Margi Brown Ash, actor, writer, EVE, He Dreamed A Train

I hope the experience inspires new ways of looking at how we belong and how we can grow our own belonging – belonging being one of the biggest protective factors against mental and physical illness ...

As far as local titans of theatre go, Margi Brown Ash is as huge as they come. For decades Margi has been a prominent figure in the Australian theatre scene, and has been a fierce supporter of Brisbane performance since moving to our fair city in 1989. Since that time, Margi has worked with most (if not all) of Brisbane’s major theatre companies, including Queensland Theatre Company, La Boite, the nest ensemble, Zen Zen Zo and many more. Since 2011 Margi has been working on The Belonging Trilogy, a selection of theatrical works that explore the idea of belonging and finding meaningful connections in a confusing world. Margi, along with her son Travis, will be performing two acclaimed works from the trilogy – He Dreamed A Train and Eve – back-to-back at the Brisbane Powerhouse from Friday June 29 to Sunday July 16. Ahead of these marathon performances, we spoke to Margi about how she found her love of theatre and what we can expect from her double bill performance.

To start, we’d love to know what you were like as a youngster. Would you say that you were a born performer?
I think every child has a performer within and it may manifest differently: for me, I was a friendly child, always making up stories and chatting to strangers. That has not changed. I loved acting out plays and used to beg my teachers to put them on. As a young child I created very intricate games, setting up whole theatrical environments, in which my brother and I played.

Was there a defining moment when you knew that you were destined for a career in the theatrical arts?
It was while I was on an American Field Service Scholarship back in 1970. I spent one year in Houston, Texas and became very passionate and involved in theatre and choir. I entered all the acting tournaments along with my new friends and loved the challenge of presenting different stories. I did not realize acting could be a full-time job and I think because of this original belief I have always juggled several roles, that of parent, teacher, coach, therapist and lecturer, on top of my theatrical career as writer/director/performer. All these roles impact on each other, enriching the theatrical journey, in particular my writing.

Did you have any role models in theatre that inspired you in the early days of your career?
Most definitely! There were four people who, in my early years, had a profound effect on my theatrical career. The first was Hayes Gordon, founder of Ensemble Theatre Sydney, who I met in 1972 and remained a dedicated mentee till 1977 when he encouraged me to leave Australia and pursue my theatre training in New York City. I chose to work with the renowned Stella Adler, who taught me respect for the art of acting, then Gerrard Sibbritt, an Australian dancer who was a strong mentor for many years, teaching me choreography, and finally Stefan Niedzialkowski who taught me Polish Mime in NYC late 70’s early 80’s.

At the end of June you’ll be doing a run of performances of two shows back-to-back – what spurred the decision to double up in this way?
Athletes have triathlons, so why not artists? My triathlon is Eve, He Dreamed A Train and HOME (HOME had its last season at Queensland Theatre in 2015 hence we are not including it this time round). All three (very different) plays explore the concept of belonging – how do we belong in this chaotic world? Because everyone does it differently I thought it essential that the theme be explored from different angles. I am working on The Belonging Trilogy, as a festival triathlon. 

For those that haven’t had the opportunity to catch either He Dreamed A Train or Eve, how would you describe them without giving too much away?
Eve, directed by my long-term collaborator Leah Mercer, is a blast: a vibrant character who jokes and plays throughout the performance until unforeseen circumstances intervene. Eve has been strongly influenced and inspired by the Australian author Eve Langley. He Dreamed a Train is a warm and reflective piece of theatrical invention which explores childhood memories and the human depths of love and loss when a woman returns to the family home, incorporating wonderfully magical environments created by Benjamin Knapton.

Although two different theatrical beasts, are there any thematic similarities between the shows that makes the pairing work on another level?
There are some lines that I repeat in both plays with regard to belonging. The real Eve Langley writes about the great Australian loneliness as “that old disease of mine”. I think that Australia is a rather lonely country. That is not a bad thing necessarily, but it is something that seems to be part of our Australian identity and we don’t really talk about it. I also think loneliness is increasing due to our reliance on social media. My brother who wrote the book, He Dreamed a Train (I borrowed his title I loved it so much), wanted to address this isolation and loneliness by re-connecting all the country towns (that are dying) with a solar powered train. In Eve, we see her trying to reconnect to the world through her writing. Both plays are exploring ways of re-connecting in a world that is challenging and at times confusing.

What do you hope people will take away from the performance?
I hope the experience inspires new ways of looking at how we belong and how we can grow our own belonging – belonging being one of the biggest protective factors against mental and physical illness. The plays explore the challenging world of transition, when we move from one way of being to another. Transitional stages are vulnerable times and both characters embrace ritual, though quite differently, in order to stay connected.

You’re teaming up with your son Travis for the show – what is the best thing about working with him?
Oh, it is such a joy to be performing again with Travis Ash! He is a philosopher, a poet, a musician, a composer and an actor and all of his ways of being impact our relationship on stage. We enjoy the dynamics that happen when we are in rehearsal together. It requires very little verbal language, rather we communicate in body language, musical score and our joint theatrical sense of humour. It is one of the highlights of this project, to be able to create with Travis.

Have the two of you butted heads over any conceptual or performative aspects before?
No. Travis grew up in theatre and has had wonderful mentors in music and acting. I have such a huge respect for his artistic integrity – he is slow to make comment, but when he does, I listen. That is one of the main values held by our company – respect for each other’s ideas, along with accountability and open communication. We encourage each other to risk and push our boundaries in order achieve excellence. Travis plays a big part in that.

You’ve worked with just about every theatre company in Brisbane over the years – what do you love about Brisbane’s theatre scene right now?
I love our freedom here. We can create work without interference. We have funded main-stage theatres who are extremely generous in helping support the independent sector (which is the blood of the local theatre industry). They consistently provide rehearsal spaces and theatres in which to perform. In our case Brisbane Powerhouse offered us The Stores Rehearsal Room for a month so that we can rehearse on our own sets – crucial for these particular plays –followed by a 3 week season. Queensland Theatre provided us two weeks of rehearsal space earlier in the year and Metro Arts has been the birth place of these plays, along with Playlab’s LabRats program. La Boite initially supported HOME, the third play of the trilogy. And not only do we have freedom and places in which to perform, we have a city council that values and supports the arts through their grant programs and venues. 

What’s the best advice you have ever been given?
Honestly, my best advice is rather conservative: “Women artists, we can have it all. But not at the same time”. My generation of feminists pronounced that “we will have it all”, but we forgot to add “not at the same time”. This is one of the things I offer as a provocation to my young artist clients, particularly new mums, who are very excited about being a parent but at the same time miss the excitement of the theatre.   As a mother of four, I discovered through trial and error that it was important to say no to some sparkling opportunities, in order to nourish the family, investing time and energy in the children’s and my well-being. The theatre will always be there, but our children will not. This theme is explored deeply in Eve, who was a mother, wife and an artist and found the conflict overwhelmingly challenging.

Margi Brown Ash will be performing a double bill of He Dreamed A Train and Eve back-to-back at the Brisbane Powerhouse from Friday June 29 to Sunday July 16. Head to the Brisbane Powerhouse website for ticketing information


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