We spoke with UniSA alumni Ella Heywood-Smith ahead of her upcoming Adelaide Fringe performance in ‘Serpent Dancer and the She Devils.’ As a professional actress and trained vocalist, Ella is a woman of many talents. She’s graced the stage in locally acclaimed theatre shows, including her self-written musical ‘Arellond.’ In the midst of a busy rehearsal schedule, she’s taken a moment with us to discuss the performance industry, her UniSA experience, and plans for the future.
Words and images by Tanner Muller
In the upcoming Adelaide Fringe, you’ll be in ‘Serpent Dancer and the She Devils.’ Could you tell us about your role in the show and some of the acts we can expect to see?
My role in the show is to sing, mainly, under the pseudonym Kewpie Rose. This character takes more of an innocent route to what is considered to be a ‘she devil.’ Typically, you see them being interpreted as these mean, aggressive beings with horns and a tail. But, I didn’t want to do something traditional, or cliché. Don’t let this fool you though, because although I appear to be sweet and nice, I perform songs with some pretty dark themes.
This non-traditional approach has also been reflected in the other acts in the show too, as we’ve all interpreted how we want to create ourselves with the ‘she devil’ identity. Without giving too much away, the other brilliant acts you can expect to see are the Serpent Dancer, who performs with two live snakes onstage. You can also catch some hula hoop dancing, comedy, and a special form of burlesque—which I won’t go into detail with you now because you’ll have to come along and see it for yourself.
Has music and performance always been your passion?
Yes, pretty much. I started drama classes when I was four, and then found my passion for music a bit later on. I absolutely loved going to see musicals at a young age, and so it suddenly dawned on me that it was the path I should take. I then started developing my craft and taking it more seriously. Since that moment, I’ve been in musicals and theatre shows ever since.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
That would definitely have to be when I travelled to America with the Australian Youth Performing Arts ensemble. We did these massive musical theatre numbers at Disney World and Universal Studios—and even did the Macy’s Parade too. It was really exciting for me because I had never been to the states before and to do it through my art was a dream come true. The cherry on top was that I also went to New York during the trip and did these workshops with Broadway actors and Tony Award winners, which was also loads of fun.
Since you’ve finished your degree, what can we expect from you now? Is there anything you’ve been working on lately?
My plan is to work towards two musicals that I’m currently writing. One is still in the ‘ideas’ process, while the other has developed a bit more. I would also like to revisit the script I did for my Honours project to create more of a proper theatre show, opposed to the reading I did at Feast Festival in 2017. Hopefully I can arrange for a company to produce it too. Otherwise, I’ve been auditioning for a bunch of shows and, of course, ‘Serpent Dancer and She Devils’ is coming up at the Fringe as well.
For those who don’t know, what was your Honours script about?
Last year I undertook my Honours with a theatre writing focus, and decided to produce something based on my upbringing with same-sex parents. When I was creating the script, I realised that I didn’t want to include any stereotypes or have a ‘villain’ character—I wanted a plot structure that was suited for telling a LGBTQIA+ story, without any of these clichés the mainstream media tends to use.
How has your UniSA experience assisted with your development as a creative?
I feel as though it sparked my other passion of script writing, which is something I had always wanted to do, but never had the courage or tools to feel as though I could exceed in it. Through my degree, I practiced the craft and took my curiosity to another level. I also managed to gain opportunities where I could write for theatre more and more, and it was the courses of the uni which helped me develop those skills.
I think as well, the third year performance production of ‘RAW: For We Are Young and Free’ had allowed me to showcase all of my talents. I think I grew so much through this unique process because I had to the opportunity to create my own work and get in touch with all of my strengths. It’s something you don’t really expect when you walk into an audition—to be told that all the ensemble members will, essentially, be in the driver’s seat and actually be creating their own work for the show.
How do you find the balance between all of your commitments?
My favourite time is when I’m so busy and have all of these things on. When I have a hectic schedule, I flourish in it because every opportunity can take my career to the next level. Last year, I was teaching drama, while also performing in a bunch of shows. I think you also just naturally become aware of how to make the time for everything else.
Where do you find inspiration?
Music is the big thing for me. Sometimes, I’ll hear a song that really inspires me and I become so enthralled to create something based around that. I enjoy listening to a variety of genres too, so it can be anything from Die Antwoord, to a heavy metal band. My music tastes are also influenced on where I am as a person, so when I’m creating something, it tends to be based around those aspects. I think it’s such a wonderful outlet to have.
Art is also something I find sparks my creative juices, as I try to interpret the stories behind them and adapt what my imagination is telling me. One of my favourite artists is Mark Ryden, whose work is influenced by pop culture—for example, he did this painting interpreting Lady Gaga’s ‘meat dress.’ All of his art, essentially, comments on society through these doll archetypes. It’s all very childish, but macabre, which is something I identify with—these sweet, innocent things that have more of a dark side behind them. I find this is also heavily reflected in the works I do—especially in the musical I wrote ‘Arellond’ a few years back.
As a young girl too, I read a lot of fairy tales and folklore. They really inspire me because I find the mysterious aspects of them to be really exciting and interesting. Fun fact: I managed to read all of the fairy tale and folklore books in my school library—I was a bit of a nerd back then.
What’s your dream performance venue, and why?
Oh my god! Anywhere in Broadway for sure! I don’t even care where it is, as long as I get there somehow. Even if it’s this really quiet theatre, I’d still be like: ‘You made it, bitch!’
Where do you see yourself in five years from now?
Honestly, to be doing something I love—that’s where I see myself. Doing theatre, however that comes. Even if I’m teaching theatre, writing theatre, or performing theatre—the dream is that. Although it’s something hard to obtain, it’s still what I want to be doing.
What sort of advice would you give to someone just starting out in the creative industry?
Run away while you still can and get yourself a law degree! Okay, but seriously, just do what makes you happy and fulfilled. If theatre, or the anything in the creative industry, makes you happy, then just keep doing it. Life is too short to be doing something that makes you feel miserable. Even if it doesn’t pay well, there are still so many outlets available. For instance, do community theatre, or go to open mic nights. No matter where you are in life, your creative passions are important and you should never give up on your dreams.