Interview: Alison Bell

Alison Bell is best known for her lead role as Roo in ABC series Laid, which saw her nominated for an AACTA Award for ‘Best Performance in a Television Comedy’. She has also appeared in Offspring, Packed to the Rafters, Rush and City Homicide. Screen is not her only talent, Alison has also won two Helpman Awards for her roles in Hedda Gabbler and the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Doubt.

Her current project is The Letdown as part of ABC TV’s Comedy Showroom, a series of six comedy pilots made by some of Australia’s most exciting comedians, comedy writers, producers and directors.

We were fortunate to find out a little more about Alison in this interview.

When did you know you wanted to be an actress?
When I was 14 I saw my first Bell Shakespeare production at The Canberra Theatre and the dreaming began.

Can you remember your first role, what can you tell us about it?
I remember performing in the Pied Piper at primary school. I was a pretty shy kid but for some reason felt very at home playing councillor 3, or whomever I was, on the stage. It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me, why the stage feels like home.

You are set to star in The Letdown, what can you tell us about it?
It’s the story of a new mum and her struggle transitioning from her old life of freedom, control, sleep and social engagements to 24/7 primary caring for a newborn. It’s about her mother’s group and the disparate bunch of new parents she encounters there, her changing relationships with her husband, her mother and her old friends. It’s a comedy about the humiliations, the absurdities, the pressures and expectations of motherhood.

Alison Bell stars as ‘Audrey’ in The Letdown

The Letdown was written by you and Sarah Scheller, can you tell us a little about the writing process?
Sarah came up with the idea many many years ago. She mentioned it to me one day and I thought she was a genius! We teamed up shortly after and started developing/writing the show/series almost six years ago now. Sarah is Australian but has lived in LA for nearly all of that time, so we worked remotely for the most part. Lots of Skype meetings and emails. We shaped the characters and ideas together. We both wrote and edited and rewrote and re-edited each others work. At the beginning of 2014 the ABC comedy team came on board and we further developed the script with their guidance. We shot the pilot in October last year and have been working hard since on the series just in case we get the go ahead from the ABC to make more! During the past six months I was lucky enough to spend big chunks of time in LA and had an absolute ball working with Sarah face-to-face.

Can you tell us a little about the Comedy Showroom and how it works?
The ABC developed and shot six distinct comedy pilots, each of which will air as part of the Comedy Showroom. They are asking viewers to provide feedback via the iview page and that will be factored into discussions and decisions regarding which pilots will go to series. My understanding is that Rick Kalowski, the Head of Comedy at the ABC, would love to make as many as he can into full series. It’s all contingent on funding.

alison bell

There are some big shows on your resume, what is your career highlight to date?
On stage: Blackbird; an extraordinary play I had the privilege of doing at the MTC with actors Greg Stone, Georgia Flood, Director Peter Evans and a magnificent team of creatives and stage managers. I believe it to be one of the greatest contemporary tragedies written for the stage.
On screen: The Letdown; because it was such a privilege to get the opportunity to make something we’d written with such an accomplished cast and crew.

Who has been the most fun to work with?
Now that’s hard… One of the greatest aspects of my job is the community of artists I get to work with. I spend my working days with truly wonderful, funny, vibrant human beings. Can’t pick one! But let me say it’s been a joy working with Sarah Scheller because she’s not just my writing partner, she’s my very dear friend. We have a lot of fun.

You have done quite a bit of work on both the small screen and the stage, can you tell us a little about the different processes?
Although they draw on similar skills, the process is very different. Theatre typically involves a lengthy rehearsal period as this is when all of the creative elements, the set design, acting, staging, lighting, costume design cohere. The rehearsing also allows we actors to interrogate the story, deepen our characterisations and embed both in our body and psyche so that we can tell the story faithfully, confidently, night after night to a live audience regardless of our personal state of mind/energy levels/ health etc! The great joy of theatre is telling the story from go to woe every night without interruption. The show is very much in the performers hands.

Screen processes are faster with many more filters. There is usually minimal rehearsal. Often the only rehearsal one will get will be on set just prior to shooting, but you have the luxury of having a few cracks at it! And only the best of your takes will be seen by an audience. Character work has been done privately, before auditions/getting to set. The editors will shape the story. Not the performers. The great joy of screen is that you only have to live the story a few times and then it’s done. You can pour all of your energy into perfecting one moment and then rest. Theatre requires more sustained stamina. It can be taxing, particularly dramas, when you have to live out emotionally fraught situations eight times a week for perhaps six weeks! It’s tough, but exciting.

What is your favourite genre of movie to watch?
I like drama and comedy in equal measure, but that said, I think great comedy is more difficult to achieve.

Can you tell us a little about how you relax and unwind?
Cafes help me relax. Coffee, newspapers, friends and food. That’s the way I do it. Oh and quality TV. Now we have a little one, we spend most nights in. Thank God for the TV revolution!

The Letdown [#TheLetdown] is available to watch on ABC iview [] until Tuesday June 14.

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