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Ruby of the Month: Cate Blanchett

01 March 2013

It’s a day of maintenance at Cate Blanchett’s Sydney home. A couple of handymen have arrived to take a brief of odd jobs to be done around the house. From fixing sticky door jambs and patching plaster to fixing a leaky tap in the kitchen, they’re the sort of niggling issues Cate hasn’t had the time to get her head around – until now.

Cate has also agreed to do an interview with the Ruby connection. In my capacity as the online editor of the site, I’ve arrived to chat with her about the business of theatre, career and women. I’m early for our appointment and feel a little unusual – it’s not every day you sit down to interview your sister-in-law. In fact in both our careers, this will be the first time we’ve ever met with our professional hats on like this.

Cate is at the vet with the family pets and due back any moment. 

It’s a school day and the remains of that life lie around on the kitchen and dining surfaces that are the centre of this family’s life. A tie and pair of blue school shorts lay in a discarded heap on one of the two day beds to the side of the room-length kitchen bench; items of primary school homework – spelling lists, school project briefs, notes on what to expect as a kindergarten student – are taped to the glass cupboard door behind the kitchen bench. The door seals off a sliding draw alcove on which sit a toaster and espresso maker.

Later today, following a Skype conference with a colleague about her upcoming film work, Cate, past co-Artistic Director of the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), is off to Canberra. She is attending the opening night of the STC sellout, smash hit, The Secret River, in the nation’s capital. The play is part of the city’s Centenary celebrations

Cate may have officially finished her role as the STC’s co-artistic director but, as she and anyone in a similar position will tell you, if you’re passionate about something you do and remain connected to the area of your passion as a wider community leader, you never walk away completely.

Her return, this morning, is heralded by the family’s two-year-old Labrador. Barking, in he bounds having forgotten the ignominy of the vet’s temperature check and needles. The Tonkinese kitten – not due home until much later that day – may take a little longer to forget and forgive his ‘neutering’ experience.

The To Do list for the ‘tradies’ underway, we move to the quiet of a book-lined study, cups of ginger tea in hand. It’s now 11am, the time we’d set for the interview to take place.

“You know that old saying: ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person’?” begins Cate, sinking down into a chair.

“I’ve found the saying doesn’t really indicate much about your ‘state of mind’ at the time,” she continues. “You do it, but you do it with no pleasure.” 

“It was enough to manage the children and the [STC] job. There was nothing extraneous. It’s why it’s such a pleasure, now, to think, ‘I might unpack that box that’s been sitting there for five years’ or ‘catalogue all those shots of the boys’,” she says, referring to her family of three boys and a husband, the now lone Artistic Director of the STC, Andrew Upton.

“There’s something really liberating about being just personally organized,” she adds, emphasising the ‘personally’.

Looking back at the five years she spent in the co-artistic directorship (a time in which she also acted on stage and fulfilled film commitments), she and Andrew set and met some major goals while renovating their home and adding a third boy – heralded in the papers with the news headline “Iggy Pops Out” – to the family mix.

“Andrew and I came to the STC from a freelance rhythm,” explains Cate of their early days. “We’d never had a contract for longer than a year, let alone three. I remember folding out that ‘Stalinist’-style, five-year-planner you’d find in a Filofax, and thinking: I should do something with this.

She found it a juggle to balance that long arc with the day-to-day: “We had aspirations on a personal level about what we might achieve, but running a theatre company, you have to remain open to the meandering paths and different directions life and opportunities lead you. It’s like people who tell me they have a birth plan. I think, are you mad? All you can hope for is that it is as safe and pain-free as possible for you and your baby. That’s the plan.” 

They wrote their big-ticket concepts down on the long arc, to:

‘bring great theatre to the country’, 

‘explore and celebrate diverse theatrical forms and find new ways for the company to develop new work’

‘raise the profile internationally of the company’,

‘establish the STC’s credentials environmentally’,

‘establish meaningful relationships with corporate partners and government’,

‘reinvigorate the wharf itself by activating the restaurant’,

‘make the Sydney Theatre venue on Hickson Road work’, 

‘lobby for the city of Sydney and the STC’s place in that city’ and, very importantly,

‘connect with the community as a whole’.

Then they made a pact to check in on those points regularly and ran the company along the meandering path needed to get there.

It turns out the path has been very effective: all their goals have been met in the past five years – one or two faster than expected.

“We thought the greening of the STC would take 5 years. It was one of those things where the stars aligned. We had world leaders in the renewable energy field, such as Richard Corkish from UNSW and Dr Zhengrong Shi, come to us. We had the resources provided through various grants available at the time, including a Cultural Precincts grant, as well as generous donors come on board. We had the backing of the company and we worked long and hard with the community to develop and explain the concept. It was also at a time when people were really committed to doing something about the environment,” explains Cate of the green coup.

Theatre is a recycler of ideas and materials. It wasn’t much more of step to think: why not recycle on every level. The concept also successfully fed into a belief Andrew and Cate held that if they were to bring people good theatre they would have to stay relevant to Sydney, and to do that meant staying connected to community and place in a larger more ubiquitous way.

“If we failed to engage with the big ideas, the major concerns of the human race, we would very quickly become irrelevant,” says Cate.

One welcome and unplanned upshot of the ‘greening’ project has been the interest it’s generated among corporates. The STC wasn’t just a purveyor of theatre, it seemed, it was a company with a business plan that was creative, innovative and wide reaching, and had, at its heart, a sense of social responsibility. 

“Managing to do what we do on the smell of an oily rag – and not compromise on our responsibility – fascinates them,” Cate says with a wry smile. 

Cate Blanchett has achieved the sort of global public recognition reserved for either the very talented or the very notorious. She’s often still flummoxed by her success and remembers when she auditioned and was accepted into NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) hearing from day one that of the 22 students in the year, two would still be working in 10 years time. 

Her most consistent thought about this melancholic fact was she’d give it five years, “because these are very talented people I’m sitting with now and I’ve seen a lot of talent on stage and I don’t think I can hack the rejection for longer than that.”

Twenty years later, she didn’t “have to find something else to do”, such as finishing her Fine Arts Economics degree to become the curator she thought she might be. Albeit, in a twist of fate, the past five years with the STC have been about exactly that: curating culture through producing plays and seasons of theatre. The job has also honed her business mind – something she’d always wanted to do.

“If I’m being really honest, I came to the STC role having done movies back to back for a number of years, with two young children, a free spirit suffering creative burn out. It was a God send to be able to produce other people’s work,” says Cate, explaining she never thought about herself as an actress in the role but as an administrator, a builder of relationships with government and the corporate world and a producer of great theatre.

Nevertheless, the years, she says, have been the most professionally stimulating for her as an actor:

“You can’t expect a gangbuster every year. It’s like the company itself, some seasons are better than others and that’s often due to the vagaries of theatre. Productions you thought would be ready are not and must be moved to a later date; actors don’t do what you expect; audiences respond in their own ways. This year’s been a cracker. We sold a record number of tickets (8000 tickets in one day) when we opened the box office to the public recently for three of the plays in the 2013 season. 

“Careers, jobs, business and theatre seasons,” notes Cate, “they are like a marriage. Not every year can be heaps of sex and lots of holidays and that’s a challenge the company faces. The juggle for me has been balancing the public, professional, national conversation side of the job and the producing of other people’s work with my own professional career. 

“I had to maintain that sense of exploration in the room even when I knew the pressures on particular productions,” she continues, her hands twisting in unison with the perplexing nature of what she faced as an actor in and a producer of works.

The 2011 production of Gross und Klein, in which Cate plays the main character of Lotte, is an example that springs to mind. The German drama, which is endearingly described as durational theatre, needed co-funders if it was to be produced successfully. The four international co-producers meant the play had to travel to be performed in each producer’s hometown – whether it was a failure or not.

“You have to face the fear, the possibility of failure. That’s the place from which you begin. 

“When I returned to Australia I came back to a history, a place where the people were more familiar with my full body of work. I also returned with a reputation – for better or worse. My challenge is to maintain the right to do something and that it might fail,” finishes Cate.

Herbal tea drunk, the dregs gone cold, the dog back from an exhausting walk, we’ve had more than the estimated hour. With International Women’s Day (March 8) approaching and the interview tied to Ruby’s five-year celebrations, we begin to chat about the experiences of women in theatre – the obstacles to career progression, diversity around gender, age, cultural heritage.

Shooting from the lip, as she puts it, Cate believes it’s often the limits we set on our selves and the limits society sets that form the obstacles.

“Nobody is out there purposely trying to hinder the progress of women. Every theatre company wants to find and develop talent, wherever it is. 

“One of the things we noted early on was that in general women didn’t pitch well. The guys would come in, confident, savvy, saying they wanted to work with this person or that. You could imagine them down in the pub, talking away, going ‘let’s do it’. Women have this natural reticence around just doing it. Women can also, when they make creative connections, tend to stay on the safe side, making the nurturing rather than challenging connections.

“Film sets are more blokey again,” she continues, that wry smile back on her lips. “The most attractive woman on set will always be the film loader but she never moves to clapper loader, then focus puller, then operator. Her development – it doesn’t exist.”

Cate Blanchett will appear in Jean Genet’s The Maids with French actress Isabelle Huppert from June 4, 2013. For more visit www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Photography A Street Car Named Desire, Lisa Tomasetti

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1 comments

  • Ruby Boukabou

    Ruby Boukabou 6 years ago

    Oh I get it- Upton! Thanks for the inspiring piece- I liked the goals. Read it printed and sprawled out in the Saturday morning Autumn sun with a milky coffee on my living room floor.