Eryn Jean Norvill made her Sydney Theatre Company debut playing Shakespeare’s ill-fated Juliet in 2013. Since then, she has featured in Cyrano de Bergerac, Suddenly Last Summer, King Lear, All My Sons and, in 2017, Three Sisters.
Here, she discusses her heroes, her history and her taste for clowning with our Content Manager Carl Nilsson-Polias.
I first encountered Eryn Jean when she was a student at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). What struck me about her was the depth and range of her talent – she could access the sharpened language of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls as well as she could find imaginative beauty in Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths. She was also legendary for her silent, sad, occasionally malicious clown act. In the decade since then, she has notched up awards and acclaim for her work in Melbourne and Sydney with the likes of Melbourne Theatre Company, Griffin Theatre and The Hayloft Project. She was only 19 when she began studying at VCA and I was curious about how she was, at such a young age, already so distinctive as a performer.
Before arriving at VCA, what had shaped your understanding of theatre? What had made you interested in it?
I don’t think I could pinpoint a moment when I decided to go down this path or a moment when the path was offered up. But, I guess, as a kid I was very internal. I really liked – and this is going to sound weird – but I quite liked closed doors and small spaces because it was quiet and it allowed me to pretend. There was something in that for me and, then, at some point, the bubble burst and I was able to do that in front of other people – or maybe the bubble never burst. I remember that feeling of being completely involved and focused on another place, one that I could enter into. I was never part of a drama troupe or anything like that. I did want to be a dancer but I couldn’t do the splits … I was a bit of a fat kid, ha!
Yeah. I tried to do the splits in my little fat leotard but they said, “Nah, out!” So, the pretending was always an extremely personal thing, always on my lonesome. I’d make an occupation of it; I might hide for an entire day. And what I do is still kind of personal, it just involves more people. Through high school I tried writing, actually I tried to do a lot of things and failed at a lot of things. I found it difficult to engage with acting at that age because, I think, from primary school to high school, acting opportunities for kids tend not to be curated very well. It gets very prescribed and limiting, which left me really confused.
Then there were a couple of key things that I saw as an audience member that really transported me, that allowed me to be immersed in the same way that I remembered being as a little kid – and they made me realise what theatre could be about. I saw a Pina Bausch show and I can’t remember what it was called, but I remember my grandfather calling her “Piyni Boosh” – we’re a very cultured family – and I remember its physical storytelling and me really leaning forward into that kind of theatre making. Then I saw Slava’s Snowshow, which really comes off the stage. It doesn’t have any words – it’s all colour, all movement. Oh, and I should mention that David Bowie was my hero, in all his many facets. I loved seeing how transformative he was. And Jim Henson too, he was like a warm blanket of imagination, so generous.
And, when I’d just turned 17, I was given this opportunity to go overseas with ATYP. David Berthold cast me in the show Brokenville by Philip Ridley, which was touring to the National Theatre in London. I’d never really been out of the country before that. Having the opportunity to travel with it and to meet all these kids from around Europe and the world who were part of this festival that was happening was extraordinary. Different languages, accents – I mean, at home I hadn’t yet imagined myself being further abroad than Malabar shops or Maroubra beach, so this really changed things up for me.
Was that the first time you’d worked with ATYP?
Yeah. I think I’d done one workshop, but it was a bit cliquey with all the cool kids there and I was intimidated because I was this weird fat kid, ha! Look, I was funny and could kind of hold my own but they already knew each other and there was an in-crowd.
Did that London trip help make you feel less intimidated?
Oh, I don’t think so. I’m intimidated still. But, after the show was done, I toured around a little bit and went to the Edinburgh Festival and sold pencils and fell in love with this ... prick. A Scottish prick. I came back home a bit decimated as you can do after those solo adventures. I was young, I was stupid.
When I came back to Australia, I auditioned for NIDA and VCA. NIDA didn’t want me, so I went to VCA in Melbourne.
Were the teachers there – Lindy Davies, John Bolton, Tanya Gerstle, Geraldine Cook – very influential in terms of your theatre making interests now? Your interest in clowning, for example, did that come from John or was that there before?
Well, when I sold pencils in Edinburgh, the Fringe Festival was going on and the Scottish prick was involved with this little co-op that did weird street theatre and, well, I tried to do it with them. (I wish I could see myself doing this back then!) I started exploring this character and I don’t really recall that much about it, but she was a mute and played with people on the street. I was doing it mainly to make money because I was so poor – let me tell you, selling pencils ain’t a profitable business, especially when you’re living with a Scottish prick. But, anyway, I explored this character which, in retrospect, was a kind of clowning.
But, yes, John Bolton let me play with that again and put a name to it. And Tanya and Lindy allowed me to link in the idea of the vulnerable private hidey-hole that I loved to be in as a kid, realising how that was integral to tell a story honestly and make something organically.
A lot of the teachers there unlocked things for us. I guess, if you’re a good teacher, you’re able to see what works for a particular person and help them make those links. As an actor, it can be hard to understand how other actors work, or even understand how you yourself work, and it changes all the time. Teachers can be very perceptive.
What came after leaving VCA?
I did some short films, which were terrible, and then there was The Hayloft Project, which was hard work but such an incredible time. And I met some really great people touring schools with Bell, like Emily Tomlins [also in the cast of Cyrano de Bergerac], who I then wrote a clowning show with called A Tiny Chorus. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but something I’m really proud of. It started off at Melbourne Fringe, where it won a couple of awards including a touring award that let us take it to Adelaide Fringe, where we won more awards for best show and performance, so we took it to Sydney Fringe and then it was meant to go to Darwin Festival, but I had been cast in Hamlet at Melbourne Theatre Company, which was my first big professional stage gig. A Tiny Chorus has now been put to bed and Emily and I are working on something else.
Was doing A Tiny Chorus the prompt for you to study with Philipe Gaulier in Paris?
Yes, but I’d wanted to study with him from before then because John Bolton had talked about it. And I’d read Gaulier’s book, which is like a game of snakes and ladders – it makes no sense but it’s hilarious. I was there for four months, doing Shakespeare and Chekhov and clowning. It was actually just before I came to Sydney to do Romeo and Juliet. And, while I was in Europe, I went and did a secondment with Schaubühne in Berlin, where they happened to be rehearsing Romeo and Juliet. I got to see a little bit of their rehearsal, just sitting in – I did not speak, I did not speak a word.
Do you speak German?
No. But even still, their rehearsal room is formidable. It’s such a scary, sacred place. Not precious at all. All the actors and artists there know each other so well [there is a permanent ensemble] that they would keep transgressing all these boundaries in a way you just can’t do here.
But yes, Gaulier is an intimidating teacher. He spoke in riddles and completely destabilised me – I wasn’t allowed to use any of my tricks, all my facility as an actor was muted. Everyone else got to have these cute and hilarious clowns and my clown was a toilet cleaner who had to be enraged the entire time – my name was “Royal Shakespeare Academy of His Balls”. It was good though. I got to fail a lot. And I remembered that that’s where all the glory is, in the trying and the failing, and the trying and the failing.
There’s a lot of failing in learning.
Did some of this experience come through when you were working here?
That whole trip... I mean, I fell in love on that trip, I had my heart broken on that trip, I saw a bunch of theatre that inspired me in a way I hadn’t been inspired for a little while, like Punchdrunk and Schaubühne, and it all unfurled itself into this epic journal that I kept. All of those images accumulate and you ruminate on them, which meant I had a lot of ideas to bring to the rehearsal room on the first day. Which was really great and such a luxury. And Kip [Williams] was open to all of them – there was an element of clowning that he brought into the show and I tried to remain as playful and as brave as the people I’d been inspired by.
When you’re offered roles or looking for roles, what kind of writing are you drawn to?
What really excites me is text that has a kinaesthetic, organic kind of gut to it. Something that knows what it’s saying but maybe doesn’t know particularly how to say it. So, there’s a struggle in the text to deal with that inarticulateness. Often they’re a little messier. I’m not a cerebral person – I think too much, but it’s not how I process the world. So, if you take a writer like Caryl Churchill, there’s something in all of her plays that has this extraordinary intelligence and rigour but it’s always an investigation, it never fully lands on an answer. As a theatre maker I know that that’s where the most exciting moments of human spirit are revealed.
Three Sisters, 6 Nov – 16 Dec 2017, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
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Photos (from top to bottom): Eryn Jean Norvill portrait (photo by Sally Flegg); rehearsals for STC's Romeo and Juliet (photo by Grant Sparkes-Carroll); with Paula Arundell in Suddenly Last Summer; and in Cyrano de Bergerac (both photos by Brett Boardman).