ALISON CAMPBELL RATE – WORDPOWER, MINDPOWER, GIRLPOWER.

To some in our world she may seem to be unobtrusive but look out, she’s got the helicopter vision to quickly identify what’s gone wrong and how to fix it.

Writer of 3 full length plays, full time professional administrator, best actor and support actor awards, VDL Secretary now for seven years, Alison is a highly respected contributor in community theatre circles.

You may think she is only a smiling face at the Awards Night presentations but, she’s actually the driving force on the night, marshalling people left right and centre.

VDL president Bruce Cochrane persuaded her to share some pearls of wisdom.

Alison presents Best Lead Actress in a Comedy award to Cat Jardine, The VDL Awards, 2018.

BRUCE: Apologies for the delay, I’m still working on getting my internet connection problem fixed before our next Zoom meeting …… because I know, I’ve delayed the start of Committee meetings a couple of times.   

ALISON: Not to worry, Bruce, there is always a way around every problem!

BRUCE: Very gracious of you to say so. What’s your secret for juggling many balls, and still maintaining a forgiving temperament?

ALISON:  I can juggle virtual balls far better than real ones! My husband, Paul, was in charge of ball skills and maths when our children were growing up. I was in charge of literacy and singing in tune. I tend to close my eyes when a ball comes near me which is not helpful. But juggling tasks is something that seems to come naturally and I do love a good list that I can tick off as I go. I recall feeding babies while tapping away at the computer one handed and scribbling ideas on supermarket dockets while waiting at traffic lights. I inherited the ‘I can help with that’ gene from my father. He was on many committees for many years as Secretary or Chair and demonstrated community service very strongly to us and how to bring people along with you.

BRUCE: Yes, but I’ve never seen you actually show any anger. How hard do you have to work on that?

ALISON:  But you’ve never driven with me anywhere, have you, Bruce…?  I’m naturally a very impatient person. I also have a very active ‘politeness’ button. So the two balance each other out, in public at least. Talk to Paul for the real dirt – we’ve been married 33 years this November. Anger is a fairly shallow emotion. It usually masks other stuff – like frustration, grief or fear. I try to approach anger in terms of what I (or the other person) might be grappling with underneath. This helps to generate a more compassionate and productive response (most of the time). … Did you actually mention the word psychoanalysis when you talked me into doing this interview, Bruce?

BRUCE: Mmmm. Of your numerous activities then, what’s the most satisfying?

ALISON: Nearly everything I do I find immensely satisfying as long as it’s creative, helpful and purposeful. I’ve headed up a not for profit community service organisation since 2004 and have given and gained so much from my interactions there. Seeing the plays I have written come to life on stage is truly wonderful. I’m very grateful to the directors and companies who have produced my work so far. More please!!!  Both The Peppercorn Tree and Counting Sparrows have been published by australianplays.org too which was exciting.

2010 World premiere The Peppercorn Tree.

A sideline is memoir writing for mainly older people who want to put their life story together. I love hearing their stories and watching their faces as they reminisce. For some it has been quite a therapeutic experience and I feel privileged to be trusted with their memories. Pulling all the material together is like piecing a quilt and it’s very satisfying for them and for me when it comes together.

Music is another love. I have composed a bunch of songs for church where I sing and lead the band each week – another important part of my life. Acting opportunities are a little infrequent due to work and family commitments but being part of a team in that high stakes environment appeals to my virtual ball juggling brain. Plus I love to dress up and play.

Best Lead Actress, Alison Campbell Rate (right) with Bronwyn Cameron, Pack of Lies, Malvern Theatre Company, 2004, directed by John Bishop.
Best Supporting Actress, Alison Campbell Rate (right) with Zandelee Clarke, Mr Bennet’s Bride, Malvern Theatre Company, 2019, directed by Susan Rundle.

BRUCE: When we come down to it, the friendships we make are what sustains our involvement in theatre activities, wouldn’t you say?  What are your treasured memories?

ALISON: Absolutely. A friend first coaxed me into auditioning for the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Victoria back in 1983. This was my first stage experience. I’m very grateful for that encouragement because it came at a time in my life when I was in need of something that was both absorbing and freeing, having just lost my mum. I ended up performing with the company over a 20 year period, learned heaps and made lifelong friends. A memorable show was The Mikado in 1997 where I played one of the 3 little maids, having given birth to child #3 6 weeks beforehand. This feat was only made possible because of the help offered by Liz Burman, wonderful wife of Richard Burman (former VDL President, who was in the show playing the comic character Koko). The dressing room drill before the show went like this – make up and wig on, semi dress, feed baby, handball to Liz, lash kimono into place and dash on stage as the music for the ladies’ entrance began. Exciting times. After that period I moved into ‘straight’ theatre mainly with Malvern, Brighton and Peridot and again have made so many lovely, supportive friends along the way. The ‘theatrigals’ (you know who you are!) are a good example.

Pit stop before the show – Alison and offspring with Ron and Robyn Pidcock and Michael Smith, The Mikado, GSOV, 1997, directed by Andrea Garing, Musical Direction Michelle Stanic.

BRUCE: Are male friendships as important as female to you?

ALISON: I’m the youngest after 3 brothers so I do ‘boy-speak’ fairly well but I probably gravitate more towards females (possibly looking for my non-existent sister if we are going to continue the psychoanalysis theme.) Basically, I like to chat with most people.

BRUCE: The VDL Committee, along with the wider community has consistently promoted codes of behaviour regarding sexual harassment and etiquette. Why do you think a small percentage of male offenders still persist with inappropriate behaviour?

ALISON: Oh, boy. Big question and, frankly, beyond my pay grade. … Society has to set expectations for all sorts of things, even though we know that some people can’t or won’t comply for whatever reason. Everyone has their own issues but at some point you have to take responsibility for your actions and how they impinge on others. That’s called being an adult. Sexual harassment, abuse and violence are symptoms of wider cultural concerns. Protecting the vulnerable is the most important thing. If what you do harms others then it has to be called out for that reason alone, no matter what your gender. I don’t think I answered your question.

BRUCE: You have a great facility for language, verbal and written, where did that come from?

ALISON: I like to read.

BRUCE: As I said to you recently, we seem to be living in an ‘age of cliché.’ How do you avoid that?

ALISON: Well, I could say I try to avoid clichés like the plague but that would be just silly. The authors I admire the most are those who surprise me with their virtuosity of expression. David Mitchell, Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel, Carol Shields. They toss you into a setting with truly unique imagery and new ways of word-smithing. You don’t see it coming until you’re in the middle of it and then you don’t want to leave. I am in awe.

BRUCE: It’s got to be important when you’re someone who either learns pages of dialogue as an actor or writes pages of narrative for others. And then, there’s the teasing out of ideas when you’re doing memoirs for people.

ALISON: The right word in the right place, that’s what it comes down to. It feels like a hunt or a quest. When you hit the spot marked X, you know it. It’s a bit like finding a line in a piece of music – there is an innate rhythm to each phrase and each sentence and each paragraph. Then, as an actor, you need to find the rhythm in your dialogue in order to speak it aloud. Writing, acting and music are very closely aligned.

BRUCE: What’s still to be conquered for ACR?

ALISON: World domination is on hold until we clear up COVID 19 so I suppose I’ll have to be content with finishing the script I’m currently working on. I’d like to see my plays performed further afield. I’d like to learn Auslan. I’d like to get our 28 year old ensuite renovated.

BRUCE: Well, on behalf of a grateful and admiring community, may I say, ‘Thank You’ and ‘All the very best.’

ALISON: Thank you for asking me, Bruce. I wasn’t too tongue in cheek, was I? Oh, and don’t forget to send those agenda items for the next meeting.