They might not always get the showcases that they deserve, but Australia is literally teeming with exciting young creative talent. And within that is an arrestingly widening sub-group of First Nations actors, writers and directors, all of whom are slowly but certainly shifting the conversation around indigenous Australians. Carissa Lee is a Noongar actor and writer born on Wemba-Wemba country. A graduate of The Flinders Drama Centre, Carissa is grinding out her own niche in Australia’s theatre scene, performing with major players like The Melbourne Theatre Company, The Malthouse Theatre, and The State Theatre Company of South Australia in the likes of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, Andrew Bovell’s Holy Day, and Robert Reid’s The Bacchae. Carissa (who has also appeared on TV in House Husbands and The Sammy J Show) is now performing in Ngarngk; Giver Of Life (the story of a First Nations family struggling to stay together) at The La Mama Theatre in Melbourne as part of The Yirramboi Festival, Australia’s only First Nations-led arts festival.
Can you tell us about your role in Ngarngk; Giver Of Life and how you related on a personal level to the story/character?
“This play has been a wonderful opportunity for me to find out more about Noongar culture. My brother and I are Noongar, born on Wemba-Wemba country. We’ve never really had the opportunity to learn about our mob and culture, with the effects of intergenerational trauma separating us from that side of the family. But having the opportunity to work with Noongar women NazAree Dickerson, Kristel-Lee Kickett and Aunty Denise Kickett has inspired me to try and find other ways to learn more as much as I can.”
When did you first become interested in acting?
“I was always a bit strange as a little kid, making up plays and doing little singing performances. Mum put me in ballet, which I hated, and I joined dancing groups in school, which were fun. It was when I was moved to a new high school and saw what an actual drama program looked like that I realised that acting was what I loved to do.”
Do you have any acting role models/heroes in Australia or abroad?
“Leah Purcell, Nakkiah Lui and Meyne Wyatt all inspire me to write as well as act. Shari Sebbens is another role model of mine, as well as just an amazing human. Internationally, my faves are Viola Davis, Tom Hanks, Elisabeth Moss and Daniel Kaluuya. I’m going to read this back and kick myself, because no doubt I’ve forgotten someone!”
You’re also an academic/writer – how do all of these fit in within your life? What do they involve, and are any more important to you than others, including acting?
“It’s a bit of a juggle, but I’m very fortunate to be able work in jobs that are flexible with auditions and that can give me time off or alternative working arrangements if I need to run off to do an acting gig. As an academic, I love research, and this ends up being really beneficial for character work. I’ve begun a new role as an editor, and I’ve been so fortunate to get to commission really important pieces surrounding Aboriginal affairs.”
You’ve done quite a lot of theatre acting – is that your preference and why?
“I love theatre for the yarning aspect of it; it’s like you’re telling a story to an audience, and the other people that you’re on stage with. To be able to share a space like that with people is such a cathartic feeling. However, I do enjoy working in film and television when the opportunity arises. The intimacy of the performance but also the added pressure of time is something that I work well with. I like getting straight to work. I’ve been lucky to get to work on sets like House Husbands and The Sammy J Show.”
With lots of Hollywood productions in Australia at the moment, and the debate over whether streaming companies like Netflix should have a quota, do you believe that it’s important to continue pushing for Australian stories for our screens, and if so, why/why not?
“It’s important for people to have seen Australian work. I’ve had disagreements with people who think that Australian film and television isn’t as strong as the States, when they’ve never actually watched anything that we’ve done! I’m not sure where that assumption even comes from. Hollywood productions and Australian productions, particularly stories with diversity, should share equal importance when it comes to streaming services.”
Ngarngk; Giver Of Life is playing from May 9-14 at La Mama Courthouse Theatre in Carlton, Melbourne. For all ticketing, booking and session details, head to the official website.