Category Archives: Reflection

Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London

Since the age of 15, I’ve wanted to travel to Europe. This year, I decided it was time to stop thinking about it and actually do it. For the next few weeks I’ll be blogging my journey through 11 countries on Topdeck’s Winter Spirit. Enjoy!

DAY 1: DECEMBER 25TH. Sydney to Hong Kong. 

I can’t get over how crowded Sydney Airport is. But somehow I manage to make it through security without any trouble. The journey ahead is daunting, a solo trip to the other side of the world, a trip I am unexpectedly taking alone. My emotions are mixed. A few tears saying goodbye at the famous departure sign only fuel the feelings. Am I doing the right thing, going alone? But in my heart I know this is what I need. I have to do this by myself. I have to.

Thankfully, I’m much better prepared for the long flight this time around. The last time, on my trip to America, I was not ready. I wore the wrong clothes on the plane, I got my liquids confiscated at security for being over the 100ml limit, I took a VERY strong sleeping pill way too early in the flight and barely lived to regret it….well, not this time. This time I’ve done my research. I know what I’m doing.

First stop, Hong Kong. 9 hour flight.

The Cathay Pacific plane is packed. There’s not one empty spot. But I’m pleased to discover that the seats are VERY comfortable. Almost like an armchair. Unfortunately my recline doesn’t seem to work, and lucky me, I get the seatmate from hell.

She’s an entitled teen who takes pleasure in elbowing my armrest constantly, sticks her legs into my space and feels the need to snicker at and criticise my movie choices. Even her mother joins in. Well, I’m 25 years old and if I want to watch Muppets Christmas Carol/Harry Potter then I will, your opinions be damned. However, it’s 10:20pm and soon I drift off to sleep.

DAY 2: DECEMBER 26TH. Hong Kong. 

My flight was meant to land at 5am Hong Kong time. But the plane has landed at 3:55am.

Hong Kong airport is almost deserted. Immigration takes about 5 minutes and soon I’m in the arrivals lounge. It’s so early, the train station is locked behind a heavy metal grate. Looks like I’m going nowhere until it opens. I snap a few pictures and settle in a seat. Everyone else is sleeping in chairs, waiting for the trains.

At 5:30am the gate is open. But first I head to the bathroom to freshen up a bit. There’s a little area in the ladies’ room dedicated for makeup application. Thanks Hong Kong.

The MTR train from the airport to the city takes on 24 minutes. The train is spotless, fast, and smoother than any ride I’ve ever had on public transport. At Hong Kong Central, screens show the airline schedules. You can check in for your flight at the station. I follow the excellent signage to the Island line. I haven’t even been outside yet and Hong Kong is already finding its way into my heart.

Every train is behind a glass wall, the door only opening when the train has stopped. How many lives must be saved because of such a simple measure? I want to take this whole system home to Sydney.

I’m meant to meet my friend Brooke a bit later, so I kill time at Sheung Wan by getting hot chocolate at Starbucks, searching endlessly for WiFi to contact both Brooke and home, and then I go for a walk to the famous Star Ferry pier.

At 10am Brooke arrives. My flight leaves at 3:05pm so we waste no time heading straight to Hong Kong’s iconic Peak Tram, much like Australia’s Scenic Railway. The view is stunning, though unfortunately partly obscured by smog.

We head back down and catch a cab to the Star Ferry. There’s another item ticked off the bucket list. On the next island Brooke shows me the Garden of Stars and the performing arts centre. It’s a shame the museum has closed for renovations. But I’m very keen to find one place in particular. A jewellery store I promised Grandpa that I’d visit. He went to Hong Kong regularly for business trips and every year since the mid 80s, this particular store has sent him a Christmas card without fail. We do find it, although the pieces are a little too much for my taste. Still, mission accomplished.

With only a couple of hours til my flight leaves, I head back to the airport. The train journey takes less than an hour (are you listening, Australia?). No need to check in, since I did it online but I need to find what gate I’m meant to board at. Apparently it’s Gate 65. Before I know it, I’m on another train to a different section of the massive airport, only to find there’s been a change. To gate 63.

Today I’ve managed to navigate a foreign city, alone, without getting lost once. I can’t help but feel proud.

When the flight to London boards, I’m thrilled to see that there is nobody in the row in front of me, nobody behind me, I have a whole row to myself and the flight is almost empty. Forget first class. I have a great setup here.

I pull up the armrests, grab a few spare pillows and blankets, and manage to sleep soundly for 10 of the 12 hours. Best. Flight. Ever.

LONDON, HEATHROW AIRPORT 

It’s 8:20pm but Border Control has a ridiculously long line. While I’m waiting, I log into the Topdeck App and discover that one other girl from the tour group is here in line for Border Control. Her name is Sophie. We make plans to meet up at baggage reclaim. Five minutes later, we realise we’re practically next to each other in line. Apparently her flight from Melbourne was delayed eight hours so if that hadn’t happened we wouldn’t have met up. We both decide it’s fate.

After more than an hour waiting, Sophie gets a real grilling by immigration, while the man checking my passport doesn’t even mind that I made a mistake on my landing card.

It’s close to 10pm, so we head to the taxi rank. We’re greeted by a massive line and precisely zero taxis in sight. We head back inside to find the Tube.

Unfortunately for us, the Heathrow express isn’t running. Thankfully the attendant is helpful (despite mistaking us for students) and tells us how to get to the hostel. Or so we think.

It’s a long trip to the station and neither of us a phone reception to call the hostel. Mercifully, Sophie manages to get some data roaming once the tube is above ground. She contacts the accomodation so we don’t lose our reservations. It’s getting close to midnight.

Finally, we arrive at the station. There’s free WiFi at the station so I connect and pull up Google maps. The guy said it wouldn’t take long to walk from here. And that’s when we realise the horrible truth. I told the man we wanted to get to Tower Bridge Station. He’d told us to get on a train to London Bridge Station. The genius has sent us in the wrong direction.

At this point it’s almost 1am, we’re both tired and a 26 minute walk from where we need to be. It’s also freezing cold and we have suitcases.

The London Bridge station staff tell us where the taxi rank is, and we get there to find it almost deserted. Though neither of us say it aloud, Sophie and I are seriously doubting whether we’ll make it to the hostel before sunrise.

Sophie spots a man hanging around near a fancy looking building. I assume he’s security because he looks like someone the mafia would hire. He sends us to the main road and within minutes, we’re finally in a taxi towards the hostel.

Unfortunately the driver sees fit to give us a PHENOMENAL lecture on how we could have gotten a cab at Heathrow if we’d just XYZ….maybe he thought we were insulting the taxi industry. I don’t know. And I really don’t care. I just want to get warm.

It’s well after 1am when we finally get to the room. After a shower I’m finally feeling human again. The bed is pretty comfortable too.

It’s taken us 5 hours to get from the plane to the hostel room. I tell Sophie that someday we’ll be laughing. But for now, sleep.

DAY 3: DECEMBER 27TH. London.

When I wake, I can feel a cold starting. Drat. Last thing I need is to get sick. But it figures. More than 21 hours on planes which are just massive bacteria breeding zones. I’ll have to take something for it.

Sophie’s already up. She says she couldn’t sleep. I suspect jetlag, although I’m feeling a bit groggy too. But I’m not sure if it’s jetlag or this stupid cold.

We head down to breakfast, where there’s a great spread of all-you-can-eat food and we meet another girl from the Winter Spirit tour. She’s from Perth. While we’re chatting away, I happen to glance out the window and see the snow.

I jump up from the table and run up the stairs, through the foyer door and start snapping pictures. Everyone is laughing at me.

“What are you so excited about?” Someone asks me.

“I’ve never seen snow fall from the sky!” I explain with the air of a child in a candy store.

The guy looks at me like I have three heads. “Where are you from that you don’t see snow?!?”

“Australia. I haven’t seen any since I was twelve and never falling from the sky,” There’s one item off my bucket list. And on my first morning too.

Sophie and I decide to head out to the Christmas market by the Thames. It’s raining so I take the umbrella I packed.

Neither of us have ever experienced such cold. Even layered up with thermals and down coats, the wind chill hits you. Within minutes my stupid umbrella is broken. It kept out the rain but it’s no match for the wind. Damn it.

We cross Tower Bridge and find that it was worth braving the temperatures for what we find. The stalls are in cute wooden shacks, beautifully decorated for the holidays. At one stall, we find a great umbrella built for London’s weather and big enough for both of us. And it’s only £10. Sold!

We pass a chemist and head inside, partly so I can pick up something for this stupid cold and partly to get warm. Everything is so well heated here. I quickly find some cold and flu tablets. Better to nip this thing in the bud.

Sophie is really starting to shiver and I have to admit we need a break. We decide to head back to the hostel to get warm, (in Sophie’s case) get some thermals on, and figure out our next move. Our city map didn’t hold up so well in the rain either. We need a new one.

Back at the hostel, I discover my socks got slightly wet from the deep puddles. My boots are a little damp on the inside too. Sophie offers her hair dryer which does the trick. Not even 24 hours since we met and we’re already a great team.

We both want to go to the Tower of London but we’re also keen for lunch. We set out to see if Britain’s fish and chips live up to the legends. But Google maps can be deceptive as the place we were looking for is closed. We resign ourselves to pizza instead. May as well get some practice in for Italy.

After we eat, Sophie says she’s feeling tired and I’m quite relaxed too. We walk back to the hostel to figure out what to do next, but Sophie’s so tired she decides to get some sleep. It’s probably best I take it easy today as well, with this ridiculous cold threatening me. Besides, it’s not even 4pm and the sun is setting.

Tonight, the tour group plans to meet at the bar for drinks. Tomorrow, we hit the road. First stop, Paris, the City of Light.

Stay tuned!

The arts will survive

Last week I published an article about the recent cuts to funding for creative courses. When I wrote it, it was mainly to get my anger and frustration out on paper, and maybe inspire some emails to the feedback line. What I did not expect was the reaction my writing had.

Within days, it had gone viral in the arts community, shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook alone. My phone was constantly buzzing with new comments, shares, messages from people who had read it, and requests for interviews from reporters. I could barely keep up and was completely overwhelmed that my writing was resonating with people to this degree.
But I wasn’t done there. At the same time, I was frantically emailing the feedback line, and sending emails to my local member and the Minister for Education himself. It took a few days, but I did hear back from him (or his assistant), and I’d like to share with you what I received.

First, my email.

Dear Senator

I am a 24 year old actress working in all aspects of the industry. in light of your recent announcement to VET fee help cuts for creative courses, I would respectfully request that you do not go ahead with the bill.
To say you only wish to help ‘legitimate’ students is highly insulting to us as a whole. Have you ever enjoyed a film, a television show or seen a live performance? Have you ever marvelled at graphic design, or heard a piece of music you liked? Then you sir, have enjoyed the arts. And if you take away more funding, you will contribute to its continual destruction.
The arts of all descriptions are not a ‘lifestyle choice’ as you have claimed. Technically speaking, all careers are a lifestyle choice including the one you have chosen. By this logic I shouldn’t have to repay my current VET fee help debt for my Diploma in Music Theatre because I was not a ‘legitimate student’. But I know that won’t happen. These continual cuts to the arts by your government is what makes finding work hard. 
The arts is the very fabric of society. We hold a mirror up to the world, cause people to think and dream and in a lot of cases, re-examine themselves and become better people. By taking away VET fee help, you will be removing jobs from educators and taking away opportunities for talented individuals. Under these proposals only the very wealthy will be able to pursue their gifts. How in the world will this ‘encourage study’, as you claim? 
The arts teaches empathy, humanity and acceptance of all. We pour our hearts and souls into our work and we do it with the majority of the world fighting us tooth and nail every step of the way. 
Please take a few minutes to read my blog on the matter. 
I thank you for your consideration and welcome any response.
In response, I received this email. I’ve also attached a screenshot (with personal information blacked out for obvious reasons)
Dear Miss (Name)
Thankyou for your email of 17 October 2016 to Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education and Training, concerning the exclusion of the Arts from the eligible course list. I have been asked to reply on the Minister’s behalf.
While I appreciate your concerns, the Australian government has a responsibility to ensure that tax payer’s money is well directed and spent in a way that offers the greatest benefit to the Australian community. To this end, access to VET Student Loans will be restricted to courses that have a high national priority, meet industry needs, contribute to addressing skills shortages and align with strong employment outcomes. This will ensure the Government’s investment in vocational education and training is better targeted and large loan amounts are no longer paid for courses that have limited public good.
The eligible course list is available on the Department of Education and Training’s website at http://www.education.gov.au/vet−student−loans. Stakeholders are invited to provide feedback on the composition of the eligible course list. 
Feedback must be sent to VETStudentLoansPeducation.gov.au by 23 October 2016 and entitled ‘Feedback on the eligible course list’.
Please bear in mind that any proposals regarding VET Student Loans are subject to the passage through Parliament of the VET Student Loans Bill 2016.
Thank you for taking the time to write to the Minister.
2016-10-23 13.07.18.png
Do you need a minute after reading it? I know I did.
I don’t know how people can make it any plainer to the powers that be. But a few things are clear to me and anyone else with a functioning brain.

1. They have not thought this through.

“Limited public good”. That’s the words they used. That proves that they do not see the arts for what they truly are, and when it’s explained to them, they still do not see the value and probably wouldn’t until there was no art. They seem indifferent to being responsible for the decline of jobs and the value art brings to society.
Imagine a world with no movies, tv shows, radio, paintings, art galleries, designs, jewellery, graphics, musicals, plays, music, anything creative. You can stop imagining now. I know I can’t bear to think of it for more than a few seconds. There’s little doubt in my mind that society would soon cease to function as it does. As I said, without art, life has no meaning.
Imagine for a moment that the government called sports a ‘lifestyle choice’ and referred to it as an illegitimate occupation.

angrymob

Artists impression

There would be a riot. National outcry. Everyone would be disgusted. Because in this country sport is practically a religion. What if everyone in Australia could embrace the arts like they do the football? Or cricket? Or the Olympics? I suspect the country would be a much better place.
Several years ago Australian acting legend Tony Sheldon was up for a Tony Award for his performance in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. An Australian actor. An Australian musical based on a beloved Australian classic. He was up for  a TONY AWARD, the Oscars of theatre, and we did not hear one peep about it from the media.
What if a sports star was up for some award, for throwing pieces of leather around while a stadium screams for blood? We would hear nothing else for weeks.
Tony Sheldon, who I had the honour of meeting briefly during the 2013 run of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, was playing Bernadette Bassenger, a transgender character so rarely seen and definitely in pop culture at that time. When’s the last time one of our own was up for a Tony Award? Why didn’t this honour get any attention? It was a tremendous achievement!

2. They are attempting to do good by attacking the wrong people.

The main reason these cuts are being made is allegedly to stop sub-par courses taking advantage of students. I want to make one thing very clear. I am not against the idea of this. What I am against is the disrespect shown to the arts and the fact that quality courses are inevitably going to get caught in the crossfires here. Places like the Actor’s Centre Australia. Founder Dean Carey has built this college up for nearly 30 years to bring arguably the finest acting course in the nation, as well as part time courses, workshops and drop-in classes for working actors. Hugh Jackman himself graduated from here and is the proud patron.
I do not understand why genuinely good courses are going to be penalised. Furthermore, the people in charge of this decision have not consulted a single person in the industry itself while ultimately deciding the fate of so many. What is wrong with these politicians?

Colleges are going to have to rework their courses and get extra credentials in order to keep going and make the courses affordable. Educators are going to suffer. Students are going to suffer. The industry will suffer.

But we will not fall.

At the risk of sounding over-dramatic, the arts will survive. They survived the Holocaust and Soviet Russia. They survive communism and fascism. They survive indifference and disrespect. They survive budget cuts and limited funding. Because at the end of the day, art is what makes the world a better place.
The bill will likely pass parliament, and we will have to regroup. And we will. We will find a way forward until people see the light. Nothing lasts forever. And as long as artists push ahead with what they do, breaking the barriers and holding a mirror up to society, we will win.

Because

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see” – Edgar Degas

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls…The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web,” -Pablo Picasso

“It is through art, and through art only, that we can realise our perfection.” – Oscar Wilde

“Layer by layer art strips life bare,” – Robert Musil

I just wonder how much longer it will take for those blind politicians to see art for what it is.

Bully Part 2: My Story

  • *PLEASE NOTE*: Writing about my experiences with severe bullying is not an easy thing to do. I don’t wish to seek sympathy or appear as if I have not dealt with my past. I’m finally sharing my story in the hope that it will help others. *In the interest of identity, names and initials have been changed. I refer to myself as A in the story. I do not have any feelings of hatred towards the people involved in what I went through. I only feel sorry for them now. 

It began when I was very young.

My wonderful mother, who is a teacher, read to me and my brother every night. But we didn’t read picture books. We read novels like Charlotte’s Web and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I would sit beside Mum and read along with her, sounding out the words. That’s how I learned to read at the age of three.
I developed an insatiable appetite for books of all kinds, and my vocabulary swelled. With my little pink glasses, huge smile and vivacious nature, coupled with words far beyond my years, I was so excited to start school.

I was different. Very different.

This never bothered me much, but it obviously bothered a lot of other people

Perhaps it was inevitable that I’d run into trouble. Maybe it was bound to happen. But regardless, throughout my entire primary school life, I was bullied. Every day I would be called names, with teacher’s pet being a recurring favourite. Kids would throw things at me. They’d threaten to hit me, or even kill me. My schoolwork would be covered in graffitti. The boys would act as through I was poisonous, yelling “Ew, gross!” every time I walked past. I was excluded from a lot of activities, and even got beaten up on a few occasions.

I was always in floods of tears every single day it happened. But there was nobody at school I could turn to. I tried, of course, but always heard the same thing. Grow a thick skin. You’re too emotional. Get over it. Stand up for yourself. One day when I was eight, my teacher told me to my face that I was a “smartypants” and that was “why no-one liked me,” That cruel and inaccurate comment haunted me for years.

Mum offered to let me change schools so many times but I always refused out of fear. I’d already changed schools in kindergarten because we’d needed after school care (single parent family!). I endured it, hating every moment until I finally left for high school.

My Primary education had been in the public system. I went off to a private Christian high school hoping things would be different. And at first, they were.
I met two girls, J* and E*. We clicked right away. They seemed so sweet and kind. Like me, they were the only members of their primary schools to enrol at this high school.
They told me they’d been through similar bullying experiences and swore that we would always be friends. I believed them, and for a few months, I was completely happy. The years at primary school seemed far behind me. Life was fantastic.

But inexplicably, J was changing. She was constantly telling me stories of extreme physical abuse at home, but there was no evidence of the bruising or injuries she should have had from apparently being strangled and beaten. Before anyone dismisses me as a victim-blamer, J told me profusely not to tell anyone. I did tell the principal, but I couldn’t help suspecting that she was lying to me. I shrugged it off. It was impossible that sweet-natured, innocent J could ever lie.
From there, things started going downhill. J started slapping me across the face regularly. I would ask her to stop, but she’d become all sullen and guilt-tripping me until I apologised and agreed that I had deserved it.
J and E began hanging out together a lot, ignoring me and only speaking to me to give me a fresh list of complaints against my personality. I was uptight. Not fun anymore. Annoying. Bossy. Too quiet. Too shy. Too friendly.
I suggested we all go see the school counsellor together to sort out any conflicts. J refused. She was happy to go with E. But not me. Eventually, J and E both agreed to go together. But from the second we entered that room, J blamed every single problem on me and me alone. I was in tears by the end of the session, but I was desperate to salvage the only friendships I had at this school. Everyone else in our year had come from the same primary schools. Cliques were long established and I had no hope of entering.

Finally, things came to a head. They’d been sneaking away from me for weeks, and then came the final nail in the coffin.
There was a rumour going around our year that this boy named Daniel* liked me. One day J came to me and handed me a love letter, saying Daniel had asked her to give it to me. I went into a complete state of panic. I was only 13, desperately shy, didn’t know how to talk to boys, and had no idea what I was meant to do.
J and E laughed at me while I was crying and hyperventilating. I asked Daniel himself about the note, and he said he had never written it. I was stunned. J and E would never do that to me. Never.
The next day, J and E admitted it had all been a sick joke to scare me. I ran off in tears, humiliated for falling for such a stupid trick and furious at myself for embarrassing Daniel.
One day later, November 16th 2005, our year advisor pulled me out of class and told me the truth. J and E weren’t just having fun. The whole scheme had been a set up. They didn’t want to be my friend anymore, and this was all a plan to make me angry enough to leave their group of my own accord.
I was then taken to the school counsellor’s office where J and E were waiting, apparently sobbing. They later bragged to everyone that they had just been laughing at me while pretending to cry.
Mrs C, the counsellor, told them to be honest with me. E exchanged a deer-in-the-headlights look with J. “Can we go outside and talk about it first?”
I wanted to scream at them to get a backbone, to stop weaselling out of being truthful, to tell them how broken I felt inside. But I couldn’t make any words form.
J and E were sent to sick bay to ‘calm down’ together. I was left in the office. Nobody stayed with me.

The grief I experienced was staggering. I had never known a human could feel so much pain and still breathe. For the rest of the year, I had to watch J and E stay close, and hear about the rumours they were spreading that I was a horrible person.

I went into Year 8 thinking that the Christmas holidays were what I had needed. I was ready to move on with my life. But J wasn’t.
She wasn’t content to hate me herself. She wanted everyone to hate me.
I was already an outsider. When I sat down at tables or near others, people would literally get up and move. Or they’d ask me to leave so their friends could sit there. At first, I’d quietly say no, or joke “I don’t see their name on it,” only to receive a look of disgust and a comment “Sorry, (friend who apparently owned the seat) A’s being a total bitch and won’t let you sit down,” and then I’d get glared at so much eventually I’d just move anyway.

I tried to make new friends. But J’s plan of attack was to approach whoever I was talking to and, in front of me, invite them to sit with her. She wouldn’t look at me or even acknowledge my existence. Then later on, when I wasn’t around, J would tell them that they would be ‘way happier’ hanging out with her.
It didn’t take me long to figure out what she was doing. It got to the point where I actually had to warn people I was friendly with that she was going to try to sway them to her side. They always swore they would be loyal, but in the end they turned from me and I was alone, which was exactly what J wanted.

The boys absolutely loved it. Their favourite trick was to stir J up to do more. They would get together with J and plan attacks on me. J and the boys would borrow people’s phones to send me nasty text messages. In Year 8, a group of the boys told J that I had told everybody the combination to her locker. I hadn’t, but J ran off and reported me straight away. I got grilled in the assistant principal’s office for a good hour, refusing to admit I had done it. There was no way I was going to be punished for something I hadn’t done. J came to me the next day with watery eyes. “A, I accused you before I knew the facts, and I’m going to make it right,”
She never did.
From there, things got worse and worse.The attacks escalated.  I’d go to my locker to find it filled with rubbish. Every time I walked down the hall, someone would yell out a stupid comment about my alleged sex life. Apparently I was having affairs with all the boys in my grade. One of my most awful memories of the school is when I was walking towards the train station on my way home. Without warning, the boys came and formed a tight circle around me, asking me shocking questions about my body and alleged sexual antics. It was absolutely terrifying. Even as I type about it a decade later, I can still recall the shame and fear.

Every day I would hide in the library and read. But even there I wasn’t safe. J would sit in the library and stare daggers at me the entire time while I ignored her. The boys searched for me all over the school to attack me further.
One day, the boys entered as per usual, for ‘a bit of fun with A.’ I heard my name being called. Like an idiot, I walked over. The gang of boys was sitting with J.
“J,” one said, “Do you like A?”
J’s eyes locked directly with mine. They were full of loathing as she coldly said “No,”

My grades dropped. I couldn’t eat. My weight dropped down to as low as 38kg from the stress. I’ll never forget the night I ended up in the hospital from the horror and despair I felt.
Eventually I gave up trying to get help from school. Their only solution was to not think about J, because she wasn’t doing anything to me. The school counsellor said she was powerless. And one huge advantage J had was her appearance. Curly red hair, tiny physique, freckles, glasses, sugary voice. She was the portrait of purity to everyone. How could someone so cute be a bully? How could such a tiny girl torment someone twice as tall? I don’t necessarily blame anyone for being fooled by J.  I’d fallen for her innocent act myself.
I began thinking that maybe I deserved what I was getting. Maybe it was my place in life. Maybe I was paranoid and blaming J for things that weren’t her fault. I did attempt to make peace with J a few times, but she always took advantage of that and went right back to the torture.
Eventually, after one too many cruel acts and her pleas to the school being flat-out ignored, Mum told me I had to change schools.
I was so scared. The school wasn’t THAT bad. And if they hated me here, why on earth would another school accept me?
Thankfully, Mum was insistent and pulled me out of the Christian school. I enrolled at a performing arts school in Year 10. And finally, I found somewhere I belonged.
I was in my element. People liked talking to me and genuinely wanted to be my friend. They understood and identified with my love of the arts and reading. And I was happy.

For an entire year after I changed schools, the bullies from my first school went to incredible lengths to find me. But I had an amazing group of friends now who protected me, and I knew how to protect myself online.
The scars remained. Despite my new life, it took a long time for me to realise that I didn’t deserve to be bullied and that I did deserve to be happy. But I know that now. I’m still undoing the years the bullies tried to take from me. But I am alive. I’m travelling the country teaching kids that they have the power to stop bullying.
I see the news stories about the children who get desperate enough to end their lives over bullying and my heart breaks. I know all too well about feeling like there’s literally no way out.
We need to fight bullying together. We can’t let it win. We need to stop glorifying such behaviour in the media. We need to stop comforting the bullies and start taking care of the victims. We need to teach resilience and empathy to everyone regardless of age. I’ve overcome bullying. Anybody can. There IS life after such experiences.

What I have written here is NOT about saying “Ha, suck it! I’m so much better than you haters!” That approach would be counterproductive.  I don’t know if anyone who was involved in my story will read this. I don’t know if they feel any remorse and I don’t particularly care what they think of me anymore. I’m not even sure they would admit to being bullies. But if they do, I only have this to say.
I don’t hate you.
You didn’t win.
You didn’t beat me.
I am my own person.
I am not ashamed of my story.
I’m not a victim.
I’m not just a girl who was bullied at school.

Being bullied is only part of my life, and it absolutely does not define who I am. And as long as this is the outcome, my story has only begun.

Help fight bullying at http://www.standforthesilent.org/

 

Bully Part 1: The Bullying Epidemic

“Kids will be kids,”
“Boys will be boys,”
“They’re cruel at that age”
“It’s a part of life,”
“You’ll get over it,”
“Why can’t you just be friends?”
“Just ignore it,”

Anybody who’s been bullied has heard those words. Bullying seems to be expected in school. It’s almost considered a rite of passage. We hear about it on the news, another precious human has taken their own life because of bullying. Everyone stands up briefly and shouts about how wrong it is. They call for change. They agree this should never happen again.
Then the victim blaming begins. The victim started it. They were just as responsible. They should have told someone. Just ignore it and it will go away. It can’t have been THAT bad!
The media stops reporting. The world moves on, and a shattered family is left with the ashes of their ruined lives.
The sad fact is that bullying is not something that ‘goes away’ when you grow up. Adults can be bullies, and be bullied. We live in a world that allows and encourages lying and cheating your way to the top. We watch reality shows that purposely puts awful human beings against each other in the name of entertainment. I can think of at least one prominent example of a bully with a huge platform….

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Not naming any names, of course

In 2011, Australian teen Casey Heynes became an international hero when mobile footage of him standing up to a bully went viral. After being brutally punched in the jaw, Casey physically lifted his assailant over his head, slamming him into the ground. Despite being suspended, he was applauded all over the world. Today, Casey is still an anti-bullying advocate with no plans to slow down.
2011 was also the year that an American documentary film Bully was released, amid a rating controversy, and became an instant hit. Critics and audiences alike called it “essential viewing” for children. I disagree. It’s essential viewing for every person in the world, regardless of age or gender.

When Bully was released, I wanted to see it, but I knew it wasn’t a good idea just yet. I was 19 and still very damaged by the relentless bullying I’d experienced in school. But now, in my early 20s, I’ve finally seen it. And I’m glad I didn’t see the film in theatres. There’s little doubt in my mind that I would have ended up under the seats in a sobbing mess.

Bully follows the lives of five young victims of bullying. Alex Libby, a sweet-natured 13 year old with social and learning difficulties is tormented beyond belief on the school bus. Kelby Johnson, 16, is ostracised by her Bible Belt town when she comes out as a lesbian. The teachers at her school join in with the tormenting and she tells of being purposely hit by a minivan containing six boys from her school. Ja’Meya, 14, faces felony charges after bringing her mother’s gun on the school bus, attempting to intimidate the bullies into leaving her alone.
But the most tragic of the five are the two children we never meet, as they have taken their own lives. 17 year old Tyler Long hung himself after being harassed and abused for years. He was shoved into lockers and had his clothes taken while showering. Finally, there is Ty Smalley, who committed suicide aged only 11.

Bully is not easy to sit through. During the scenes where Alex is being stabbed while the bus driver doesn’t even look, you find yourself fighting the urge to jump up and do something about it. The filmmakers ended up showing footage to the school and Alex’s parents, only for the assistant principal to give a plastic smile and a promise to do something.
“That’s what she said in the fall,” Alex’s mother says tearfully. “She’s not going to do anything,”
The administrators and teachers at the school are shown to be apparently oblivious/uncaring to the widespread bullying problem. In perhaps the most infuriating scene of all, a boy identified only as “Cole” is pulled aside by the aforementioned assistant principal with a boy who has been bullying him terribly. She orders the boy to shake hands and make up. The bully, who has the smile of a snake oil salesman, sticks out his hand. Cole refuses to accept it. The assistant principal berates Cole for not accepting an apology. “You’re just as bad as him!” she claims. The audience shouts at the screen at this idiotic woman. She simply refuses to see the truth. Instead, she launches into the victim blaming. Why is Cole hanging out with this kid. “I’m not,” Cole says, close to tears. “He comes and finds me,”

Bully isn’t interested in lecturing anyone. It’s not interested in giving a definitive answer. It just wants to show real life, and it wants to give hope. And I love documentaries that do that. Instead of launching straight into scenes of violence, the film is very clever about drawing us into this world, creating connections with these children and their families, allowing us to see the truth.

The biggest lie/misconception is that ALL bullies bully because they feel bad about themselves. And I don’t believe it for a second. The bully who has been tormenting Cole is about as sincere as Kanye West being happy for Taylor Swift at the Grammys. You look at his face. You look at his grin. You see the meaningless handshake. The assistant principal watches the young ones get on the bus to go home. “My little cherubs,” she smiles fondly. The film then cuts to those ‘little cherubs’ stabbing Alex with pencils. Choking him. Punching him. Slamming his head into the back of the seat while others shout encouragement. Later, shown telling outright lies about what went down.
Bullies don’t always have a self-esteem issue. They have a lack of empathy. That is their problem. They don’t care about how other people feel. They’re narcissistic. They only think of themselves. They enjoy the power.
Bullying isn’t just physical. It’s psychological, social, emotion, verbal. Bullying is not just isolated to the school building anymore. The power of the internet has given rise to cyber bullying and the anonymity of such attacks gives even more sense of power. Bullying is everywhere now. In schools, homes, the internet, the workplace. And it needs to stop.

Bully has been criticised for apparently offering no solutions to the problem. And that’s perfectly true. The documentary simply shows what the problem is. It shows the truth, raw and brutal, of how bad bullying can get. But that’s only half the story.
My day job is touring to schools all around Australia, performing anti-bullying plays to primary and high schools. During the Q&A sessions I share my experiences with the kids and teach them how they can stop bullying. And as a prop for one of the shows, I use a book. It’s called Bully.

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Yes, it’s the companion book to the film. Several hundred pages of information and strategies to combat bullying. And the best thing about it? It does NOT blame the victim. On the contrary, it emphasises that the victim is not at fault. I want to see a world where bullying isn’t tolerated or dismissed as harmless. I want to see a world where victims can report without fear of being disbelieved or being told they brought it upon themselves.

Bully is five years old now, but everyone needs to see it. It’s raw, hard-hitting and difficult to stomach at times. You’ll be fighting the urge to throw things at the screen. You’ll want to shake those adults and make them come to their senses. You’ll want to rip those brats off Alex while they stab him. But it contains truth that you just don’t see normally. They don’t talk at the kids. They show them the brutality of schoolyard life. But they also show hope. The final moments of the film show the foundation Ty Smalley’s parents set up, Stand for the Silent. Balloons are released for children who lost hope and committed suicide. Ty’s father delivers an emotional speech where he vows to fight bullying forever, because his son “will be 11 years old forever,”

This is an issue that isn’t going away any time soon, and the only way to fight it is by standing up against it as a community.

For more information on the film and the anti-bullying movement, visit  http://www.thebullyproject.com/

Next Blog: Bully Part 2-My Story

They Left Too Soon….

I’m posting this impromptu blog about the recent deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Some debate has been sparked about reactions to celebrity deaths. I’m aware this is not the kind of topic I usually write about. Regardless, I want to address the impact both Rickman and Bowie had on the arts. 

Last week was a very unpleasant week for the world and the arts, as we lost pop legend David Bowie and acting giant Alan Rickman, both aged 69 and both died from cancer. Obviously, this is a ridiculously young age to go and not the most pleasant of exits. Neither had announced their cancer battles either, preferring to fight the disease in private while continuing to make their art.

Bowie of course was the pinnacle of musical success. His career, especially in the 1970s, was considered innovative. His talent was obvious. He wasn’t one of the artists like we have today who sang generic tunes written by multitudes of other people. He could play instruments. He could write songs alone. We’re unlikely to see a musician do what he did again. There’s really no point in harping on about his career and what he accomplished. We all know it. And it’s actually not where I really discovered him either.

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Oh yeah 🙂

Yes, like a vast majority of 80s and 90s children, I knew Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King from the 1986 film Labyrinth directed by the legendary Jim Henson.
I watched Labyrinth so much in primary school. This was the movie the teachers would always play when it rained, or the day before the holidays started, or on the coach to school camp. Sadly though the school’s VHS copy seemed to pause at one particular moment. Every time, without fail, the tape would go haywire. So it took a few goes before I finally saw the ending. And while this may have been the early days of the internet and spoiler alerts, it didn’t stop my friend from ruining the end for me. Grrr.
It’s not the most flawless of movies. There’s definitely a dated quality to Labyrinth now. But I still really enjoy it. It’s undeniably charming, it’s wildly creative, visually interesting and Jim Henson’s magic reigns supreme.
Bowie wrote the songs for the movie, and they’re all wonderful. My favourite is the ungodly catchy Magic Dance. That song refuses to leave my head when I hear it. Not that I’m complaining. It’s a good song 🙂

Above everything else, Jareth is a fun villain, no less because of who’s playing him. Though I’m also prepared to bet he’s memorable because that infamous costume taught us more about the male anatomy than our young minds ever wanted to know.

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That thing should have been censored

Alan Rickman gave us so many excellent performances it’s hard to know where to begin. He was the hilariously charistmatic terrorist Hans Gruber in Die Hard, one of my favourite movies to watch at Christmas time (shut up, it counts!). He shone in Sense and Sensibility. And of course, he was Severus Snape.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (yes, it’s PHILOSOPHER’S Stone, it always will be philosopher’s stone and if anyone tries to ‘correct’ me, you are WRONG and should be introduced to a Blast-Ended Skrewt!) came out when I was five years old. I could already read fluently by that point and I was the perfect age to read the books. I’m a proud and unashamed Potterhead in every sense of the word. I’m so grateful to be part of the Potter generation. And we’re all so thankful to J.K Rowling for giving us the world of Harry Potter, and giving us a character like Snape.
Could the Harry Potter films have ever asked for better casting? Rickman was everything Snape should be. He was a vindictive bully, he was intimidating, but he was still sympathetic, incredibly funny and played the Pensieve scenes in Deathly Hallows Part 2 to absolute perfection.

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I may be a robot but this scene nearly destroyed me

I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. The same goes for his other characters. Whether he was playing a cold-hearted villain or an amiable office worker in Love Actually, Alan Rickman made every role his own. And even though he was known for being the antagonist, according to every report he was the exact opposite when the cameras weren’t rolling. By all accounts, he was the most kind-hearted and generous of people you could ever wish to meet. It just goes to show how the actors who play the best villains are often the nicest people in real life.

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The loss of such talent is completely heartbreaking. Sadly, there’s been a number of self-righteous keyboard warriors in cyberspace who feel the need to discourage people from paying tribute to the deceased. You didn’t know them personally! they howl. Where were you when they were still alive?

In rebuttal, I give you my friend and fellow actor Sam’s views on the matter:

One of the (mixed?) blessings of social media is the chance for people to share their sentiments outside of the realm of private conversation. But there seems, for some reason, to be a reactionary response to people expressing grief when famous artists shuffle (or, in recent cases, plummet before their time) off the old mortal coil.
The premise of ‘you didn’t know them personally, so why mourn publicly’ seems to be a moral stance, as if it’s somehow undignified or sycophantic to do so. It’s disrespectful to their ‘actual’ family is also a phrase I’ve heard lately.
I really think people who feel that way are missing a vital point. Great art is meant to be shared, becomes public domain at the express intent of the artist and is one of the great things that makes life worth living. No one who mourns the loss of an artist, unless they actually knew them privately, is mourning the loss of person they claim to have known. They are mourning the loss of an ARTIST and should be encouraged to do so! When ambassadors of great art leave us, we feel loss. That’s a good thing, surely?It means their work is done! They may not have known us, but, as artists, we sure as anything knew them. Bowie may have been your Goblin King or showed you how being different was beautiful, Rickman may have shown you more succinctly than anyone else what losing a loved one feels like when he ‘haunted’ Juliet Stevenson and so on. These artistic turns may have had more impact on us than anything else, for all I know!
So mourn them. I reckon it’s pretty warranted. And if people say you’ve no right to, tell them, in your best Alan Rickman voice, to ‘get knotted’!

We mourn the loss of talent. We celebrate the achievements of these men. We get inspired, we long to have the impact they had. We strive to have their passion and dedication. We want to have the same fearlessness they had in the pursuit of creativity.

This is what the arts can do for people. Bowie and Rickman had visions. They had creativity. They had integrity in life and in their work. It never seemed like they craved the spotlight or awards. They just wanted to change the world through the most accessible means possible. Art.
If nothing else, Bowie and Rickman were examples of true artistry. No pretense, no childish attempts to grab the spotlight, just two very talented people who wanted to say something to the world in their own unique way.  We remember what they gave us, we thank them for the gift they left to the world and learn from what they taught us.

Thankyou David Bowie and Alan Rickman for everything you gave us. You will be sadly missed and never forgotten as long as the art form lives.

Now if everyone could form a protective circle around all remaining British talent, that would be great.

Being Wendla Bergmann

Warning: Contains spoilers on Spring Awakening

From June 15th -17th 2015 I had the honour of playing one of the greatest female roles in modern musical theatre. Wendla Bergmann in Spring Awakening.
Even though we had a very limited season and the rehearsal period was long and stressful, as I reflect on the journey, I have no regrets on undertaking this character. I’m closing the chapter on the biggest role I have played to date, and I want to share some of my thoughts on Wendla and what she has meant to me.

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Spring Awakening is a 2006 rock musical based on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play of the same name. At the time of its 1906 premiere, Spring Awakening was so controversial in its unapologetic depiction of teenage self-discovery with themes of rape, abortion, sado-masochism, homosexuality, suicide, etc that it was deemed pornographic, and subsequently banned or censored. Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s take on the classic resulted in a wonderful juxtaposition of period drama and contemporary rock. With a thrilling score and clever staging (ok, maybe I am a little biased), Spring Awakening swept the 2007 Tony Awards, winning for Best Musical, Book, Original Score, Supporting Actor, Direction, Choreography, Orchestrations and Lighting.

The strangest thing about Spring Awakening and how it is treated in musical form, is that the contemporary influence shouldn’t work at first glance, but it honestly does. And the reason it works is because the story, characters and subject matter have stood the test of time and are instantly relatable. For me, the heart of the story is a cautionary tale about what can happen when people simply don’t communicate effectively. In Spring Awakening, the parents and other authority figures in town refuse to be honest with the teens about life and what they are going through physically, and this results in tragedy.

When I first found out that I had been cast as Wendla, I won’t lie, my first emotion was fear. I was terrified of the enormity of the task set before me. I had so many doubts it was hard to know what to think.

Can I really do this?

Can I carry a show?

How can I do this show, and this character justice?

But I was about to discover a lot about Wendla, and in turn, myself.

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Despite popular opinion in the musical theatre world, Wendla is not a Disney princess (disclaimer: I’m referring to the early age princesses who literally did nothing. Snow White, Aurora etc. Belle, Megara, Jasmine etc are awesome). She’s told she’s a delicate flower, but inside, she’s Black Widow. This is a strong female, and she’s smart. Wendla has a brain, she’s just never been given permission to use it. And this is a big part of the tragedy of Wendla. There is wasted potential in a short life. And finally, she is not a victim. She’s a victim of circumstance, but that doesn’t make her weak.

Once I’d realised that I wouldn’t be playing a fourteen year old Barbie doll, I was able to delve deeper into Wendla’s story and what happens to her throughout the show.

©2010 Andy Snow

This was never going to end well

During the run, we had a matinée performance for schools, because Spring is now on the HSC syllabus. Unfortunately for these poor kids (some were in Year 10), the teachers forgot to advise them on some of the content, and it’s safe to say they were pretty shell-shocked by the end of the performance. We did a Q&A session afterwards to nearly five solid minutes of silence before they finally began asking questions.

Their first question? “Are youse two together?” one asked, referring to myself and Logan, who played Melchior (the looks on their faces when I pointed out that my partner was actually sitting at the drum kit with the rest of the band was beyond priceless). They wondered how I had coped simulating sex onstage with someone who I was not romantically involved with. Quite honestly, the hayloft scene was not the most confronting for me. (Interestingly enough, neither Wendla nor Melchior expresses love during their romance. The only character to say “I love you” is Ernst) I had wondered initially how I would cope with it, but in the end, it was much easier than I had expected. This was due to a few reasons. Firstly, I was very comfortable with Logan (Melchior), since we’d worked together before. Also, I had total faith in the directors, knowing they would never make me do anything I was uncomfortable with or that was distasteful without serving the base story.

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I made my mother so proud in this scene…

Later, some of the students and their teacher approached me to ask more questions. They hated Wendla’s mother for not telling her the truth about where babies come from. Then they were worried that I had gotten hurt during the scene where Wendla gets beaten and seemed genuinely shocked when I explained that I was never actually touched by the stick. But what seemed to upset the students the most was Wendla’s death from a botched abortion. Even though it’s never seen by the audience, the mere thought is enough to make one’s blood turn to ice.
Wendla’s fate is nothing short of horrifying, and worst of all, it’s through no fault of her own. She seeks knowledge, and is denied it. She gets seduced into having sexual intercourse despite having literally no idea about what she’s doing, and ultimately winds up being punished for something beyond her control. With such a huge emotional journey throughout the show, I knew most of all I wanted to play Wendla with dignity and strength.

There’s a brilliant video series on Broadway.com called Character Study, where they film an actor getting doing hair/makeup before a show and discussing what makes their character tick. My favourite of these is stage legend Tony Sheldon discussing his role as Bernadette in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. “The scariest thing about playing Bernadette I think is letting people down who have actually lived her experience….they have to be honoured,”

(The full video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpIaFH7f0Gs)

His words have resonated with me ever since. I had a responsibility to Wendla and to people who have a similar story. Wendla is a fictional character, but make no mistake, her story is not unique. I did the research on the medical procedures of the day and it was beyond awful. I’ll admit, I even had nightmares about what I uncovered. But I’m still so glad I did my homework, because I don’t think I could have done it justice otherwise. I didn’t take this role lightly either way.

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We didn’t get many reviews for Spring. Some were complimentary, one was rather critical. But in the end, it didn’t matter. The audiences loved what we did, and considering all the difficulties in bringing the show to the stage, I was very proud of my performance and the rest of the cast.

It’s now time for me to say goodbye to Wendla Bergmann. She’s been a good friend to me these past few months and I’ll miss her. She’s taught me so much about justice, life, death, innocence and bravery. I hope I did her story justice.

To sign off, one audience member asked me what my favourite song in the show is. And I would have to say The Guilty Ones, for the lyrics if nothing else.

Something’s started crazy
Sweet and unknown
Something you keep in a box on the street
Now it’s longing for a home
And who can say what dreams are?
Wake me in time to be lonely and sad
And who can say what we are?
This is the season for dreaming
And now our bodies are the guilty ones
Who touch and colour the hours
Night won’t breathe, oh how we
Fall in silence from the sky
Then whisper some silver reply……