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"My fear now is that things will return to how they were once before"

"Hold on tightly, let go lightly": Actor and theatre-maker Catherine Văn-Davies puts 100 per cent into her work, even if it disappears tomorrow.

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Catherine Văn-Davies: The art of holding on

Date: 10 Sep 2021

Catherine Văn-Davies is suddenly everywhere.

Last year she appeared on our TV screens as May Le, leading the cast in the SBS dramatic horror series Hungry Ghosts. This year she starred as a midwife in Nine Network’s Amazing Grace while taking centre stage at Sydney Theatre Company’s major production of Playing Beatie Bow for an incredible 10-week season. Audiences think of her as a rising star, an actor of exceptional talent, but there’s more than meets the eye.

“I’m an actor/devisor/theatre-maker with a strong leaning towards advocacy in my work. I’ve spent a lot of my career as a facilitator for new writing and emerging artists, with various companies dedicated to voices within underrepresented communities. I’m currently one of three Co-Artistic Directors of Red Line Productions at Sydney’s Old Fitzroy Theatre,” says Văn-Davies.

“Everything sounds very formalised, but I’m a fairly chaotic being that just enjoys new challenges.”

Being busy comes naturally to Văn-Davies, but when the coronavirus pandemic was unleashed upon us, she found herself shifting quickly to a zen state of mind.

“Naturally, I think many of us have had to adopt an attitude of hold on tightly, let go lightly. That you give something 100 per cent, but you still have to be okay with it disappearing – or changing, similarly to how it did when COVID first hit,” she says.

“I do feel that’s always been a bit of a philosophy of mine, and I work well under uncertain circumstances, but there’s a more present reality to it. And I think it’s much healthier. Speaking of health, the vigilance and awareness of the safety of each other’s health is a plus.

“Of course, rapid change or disruption is more complicated when you’re dealing with businesses bigger than yourself (like Red Line), but the fundamentals of adaptability and resilience in creating independent theatre have certainly gone a long way through this time. The financial hardship has created some very real limits to what is possible right now for independent companies, so it’s been an interesting challenge trying to find what that means in a context beyond my self, with the responsibility of other artists to consider.”

When asked about personal challenges she has experienced due to the tumult of recent years, Văn-Davies is mindful of others who might have been less fortunate.

“The first thing that springs to mind is the financial difficulty that comes from losing a year of work and no government assistance. But with the caveat that I was in a better position than most to deal with the unemployment through the support of a few theatre companies providing casual work, I also don’t want to over-inflate my struggle.

“The challenges,” she says, “were perhaps more existential, both personally and also reflecting on our industry, the companies and the ecology of theatre in this city. And how my role inside that is undervalued in this country by decision-makers. I wouldn’t say it was tough, but you can lose perspective or energy when you’re just trying to survive from job to job. My fear now is that things will return to how they were once before.”

With the advent of COVID-19, history will forever remember 2020 as extraordinary, with many people gaining new insight into their own lives. Văn-Davies is no different and is perhaps surprised to discover, “I’m very happy doing nothing! But also, I do love what I do. I feel extremely grateful to have the opportunities I’ve had and continue to have, but something has shifted in feeling more grounded and relaxed. It’s a similar experience to how I started to feel about myself when I turned 30, but in a career sense.”

It has been an inspiring start to Văn-Davies’ time as Co-Artistic Director at Red Line, including productions of Exit The King and Goddess: The Elizabeth Burton Story. Though her role is now on hiatus due to Sydney’s current restrictions (their website reads, ‘Programming will resume when the time is right, the signal is back, and theatre does what it does best – adapts’), Văn-Davies remains optimistic.

“Each of our shows has something unique and exciting to offer, right up until 2022, and we’re pretty damn proud of it – so don’t miss them and, for goodness sake, support independent theatre.”

This interview article was commissioned by Diversity Arts Australia as part of the Creative Lives During Covid series, with support from Create NSW.

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