I’d been seeing Sarah Quinn around comedy festivals long enough to have been on nodding and smiling terms, sometimes going as far as to say hello. I assumed she was a comedian of some kind, but not one from Australia, otherwise we’d also be nodding, smiling, and sometimes saying hello on the circuit during non-festival. Discovering, through the Facebook ‘friend-of-a-friend’ network, I discovered she was based in Canada and was grateful I’d never spoke to her long enough to mistakenly refer to an American heritage. But the assumption that she’s Canadian is also inaccurate, it turns out. She’s an Aussie. Not that any of this really matters. Except that she’s currently portraying various characters in the show Other People’s Problems (at Melbourne International Comedy Festival and Sydney Comedy Festival) so having difficulty pinning down her real life identity is apt.
Dom Romeo: For some reason I assumed you were a Canadian visiting Australia, rather than an Aussie who is now based in Montreal. What took you to Canada?
Sarah Quinn: I am indeed an Aussie based in Montreal. I went there originally on a post-grad study exchange. I didn't really apply myself, just between you and me. I chose Montreal because it sounded exotic, diverse, inspiring and fun. Turns out, it is all those things and more. It is a very... distracting city. In the very best way.
Dom Romeo: Is there a difference between the acting scene here in Australia, and there? And if so, how do they differ?
Sarah Quinn: Yes. Very much so. Firstly, there is a lot more gender equality in the arts in general, and as far as I can tell, they don't need to sit down and have forums about it, it’s just the way it is because there is no rational reason it should be any other way. When you grow up seeing that all around you, it is very powerful. You aren’t hard-wired to believe that, for instance, Directing is a man’s job and Arts Administration is a woman’s job (not that I'm pulling specific examples here or anything). That is, as far as I can tell, a very specific load of outdated bullshit we Australians can be proud to call our own.
The first language in Quebec is French, and so the dominant culture is French culture. The English language theatre scene in Montreal is sort of like operating in a small town within a big city. Anglophones make up only about a quarter of the population, so as you can imagine, the theatre scene is a quarter of the size, and so are the audiences. Personally I find that I see a bit more programming risk being taken here, at least on bigger stages, and that shows often have much higher production values, but I think that is a scale issue. There is also a whole world of French theatre that I haven’t yet got into because je ne comprehend pas enough French. Having said that, the fringe arts scene in Montreal is outstanding, because it is a cheap place to live, and is full of creative souls. There is a lot of really edgy fantastic stuff happening in tiny venues and warehouses. The fact that it is such a small scene means it is very supportive, welcoming, and it doesn't take long til you know almost everyone. Living there gave me the confidence and freedom and inspiration to get back into performing, and for that (and many other reasons) it will always have a very special place in my heart. It is difficult to make money, but people aren’t money-driven there, so it doesn't matter. We're all blissfully poor. It is a singularly unique and authentic city.
Dom Romeo: You seem to return frequently to perform here. Are you bringing shows that you’ve done back in Montreal, or do you find you create different work depending on where you are?
Sarah Quinn: What I have been doing the past couple of years is coming here with a show first, using the Adelaide Fringe as a sort of jumping off point. Generally I will preview the show once in front of a very soft crowd of people I trust in Montreal, then bring it to the Fringe and other fringey venues in Melbourne and Sydney, and then take it back to do a full season in Montreal. This has worked quite well. This year I decided to fight my drive to keep starting something new (which is strong in this one), by going back to my 2009 show and making it better. It can be beneficial to revisit work that way because no matter how successful it was, it is amazing how much you can always be tweaking and improving it. Also, I decided that this year I wanted to reach a wider audience, so having the energy to put into promotion and presentation, instead of just creation and development, is necessary for that. It is a show I really believe in and have a lot of fun performing, and I always felt it had more potential than just a one-off fringe thing.
I create more work in Montreal just because that is where I live most of the year. I also run a monthly new-work salon called “Happenglad's New Hat”, where the rule is that all the performers need to be trying out brand new acts or bits. It is fantastic fun, and always exciting for that reason. I've seen some amazing stuff come out of that show, and as a performing artist you need that kind of forum to be able to try out new ideas. I've written a handful of new solo sketches and characters purely because the show was on the following night (or the same day) and I HAD to write something. I promised myself I would get up every time, and even though I came close to piking out several times, I always ending up pulling it out of somewhere. And most of those tiny sketches of sketches have now become full-blown ideas for characters, or web clips, or radio plays.
Dom Romeo: Tell me about how you came to be acting. Was it your first career choice? How did you realise it was what you had to be doing? (I’m assuming I saw an earlier photo of you on your Facebook – black and white, school girlish looking one – an early production?)
Sarah Quinn: Are you talking about the photo of Jane Fonda from LIFE Magazine??
Sarah Quinn: I love that photo because that is how I feel when I am developing and rehearsing my solo work – sort of alone, and urgent. I love that she looks as though there could be a million things racing through her mind, or nothing at all. I know that zone.
I got bit by the bug when I was in my first play in primary school. Even though the whole process of auditioning and rehearsing in front of my peers scared me to death, once I was on stage it all went away. I remember really liking that phenomenon. Then I was part of a small group who fought tooth and nail to have a drama class brought in at my academia-and-sports-focused selective high school, and after that I trained in acting at university. So you could say it was what I always wanted to do, although I feel I lost my way once I left drama school. I think I had a lot of insecurities and misgivings about the industry (not all unfounded), and misconceptions about the kinds of people that made it as actors. I always loved performing, but for me it’s the communication, the connection with the audience, the expression of something deep and human that attracts me to it. I thought you had to be a bit of a show off, a precocious child who always loved the spotlight, and very fame-driven, to succeed in the industry. It’s not true, and it turns out I enjoy it too much to do anything else. I’ve tried to do other things, but nothing feels as right or as fun or as important to me as this. I just don't care this much about anything else. Except maybe food. I care a lot about that.
Dom Romeo: You appear to be an actor edging further into stand-up comedy. Is that an accurate observation? Why and how has your performing career pursued that trajectory?
Sarah Quinn: I get called a comedian sometimes and it makes me very uncomfortable. (That said, I do very much like the French term for actress, “comedienne”. ) I am absolutely not heading into stand-up, and that is not something I am desirous of. I certainly have gravitated toward comedy, and love performing comedy – almost everything I write tends to turn out to be satire – but it is always in character, and while it is (hopefully) funny, it is not really “jokes”. I love stand-up, I see what those guys do first hand, and I’m very admiring of it, but it is not for me. I have no drive toward that format and no inclination toward writing jokes. Although I do end up being a sounding board quite a bit. When you live with a comic, (or see a lot of comedy), before long you start thinking in premises and tags, and I have always always loved to laugh. Humour is very important to me, I was brought up in a family that valued a good sense of humour very highly. Watching so much stand-up has cemented and enlivened my sense that anything can be funny, and that we need humour to face every situation.
Dom Romeo: Tell me about Other People’s Problems.
Sarah Quinn: Other People's Problems is a satirical response to the ever-expanding self-improvement industry. It is three short plays written by three different authors – DeAnne Smith, Samuel Booth, and me. I perform them all. It delves into the world of self help, and the often unhinged characters that inhabit it. It is a dark comedy, at times tragic, frequently absurd, but also very touching. I had an idea for a teenage video-blogger character who doles out really questionable advice on the internet, and then gets sucked into a commodified world she is too naive to deal with. I knew DeAnne was throwing around ideas for a motivational speaker, and then Sam and I came up with another character – an uptight woman listening to a sexuality self help tape – which he then went away and wrote. I rehearsed them up and workshopped them over several months, with DeAnne providing an occasional outside eye.
Since the original run, I have added new production elements, and a few little audiovisual transition pieces, which tie it all together more than the original. This also meant I got to explore a few new ideas and write some new material. It feels more like a solid whole now, rather than three short plays.
Dom Romeo: Is each character that you play the creation of the respective author, as opposed to people writing material for ‘pre-established’ characters? Which was the easiest to play? Do you approach someone else’s words differently to your own?
Sarah Quinn: Yes, each character was the creation of a different writer. (I snuck two into mine, ’cos I didn’t know any better.) At first, I absolutely approached my own words differently. I felt them very silly, and clearly less accomplished as writing than the others (who both have lots of writing under their belts; this was my first) and I doubted anyone would be interested in hearing them. Then something strange began to happen, the more I did it, and the more people responded positively, the less the words felt like my own, and the less the character felt like my creation. She had a life of her own and it felt just as real and valid as the others. I think this was just my confidence growing, and I went from declaring painfully, “I will never write again!!” to being really quite addicted to the satisfaction of expressing something of my own and having people connect with it. Now they are all equally special to me, and neither is easier or more difficult. They all take work and I inhabit them each with genuine relish every time.
Dom Romeo: Push comes to shove, what do you prefer, live performance or film/television work? And why?
Sarah Quinn: This is impossible. But if you held me at gunpoint and forced me to choose (what kind of an asshole are you anyway?), then I would have to choose live theatre, because it is my first love, and the ritual of live performance is like religion to me. That said, I have been well and truly seduced by the movies, and am now a faithful theatre devotee with a very meaningful lover on the side. (The lover is film, by the way.) Movies are awesome, and I love shooting them. I love that people come and powder your face and when you are done the director says “That’s a wrap!”, just like in the movies.
Dom Romeo: Does anyone see your name and assume you are Tegan’s sister?
Sarah Quinn: Funny you should ask. Yes, I believe they do, because back when MySpace was a thing (remember back in the mid-late noughties? Simpler times...) I used to get friend requested by girls with such monikers as “MRSTEGANQUIN”, and “T&S4EVA<3”, even though our names are spelled completely differently. In fairness, I did used to have short asymmetrical hair. Sara Quin actually lives in Montreal as well, which doesn’t help matters. Nowadays there are so many fake Facebook pages for her that they don’t make it down to friend requesting me, thankfully. I’ve never met her, but I think we have several mutual friends and am sure we would get along swimmingly.