Sunshine Coast-born actress Ellie Nunan is a world away from where she thought she would be at the start of this year. She is a rarity, being among the few professionals booked in commercial music theatre anywhere in the world. During quarantine in Seoul, she passed the time writing haikus in anticipation of rehearsals and a ten-month run of the musical Cats. I was fortunate enough to learn her perspective on the entertainment industry and her sage advice for aspiring performers during our interview.
Composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber, Cats is based on the 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. The musical premiered in the West End in May 1981, produced by Sir Cameron Mackintosh. The current tour in Seoul, Korea is produced by GWB Entertainment in conjunction with the Really Useful Group (RUG).
First, congratulations on being booked! You’ve previously toured with the musical Cats and now you’re back with the company for the 40th year anniversary tour. How does it feel to play Jennyanddots in a commercial theatre production, with a live audience, in such a turbulent year for the live performance industry?
It’s strange because this is NOT where I thought my year was going to go. I felt I was really carving out my space in the smaller-scale productions, so to be working on one of only two major musicals happening anywhere in the world right now is incredibly surreal. If you had told me in February that this was what was going to happen, I absolutely would not have believed you. It’s also weird, but really exciting to be transitioning into an on-stage track this time around, I’m doing half as much work as I did last time as a swing. But rehearsals start tomorrow and I’m so ready. I have been sitting around twiddling my thumbs since March so I can’t wait to get started.
You’re based in Seoul, Korea for the next ten months. Those who follow you on Instagram have been delighted by your quarantine haiku series. Describe your time in quarantine and your emotions being away from home on this particular tour.
Getting to Korea was actually really stressful for me, as the Melbourne artists had to leave five days early in order to get to Sydney before the border between Victoria and New South Wales closed at midnight on Tuesday, when we were due to fly out on the Saturday! I actually missed that flight as I was isolating while waiting for the results of a (negative) COVID test that didn’t come back until Wednesday. I had to get a border permit to get into the state and flew out on Saturday. I also didn’t get to say goodbye to my family and most of my friends, due to the state going into lockdown, so once I was in Korea and in quarantine it didn’t feel real for the first few days. I was super motivated and ran a little bootcamp for myself for the first week and a half, but by the Thursday of the second week I was absolutely done. I just wanted a hug! But I didn’t find the experience too bad, actually! I enjoy my own company and I tried to imagine I was on a two-week meditation and spa retreat. I also was on FaceTime to friends and family back home for about two hours of each day, so I didn’t feel fully alone.
As an Australian music theatre performer are you joined by any other Aussies on this tour, and do you have mixed feelings about being able to perform live whilst the industry is ‘on pause’ back home?
Yes, the tour is half Australian and half British, with the majority of the company having done Cats before, either on the European tours or the Australasian tours. I feel a weird amount of guilt leaving to do this tour, as I had friends in Shrek, The Secret Garden, Harry Potter, and 9 to 5 that had lost their jobs, which I just found totally devastating, for some of them it was their professional debut! So, to be working while my beautiful friends and co-workers are having to find work outside of performing for the first time in their lives feels… strange. I feel incredibly lucky to be here and I am so grateful to Gareth and the team at GWB Entertainment for having me back. I’m just going to dance extra hard to honour all my mates. I can’t wait to come back, and I’m just hoping everything will be blooming back to life by mid next year.
As a working professional performer do you feel that more can be done in Australia to support the continuation of live performance, based on the actions taken by the producers of theatre in Seoul, Korea?
Absolutely. What GWB have done here in Korea is astonishing, and the value that the South Korean government have put on the arts far outweighs what we have [in Australia]. Essentially, we are following the same model as the AFL, as we are in our own little ‘hub’ and can interact within ourselves almost as normal, while taking big precautions outside of work. If the Australian government can facilitate an AFL hub, surely they can facilitate one for main stage productions, especially when the entertainment industry generates far more money that the sport industry. I just wish performers were treated with the same reverence as athletes, because I can tell you that we are working just as hard and at just as high a level.
Aside from Cats, you’ve garnered several theatre credits over the years. Tell us your favourite theatre production, and role you’ve played, and why.
Last year, I was in the Australian premiere of Bright Star with Pursued by Bear at Chapel off Chapel, and it was such a special show. I had LOVED the show for a long time, knowing it was an underrated gem, and when I’d heard Pursued by Bear were auditioning, I knew I had to be in it. I got to play a true triple-threat role, wear fabulous costumes by Jodi Hope, and have a full number choreographed by Freya List, who I had been desperate to work with. The show was made with SO much love, every single person in the production put their heart and soul into it, and you could feel it in the room and in the audience. The team at PBB also let me rehearse for the show while performing and rehearsing for The Beautiful Game, and I’m so grateful to them for accommodating that. Not many producers would find a role for someone who was largely unavailable for a couple of weeks. I’ll never forget that gig.
“I just wish performers were treated with the same reverence as athletes, because I can tell you that we are working just as hard and at just as high a level.”– Ellie Nunan
Reflecting on your career to date, what advice would you give to a young performer looking to start their career, considering the events of 2020.
I would say that commercial musical theatre is not the be-all and end-all. I’ve had some of the best experiences of my life working in independent theatre, so I would encourage young grads to throw themselves into the making of theatre. You will learn so much from working on a small-scale production, that will make you invaluable on main stage shows. I would also encourage them to find a hobby. I think it’s really important to have a sense of who you are outside of performing, because when work disappears it can be really scary. Personally, I’m getting into film photography on this tour, I’ve taken my 35mm camera with me to shoot with. Whether its yoga, or knitting, or accounting, or witchcraft, or writing, or directing, or whatever, make sure you have a sense of who you are off-stage. It’ll serve you so well when that one audition you put weeks of research and work into ends when you are suddenly cut after the first round. I love this quote from Amy Poehler;
“Treat your career like a bad boyfriend… Your career won’t take care of you. Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around. Your career will blow you off if you call it too much… If your career is a bad boyfriend, it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go sleep with somebody else”– Amy Poehler
That’s how I like to think of this industry. A bad boyfriend that I have to keep at arms-length and not care too much about, despite loving it DEEPLY. Also, you may be the hardest worker in the room, or the most talented person in the room but you may not be the best to work with. It’s a balancing act. I’m really focussed on being a good actor to work with, I want people to remember me for being a team player, not a superstar.
Ellie Nunan is a Sunshine Coast-born actress, writer, and graduate of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music (QCGU), Bachelor of Musical Theatre. She is currently playing Jennyanydots on the international tour of Cats (GWB Entertainment/RUG), having previously toured in 2016 as a Swing and Grizabella understudy. Other credits include Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (In The Park Productions), Lucy in Bright Star (Pursued By Bear), Christine Warner in The Beautiful Game (Manilla Street Productions), Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost (Melbourne Shakespeare Company), and was a soloist in On Broadway (Flourish Productions). Ellie is also the co-creator of the political cabaret Julie & Julia: An Evening with the Great Women of Australian Politics, in which she plays Julie Bishop. The show enjoyed a sell-out premiere season at The Butterfly Club, and was also featured on Myf Warhurst’s program on ABC Radio. She was a featured writer for one fish, two fish Fresh Take//Isolation Edition, and her piece Pride Rock was broadcast online to acclaim. Ellie is represented by Helen Pandos Management and has been a proud member of Actor’s Equity since 2016.