Young Melbourne based actor Tariro Mavondo has achieved much in her short life – she is a writer and performance poet, as well as being an advocate for culturally and linguistically diverse theatre makers and actors on Australian stages. Mavondo, however, sees herself as an artist first and foremost. "I don't just call myself an actor or a performance poet that doesn't feel right somehow."
Mavondo is originally from Zimbabwe and came to Australia in the late eighties when the Australian government was seeking a lot of academics and intelligentsia from 'developing countries.'
"My Dad, who was the head of the longest running TAFE in Zimbabwe at the time, was offered to complete his PHD at Monash University in Frankston," she explains. " A few years later I came with my mum, my older brother and two younger sisters to join him." Mavondo admits the move was challenging: "We had a huge house, gardeners, chauffeurs, maids and my grandfather, who was my favourite person in the world, to come to a two bedroom flat in Frankston where no body looked like me."
Mavondo has always loved performing and used to put on shows for her family in their 'shoe box lounge. ' Finally, her mum enrolled her in ballet and jazz school: "… and although I would get solos my teacher commented on how I loved sticking my booty out and suggested that maybe classical dance wasn't the avenue for me to take."
"During my days at Monash completing a Bachelor of Arts degree I danced mainly African, dancehall and contemporary with bands nationally and internationally. I was a lead in my grade 6 play and the first year 7 in my high school to get a chunky role in a production and I think this is where my affair with acting began. " Fast forward a few decades to Mavondo receiving a call from her agent saying that MTC would like to see her for the role of Lyndsey in their first 2015 production Jumpy.
"I always like to read a play several times and get a strong sense of the character to see whether I will audition or not. I think I read Jumpy three times initially and laughed out loud a lot. I liked that it was a dark comedy and was struck at how brilliantly the writer April De Angelis had captured the delicacy and honesty of each character. I also liked the feminist concerns and issues that permeate throughout the play and that Pamela Rabe, a female actor and director, was directing this production."
Along with her long and varied portfolio, Mavondo is currently an Ambassador of the Melbourne Theatre Company and Multicultural Arts Victoria’s Connect program. "I am very passionate about equal opportunities for all people and hope the world will get to this point as we continue to evolve. I think creatives and artists are instrumental in bringing about this change" she says. "In terms of acting I would like us to get to the point where multiculturalism as a meaning includes all cultures not the dominate cultures versus other cultures, who are all lumped into the multicultural basket."
"At the moment I think if you are a talented, highly skilled and trained actor you are given equal opportunities no matter what your cultural background. The difficulties lie in those actors of colour that are talented but haven't trained in a school that is recognised here, therefore they need to build a strong portfolio or profile here and it becomes challenging. Most times most companies have an existing database and network they work from and this may not include them, so they have to know where and how to actively build connections with the industry. "
"And because colour blind casting isn't an adopted practice in all areas of the Australian entertainment industry when a brief comes along that is not specifically a black or Asian role, casting agents, producers and directors aren't necessarily going to think outside white Anglo actors. I know of some who make concerted efforts to audition a diverse range of actors for lead role, but I don't think its common practice yet. What is happening is that a lot of culturally diverse actors are moving to England or the States where there are more opportunities. I know of quite a few actors who have moved overseas and are doing ridiculously well whereas here they were not getting much work at all. It's tough but I think the trick is to stay here and be pivotal in that change. I do have plans to travel overseas but I see myself predominantly based here."
Mavondo is also the producer of Africa's Got Talent, which she describes as a talent competition akin to other talent shows like The Voice, Australia's Got Talent and X Factor. The concept's genesis began two years ago from the need for young African people to get involved in Africa Day Melbourne – which is a UN endorsed global celebration of the achievements and contributions of Africans. "I was approached by the Africa Day committee in Melbourne to get involved and because of my performing arts background Africa's Got Talent made sense."
"As an artist of African background I thought this was a great way to showcase young African talent and provide more platforms and opportunities. I contacted Deni Hines and invited her to be a judge and she emailed me straight away and was interested. It is one of my favourite events of the year. Last year along with councils I ran 11 auditions in 10 municipalities targeting young African Australian artists. I was so touched and blown away by the talent, but what was most affirming was witnessing all of the connections that are forged and the impromptu dance parties and sing-offs and all round positive vibes that occur during auditions."
"My favourite moment during at the main event held at the Fitzroy Town Hall was the young African kids waiting at the wings to get the artists’ autographs. Moments like this make Africa’s Got Talent worthwhile. I think events like this boost morale because the entertainment industry in Australia is relatively small and therefore highly competitive. I feel there is still a way to go in terms of inclusivity, cultural diversity, visibility and representation. Although, there are inroads being made in these areas so Africa’s Got Talent makes what can be an isolating and difficult career choice less so."
Performance poetry is another area that stirs Mavondo's passion and was an area she got into because she felt her voice as an African woman living in Australia wasn't heard very often in the public sphere. "I called up the only friend I knew who called himself a poet and asked if there was any venues I could perform poetry and he suggested I enter the Australian poetry slam competition. "
Poetry slam competitions entered the US scene in the eighties based on the premise that poetry should be treated as a sport. Mavondo feels that friendly competition gives a poet the ability to keep refining and improving their craft in a supportive community of other poets. The judges are selected at random from the audience, and first and last scores are not considered to balance out any bias.
"When writing a piece for slam it is generally 2-3 minutes long and a piece is judged 50 per cent on content/strength of writing and 50 per cent on performance. Generally a good slam piece will be full of passion and will move audiences deeply."
"The rules for slam are that the work you perform has to be written by yourself and that you don't use any costumes or additional tools, other than your words, your voice and your body. The Melbourne performance poetry scene is still relatively underground but it is thriving. Poets like Luka Lesson Omar Musa and Emily Zoe Baker have received national and international success and have helped bridge connections with other incredible poets mainly from the states that now come here and tour. The best slam event in Melbourne is Slamalamadingdong held at Bella Union, Trades Hall in Carlton. There are many fantastic open mic poetry events all over Melbourne that usually have one or two featured poets who are seasoned or attempting to make a living out of performance poetry."
"At the moment I am moving away from slam and finding myself interested in the relationship between performance poetry, song and music and my dream is to have a band and start gigging around Melbourne and abroad."
But Mavondo is certainly living out a large part of her dream already as she rehearses for MTC's first show, Jumpy. "I think what I love about theatre is that I can enter into other people's worlds and be uninhibited because I'm someone else. I think theatre allows us to be more emphatic as humans and feel the joys and suffering of humanity through a beautiful creative expression. I love the imaginary world probably as much as the real world, if not more. I find it a place where anything is possible, where change is possible, and I like to think that it somehow bleeds into life."
Mavondo plays Lyndsey who is Tilly's (Brenna Harding) best friend. Lyndsey is a 16 year-old with body image issues. "I fell in love with Lyndsey because she has a super positive perspective on life and underneath it all she has tough skin and deals with whatever is thrown her way."
"There have been some challenges finding the character, but whenever this has occurred I have tried to be as honest with Pamela as much as possible and we talk it through. It's funny because often her nuances come through organically, like we will be reading the scene in a circle and I will move my hands or legs a certain way and Pamela will say ‘yes that's it, that's Lyndsey’. I also read the scenes I’m in over and over and every time I do I get new bits of information about her which excites me."
Australian comedy icon Jane Turner plays the main protagonist Hilary – a left-leaning feminist – facing a crisis at the age of 50. Mavondo says it is a glorious privilege to be working with Turner who she describes as having impeccable comic timing. "In fact the whole cast are quite funny so the rehearsal room is buzzing with electricity from laughter."
The play is funny and complex but I will leave the final words with Mavondo: "Two words. Jane Turner. No make that four words, Marina Prior. Actually MTC's Jumpy has a very talented cast consisting of veterans and newbies. It has been directed exquisitely, the production is going to look poetic and stunning the music is divine the play itself is not only hilarious but deals with themes that are very current to all of us today. I think it is a must see but, hey, I might be slightly bias."
January 31 – march 14
MTC photographer Deryk McAlpin