Who is Bronwen Coleman?
A neurodivergent, at-home dancing, theatre making mother of one, with two cats named Justin Timberlake and Mark Wahlberg.
What would you do differently to what you do now?
I’ve always wanted to be a police officer. I actually looked into it when I lived in New York, but you had to be an American citizen and at the time I was only a permanent resident. Would I have made it through the academy? Uncertain. Constable (Sergeant?) Bronwen!
Who inspires you and why?
I like to talk about my teacher – the late, great, Elizabeth Kemp – any opportunity I get. I met Elizabeth when I was 22. I’d moved to New York to do my Masters in acting and she was my Basic Technique teacher. I remember sitting in a circle in a black box theatre on 21st street when I’d been there a total of about one week. She was laying down the law and telling us about the technique we’d be learning – Lee Strasberg’s Method. She had incredible gravitas.
I’ve heard more than one person who knew her describe her as ‘A Force of Nature’. I wrote in my journal as I listened to her that she was “mad as a cut snake” – I didn’t have the language at that point to describe what I was seeing. She became my mentor and later, when I was a working actor, I would bring my characters into the drop-in class she ran in Chelsea to work on them. The last time I saw her, before she passed away, she directed me in “Streetcar” in a masterclass here in Melbourne.
When I’m directing, just as when I was acting, it’s her voice I often hear in my head. “Go deeper!” she’d say, “You’ve gotta fight for the character!”
What would you do to make a difference in the world?
Honestly, I try to do it with my plays. That’s what I’ve got to offer, for better or worse. When I’m choosing projects, I’m looking at what the play is offering to the conversation. What questions are being provoked? In the play I’m working on now, Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, I cast Astrov – arguably the central romantic lead – as a woman (he’s written as a man.) This mean’s the play’s central love triangle becomes queer.
Last week two striking things happened; one, my son’s school, which was recognising IDAHOBIT (International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia), had to cancel a visit from drag performer Dolly Diamond because of threats made to the school after a Herald Sun article reported the planned visit.
And two, the day after the announcement, we were rehearsing a romantic scene between our Astrov (Catherine Morvell) and Elena (Pia O’Meadhra) and the actors were doing beautiful work (going deeper! Fighting harder!) and the scene was gorgeous, incredibly moving, and I thought – this is what I can do.
Favourite holiday destination and why?
There is a little town called Burrill Lake on the south coast of New South Wales. My grandparents lived there when I was a kid, and the family still meet up there once or twice a year to hang out and go to the beach. It’s incredibly gorgeous. The lake is almost surrounded by state forests and the place where it runs into the ocean – called The Entrance – is my favourite place to swim on earth.
When friends come to town, what attraction would you take them to, and why?
When I was a child and my parents had guests from out of town we always took them to see the penguins. You know the penguin parade, down at Phillip Island? You go down there at dusk with a blanket and a thermos of hot chocolate and speak in hushed tones as little rafts of fairy penguins emerge from the sea and sprint up the beach to their burrows. So probably that, or Healesville Sanctuary. I married into an American family and those guys go wild over a kangaroo. A koala? Forget it, it’s over.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished rereading Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye. I first read that book when I was 16. I had to. It was on the VCE English list, and I had an exam on it. But I read it over and over. It was a bright, beautiful, lush literary landscape in my otherwise grey VCE experience. Quite literally grey; grey uniforms, grey lockers, grey chalkboards (yes dinosaurs roamed the earth).
My other subjects were math, history, French… Cat’s Eye was my escape. An incredibly sad book, about a dysfunctional childhood friendship that haunts the narrator into adulthood. But something about its tone, or subject, spoke to me. I understood it. I felt bereft after I took the exam and I knew I wouldn’t be able to read it anymore and I’d have to focus on stupid math and history.
For years the book was in a box of my stuff that I’d left in my sister’s shed when I moved to New York. When we came back, a few years ago, I went through the box and chucked most of the stuff away, but I kept that book. Reading it again was ghostly. I’d written in the margins, as a teenager, and underlined certain things. But mainly I remembered how sad I’d been when I read it, and what a beautiful book it is.
What are you currently listening to?
I’m listening to music I might use in Uncle Vanya – a lot of Sufjan Stevens. Carrie & Lowell and Suite from Run Rabbit Run with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
A game of Unstable Unicorns (or Bananagrams!) with my family.
What does the future hold for you?
Later this year I’m going to be part of the New Ground Commission program, run by Bunjil Place and the City of Casey. Five of us artists have been commissioned to develop a new work exploring the prompt “borders and boundaries”.
I’m working on a new play by Andrea Ciannavei, a wonderful playwright (and TV writer) I worked with in New York at Labyrinth Theatre Company. It’s about three generations of an Italian American family with a terrible secret at its core, which starts to spill out when the family’s matriarch dies. We’ll start rehearsing that in August.
Bronwen is the Director of a new translation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya – which will be presented at Theatre Works from 7 – 17 June 2023. For more information, visit: www.theatreworks.org.au for details.
Image: Bronwen Coleman (supplied)