She played the relatable 20-something Alex Christensen in early-noughties television series 'The Secret Life of Us' and the conservative but compassionate mum Judy Vickers in the 'Puberty Blues' reboot. Actor Claudia Karvan is now squaring up for a totally new challenge: returning to the SA stage.
The GOAT: Pop-culture powerhouse Claudia Karvan on embracing local live theatre
When I — embarrassingly — let slip to actor Claudia Karvan that I grew up watching her on television and cinema screens, she laughs. Not because, “it sounds really silly” — a remark I desperately toss out to save any remaining shred of dignity. Apparently, Claudia gets this comment all the time. “I’m only laughing because so many people say that to me,” she says, generously. “It’s really nice; I like it. I feel very lucky.”
‘The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?’
10—25 February 2023
Presented by the State Theatre Company South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
More info here
Sydneysider Claudia is an enduring presence in the Australian entertainment industry. The Logie and AACTA-award-winning actor landed her first major role as an eight-year-old in the 1983 film Molly, and in the four decades since, has played numerous big-ticket parts such as the main protagonist in The Big Steal (1990), The Secret Life of Us (2001—2005), Love My Way (2004—2007) and the refreshed Puberty Blues (2012—2014) series, to name a few.
Her television and film chops also span producing and writing, and her most recent work includes creating, starring and producing the television comedy-drama Bump (2021—2022). She was nominated for an AACTA award for best lead actress in a drama in 2022 for playing Bump‘s Angie Davis, mother of a pregnant, studious daughter.
This long list of credits — which also includes being a Screen Australia board member since 2016 — and her commitment to working locally has cemented Claudia as a pop-culture darling in the contemporary zeitgeist. Or for millennials, she’s the GOAT: the Greatest of All Time. (Claudia also recently received an Order of Australia Medal for her service to the film and television industry in Australia).
For these viewers, she’s always been there, occupying different stages of the female experience.
“In all my work I’ve always been lucky enough to explore periods of time,” Claudia says, “specifically the twenties, specifically your forties, specifically your thirties.”
“I’m lucky that people aren’t going ‘Oh no, not you again! I’m sick of you,’” she says, laughing.
Claudia will break her 25-year theatrical hiatus by performing in the State Theatre of South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company production of Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, running from 10—25 February 2023 at the Dunstan Playhouse.
On the day we speak over the phone, Claudia is in the midst of memorising lines. “My brain is fried,” she says, before comparing the practice of remembering “big, big, big, big, big slabs of dialogue” to ancient Chinese foot binding. “Feels like I’m doing that to my brain,” she says.
When asked if this is like muscle memory and will eventually click into place because of her established on-screen career, Claudia says not necessarily. “Theatre is different; very different,” she says, explaining you can make mistakes with television and ordinarily perform one scene once. But with theatre, you’re committed to a certain number of performances and no do-overs. There is an artistry in this, though.
“You’re just focusing on one thing and repeating it, performance after performance, and finding new surprises in it and nuances and that’s sort of a meditation,” she says.
“That’s one part of what attracted me to it (theatre), and the other part was the play itself. I saw it in 2006 when I was pregnant with my son Albee, and I named him Albee, we named him Albee, after Edward Albee because I loved the play so much.”
In this upcoming season with the State Theatre Company of South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company, Claudia plays Stevie, the wife of 22 years of Martin (Nathan Page). The plot revolves around Martin, an architect about to celebrate the success of designing a $27 billion project.
But right before a television interview crowns this achievement, something goes awry. There are rumours of shocking infidelity. From the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s description of the black comedy, directed by Mitchell Butel, we glean Stevie is a wife. But Claudia says there are more dimensions to her character.
“You get the impression that she doesn’t have a career, [but] that she is one of those, I would say, incredibly brave and optimistic women who entirely support and trust and adore their life partners,” she says.
“You don’t get the sense that she is defined by Martin, but you do get a strong sense that she’s put all her eggs in one basket and that basket is Martin.”
In terms of looks, the costume department is still firming up Stevie’s wardrobe. But Claudia is envisaging at least a Romance is Born outfit and a Bassik number. “She’s a wealthy woman and a woman with taste, so it’s important how she presents herself,” Claudia says. The brief is simple: Australian, cutting-edge designs.
Although The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? first opened on Broadway in 2002, Claudia believes the work continues to resonate with audiences as far-flung as South Australia because it comes from a truthful place.
“This play was inspired by the same-sex debate,” she says, “[and] a lot of the arguments that were brought up during that time was ‘what are people going to marry next?’ They’re animals.”
“It’s riffing on that, but it’s also more broadly speaking, it’s riffing on where are the limits of progressive liberal society?”
And although many Australians seem to consume a majority of their entertainment through online streaming platforms or behind the very screens that kick-started Claudia’s career, she steadfastly believes a special brand of magic occurs exclusively within the live theatre.
“Particularly after the last few years we’ve had, it just feels so much more significant to be in a live audience environment and [experience] just the privilege of being able to share something together,” she says.