Performing artist and producer, Donna De Palma is a ‘twig’ that is taking root at the age of 55 as she prepares to blossom in her debut self-produced theatrical extravaganza: “Twigs That Never Took”, to be staged as part of the 2017 Melbourne Fringe Festival at the Butterfly Club from 12 – 17 September 2017.
A feminist of the 70s and 80s who believes in equal rights for women, as equal partners of men, Donna understands entitlement and privilege. In this production De Palma reveals that once women reach a certain age, they seemingly become invisible and unproductive. However, what is more realistic is that women actually crave the positive role models that buck the trend of the idealised and sexualised younger woman or the damsel in distress. Women want to see themselves on stage, in stories that are close to home and demonstrate their strengths and weaknesses in a light-hearted manner. When we laugh at ourselves we can appreciate that we are less than perfect and that less is more.
A significant milestone, De Palma has experienced a number of turning points in her life such as going overseas for almost two years, attending university, committing to a long term relationship, having a daughter and now putting on her own show. De Palma takes the time to reflect on a life well lived, exploring the female psyche more broadly. She holds a mirror up to the women she has known over her life and encourages them to see themselves so they too can appreciate their own lives, a form of gratitude for what is apparent.
Donna grew up in Brunswick in a small Italian migrant family with one sister and no relatives. Unusual for the time, as European migrants often arrived as large extended families. She attended the local primary school where she learnt to speak English in a punitive manner. She recalls being shaken, and reprimanded for not understanding instructions. She describes herself as a fat kid who was picked on by other fat kids in the pecking order of childhood angst. Street wise and savvy Donna learnt how to stick up for herself. Adapting the strength of swear words in broken English “GET FUK!” Sent her tormentors running as she expressed her sense of equity and entitlement at a very young age.
I remember my early days of school, not speaking English and getting into trouble. There was a ridiculous rule that when the bell went, everyone had to freeze, but I kept walking around. Some teacher would grab me and shake me, but I kept walking- I thought ‘what’s going on?’ I think everyone has to keep still. I remember little things like that and getting into trouble in the classroom.
Social occasions, although very rare were important, given that relatives were scarce. Going out to visit friends, to church, being with other people and engaging in events was a treat. Donna was often bored with lack of things to do and realised at a young age that she wanted to experience things and possessed a fascination with the other. De Palma wanted to know what it felt like to be another person and often discovered the joy of impersonating the roller coaster of emotions without truly understanding them.
A strong sense of self continued into her teens, as secondary school became more challenging to navigate. This was the era of ‘the mole’ and the threat of I’m gonna bash ya! Donna had many friends rather than sticking with one group, she was popular with her peers. In the school setting students were often left to fend for themselves as learning from books, with little classroom teaching was the norm. For Donna secondary school became an enjoyable four years of socialising. It was not until year 11 and 12 that she came to understand the importance of education. By that time the teachers did not take her seriously and she felt that it was too late to catch up as she continued to struggle in her final years of secondary college.
I think we all got ripped off of an education. You did not have to work and no one encouraged you. We sat around talking about what you did on the weekend or pop stars. By year 11, I wanted to work, but the teachers did not believe me. They ignored me. It’s important to help young people, even if they are difficult, so that they don’t slip through the system. I was an ESL teacher in a college threatening closure. There was a directive from the Principal to pass everyone. “How can I pass students that had never come to my class?” I was furious because we were not doing them any favours.
At 17 Donna performed in a school production and loved it. She made a decision to follow her passion towards a career in acting. A student of television and acting, she enrolled a voice coach and private drama lessons and immersed herself in the art. At about the same time she travelled to Italy with her family. Together with her sister they secretly purchased a Euro-rail ticket without their parent’s permission and announced their departure from the family. It was unusual for Italian parents to allow their daughters to travel without a chaperone, and fearless described the girl’s disobedience.
Back in Australia, Donna found work, saved and travelled. She left for a six-month overseas trip, that became two years. An interest in the socialist theory, she was drawn to a kibbutz. To be frugal with resources taught her that she could travel for longer, experiencing the joy of discovering new worlds as an avenue to self-awareness and to better understand the human condition, great fodder for acting.
On her return, Donna continued to work in odd jobs but soon decided to audition for NIDA and the Victorian School of the Arts– she imagined that if she simply followed the rules then she would be successful, but she was not accepted in these performing arts schools and finally settled on a successful drama/ theatre placement at the Melbourne College of Advanced Education, a teaching college. A mature aged student, Donna became known to the senior students and performed in external projects, whilst also continuing to study acting and achieving a degree teaching English as a second language and drama.
I decided to do a degree that would also allow me to get a job. My interest was to study drama. I never had the confidence to leave a day job and preserver with it. I did not want the stress of teaching, but thought this was a good space to work for an actor. When I finished my degree, I found myself in theatre in education programs, so I followed through, even though I was more interested in doing adult theatre work.
De Palma reflects on the successful actor as a result of their profile, followed by a certain look, especially when it comes to roles for female actors. The next measure of success is the need to put bums on seats, as a big-ticket actor will always take the main stage. The entertainment industry cannot afford to take risks. Donna is realistic about the industry and the lack of opportunity for actors like her: I don’t think that the industry needs anything; it’s just what the industry does! And it does not know what it wants until it sees it. That’s how it is! So you create your own work.
Donna speaks about the process involved to secure meaningful work revealing her resourceful and focused demeanour:
When an audition arrives, you drop everything and you start to work hard to prepare. You either get it or you do not. You don’t always have heaps of time. I got a call to do a voice over, a recording of me speaking Spanish. So I called my Spanish-speaking friend to check my pronunciation. I did all that work and sent it off the same day. The next day I was elated to hear that I got the gig and excited to receive the script. That’s when I discovered that I had four lines of dialogue:
It wasn’t me! You’re mistaken.
I did not do it!
Get off me. HELP, HELP…
SCREAM (SOUND OF GAROTING)
and then the character is shot dead!
End of gig!
Other lessons Donna shares are based on workshops with acting agents: Don’t go into an audition asking, “what is the point?” It is about the way you look, followed by how you are matched with others and then how you work with someone, whether or not you are successful is not always your fault. If acting is about fame, give up now! An actor’s job is to audition without expectation.
Donna has been writing and performing commissioned theatre in education works since leaving university. A founding member of the Material Girls, she currently works for a local council that provides sustainability and waste minimisation theatre education programs for schools. The work has become scarce, due to less demand. While De Palma has written environmental plays for children and a puppetry show about Graffiti, Twigs That Never Took is the first solo show she has written.
As the work becomes less frequent, I need to spend time maintaining my skill through acting itself. I also saw a friend perform at Fringe last year. I enquired and revisited something I had written two years ago and I reworked it. While it’s hard work, it’s also very liberating. There aren’t many roles for women like me, so I am exploring this time when women are considered less important and can go unnoticed, like becoming invisible, yet it is a time when women are their strongest and their truest selves.
The environment is not always conducive to the acting prowess that Donna brings, so here she cultivates, creates and grows her own production in her own way and at the same time celebrates what it means to be a robust, flourishing, visible woman in her prime who simply wants to engage with the love of her life- acting!
“I don’t think that the industry needs anything; it’s just what the industry does! And it does not know what it wants until it sees it. That’s how it is! So you create your own work.”