WHEN a worried Mrs Wallace took her shy and introverted daughter to the doctor, she couldn’t have guessed how transformative the cure would be.
“Get her to join an amateur theatre group,” the GP advised. Mrs Wallace’s daughter went on the stage, became famous and eventually won a Gold Logie for the most popular television personality of the year.
Seventeen-year-old Rowena Wallace fell on her feet at the Twelfth Night Theatre, a cultural centre for performance and visual arts in Brisbane, and fell in love with everything about it. Backstage, costumes, props – it was one of those theatres where everyone did everything.
“And I made friends for the first time in my life,” she says. Michael Caton was there, Jack Thompson ... “It felt like being surrounded by family.”
By day she was a Jill-of-all-trades at Channel 7. By the time she was 19, she was hosting the afternoon news and weather, a children's show and in the variety show, Theatre Royal, she’d play the straight girl and sing and dance with the ballet. It was extraordinarily demanding.
At 6.30 on Friday evening she’d give the weather report (learnt by heart), then run to the dressing room, undressing as she went, to be ready in her sequinned costume for the start of Theatre Royal.
One night, mid routine, live on camera, her mind just went blank. As the Channel 7 ballet danced doggedly on behind her, she just stood there, crying. “I had a kind of nervous breakdown,” she confesses. She took a week off and then went back to work. “You learn to look after yourself. I learnt to cope.”
Introduced into this heady, glamorous mix came a diagnosis of curvature of the spine and a lifetime sentence of back pain and arthritis. This, too, she learned to live with. She was 22 when she won the female lead in the television series You Can’t See Round Corners and her acting career took off. Over the next 13 years she appeared in 30 different films and television series. She went from being a desperately shy young girl to someone who would try anything.
Her new life was hopelessly exotic and adventurous. She was 21 when she co-starred in the family TV series The Rovers, filmed on a schooner, and 22 in the science adventure series Barrier Reef, set on a barquentine. “Sometimes on a Sunday we'd take the boat out and go over to Dunk Island or somewhere with a few of the actors and the ship's crew, and come back at sunset singing sea shanties”.
She had no formal acting training but she seemed to know things intuitively. “What is amazing about a camera is that it can see so much. It knows when it doesn’t come from the heart.” The industry maxim, “See the camera so it can see you” came naturally to her. “It felt like I was dragged by the forelock along this path,” she says now. “I was in the right place doing the right thing.”
These were the Crawford years – Homicide, Division 4, Cop Shop ... “Crawford’s were fantastic, a great stable,” Rowena told TV Eye in 1994. “They were very old-fashioned, but they loved what they were doing and they were so encouraging. Just about every writer you've ever heard of was with Crawford’s at some stage. They were a mainstay for so many of us, a place where we could practise our craft.”
The confident, relaxed persona that people saw was one thing; the leader of the pack fighting for better conditions was quite another. She nearly got fired a couple of times. They’d be forever lugging their costumes around getting to the set in some out-of-the-way place by public transport. And there was the issue of same sex changing rooms – or no rooms at all. Rowena was one of the “troublemakers” agitating for taxi vouchers.
“I don’t know where this militant character came from,” she says reflectively. She thinks she imagined it into being, this personality that would stand up for herself as well as others. “It took the acting to bring it out.”
By her mid-30s, playing the very popular bitch figure Pat Morelle in Sons and Daughters, she was at the height of her powers. “I remember reading the script and thinking that the characters were very two-dimensional. It wasn’t good enough. My character has to be a real person.”
She started changing the dialogue to give her more depth, without making her less objectionable. Producers got cross with her for changing the lines but the writers kept writing scenes for her and the character became the driver of the show. The actor experienced the dizzying power of creating dialogue rather than reciting it. “I loved making the audience love to hate her,” she says.
And then suddenly life got tough.
Rowena left the series tired and unwell, on massive doses of cortisone for managing her scoliosis. When she was ready to return, work was harder to find.
The reasons? Choose a card, any card. Acting is a notoriously fickle profession; 90 per cent of actors are unemployed. The scarcity of roles for older women is well documented. Then there’s the punishment for success in a role, says Rowena: “you become condemned to that role forever.”
Whatever, this winner of a Gold and four Silver Logies was devastated by long-term unemployment. “You do a job and then you sit around for months, and everyone says you must go back to acting class again, but no, it's not what you need; what you need is to work. It's not about money, it's not about awards, we just want to work.”
Looking back over her extraordinary career, Rowena admits to acting impulsively. In an industry where celebrity is king, you’re not going to find a lot of people to advise you on sticking to a weekly budget. “Being an actor is a weird job,” she says. “Actors have to be very open to camera, director, audience. It can get you into a bit of trouble. As someone who’s not always clear about the boundary between acting and real life, I think I sometimes got them a bit confused. It’s made life quite difficult.”
Now living in Wonthaggi, Rowena has worked over the last two years with the Wonthaggi Theatrical Group coaching brothers Tom and Corey Green in their lead roles: Tom in Jesus Christ Superstar and Corey in Pippin.
“She has a knack of getting to the heart of the transcript,” says musical director and friend Kirk Skinner. “She’s really good at finding a character and making it come to life. It’s her great gift.”
“Rowena took a very spiritual approach,” explains Wayne Maloney, the award-winning director of Superstar. “Tom had a Catholic upbringing but he had no real concept of the Passion of Christ. She talked this through with him, tapping into what he could bring to the role and confronting him with what they’d found.”
The results were self-evident. Tom received an award for the most outstanding lead actor in a non-professional production in Victoria.
“You can’t teach acting,” says Rowena. “I encourage them to use themselves as a musician would use an instrument. You never say ‘No! That’s not it!’ You work towards becoming the character and, in saying your lines, making it appear as if it’s the first time you’ve ever said this.
“When an actor ‘gets it’, that’s when he starts to blossom. It’s an ideal. We’ll never get there but it’s the journey towards that that’s important.”
She recalls that moment with Tom when the light bulb went on and he began to see the difference between acting and being. “Tom did things I thought were extraordinary. His ability to expose himself as a human Jesus was thrilling.”
It’s that transformation that gives Rowena joy, that indication of possibility.
July 10, 2015
I really liked the piece on Rowena Wallace … it seems about a year ago I was shopping in Wonthaggi and there was this lady wearing a lovely bright hot pink coat coming down the footpath, and I remarked to her spontaneously re the splendid colour, as I do not subscribe to the Melb “black brigade” with my choice of clothing colours. We proceeded into a dress shop at the same time, and her liquid throaty voice reminded me of Diane Cilento and I told her so, and she remarked that she had been a kindred soul so then we had a Port Douglas conversation – a place I frequented a lot in the eighties and nineties till it became “homogenised”.
The funny thing was that as we exchanged a few friendly remarks while looking at the clothing racks, with lovely fabrics but all a tad too young for either of us, it simply didn’t gell with me that it was in fact Rowena Wallace. Afterwards I was miffed that I’d not recognised her, and she mentioned having not been in the area long as I wished her well on parting. I generally recognise any face no matter what, but I daresay her long-term endurance of pain and my not having seen her for years, played a part in disguising any recognition.
I’m glad she is now in a marvellous role model scenario of encouraging young actors. I can only hope that she is in a more robust life scenario now. I do hope that she has found coming to live in a more rural setting like a breath of fresh air in this more recent chapter of her life, as everyone is bound to wish her well; and I look forward to more positive news of her triumphs.
Lee Tierney, Cowes