications are now open for NIDA full-time courses in 2016 at nida.edu.au/apply.