Ready to tackle great unknown

Hayley McElhinney. Picture: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian

Hayley McElhinney doesn't look like a rabbit in the spotlight but she certainly feels like one. The WA-born actor has performed on Broadway with Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving among other highlights of her 20-year stage, TV and film career.

But McElhinney, whose sister Mandy (Paper Giants, Love Child) shot to fame as Rhonda in a series of insurance ads, says she has never known anything like the terror ahead of her Perth homecoming performance next month.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, staged by Perth Theatre Company, is performed by a different actor each night and they are only handed the script for the first time when they go on stage.

"It is terrifying because I don't know anything about it and there is potential humiliation in that," McElhinney says.

Written by Nassim Soleimanpour, who is banned from leaving his native Iran, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit highlights the writer's voice through the spontaneity of an actor channelling the script for the first time in tandem with the audience.

It is the ultimate nightmare for an actor who is asked not to see or read anything about the play beforehand. McElhinney, who appeared in the recent film The Babadook, says she has resisted temptation to use Google or phone a friend. (Several actor mates performed in White Rabbit, Red Rabbit at Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre last year.)

There is a thrilling danger about that, says McElhinney, whose four-year-old daughter with husband Gibson Nolte has "danger" as her middle name, Betty Danger Nolte.

In talking about a play she knows nothing about, McElhinney refers to one of her proudest experiences, touring with Blanchett, Weaving, Richard Roxburgh, John Bell and Jacki Weaver in the Sydney Theatre Company production of Uncle Varnya to the US in 2012.

"The opening night in New York City was just perfect and that happens so rarely in theatre," she says. "It was such a dream come true to be there.

"Everyone was just so good. They are wonderful people. Cate is such an amazing actress. We worked so well together and in the end we were just flying.

"I have experienced my fair share of failures and humiliation on stage but I also have experienced the triumphs, and Uncle Varnya was one of them," she says. "Having experienced that when everything is in place and everything feels right, it is an exquisite feeling and that is something that keeps us coming back even though we risk humiliation.

"I need to do it even though it is harder the older you get because you have had more moments of terror, more feelings of being exposed. That hasn't gone away but neither has the real drive to do it nor to be in front of an audience, to be seen."

McElhinney, who has returned to Perth with her family to live after four years in Los Angeles, says the stage fright has got worse the more success she has had, because she feels she has got more to lose and better understands what can go wrong.

"It requires the courage to crack open your heart in front of somebody. And that seems harder, there is more there to access - more grief, more happiness - which makes you a better actor but it is still 'Aarrggh, do I really have to do this again'."

For the actors in White Rabbit, Red Rabbit the role requires no reading, rehearsal and no preparation - but it also demands a faith in an unknown script.

Like all actors, McElhinney has made a career of hiding behind a character's mask underpinned by the insurance of a memorised script.

"With White Rabbit, Red Rabbit I don't have the privilege of holding a script ion my head. I imagine there will be character forming when you grab the script but in the end it's just me. That is why it is more terrifying.

"I have to trust the process. That is the process the writer had come up with and it works better if you don't know anything. I really am in the dark."

One thing she does know ahead of time is that she has to prepare an ostrich impersonation. "It's a good thing I went to drama school. There was a whole animal workshop but I was a kangaroo then."

Drama school for McElhinney was at the WA Academy of Performing Arts, where she graduated in 1999. Her credits include TV roles in All Saints, Water Rats and Blue Heelers and plays with Black Swan State Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company and the Sydney Theatre Company, where she was part of the ensemble for three years.

She and her sister Mandy grew up in Leeman, on the Mid West coast, where their father alternated as a fisherman and a mine worker at nearby Eneabba.

"We spent some seasons in the caravan park and some seasons in the mining camp. It was pretty idyllic, running barefoot through the sand dunes, Tim Winton country."

From as young as she can remember, she dreamt of being

an actor and performing on Broadway.

"When it happened, it was like 'Wow I have literally come from a caravan and look at me now'.

"I've been doing some acting teaching lately and sometimes I just say 'Have a dream because they do come true'."

When she was 11, the family moved to Kelmscott where young Hayley wrote her own plays, attended dance classes and aspired to be Sally Bowles from Cabaret.

"My father was very good in telling stories and they would play music. Mum was a ballet dancer and would do arabesques in the kitchen. There was that kind of creative energy in the house. It was lots of fun, there was lots of laughing. There was that struggle about not having any money. Nothing was easy. I remember mum working three jobs so I could go and do ballet."

Mandy, who is four years older, attended Curtin University and young Hayley would slip off to watch her sister and her friends at the Hayman Theatre on campus.

"I would sneak backstage and I loved being at Hayman in the theatre, even the smell of it. I just couldn't get enough of the theatre and it is still like that."

After school, she performed with a contemporary dance troupe at a resort in South Korea for nine months before returning to work in the Perth independent theatre scene and then go to WAAPA.

She and Nolte, a photographer and actor, loved living in LA but were looking to replant their feet in WA, reconnect with family and explore their career options.

"We have come back to gather ourselves and then who knows," she says.

"When I was in Los Angeles, I was flying back to Australia to do work. It has changed now in that you don't have to be in a certain place. You can do lots of auditions and send them yourself.

"That's how I got the role in The Babadook, which was filmed in Adelaide. I sent my tape over as a self-test after putting Betty down and Gibson recorded me in the kitchen."

She was invited to perform in White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by PTC artistic director Melissa Cantwell and sees it as a great, albeit confronting way to dive back into the local scene.

"The reason it scares me is that it is just me and I think that is a great exercise for the actor even though I have been doing this for such a long time.

"Here I am. It's just me in my own clothes, what am I going to wear?"