Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Hannah Norris: After You

By | Published on Sunday 9 February 2020

Actor Hannah Norris and her mother Angela are appearing at the Soho Theatre this month with a fascinating show that grew out of Hannah’s interest in her mother’s past.

In particular, the fact that her mum had appeared in the first ever Australian production of ‘The Sound of Music’ as a teenager, but did not pursue a career in theatre, at least in part because of the expectations placed on women at the time.

I spoke to Hannah, to find out more.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the content of the show? Does it tell a story? What can we expect?
HN: The content of the show grew out of conversations I had with my mum over a few months – asking her about her life, discussing topics we’d never talked about before, and making observations about the funny ways we relate to each other. I was looking at it all through a prism of comparing hers with my own life, because I’d definitely got to a point where I could see more and more similarities between me and my mum, and I wanted to find out how similar or different we actually are.

The main focus is the fact that she was in ‘The Sound Of Music’ when she was fourteen but never had a career on the stage after that. So, actually getting her back into the theatre and giving her another shot at that is a big part of the show – and amazingly she is now flying out to London to make her West End debut aged 73! But it also looks at the way I’ve always seen the events of her life and the story/mythology that I had created about it, and basically I get corrected on all of that.

There is an alchemy between us, which is something unique to see on stage – that true, cellular bond. We make each other laugh – and hopefully the audience too! – there are treasures from Mum’s past, a bit of zumba – she loves it! – some singing, sequins, fairy lights – and lots of very real, natural, very touching moments.

CM: What themes does the show explore?
HN: It explores inheritance, motherhood, hopes and fears.

CM: What were your aims when creating it?
HN: I had some personal goals. I’m an actor but I have wanted to write and make my own work for years, but never have. Until now. The idea of doing something with my mum was strong enough to make this actually happen – wanting to get us both performing again, and the fact that I’d never seen a mother and daughter on stage together before.

It felt like such a massive experiment at the start, because I didn’t know if mum would actually be able to do it – to learn and perform a one hour show with me that is stylistically and performatively challenging. She’s proved that she can do it, and brilliantly, but she definitely feels that same fear and risk every time the next audience walks into the room with us.

I wanted to bring an older woman on to the stage and make her story important – which is something we definitely don’t see enough of in theatre or in life – and in the same way that so many younger people make autobiographical work and tell their own stories, hear her stories and voice in that medium.

I had a lot of secret dreams for what could happen with this show alongside the dreams and fears revealed within it – and amazingly, all of these have come true… I got mum to do a couple of full moon and new moon rituals with me throughout the process, so I think there might be some real magic or witchcraft that has come into play.

CM: What made you decide to tackle this subject now? What inspired the creation of the show?
HN: I had got to a point in my life where I could feel acting slipping away from me. It has always been my first love, but getting older and surviving, and other jobs taking up more and more of my time, I could feel I was at a point where it might suddenly have been too long since I’d last been on stage, and felt like it was behind me. So finding the right story to get me back on stage was really important.

And it felt so exciting and pressing to bring my mum into this work with me. She’s getting older too, and since retiring three years ago she now has the time to do something like this – and I wanted to give her that opportunity before it’s too late. I have always believed in her talent and her potential, so it was a real privilege to help share that with audiences across Australia and the UK.

CM: How did you go about putting it all together? Can you talk us through the creative process?
HN: The first idea was just to get her back on stage. About a month after I’d suggested the idea, she and dad came to visit me in London and while she was here, I kept asking her to have meetings with me – where we would sit and I’d ask her questions, and record our chats. I then registered us for the Adelaide Fringe – to give me a deadline.

Over the next two to three months we Facetimed regularly – with me asking her more questions, and giving her acting exercises to do. I’d given myself another deadline of getting a first draft done by the end of the year, which I managed to formulate from all these conversations we’d had – as the themes and content began to reveal itself – and through doing a workshop with Bryony Kimmings and writing lots of ideas on index cards.

I got to Melbourne with a loose draft and ideas for scenes, and we rehearsed and created for four weeks. Mum was desperate to have a script so she could start learning lines – her biggest fear – but I really wanted to keep exploring ideas and dialogue possibilities – she had never done anything like this before; creating a piece of theatre.

I was sometimes a bit of a nightmare, judging my writing and ideas constantly, but with some close friends coming in as outside eyes and to feedback, it helped bring the whole thing together.

I was very adamant about trying to do as much as possible by myself – in terms of production and the whole project – so that mum and I had real ownership of the work. This meant having my head in directorial mode, thinking about lighting and sound, as well as performance, text and then the marketing and producing of the show too.

Until we actually performed it for the first time, I don’t think mum actually believed it was going to happen!

CM: How does your familial relationship affect your working relationship? Did it make it easier to work on a show together or harder?
HN: We have a good relationship – not one of those “my mum is my best friend” type relationships though. As I said, there’s lots of things we’d never talked about, that we’d never told each other – but we get on and have fun together, and are loving and caring towards each other.

Mum put her full trust in me for this in a way that feels reciprocal to the sort of trust a child puts in their mother – so I felt a big responsibility to nurture and guide her through the whole process. It has definitely brought us closer together. We didn’t have any arguments or fall out but I did have mini tantrums sometimes – a type of behaviour I never would have done in front of anyone but my mum/dad/brother.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your past, now? What motivated you towards a career in performing, and how did you go about starting it?
HN: I grew up in London and went to Fitzjohn’s Primary School in Hampstead. We had the most incredible music teacher – David Joyner – and therefore the most unbelievable musical education. I loved singing and the more I was on stage, the more interested I became in the acting bit – we did ‘Twelfth Night’ as my end of primary school production, aged eleven.

I was always academic too, and did a term at Henrietta Barnett School before we moved to Australia. And then thankfully again I had an awesome teacher – my drama teacher Diane Gavelis – and through her I learned about Stanislavski, Brecht, Artaud and built on my passion for Shakespeare.

So by my final year of high school, I was obsessed with acting and wanted to go to drama school. I ended up doing a year at uni studying Creative Arts and then went to drama school, and have been acting and performing since then.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
HN: Performing the one-woman show ‘My Name Is Rachel Corrie’ in Adelaide and Melbourne – such a powerful piece that inspires real change in the audience. Doing a stage adaptation of Stendahl’s ‘The Red And The Black’ alongside my cousin Kate Kendall – I have always looked up to her since I was a little girl and she is an extraordinary actor – so being on stage with her was really special.

Producing and performing the one-woman show ‘Cut’, which the production style and elements I had a vision for, and which was picked up by Underbelly for seasons in Edinburgh and London. Playing Shelly in Sam Shepard’s ‘Buried Child’ in a production that starred Ron Haddrick as Dodge – Ron had been in the RSC in the 40s and 50s, working with Olivier, Gielgud and playing Horatio to Michael Redgrave’s ‘Hamlet’, amongst other experiences – such an honour.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
HN: I want to make more of my own work – write more things, collaborate and create theatre with artists that I admire. I also want to get into the UK acting game properly – do some TV here… I have lots of comedian friends – I just need them to think of me when they are writing and casting their funny TV shows please!!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
HN: Well a major thing is having a baby in June! My husband [comedian Carl Donnelly] and I have been recording a weekly podcast, ‘The Keith Cheggers Podcast’, throughout my pregnancy – talking to funny, cool guests like Jessica Fostekew, Felicity Ward and Bryony Kimmings – so we have a fair few more weeks to record that.

There’s an Australian play called ‘Hurt’ that I’d like to do here towards the end of the year. Is that realistic with a baby? No idea! And I’d like to focus on some more writing. As well as being on all the TV shows, obviously.

‘After You’ is on at Soho Theatre from 17-22 Feb, see the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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