Camilla Blunden's one woman show All This Living opens on 22 February for a season at the Butterfly Club in Melbourne. Camilla has been involved in theatre, in one form or another, all her working life (she is now 72) and was a founding member of Canberra's Women on a Shoestring Theatre Company created by women in response to the absence of strong and interesting roles for women. This is the first solo piece she had written. Camilla made time to speak with Jan Chandler about her life, her work and writing a solo show.
Acting has always been part of Camilla's life but, as a young woman growing up in 1960s England, it was not a career she was encouraged to pursue. She trained as a secondary drama teacher, but continued to attend acting classes at night. Her first teaching post was at a Girls Comprehensive School in London's East End, an eye-opening experience for someone from a comfortable middle class family. The students came from many different cultural backgrounds but shared the experience of having mothers who had left school at 15 and were working in the rag trade. Together with the students Camilla helped to create a theatre piece set in a factory. It was well received by students and parents. Her interest in community theatre continues to this day, along with her work in professional theatre, theatre in education and on various independent projects.
Camilla arrived in Melbourne in the early 1970s, just when there was a growing interest in the creation of more varied and substantial roles for women along with new Australian works. Teaching drama at Oakleigh Boys Technical School she was encouraged to join the staff of the newly formed Melbourne State College. As an actor she was particularly interested in changes within the local theatre scene. At The Pram Factory The Australian Performing Group were creating new work that spoke of and to the times and valued the performer as an essential part of the creative process.
On moving to Canberra, Camilla joined a Theatre in Education team. She was keen to direct but was disappointed by the absence of interesting and full roles for women, so she set up a women's theatre workshop. The workshops grew and went on to become Women on a Shoestring Theatre Company which was dedicated to working with writers and performers, as well as dancers and musicians, to create new work. The company ran for some twenty years, often touring work nationally, until the company members decided it was time to move on; tired of the continual search for funding and wanting to explore new paths.
It was whilst working with Women on a Shoestring that Camilla's interest turned to directing. She heard that Sydney's Nimrod Theatre (founded by John Bell, Richard Wherrett and Ken Horler in 1970) was offering a director's course for women who had worked for at least five years in theatre. She applied and was accepted, joining the likes of Faye Mokotow from The Pram Factory and film director Gillian Armstrong. Camilla admits that there have been improvements for women in theatre since the 1970s, but believes that the changes have been too slow and that there are still areas in need of improvement. Young women actors still find that they are too often judged on appearance rather than ability, there are still too few substantial roles for older women, and mainstream theatre and television need to work harder to better reflect the cultural variety of Australian society.
Several years ago Camilla saw an advertisement from Canberra's Street Theatre script/performance development program, The Hive, calling for actors who were interested in writing a solo piece. The time was just right for her; her head was full of ideas about the older woman and she was 'pissed off at some things'. Having been accepted into the program she worked with dramaturg Peter Mathieson to develop a work aimed at illuminating the different issues surrounding older women in today's society. She called for women aged from 50 into their 80s, from different cultural backgrounds, to join focus groups. The women talked about anything and everything; they expressed their anger at being sterotyped, having their sexuality denied and being treated as if they were invisible.
Armed with stories and incidents from these women's lives Camilla added a further layer to her work through reading about mythical women along with factual books about ageing. Jay, the character she has created, is on a journey to make sense of herself and this stage of her life. Why does society see ageing as something to be avoided at all costs? Does she have to retire from life, just because she's seen as a retiree. Jay turns to mythical women, the Caillech and the Furies, for guidance; some of them become part of her story. There is humour along the way, as well as some home truths. All This Living premiered in Canberra in 2015 and has had several productions since.
Camilla hopes that All This Living will appeal across generations. She purposely chose to work with a younger director and designers because she wanted their different and fresh perspectives. She hopes that audiences will leave the performance feeling that they've just 'met' an interesting woman who wants to engage with people and has a worthwhile story to tell. 'Most people of my age are doing things. Retirement can free you to do what you want … write, paint.' If you are lucky and you keep your health you can still be independent and you certainly don't like being represented as if you're not.
Camilla Blunden presents All This Living! at The Butterfly Club, Melbourne, from 22 – 26 February, 2017. For bookings and further information visit www.thebutterflyclub.com
Top right – Camilla Blunden. Photo – Lorna Sim