Tessa Rose is an actor who regularly appears on stage and screen across Australia, she’s had roles in ‘Top End Wedding’ , ‘Redfern Now’ and with Bangarra Dance Theatre.In the play The Daly River Girl, Tessa shares her own story about growing up with foster families, away from her mother, family and country.We speak to Tessa at Tandanya just before the opening of The Daly River Girl for the Adelaide Fringe Festival season.
More about Daly River Girl here: https://adelaidefringe.com.au/fringetix/the-daly-river-girl-af2020
Hello. Welcome to Aboriginal Way Radio. I’m Lucy Kingston.
Today on the show, we speak to an actor who’s turned her hand to playwriting to tell her own life story. Tessa Rose felt it was important to speak about her experience growing up in foster homes and so, she took four long years to write her one-woman show, Daly River Girl. That’s coming up. We’ll hear more from Tessa later on in the program.
First up, let’s have some music. This is Elaine Crombie, Will You Wait For Me?
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Tessa Rose is an actor who’s regularly appeared on TV, film and theater across Australia. She’s had roles in Top End Wedding, Redfern Now and also with Bangarra Dance Theater. In her play, the Daly River Girl, Tessa shares her own story about growing up with foster families away from her mother, family and country. I met up with Tessa at Tandanya just before Daly River Girl opened there for the Adelaide Fringe Festival Season.
Thank you. Yeah, it’s exciting because I’ve come full circle. I was here 31 years ago when Tandanya opened in 1989 and I worked in the cafe and in the art gallery, and here I am 30 years later doing my play. So yeah, it’s very emotional.
Wow, a long history with Tandanya. Now, you are here this time with your play, the Daly River Girl. It’s based on your own life story. Can you tell us about why you think it’s valuable to tell your story to the many audiences you have now around Australia?
Yeah. Coming from Darwin where I am, there’s Daly, you see people’s reactions of seeing people that live in the long grass or just indigenous people in general who come in from the communities and visit family that are staying in town, and the racism is just … It’s still rampant and it’s like if you just stopped and maybe asked a few questions and listened and then, you might get an understanding of the plight of other people, what their … We talk about that the stolen generation and prior to that, but it’s still [inaudible 00:03:28]. It’s had a knock on effect with everybody.
So I’m just hoping that maybe my story … I wasn’t from stolen generation, but I was a ward of the state or state of the ward, I’m not sure which one that is, and went through numerous foster families and it’s traumatic. So it takes many, many years to get past that and through that. So I just thought by sharing my story, people, audiences may be able to go away with a conversation or it might bring up a conversation, start a debate and talk about it.
That actually really rings a bell. Last week on the program, we had an interview with Uncle Ivan Tiwu Copley, who’s a Peramangk/Kaurna man. And he was at the celebration for the apology anniversary of stolen generations. And he said, “You just can’t underestimate the layers and the depths and the way it’s reached across generations, the impact of stolen generations.” It was very kind of similar message in a different format.
Yes. Yeah, yeah, exactly right, yeah, so … Because people has been quick to judge or you look at them, they’re just useless, drunken human beings. But sit down and have a yam, talk with somebody and then, you’ll understand a lot more.
Have you had any feedback from audiences or people who’ve watched the show that that has started to shift the way they see people in the street?
No, not necessarily. I’ve had more feedback on just it being my personal story and to saying that I was quite brave to share it because I’ve kept it for the last 30 years. I haven’t spoken about it.
Well, I’m sure many people would think you have been brave and you’ve made a shift from being an actor to being a playwright. What drove you to, I guess, reveal yourself through your own writing?
Yeah. No, well, I haven’t made the change at all. This is my first play that I’ve written. A fellow peer, Ben (Gretz), he suggested to me, “You should write your story,” and I’m going, “Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve never written anything for my life.” I’ve written bits, I’ve written poems and bits and pieces over the years. And he said, “No, you must.” He just said, “Write, write, write, write, write.” So yeah, so it took four years to get to the first production, which was in Brown’s Mart in Darwin in 2017. And it took that long because I had to step away for a bit for sometimes three to six months at a time because it was bringing up all the pain and stuff because it was all safely tucked away there somewhere and just locked there and I’m bringing it up. And it was quite tough, it was really difficult so …
And then we also had three creative developments and then, we had the world premier 2017 at Brown’s Mart. But yeah, I’m not in a hurry to write another one. It’s very lonely because you’ve got a blank page, you’re choosing what topics to write about or what to speak about. And you’re just there for hours just alone writing.
It got a lot easier, I must admit, when I was looking at earlier drafts, it was just all my writing was just really angry. I could just … And then without me even realizing it as I went on to drafts and drafts, a lot of the anger and what not subsided. I could tell in my writing, which was subconsciously so that was … Yeah, so yeah, this is my first play and yeah, but no, acting and dancing’s my first love, my passion. As I say, besides my two children, acting is just my everything. I just love it, yeah.
Yeah. And I guess acting your own story must be very different to taking on someone else’s persona. How have you found that going on stage now with this story that in a lot of ways was hard for you to put on the page?
Yeah. With that it’s … Because I had the Yellumundie Writers Festival in Sydney, I was lucky enough to have Alana Valentine, who’s a brilliant playwright as my dramaturge. And that was when I was still very early stages of writing and I was finding it really difficult, and then she just said to me one day, “Give her a name.” And so once I did that, then I was writing about a character and it came so much easier for me to write. And so I wasn’t writing about me, I was writing about the person, Talulah so yeah.
And one of the reasons behind also for writing was just being I’m a 4-year-old girl to 12, I wanted to tell it in my own words in how I felt with growing up with different foster families, explained, because it was traumatic. You’re going from one foster family and then, you’re with them for a certain amount of time so you fall in love with them and what not. And then, you’re just disregarded and then, you’ve got to go to another foster family. So you just feel … It’s very painful. It’s very painful.
Yeah. As people will learn about if they go along to the play, which I’m sure they’ll grab the opportunity to do, you have been through some difficult times in your life, including being in foster families. Was it hard to make yourself put those into the story, those parts of how you felt into the story?
Well, yeah, that’s why it took four years. Yeah, it was hard writing about it. Our first, when we were in rehearsals, when I was in rehearsals with Alex and in the theater, so we had the lighting and the stage manager and so, there was quite a lot of emotional times through that first rehearsal for the first time I did the play. Then it sort of come to well, yes, it is my personal story, but it is a story about a lot of other people. And I’ve got the strength now to be able to tell it and … Do you know what I mean?
Without … There’s a few little things in there when I’ve just been going over my lines over the past couple of weeks, again, where I talk about my son in there and what not. It gets me emotional still, but it’s a lot easier than what it was during the first production and during the writing, yeah. That was … Yeah.
It would be hard. It sounds like that process of putting it down on the page, you could reflect and not put distance with it, but understand it better for yourself and for others.
Yeah, I suppose. I’m not really … It was cathartic, of course, but it’s … I’ve always wanted to say, “This is how I felt. This is how you made me feel.” Because there’s been conversations from foster families and what not that “What are you complaining about?” Because there was no violence or sexual abuse or anything like that. They were loving families, but they assume just because a couple of them were from the same family, but they just sort of like saying, “Well, what’s the problem? What’s the issue?” So I just wanted to say, “This is how it made me feel.” Yes.
Just putting your experience on the record and maybe telling people to pay more attention to what people’s experiences are, don’t assume them, as you said early on in the interview here, yeah.
Yeah. That’s it. That it doesn’t affect you, of the Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, which was extremely strict. It was all of that. When I was older, it was so long to get over the guilt. That’s the devil’s music. Don’t dress like that. You don’t do this and what not, and just that constantly. It was just feeling so guilty and terrible within yourself as a person, as a human being. And to realize that no, you’re not a horrible person, but just having that Christianity, that really strict Christianity took many years to get past and realize we all have different beliefs and what not, and we’re all individuals and it doesn’t make you a bad person. Does that make any sense?
Yeah, definitely, definitely. Well, Adelaide people now have got a lot of options around of shows to see around town you might say. If someone’s considering coming along to Daly River Girl, can you just give us a view of what kind of a performance and a show they’ll experience?
Yeah, so the Daly River Girl, we’ve got three shows, one on Saturday at 7:30, a 2:00 PM show on Sunday, and a 7:30 show on Sunday. It’s my personal story about growing up with non-Indigenous foster families, a long, long way from my community and from my home.
When we first got into the rehearsal room, well, when I got in there with Alex Galeazzi, my director, I was just determined to have no happy ending. I just wanted it … And he just said “No, you can’t just have all doom and gloom for yourself and also, for the audience. We need to have some light and some shade and some laughter.”
So that’s where bringing … it does touch on the domestic violence and about being brought up in different foster families, but there’s also stories about my childhood and that brings the laughter and about family and about home and about my children and their life journey as well.
There’s a beautiful image that my cousin’s sister painted, which is the backdrop, which is projected up on the screen. We’ve got beautiful, some animation and stills and some videos that are projected onto the screen as well. And a little bit about my theater work and my daughter’s in some of the video. And so yeah, I think it’s all just all nicely … It’s all there to complement each other and the beautiful soundscape. So yeah, so there’s a little bit of everything.
Right. And all delivered by an acclaimed actor, not to be missed I think. Tessa Rose, thank you very much for your time.
Thank you very much.
Actor and creator of the theater production Daly River Girl. Daly River Girl is showing at Tandanya as part of the Adelaide Fringe Festival. You can see a show on Saturday, the 29th of February and two shows on March, the 1st. Just head to the Tandanya webpage for more information.
You’re listening to Aboriginal Way Radio. This song is a live recording of Busby Marou, Something For Me.
The band’s called Microwave Jenny and the song is Stuck on the Moon. Thanks very much for listening to Aboriginal Way Radio this week. The show is brought to you by South Australian Native Title Services. I’ll leave you with a song by Nathan May. This one’s called Lost. See you later.