Rose Byrne slipped into Sydney recently to return to her first love - theatre. The award-winning actor, who stars in the American television series Damages, is the new ambassador for Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP), sharing the role with fellow alumnus Baz Luhrmann.
Looking nervous, dressed in skinny jeans, a striped T-shirt and with her hair pulled back in a bouncy ponytail, Byrne told a crowd of young theatre makers at Leichhardt's Norton Street Palace Cinemas that she owed her career to the classes she had as a child at ATYP.
Bat Eyes - ATYP
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16 year old Adam teases a classmate. When he tries to apologise, she has quite different plans for him. Bat Eyes is part of The Voices Project from the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP)
''I started acting lessons there when I was eight years old and stayed until I was 15,'' Byrne says.
''I grew up in Balmain and a big group of us would go over on the ferry over to The Rocks. I remember it was really fun and I just loved it.
''I was very shy as a kid and it was very much a way to gain confidence and to use my imagination and make friends. I felt very comfortable as soon as I was there.''
A talent scout for a casting agency spotted Byrne at ATYP when she was doing an ''acting for camera'' workshop. She was 13. ''They were looking for kids for an Australian film, so I auditioned and I got the part,'' she says.
''That's how I got my break and got on people's books and it very much turned the course of my life. I don't know if that would have happened otherwise.''
That first film was Dallas Doll, starring American actor and comedian Sandra Bernhard in 1994. Her next film was the acclaimed Two Hands, with Heath Ledger, in 1999.
Byrne, 32, recently taught the same acting for camera class to a new generation of actors at ATYP. ''It was really fun. The kids were 16 to 18, so they were pretty sophisticated,'' she says, laughing. ''Luckily, I had another teacher to help me, but I'd love to teach more.''
Byrne was in Sydney to launch two short films, Bat Eyes and Boot (see story, right), developed by ATYP's playwriting program, Fresh Ink, and starring actors aged between 15 and 22.
Many high-profile screen actors have passed through ATYP, including Nicole Kidman (now the company's patron), Toni Collette, Hugh Jackman and, more recently, Rebel Wilson.
The company has also launched the careers of even more stage actors and creatives, including Brenna Hobson (general manager of Belvoir), Tanya Goldberg (director of The Story of Mary MacLane By Herself now playing at Griffin Theatre), Mitchell Butel (rehearsing Strange Interlude at Belvoir) and Ben Wood, who will star in Bell Shakespeare's coming production of The Duchess of Malfi.
Byrne says she'd love to do more theatre in Sydney. Before she hit Hollywood, she performed in Benedict Andrews's productions of La Dispute, and The Three Sisters for the Sydney Theatre Company. ''I haven't done a play for years, so I'd be very nervous. But I'd very much like to,'' she says.
''The most important thing to me about ATYP is that they are very nurturing to their young actors … so important because the entertainment industry is anything but.''
Next, Byrne will be seen in the crime drama The Place Beyond the Pines with Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes, directed by Derek Cianfrance. ''He's a really interesting and creative guy and it was a great shoot,'' she says. ''I really enjoyed it.''
Andrew Taylor returns next week.
Playing it up on film
Can theatre work online? Yes, says the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP).
The company has been overwhelmed by the positive response for the two short films - Bat Eyes and Boot - made by young creatives, filmed in just two nights in Sydney's inner west, and posted on the ATYP website. More than 7000 people watched the films in the first two weeks. And the hits keep coming.
''People might be wondering why a theatre company has got into film,'' ATYP's artistic director, Fraser Corfield, says. ''But our aim was to communicate to the online audience nationally - and potentially internationally - the quality of the work we do with young artists. We just took the same approach we use to make theatre and applied it to film and put it online.''
In Bat Eyes, penned by Sydney playwright Jessica Bellamy, 24-year-old Adam remembers the anguish and the wonder of first love. In Boot, by Joanna Erskine, two teenaged best friends struggle with the fallout from a night of partying that ended in tragedy. Both films were made with ATYP actors, aged 15-22, by the award-winning director Damien Power.
The screenplays came out of the ATYP's Fresh Ink program, which included a project for emerging playwrights to come up with a monologue. Two were adapted into screenplays. Now ATYP is opening the project to young writers (under 26) around Australia with Love Bytes, a competition to win a week working with some of Australia's leading playwrights.
''We want young people to write a short monologue about love, then grab a friend and turn it into a three-minute film, and we'll upload it,'' Corfield says. ''We're hoping our two films will really stimulate young artists to create their own work.''
For more information, see ATYP at freshink.com.au.