Sydney based, award winning actor; Katrina Retallick is one of Australia’s leading musical theatre ladies. Her extensive list of musical theatre credits include Charlotte Malcolm in A Little Night Music, Alice in Titanic, Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, Jolene Oakes in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Judy/ Ginger in Ruthless!, Alice Beineke in The Addams Family, Sandra Bloom in Big Fish and The Wharf Revue. Recently, theatre attendees have had the opportunity to see Retallick portray Diane & Others in Come From Away.
In film, she has appeared in Accidents Happen and The Eternity Man and on the small screen, Love Child, Comedy Inc., The Chasers CNNN and Backburner.
Katrina will appear in Curveball Creative’s upcoming production of Who’s Your Baghdaddy or How I Started the Iraq War. The show will be performed and streamed live from June 24th-28th, 2020.
Our conversation covered a variety of topics including growing up in a regional town, academic studies, her early career and balancing the roles of motherhood and acting.
You grew up in a regional town called Wagga Wagga which, by car, for those who don’t know is approximately a 4 and ½ hour drive from Sydney and a 3 hour drive from Canberra. What was it like for you growing up in an agricultural town and area?
Well, it used to take about six hours to get to Sydney in the 80s so it felt very remote and I was very much a country kid. I lived on a small farm just outside of Wagga with my Mum, Dad, sister, Grandfather, five chickens and three horses. I had dreams of being a barrel racer in the rodeo before music and acting really took a hold of me. I was a very romantic child, wandering around the property, singing songs about the sky and horses and being on the land. Hilarious!
Did you take singing and dancing lessons as a child?
I started in a wonderful after school drama school for children in Wagga called The Theatre Workshop when I was about 12. It was run by a fabulous woman named Louise Blackett. Not only did we perform melodrama and small musicals but as I grew up, we were doing scenes from Noel Coward and Neil Simon plays. Very sophisticated stuff. It was really exciting. I started singing at age 6 but never had formal training until 16 years old when I travelled to Canberra every second weekend to have vocal lessons at the Conservatorium.
At what age did you discover your love of live performance, is there a specific moment or collection of moments such as watching a production that you can remember?
I fell in love with performing on stage when I was 7 years old and sang ‘My Favourite Things’ in our school talent competition. I won the junior section and bought all my classmates an ice block each with my tuckshop voucher (I suspect I did this so I would be liked and not teased!). So I knew I loved the feeling of performing from a very young age but I also remember seeing Cats in 1985 and Les Mis in 1987, both at the Theatre Royal in Sydney and I was absolutely blown away and completely in love.
Is there a career that you had your heart set on during your high school years? Do you remember what subjects you studied in your senior years?
Of course I remember! I did three units of Music, Art and English and then 2 in History. I just stuck to everything I loved. Career-wise, I was keen on graphic design for a while but then shifted my focus to literature and ended up doing an arts degree.
You studied at University in Sydney, what was it like transitioning from living in the country to living in one of the busiest cities in Australia?
It was pretty daunting, I must admit. I’ll never forget the moment I stepped off the XPT country train, threw my backpack on my back and marched down the hill, through the smog towards the gothic towers of Sydney Uni. It was an amazing feeling. I do remember being pretty freaked out though, sometimes. I lived in student accommodation in Glebe before I found my tribe and moved into share houses and I remember leaning out my window and watching out for people in the night with guns. I never saw anyone with a gun thank God!
You performed shows as part of the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) and the Sydney University Dramatics Society (SUDS), how important is it for young people to gain experience performing on stage? Is there any advice you would give to young people who may be considering or are already studying post- school theatre subjects?
SUDS was an incredible experience for me- both in art and in life- I met my now husband doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We did everything to get a show up. I experienced putting a lighting rig together, painting murals in the tunnel and designing posters to advertise the show, putting the soundtracks together. We did some fantastic plays including Tennessee Williams, some Peter Shaffer, Edward Albee (one of which I directed), I played Electra and did a handful of Shakespeare which I loved. Titus Andronicus stands out in my memory as a particularly wild ride. Nothing was out of our reach- we leapt in to all of these hugely revered plays with no fear.
So, I’d say, try everything when you’re young. If it’s what you love to do, then you won’t be able to stay away from the stage so, I’d say go for it. The more experience you have, the better. Also don’t wait around for the perfect project to land in your lap. Get a team together and perform your favourite play or devise something with real relevance to you. It’s not easy to collaborate but it is worth it for the experience. You might discover that you have talents in writing or directing as well as performance.
What is your favourite role that you have played and why?
There have been so many favourites- it’s hard to choose. Diane in Come From Away is a gift- I’m loving inhabiting her story-line in the piece and the whole experience of being in such a brilliantly crafted show, but as I think back, I also loved Charlotte Malcolm in A Little Night Music– so many acerbic one liners, Judy/Ginger in Ruthless– I relished every second of her, as I did Guinevere in Camelot but I have to say, playing Nellie Forbush in South Pacific was a dream come true. She was my first true lead role. She has such a satisfying journey through the play, from naivety to maturity, really. She was in turns silly, charming, indignant, cocky, vulnerable, scared and ultimately very humbled. It has such well written scenes that stand the test of time and some gorgeous songs that I absolutely loved to perform.
What role haven’t you played but would love to?
There are a few dream roles that haven’t come my way, for various reasons- one of which is Maria in The Sound of Music. I would’ve loved to have played her in my 30s. But looking forward, I’d love to do Light In The Piazza one day or Evan’s mum in Dear Evan Hansen if that ever comes to town.
COME FROM AWAY
What was the audition process like for Come From Away?
It was intense and really exciting. There was a stack to learn. As there really is no ‘typecasting’ as such, the creatives were looking for what each actor could bring to various characters so I was given the sides and songs of Beulah, Diane and Bonnie, as well as ensemble vocals to learn. We had to come to the room prepared to do a Gander accent which was probably just a twisted version of an Irish accent from me at the time! They also wanted us to bring our own choice of song. It felt overwhelming at the time but the more I studied it, the more I loved it.
Did you know much about the story before you auditioned?
No, not a thing. I had seen a friend post a very emotional photograph and love letter to the show a few months prior to the audition so I knew there was something special about it.
What were your first thoughts when you discovered that you would be walking on moving chairs while the stage revolved?
I had seen the boot leg of the Broadway show and I saw Sharon Wheatley and Lee MacDougall on the chairs. They made it look easy so I wasn’t too worried!
There is a photo that was taken of you and Nathan Carter during the rehearsal period, one of you singing Stop the World together for the first time, what was that moment like for you?
That photo is during one of our runs in the rehearsal room- Simon Maiden snapped it and I just love it but the very first time Nathan and I sang the song in rehearsals was for Ian Eisendrath, the musical supervisor. He has orchestrated the show and knows it inside out. It felt great to sing it with Nathan- our voices work really well together. It felt like it was all coming to life.
You have met Diane and Nick, who yourself and Nathan Carter respectively play, what were your thoughts prior to meeting them and did they give you any advice?
I was really looking forward to getting to know them and our first chat via zoom went for over an hour. It’s amazing to think they have been married for 17 years already and we are so new to their story. The show has become a part of their lives- they travel the world to attend opening nights of Come From Away and give interviews to help promote the show. Theirs is a great love story and it’s a real privilege to tell it on stage.
BALANCING MOTHERHOOD AND CAREER
How much do you think times have changed in regards to having both a career and having children?
In some ways, it has changed a fair bit and in others, not so much. I put off thinking about kids for a long time as I felt it was not possible to do both but deep down, I really did want to be a mother. I had a lot of maternal energy and nowhere to put it! I’m extremely lucky that she came along when she did. I didn’t have much time left, really. I started a Facebook group when my daughter was 4 months old, called Actor/Singer/Dancer/Mother and I have found that to be an incredible forum for exchanging knowledge, garnering support, swapping creative ideas on how to manage it all- everything really.
Things are changing slowly- for instance there are some parent performers on the West End who managed to negotiate job sharing- 4 shows each per week. I’d love to see that become more common place. We also have a wonderful Parent Performer committee run by Nick Hope out of MEAA. We are trying to gain ground on a few significant initiatives to make parenting in the arts a more feasible reality.
How do you personally balance situations such as working in Come From Away in Melbourne and having your partner and children in another city? Has it become easier as the children grow?
Well, we were very lucky in that my daughter was only 4 years old during our first year of Come From Away so we found her a great daycare in Melbourne and my amazing mum travelled with us to be her nanny while I was at work. I missed my husband and step kids very much but we saw each other quite a few times throughout the year. It’s not ideal but my husband was very supportive and we made it work. It will become slightly harder to tour now that my daughter is in school but we shall see what we can make work.
Have you received any fantastic advice from other mums in the industry?
I have! I had a great chat with the fabulous Anne Wood about touring with a child throughout the school years and it gave me hope! Also, the mums on the Facebook group are constantly providing the best advice for any issues that come up. The solidarity and moral support alone is incredible.
COVID- 19, HOMESCHOOLING, PAINTING AND LIFE BEYOND
Come From Away was showing in Melbourne at the time and was due to tour China this year, what were the emotions like as the news of theatre shutdowns and cancellation of tours trickled in? What were your thoughts when Come From Away closed down?
We were lucky compared to many. We had had a wonderful 10 month season, becoming the most successful musical in the long history of the Comedy Theatre. We had a two week extension in place so when we closed, we had already passed our planned end date. It was very disappointing to have to cancel China. We were excited about going.
For the last few months, you have been home-schooling the children, what have you learnt about them and what have you learnt about yourself during this period?
I have learnt to really appreciate teachers and that I’d much rather leave the teaching to them! It was hard but it wasn’t all grim. I think the best thing to have come out of the isolation/home-schooling chapter is that I’ve spent much more time with my step- kids than I ever had before. I had a great routine set up with my husband’s 8 year old- we would do an online workout together courtesy of PE By Joe before school started and sometimes it would be really fun- karate kicking and jumping around like ninjas. I really needed the structure of the school day to get through it all. We did ok.
You are a very talented painter, tell us about what inspires you to paint and how has painting helped you during covid-19 and isolation?
Oh thanks. I’ve always been drawn to making art. It was a toss up between art school and drama school in my 20s but I did get back to art college as a mature aged student, doing a Master of Fine Art at COFA/UNSW. I loved every second of it and started picking up the paints over the pencils and pastels.
I didn’t have a huge amount of time between the home-schooling and the demands of dinner/bath/bedtime so I got a whole stack of 10 x 8 wooden panels and started doing a series of small landscapes in oil. I loved the escape it gave me from the stress of what was going on. In fact, I’d put on musical theatre sound tracks and paint while singing. I usually managed to finish the painting by the end of the show!
Rehearsals have commenced for Who’s Your Baghdaggy or How I Started the Iraq War, a production being performed completely live while being live-streamed for audiences. Tell us a bit about the show and who you play? What are your thoughts on rehearsing by zoom and performing live?
It’s a terrific piece of political /social satire. It’s very fast and snappy. I’ve got 12 different characters to play- so I’m basically doing high speed accent and costume changes. The rehearsals have been great fun- our first week was entirely via zoom as our director, Neil Gooding lives in NYC at the moment but we got into a space together (at a distance) last week.
It’s a really terrific cast, I’m so impressed with everyone. We are back in isolated rooms now, as the show is being broadcast from a central location so the sound and visuals team have complete control. It’s a fascinating experiment in finding creative ways to make theatre. This week is dedicated to the technical side- we will be rehearsing where to send an eye-line and how to find the right ‘size’ of performance, considering we’re not on stage but down the barrel of the camera. I’m really excited about it!
Get your tickets at www.baghdaddymusical.com.au and come check out Australia’s first full online musical production! You’ll be getting emails step by step to get your pop corn ready in time!