Portrait

Quiet please, there's a lady on stage. Lights go up on renowned artistic director Robyn Archer. By Kate Holden.

All the world’s a stage for Robyn Archer

House lights go down. Hush. Stage lights up, low. A modern boardroom with a huge window, view pasted on of Federation Square, Melbourne; late afternoon twilight; casual crowds and the circular aluminium bulk of the Radiant Lines installation by Asif Khan for Robyn Archer’s Light in Winter festival. Interior: enormous boardroom table, empty room. A figure sits at one end, hunched over spreadsheets and lists, clad in black. A chord sounds. The overhead lights are turned on, and the figure sits back. 

Black jumper, modest jewellery, trademark quiffed hair, round face and tired, friendly eyes. She speaks. 

“There’s a photograph of me, I think I was eight, in a magazine called Radio Call, and I’m sitting in bed, in this little blue bedjacket with a big ribbon and a big ribbon in my hair and my candlewick bedspread and my wooden 78 turntable.” Nineteen-fifties Adelaide, housing commission home, suburbia. Here’s the scene: she’s winning a prize for a drawing in a large general art exhibition. They have to deliver it to her bedside. An only child; a sickly child. Asthma. Six weeks in bed every winter. 

This is Robyn Archer, renowned artistic director of major spectacles, who spends her days giving keynote speeches, overseeing festivals – the Centenary of Canberra last year, The Light in Winter in Melbourne now – devising the Gold Coast’s cultural rehabilitation, advising on the Anzac Centenary; sitting on boards and councils, working foyers full of patrons, administrating arts funding; composing and giving her famous performances of Brecht and cabaret, appearing in international festivals, accepting more awards; sorting her papers at the National Archives, travelling and unpacking, giving endless interviews, accepting an adjunct professorship, cramming a personal life among it all.

“That’s why I genuinely love my disease,” she announces. “As a child, rushing or panicking is equivalent to death. You would have an attack.” Her speech is melodious, methodical, courteous. Work, flow, steady, diligent, satisfying. No haste. There’s only one solution, she says: thinking. “I approach it warily. I’m not keen to go there until I’m ready. If I force myself, if I start to get bludgeoned by a deadline, I calm down completely and say, ‘Just feel it first.’ A very calm, considered process.” As a child when she returned to school every spring, she was always ahead. A perfect day now, she goes on, starts at 6am in bed with her laptop until afternoon, absorbedly working on one project, then another. “The main reason you go through that,” she acknowledges, “is not to humiliate yourself in front of lots of people.”

The little girl in the bedjacket and the ribbons sighs, lies back in bed, daydreams at the ceiling. “I was a sick, only child. It makes perfect sense that there’s something private and pleasurable, the time I spend by myself. There’s this beautiful pleasure in absolutely enjoying it.” A decent sound system in the car for the long drives back to Adelaide; working on the laptop in the evening with the noise of TV in the background for distraction. “I am shy. I am hopeless at parties.”

Young Robyn, in the bed, glows more brightly under the spotlight. She gets up, plays with toy soldiers for a moment; pants, exhausted; retreats to the bed again. She has to pace herself, learn to focus deeply, soberly evaluate her abilities and limits. The common treatment of adrenalin shots stopped in adolescence as the asthma abated. “I have a theory,” the older woman says, “that this may well account for the fact that I’ve made a career of putting myself in danger. Constantly, never taking anything for granted.” 

Nerves, and the ecstasy of her voice. “When I sing, that’s physical, that’s joy. Just to sing.” She yodelled once at a dinner of eminences and a neuroscientist remarked on the tonic physiological properties of a good yodel. By the time she was at university the career was inevitable. There went the time for painting, the interest in architecture, the degree in literature, the likelihood of sticking at teaching. Instead, the dare: move to Sydney and follow the voice. 

Another spotlight flicks on: Robyn, mid-20s, sequined gown, glammed up, singing, “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour on the Bedpost Overnight?” If your mother says don’t chew it/ Do you swallow it in spite? Leagues clubs, working every night, vaudeville standards like her father sang. Proper respect for the canon. Occasionally a little subversion: Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey. Her voice at the register of Frank Sinatra: no girlish leading roles in musicals for this one. Then the mentor, John Willett, and his personal translations of German cabaret. The figure in the light smears Weimar-style make-up on her face: scarlet lipstick, doll-face brows. A revelation.

From university she learned to push herself hard; from Brecht she learned there need not be a choice between teaching and entertainment. “When I found theatre in my late 20s I thought that I’ll probably be a better teacher and dealer in ideas outside a school system than inside it. I won’t ever have to do anything I don’t really want to.” Now she almost never has a day off. She’s happy.

The singing dies away; a new sound. The little girl in the bed heaves for breath, dreadful rasps. Robyn rubs her face tiredly, and says, “I love being on trains and planes. It’s that asthmatic thing: if only something else could breathe me.” The deadly fatigue of inhaling and exhaling; the exhilaration of movement without effort. “I have two images of myself,” she says thoughtfully. “In one I’m up on the picture rail, observing. What’s she doing now? That’s interesting. I didn’t expect her to do that…” Still talking, she begins heading towards stage left. “In the other I see lines of tension being stretched in two directions, and then heaps of lines, very, very dense, almost like a ball of string in the middle. Very dynamic and always moving forward. Never anything solid, never solid; just this ball of tensions pushing and pulling in every which way, but there was never a question that it was always going forward, pushing forward.” 

And she walks to stage exit, and briskly disappears.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 14, 2014 as "The ideas dealer". Subscribe here.

Kate Holden
is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.