Alice Parkhill: a tuneful and woolly young woman

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June 12, 2013 by murgatroydwashtub

I would like to think that a little of what makes Alice Parkhill tick has something to do with her high school Drama teacher, but long before I arrived in the north-east Victorian town of Mansfield, Alice was already cultivating her performance mojo. We met in 2006, but Alice has never told me before that the origin of her voice is a family legend. ‘I get my relative pitch from my dad; he sings and plays the guitar and he has perfect pitch. My mum is tone deaf, god bless her.’ I can only smile in earnest at this, because I am sure I am tone deaf, too.

Photo: Kevin Wallace

Alice does Goody Proctor in Mansfield Secondary College’s 2007 production of ‘The Crucible’.

There has never been enough time for me to talk to Alice about Alice, but since Things That Fall Over wants tales of tunes and wool and women, I have time and cause to probe in particular places; music and craft are Alice’s bent. The first school production I cast Alice in was Manning Clark’s History of Australia—The Musical. I wanted a singer and an actress. Alice was possibly the youngest amongst a number of remarkable female performers and Alice was remarkable because she had a ferocious focus on the historical figures she had been assigned to play. How does a fifteen-year-old deliver Louisa Lawson convincingly? Perhaps in much the same way that Alice tackled portraying Elizabeth Proctor a year later in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—again, at my behest.

Now 22, Alice says being the wife of John Proctor is still the highlight of her acting experience. ‘I found the part so complex that it took me weeks to understand where this woman was coming from. I was a sixteen-year-old playing a woman who had had at least two children and a post-natal illness, not to mention an unfaithful husband! I had to strive hard to come to terms with Elizabeth Proctor.’

The Mansfield Rudolf Steiner School also played a hand in nourishing Alice’s talent. Singing was part of the morning ritual and voice has become Alice’s foremost instrument although she endeavours not to limit herself to one specialist area. ‘If I was offered an acting gig tomorrow, I would accept with confidence; if I was offered a contemporary singing gig, I would accept with the same confidence.’

‘In the classical world . . . you spend your time singing stuff composed by dead guys.’

At seventeen, and armed with a powerful sense of her own identity, Alice came to live in Melbourne to attend the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School (VCASS) to specialise in voice and complete her VCE studies. Entry as a singer, Alice tells me, is ‘doubly hard to do’; there are multiple rounds of auditions, possibly because it’s the most applied for course. Anna Connelly, who was the head of Voice at VCA at that time, saw in Alice talent worth honing.

Alice points to a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sing with Paul Kelly—who was a guest tutor at a VCASS workshop—as a formative encounter. They sang a duet of ‘So much water so close to home’. Alice says she admires the way Kelly creates music from stories like Raymond Carver’s, from other people’s music, from films and newspaper clippings, because ‘it’s music based on life. Even when you’re singing a heightened form like opera, it must be something that listeners can relate to. That was the most important thing I got from Paul Kelly.’

Yvonne Kenny and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa have tutored Alice in master classes on separate occasions. Alice was studying for her undergraduate degree at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music when Kenny would teach a master class for eight hours a day and then—it happened that Alice was in the hotel room next to Kenny—she would go to her room and practice for four or five hours and do exactly the same thing the next day. Alice is sensible of the commitment to such discipline. Presenting herself like a queen, ‘Kenny is graceful and warm to everyone,’ says Alice, ‘but she has a clinical and professional side. She is an artist who is brutal about the standards she maintains’.

‘I was fourth in the line-up,’ Alice says of the public master class she undertook with Dame Kiri; ‘who is without doubt the greatest name in modern opera—I was beyond nervous. I didn’t think her criticism was unfair because it was clear, that like Yvonne Kenny, Dame Kiri held herself to exceptionally high standards and she was determined that in the half hour that she had with me, she would do her utmost to transform some of my talent into genuine performance material.’

Novakovic’s character in Criminology was ‘this sexually warped, deviant, drug addict, burned person. It was a huge departure from the first role I’d seen her play. It must be amazing to transform yourself like that and be believable in both settings.’

Alice notes the talents of emerging artists she has worked with, too. Courtney Williams, a contemporary of Alice’s at university, set poems of Chilean Pablo Neruda to music to create ‘A Cycle of Love Songs’ especially for Alice which, she says, ‘is very rare in the classical world because you spend your time singing stuff composed by dead guys. For the first time I had a blank canvas.’ Only Alice and Luke, who is the pianist, have recorded the piece.

Alice is circumspect when I ask her about role models. Yvonne Kenny and Dame Kiri are role models, certain sure, but from the classical world. Alice has worked in theatre as well as screen. Bojana Novakovic is an example of actor who has crossed those boundaries and crossed paths with Alice.

Amongst other productions I took Alice to see as part of the Mansfield Secondary College Drama program, we saw Criminology, directed by Rosemary Myers at the Malthouse. We remind ourselves of the excursion’s significance: Novakovic had starred in the television series Marking Time in which she played an Afghani refugee. Alice says Novakovic’s character in Criminology was ‘this sexually warped, deviant, drug addict, burned person. It was a huge departure from the first role I’d seen her play. It must be amazing to transform yourself like that and be believable in both settings.’

Alice reaches deeper into the memory. We had stayed for the Q & A with the director and the actors after the performance and Alice asked Novakovic a question about character motivation. Novakovic offered a brief response at that juncture as well as asking to meet Alice in the foyer after the Q & A. The actor wanted to do justice to the complexity of Alice’s question, offering a more elaborate answer outside the time constraints of the formal session.

Alice found Novakovic’s attitude towards her—a mere high school student— empathetic. Alice says, ‘In terms of interacting with performers, that was probably the first experience I had where an actor had taken an interest in me because of my interest in them.’

American singer/songwriter Gillian Welch is also one of Alice’s role models. Welch is not ‘conventionally pretty’, as Alice puts it, but ‘she’s something like a number-one selling female recording artist in America and she’s got there based on individuality and talent. There is nothing about her that is commercial or mainstream. Her voice is a thing of beauty. I really admire what she’s done and the way she’s gone about it.’

Alice’s stories so far generally feature women as their leading ladies and she clarifies her notions of female role models. ‘I would make a distinction between the women who are visible to me and the ones who are role models. There are many who are visible to me who are models of what I don’t want to be. Then there are those I’ve sought out—who perhaps aren’t so visible—who are positive role models. I think there is a myth around successful women in the performing arts that to get anywhere you have to be an unobtainable bitch.’ Yvonne Kenny, Dame Kiri, Gillian Welch and Bojana Novakovic demonstrate that it is possible not to compromise one thing to be the other.

Alice has used her work with emerging and established artists to develop professionally; indeed, she has become practical and driven, working rehearsal into other parts of her life, using her train journeys to work on her text and listening to a playlist of the pieces she’s working on when she runs. ‘I think “juggle” is a positive word for managing in a haphazard fashion. I’m hoping that as I am able to focus my life around my art and I have a job that relates to my arts life, I will become less of a manager and more of a juggler. Now, I do it when, where and however I can.’

Alice sings Mozart's 'Voi Che Sapete' from The Marriage of Figaro.

Alice says she learnt her musicianship from the piano and playing several stringed instruments—violin, viola and guitar—but they’ve come in second to singing, although they are still part of the way she approaches rehearsing and interpreting music. She plays her viola to work out baselines and has a piano wherever she goes. Alice says, ‘I can’t practise singing without it, even if it’s just to tap the starting note. That’s probably because I started as a piano player.’

When does this interview get crafty? Alice sews, knits and spins! Ever practical, even in her love of music, Alice confesses, ‘Music in itself is not a practical thing, it’s a creative thing. Something like textiles—sewing and knitting—is practical and there is real beauty in making something that is creative and has a function. That’s partly why my interest has been so sustained.’ Alice was taught to sew by her mother when she was about six. ‘It was an incredibly valuable life-lesson,’ says Alice and then affirms that her mother—a visual artist and VCA alumna with a passion for textiles—is her right hand. ‘We’re very combative, probably because we’re so similar. It’s a reciprocal relationship—creatively and emotionally—it’s a connection of equals.’

I am a little wistful, but filled with warmth because I’ve known from the beginning that Alice’s father is her left hand. When she was a little girl, Alice’s dad used to sit on the edge of her bed and sing to her. Alice says, ‘Dad would make up songs to folk tunes and the words would fit into our lives.’ Alice insists this is a cliché, but stitching together notes and song suffuses the atmosphere that surrounds her.

By Catherine Mayer, TTFO Intern.

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TTFO, Things That Fall Over, concerning the creative development of an (anti-) musical of a novel inside a reading of a play, with footnotes, and oratorio-as-coda.

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