Life In The Theatre

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Sheridan Harbridge and Cate Blanchett both graduated from NIDA, but Sheridan knows her Centrelink number off by heart. For a fortunate few, acting can be a well paid and glamorous profession, but for most it means combining diverse, irregular, often short-term acting jobs with other casual work to make ends meet.

Acting, like most jobs in the arts in Australia, is a dicey way to make a living. According to a 2010 report, actors earn an average $27,000 per year doing acting work, with 38 per cent making less than $10,000 and only 17 per cent earning over $50,000 from work within their field.

But for Sheridan the stark facts of job insecurity and low pay are not enough to stop her following her passion, and she’s grateful for the opportunities she’s had. I met the 28 year-old in Redfern before her 3pm Sunday performance of the musical An Officer And A Gentleman at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre.

Born in Traralgon in the Gippsland region of Victoria, Sheridan is the sixth of seven kids in her family. She grew up on a small beef cattle property but the family’s main source of income was her Dad’s earth moving business. She attended a Christian primary school — her Mum’s a Pentecostal — and dreamed of becoming a photographer or a fighter pilot.

Her parents separated when she was 12 and she moved into town where she went to the state high school. A couple of teachers spotted her talent in music and drama and provided important encouragement. She played percussion in the school band, loved the rock eisteddfods, and wrote her first play, The Irritation of Abraham Eggley, at age 15.

After school she trained for two years in musical theatre at the Ballarat Academy of Performing Arts before realising she was more interested in acting. She auditioned for NIDA and, to her surprise, was accepted after being prompted to redo her audition piece in the style of Liza Minelli. NIDA has a "break you down to build you up" reputation but, while the experience was intense, Sheridan loved her time there.

She learned a lot from the acting teachers, especially Kevin Jackson, and graduated in 2006. She also became an atheist after studying the bible as literature and observing the similarities between its stories and Greek myths.

She landed the role of Fruma Sarah in Fiddler on the Roof fresh out of NIDA and spent six months touring Australia and New Zealand. She was earning up to $1200 each week and "felt like a millionaire". She knew she was lucky as some of her NIDA classmates didn’t find work for 18 months.

Her big break came in 2008 when she won the Sydney Cabaret Showcase. "It completely changed my career", she says. She went from being mainly an actor and singer to being a writer, comedian and cabaret artist. Sheridan went on to perform at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival before developing her own show that she took to Sydney, Melbourne and the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Her show — Mrs Bang: A Series of Seductions in 55 Minutes — features a ukulele-playing, dilapidated diva, a kind of ultra alter ego possessed , according to Sheridan, by "my demons times 400". Her song "Do you like my dress?" showcases her powerful, soulful voice, her writing skills and her sharp comic timing.

Mrs Bang was mostly well received in Edinburgh but the few less enthusiastic responses cut deep. "An average review is enough to not sleep or eat for a week", she says. "Ive just learned not to read reviews."

She describes the writing process as "like being constipated" but that the euphoria she experiences "when your own work brings the house down" makes the creative struggle worthwhile.

Edinburgh is the biggest arts festival in the world but for the vast majority of performers who attend it’s at best a loss leading exercise. "You don’t go to Edinburgh to make money", says Sheridan. But you can, if you’re lucky, get noticed. Sheridan saw a number of opportunities flow from her Edinburgh experience, including an invitation to perform at the 32nd Stage Song Festival in Poland.

For Sheridan, 2011 was her "hardest year financially but one of the best professionally". She hosted the opening night of the Sydney Festival, took Mrs Bang to Poland, performed with John Cleese at the Sydney Opera House and was awarded a Jump Mentorship with composer Basil Hogios to develop a new show. Another highlight was playing a back-from-the-dead Judy Garland in Rocky Horror Picture Show director Jim Sharman’s Andy X, a short feature about Andy Warhol.

But despite these opportunities and the professional satisfaction that she experienced, Sheridan earned less than $30,000 for the financial year and was drawn back to the world of musical theatre. She auditioned for the $6 million Gordon Frost world premiere production of An Officer And A Gentleman, based on the 1982 film starring Richard Gere and Debra Winger, and was offered a small role.

Big musicals provide a rare opportunity for actors, singers, dancers and other creative professionals to earn a steady income. Pay varies from one musical to the next, and according to the actor’s negotiating power, but in general terms a performer in a minor role might earn between $1200 and $1500 a week, while the main leads can take home between $3000 and $4000. It’s good money, but cast and crew can never be sure if they’ll have a job for three months or two years.

An Officer And A Gentleman, supported by Destination NSW, employs over 100 people, including 30 cast, 14 musicians and over 40 crew. Sheridan rehearsed six days a week for two months before the show opened on May 18.

We catch the light rail from Central to The Star casino, where the Lyric is located, and go in through the stage door. Two of the leads are off sick thanks to Sydney’s cold snap, meaning the understudies are suddenly thrust into the spotlight, an unwelcome complication so early in the run. Sheridan heads off to her dressing room where she goes through her warm-ups — yoga and scales — before doing her makeup and putting on the first of her nine costumes. I head back up to the foyer, join the steady flow of paying patrons filing into the theatre, and take my seat.

We hear the sound of a fighter jet overhead. The lights go out. And we’re off. We first see Sheridan as a Filipina prostitute during a flashback to the male protagonist’s unhappy childhood where he’s left to fend for himself by a dissolute father posted at the US naval base at Subic Bay.

The action then jumps forward to a naval flight officer training academy in Florida and after a costume change Sheridan adopts her main role as Amy Cantrowitz, a fat Jewish girl cruelly nicknamed "Michelin" by the fiendish Sgt Foley. While the main protagonists battle their various demons and seek redemption, Amy embarks on her own Biggest Loser-style quest to shed the pounds and prove that she belongs. After much singing and dancing, climbing walls, swotting for exams, and being the butt of multiple fat jokes, she succeeds.

I meet Sheridan at stage door after the show and join her and a few of the cast for a drink. She’s tired but happy to be at the end of an eight-show week.

"The worst thing is the self-doubt", she says, when I ask about the challenges of her work. "It hinders and helps you but you wish it didn’t have to be part of the game so often. Sometimes it drains you of everything you have. And there’s also the insecurity of putting yourself on the line all the time. Sometimes it’s fun and risky and at other times you fail and it’s awful."

"[But] the joy is unlike anything. When everything aligns — you, the other actors, and the audience — it’s like a perfect blissful energy. If I didn’t make art I’d lose my mind. I wake up thinking about it every day."

ABOUT MATILDA SNAPSHOTS: Jobs, jobs, jobs — it’s all we ever hear about. But what’s it really like to be a miner, childcare worker or scientist? Our occasional series sends our correspondent down the tunnel and into the lab to find out. Behind the rhetoric and beyond the boom — Matilda Snapshots is a warts and all picture of working life in Australia.

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