With major roles in Blue Heelers and Underbelly, Caroline Craig has had a significant presence on Australian television over the past 10 years. This year she returns to the theatre, this time as Director.

She spoke to Australian Stage's Simon Piening about her new company, Two Birds One Stone, which she formed with fellow NIDA graduate Emma Jackson, and their inaugural production, S-27 by award-winning playwright Sarah Grochala.

Caroline CraigYou are best known to Australian audiences for your roles on television, as Tess Gallagher in Blue Heelers and more recently, as Jacqui James in Underbelly. Were you always interested in performing? How/when did you get started?
No I always wanted to be a police woman but didn’t pass the physical so went to drama school instead! No, I’m kidding. Yes, my Grandma lived down the road from my primary school and I would spend every afternoon with her. She would play the piano and my brother and I would tear around the garden in some ripped up old nylon curtains pretending to be ghosts or fairies or just kamikaze nylon curtains. We would borrow Grandma’s 1960’s pink lipstick and put on drag shows leaping out from behind the couch singing ‘Hey Big Spender’ or enacting some story about a ‘journey’ we’d  made up for my Mum when she came to pick us up from work. It was pretty hilarious. I always loved those times. We were lucky to have such a mad imaginative and free environment. My great aunt was also a singing teacher and she provided the discipline that helped me keep that creative dream alive.

You graduated from NIDA in 1999, started in Blue Heelers in 2000, and in 2001 you were nominated for a Silver Logie for Most Popular New Talent. How did you cope with your rapid success?
It was wonderful to have a job after graduating. I was very lucky and I stuffed up a fair bit and learnt a lot about acting on screen and about maintaining a full time job. I loved the cast and crew on Blue Heelers. They were a massive support for a nervous shivering leaf straight out of one Australian institution and into another – entirely different and much more public arena. I was very surprised about the success of the show, I knew it was a great Aussie drama but I had no idea it had such a massive following, I felt very proud to be part of the team. I never imagined I would work in TV – I always thought I belonged in theatre – but I just loved the work and the opportunity to create a character over three and a half years.

When you started in Blue Heelers, you were effectively taking over the female lead from Lisa McCune, whose Maggie Doyle is one of Australia’s most beloved TV characters of all time. Were you apprehensive about stepping into those shoes? What sort of reaction did you get from the audience when you first started in that role?
Everyone was incredibly supportive, especially Lisa who sent me a bunch of hyacinths to the set when my first episode went to air. I was very nervous and watching it back it is hilarious how much my character nods in one episode! One day after my first episode of Blue Heelers had gone to air, I was queueing in the local IGA supermarket when I heard this voice grumble “You killed Maggie Doyle!” and when I turned around an elderly lady whacked me in the head with a bag of frozen peas - so yeah, the power of the telly did come as a bit of a surprise.

The first series of Underbelly is now regarded as a landmark production in Australian television. What was the feeling like amongst the cast and crew at the time? Did you feel you were working on something special? When did you know you had a hit on your hands?
The feeling was very exciting and very clandestine. Coming from Melbourne myself I felt privileged to be telling this story so close to home and trepidatious… everyone knew someone who knew Carl Williams or Alphonse Gangitano. It was an extremely special story and we felt a duty to make the characters as truthful as possible. What I loved was the humour and irreverence of the writing and style was something new for Australian TV. We had no idea what people would make of it – there was a lot of build up in anticipation before it went to air and then when it was banned by the Victorian Courts – and everyone except I had a bootleg DVD copy of the first five episodes from a mate of a mate. I think we knew it was a hot one in Melbourne but I had no idea all of Australia would be into it. Makes me proud when audiences get behind new Australian work.
{xtypo_quote_right}I was queueing in the local IGA supermarket when I heard this voice grumble “You killed Maggie Doyle!” and when I turned around an elderly lady whacked me in the head with a bag of frozen peas{/xtypo_quote_right}
You also have a long history in live performance, most recently performing in Optimism for the Sydney Theatre Company and you are currently in rehearsals for S-27. Are you returning to your theatrical roots? What does theatre offer, as distinct from TV/film?
I love rehearsing a play. I love the atmosphere of creating another world in a rehearsal room and I love the process of bringing a script to life with other actors. This is a luxury after working in TV which requires a different set of skills being such a relatively speedy rehearsal to performance ride. Now directing I have the fabulous opportunity of working with designers, sound and lighting as well and being able to sit outside and see the actors’ process from another angle as their characters evolve and the story unfolds. It is thrilling to be part of such a creative team.

You have formed a new company, Two Birds One Stone, to produce S-27 by award-winning playwright Sarah Grochala - and you’re also directing the play. What are the aims of the company? Is this the first time you’ve taken on the role of Director? Is it something you are likely to do more of in the future?
A fellow NIDA grad, Emma Jackson and I have formed Two Birds One Stone to produce thrilling and challenging new work. I found the play gripping on the first read and when I brought it home from London for Emma to read, she was in floods about the moving love story at the centre of the dark world of this play. We knew we had found something special and intriguing in Grochala’s play and we knew this was the one we would form a company to produce. The wonderful people at Griffin Theatre Company seemed to like our ideas and were brave enough to support our first production through Griffin Independent. For Emma and I this play is our first step out of acting and into different roles. We feel lucky to have each other to bounce ideas off and with Griffin behind us and a brilliantly talented cast and production team we feel confident that the brave new world of this play - S-27 – will light the first spark of many Two Birds One Stone productions in the future.

S-27 is being presented as part of the Griffin Independent 2010 season of international works. Can you tell us about the play? What drew you to it in the first place?
S-27 is short sharp play with a tender heart, a love story set in a brutal world torn apart by class war. It is the story of May, a young girl who works as a prison photographer for a totalitarian regime. She is an idealist caught in a killing machine whose beliefs are challenged as each new prisoner forces her to choose between showing mercy and thereby risking her own safety or to stay implacable behind the safety of the lens to ‘save her own skin’. She is a child of a revolution gone wrong her battle with the cold brutality of her role in the prison is brought undone when her past catches up with her and love smashes open her heart and her human desire for freedom. It is a tiny play that deals with huge human rights issues in microcosm. It is inspired by the true story of Nhem En, a photographer who worked under the Khmer Rouge when he was only fifteen.  What drew me to the play was the spare dialogue and the grippingly human story. S-27 is the 27th person to pass by her lens each day and this soft young girl who was both victim and perpetrator in this deconstructing world, was put in this hugely morally compromising position in order to survive. It really forced me to think about the limits of human compassion and the choices I made in my own life. It simultaneously stung me and moved me in a way I haven’t felt theatre do in a long time. What would I sacrifice for someone I loved? I couldn’t put it away and I hope it will strike a similar cord in the hearts and heads of Sydney audiences.

Finally – what’s next for you?
Just thinking about opening night – is there life after that? Maybe I’ll go for a swim.

S-27 previews from March 17, 2010 at the SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney. Further details»

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