Sara Wiseman: Directing Debut
Sara Wiseman is an actress and champion of theatre. She co-founded The Actors’ Program providing the tools and experience that practitioners need to step out into the world as thespians. Moving to Australia after finishing all three seasons of Mercy Peak, she currently stars in Australian drama A Place to Call Home. I chatted to Sara ahead of her brief stint back home in New Zealand as she prepares to tackle her latest career challenge - her first directing role. In many ways coming full circle, she will be directing playwright John Patrick Shanley’s play, Danny and The Deep Blue Sea, at Basement Theatre in Auckland.
It is impossible not to start this story with this message from Sara to aspiring theatre makers:
“What an inspiration you are! You are the way-showers, the waker-uppers, the shaker-uppers. You are the highly underrated but vital storytellers that can literally change someone's life for the better. You may not be rich financially, and yeah that sucks, but you will be rich in community, rich in your mind, heart and soul, challenged beyond your expectations and perpetually topped up with great passion and compassion for humanity. You have the chance to give a fresh perspective and insight to that member of the community who might need it the most. Oh, and if you're losing the faith, go audit a Larry Moss workshop. He will inspire you about the vital importance of theatre beyond your wildest dreams.”
This sums up the deep love that Sara holds for theatre. She has explored and challenged herself every step of the way in her career as an actor, and now as a director. She carries a generosity of spirit that resonates beyond her personal experience to reach aspiring actors who she may never meet.
Sara co-founded The Actors’ Program, a unique training ground different from any other approach to learning in New Zealand. This one year intensive course brings a dynamic and fully immersive approach to actor training based around building the foundations necessary for navigating an unpredictable career path. “The acting profession is fast changing, competitive, unpredictable and deeply affecting on a personal and professional level. There is so much we can't control but the things we can control; a proactive work ethic, professionalism, diversity of range, authentic craft, a generous supportive collective and tools to create our own work, these were the inspiration behind creating 'The Actors' Program'.” Built from the depths of personal experience, this course develops a skill set essential for anyone trying to approach the murky playing fields of an acting career.
Sara’s career started later than many her in field. Acting wasn’t something that she always knew she would do, or even something that came naturally to her as a youngster. “I started into acting pretty late, taking my first class at age 21. It took that long because I figured I sucked at it. I was the kid who auditioned for the lead in the school play and ended up being cast in the dancing chorus, or the mute servant.” With that level of confidence in her abilities, it has taken many courageous steps to get Sara to where she is today.
The first of these was stepping inside the Jeffrey James Theatre (now home to Basement Theatre) aged 21 and taking an acting class with American tutor, Kenneth McGregor who ran drop in classes five nights a week. “The floor was covered in shitty, musty carpet. The seats were leftovers from the Classic Cinema directly above (now The Classic) which then screened porn films. When you warmed up, you could hear the sex moans coming through the ceiling. McGregor used the Strasberg Method technique. My first night I 'was born', that is I had to 'push myself out of my mother's womb' and become a crying baby. Everyone else seemed totally cool with this exercise but I was thinking 'What the f*#k is happening?!'. I was completely out of my depth and comfort zone.”
Somewhat unsurprisingly, these were not the classes for Sara. She lasted just three weeks, but it was these three weeks, she says, that changed the direction of her life forever. For this is where she first discovered John Patrick Shanley’s play Danny and The Deep Blue Sea. “That first night, two actors got up and rehearsed the first scene of a play called 'Danny and The Deep Blue Sea'. I can still recall how viscerally affected I was by the text and the actors. I didn't know actors could make such provocative choices and an audience could be impacted at such close range. It changed everything for me about what live performance could do to a person … I knew then, although it terrified the bejesus out of me, that I wanted to do what all these brave people on stage were doing. It began my love affair with the theatre.”
At age 23, Sara started her professional training years behind her peers, and she says that she experienced a lot of self-doubt, frustration and fear of not reaching her dreams along the way. “It was Raymond Hawthorne who made things crystal clear for me. He asked me after class one night 'Are you in this for the short haul or the long haul?' I said 'The long haul." He said 'Right then, you have to train properly and full time.'”
Sara quit her job, and took hold of the financial and social impact of studying theatre full time. “Losing financial freedom and consistently having to keep yourself available for an audition changes the way you live. You don't go on big holidays, you only buy necessities, you rent places with more people in them than the lease allows. All my extra money went on extra acting classes outside drama school.” And you never know if these risks are going to pay off. That is all part of the game.
Fortunately for Sara, it did work out. Fresh out of theatre school she was cast back-to-back on screen and in theatre until she was cast for the lead in the New Zealand drama series, Mercy Peak. “It ran for sixty episodes over three seasons. I paid off my student loan and got a mortgage on a house. I thought, this is fantastic! Long may it continue!”
However, as Sara so eloquently points out, theatre and screen is a different beast from your traditional career trajectory. After her success at Mercy Peak, instead of receiving offers for new opportunities, she became almost untouchable in New Zealand. She was told that New Zealand audiences would not be able to disassociate her from her character on Mercy Peak. She had been pigeonholed.
This was a tough time for Sara. “In any other profession and in a larger acting industry, accomplished practitioners move up the ladder into bigger things. It's capitalised on. It seemed to be the reverse in New Zealand. It was an incredibly depressing and frustrating time as I had no control over those perceptions.” She laments, “Tenacity and resilience is so much a part of this crazy gig.”
Due to a shortsighted underestimation of both Sara’s skillset and the imagination of New Zealand audiences, we lost another of one of our great talents to Australia. Sara moved to Sydney in search of opportunities. “I loved the shows and theatre coming out of Australia and wanted to throw the net wider for employment … if you are not producing your own work, or expanding your tool kit into writing or directing, New Zealand's acting industry is very sporadic. Nothing will destroy your soul quicker than waiting for a call from your agent.”
Finding herself in a much larger and well-supported industry, Sara has established her life and career in Australia. Most notably, since 2013 Sara has played the role of Carolyn Bligh in the Australian Period drama A Place To Call Home. She is currently waiting on news about whether they will be heading into their sixth season coming up.
Sara says that she cherishes every chance she has to “get back on kiwi soil working with my kiwi mates.” She is excited (if not a little daunted) about her upcoming season and debut as Director for Danny and The Deep Blue Sea. The significance of this homecoming is not lost on Sara. Let’s not forget that Basement Theatre is the very same building where she attended those first eccentric theatre workshops aged 21, or that she has chosen as her directing debut the play that inspired her acting career. “Having such a long running connection to the place and seeing what it has manifested into, this gig has that 'coming back to the source' feeling about it.”
As with all steps in her career, there has been an element of finding her confidence that has been necessary to get her into directing. She says that it is often a natural progression for actors to move into directing at some stage in their careers. “It's taken a while for me, mostly because of not feeling confident enough to attempt it. Fear is a crippling, soul shrinking thing, so earlier this year I said to myself... 'Grow some, Sas. If not now, when?'.” The big concerns for her revolve around whether she will do the script (and therefore the actors) justice; a good dose of imposter's syndrome and a justified fear of criticism.
“The theatre environment can be incredibly critical, destructively so. Writers, actors, directors, designers, composers, regardless of what protective layers they have, hate reading or hearing what they've created is crap. No one goes into this theatre gig trying to be shit. Everyone's doing the best they can with what they've got. Alan Alda writes 'walking backstage is like walking into a burn victim's unit'. Everyone is completely exposed and raw. Man, I can relate to that. So it's time to face that possibility, again, but from a different vantage point this time. I have no control over what others will think, that's their business, but I will be doing my damnedest to honour the playwright and my actors' journey from start to finish. The rest will just have to take care of itself.”
Danny and The Deep Blue Sea plays Basement Theatre:
Tuesday 22 August - Saturday 2 September, 8pm
Run time: 85 mins
Book tickets here
STRICTLY LIMITED SEASON. TEN SHOWS ONLY. BOOK EARLY.