From a young woman indulging in questionable sex in the television series Laid to a victim of paedophilia, Alison Bell is unafraid to take on roles that shatter taboos. Now in the MTC production Tribes, as a character losing her hearing and with it her sense of a place in the world, Bell is again preparing to unsettle audiences.
SLIPPING into the skin of different characters is the delight and challenge of every actor but it's an exercise Alison Bell habitually turns into an extreme sport. Within the space of a month last year she had exchanged the dry, laconic wit of Roo McVie in the hit ABC series Laid for the florid verse of Shakespeare in a Belvoir theatre production of As You Like It. And just weeks after the curtain fell on her turn as gender-swapping Rosalind, she was readying for her role as the hearing-impaired Sylvia in the Melbourne Theatre Company's Tribes, which opens next week. When Bell talks about making "adjustments" between roles, she's not kidding.
In Laid, which this month won the Australian Academy of Cinema, Television and Arts Award (formerly AFI) for best television comedy series, Bell plays a thirtysomething market researcher whose former boyfriends keep dropping dead. While it's perhaps her highest-profile gig so far, in the sense of people recognising her in the street - "It's as if they think I'm Roo and I do all the things she does," Bell says with mock horror, referring to her character's sexual exploits - she's been prominent on the Melbourne and Sydney theatre circuits for years.
She's built her reputation on bringing subtlety and nuance to roles that deal with dicey topics: paedophilia, sexual misconduct in the Catholic church, sexual promiscuity and culture's obsession with beauty.
Aside from winning Helpmann and Green Room awards and an AACTA nomination for best comedy performance in Laid, director Peter Evans says she's also known as "an actor who's not just running around trying to be a star" but a performer dedicated to getting tricky projects off the ground. Julian Meyrick, the director of Tribes, is a great admirer.
"I was teaching in America when Alison called, told me she'd seen Tribes and asked me to read the play," he says. "My perception is that when actors become interested in the search and development of new material, they become bound to the profession in ways other than just waiting to be cast."
Tribes was written by Bell's friend, English playwright Nina Raine, who was inspired to write it after watching a TV documentary about a deaf couple. The woman was pregnant and both husband and wife wanted their baby to be born deaf. It struck her that most people must feel this way. That parents, deaf or otherwise, delight in seeing their genes, attributes, values, beliefs - even language - passed on to their children. In London and New York, she saw "tribes" everywhere; she likened them to extended families kept in check by ritual and hierarchy. Like Bell in preparing for the role, she took sign language lessons and imagined the frustration of a deaf person lip-reading conversations: uncomprehending, isolated, alone in a world full of noise. She had her starting point, the irony of which - addressing hearing impairment in a world obsessed with 24/7 communication - was never lost on Bell. "Anyone who's struggled to articulate themselves, be heard, or been misunderstood can relate."
Bell met Raine in Sydney while performing another of her plays, Rabbit, directed by Brendall Cowell for the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008. The two women, both in their mid-30s, found they had more in common than a love of theatre: when the curtain lifted on Tribes at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2010, Bell was there to watch. Then she rang Meyrick, whom she's known since 2006, when she was a "freshie out of drama school". He had heard about her before they crossed paths. "There were lots of nudges and emphatic comments of 'you'll want to see her' from people," Meyrick says. "So I did see her and she was terrific." He cast her as a nun in Doubt, a role that earned her a Helpmann award and Green Room nomination.
But the way Meyrick tells it, no one was surprised; everyone who met Bell during her studies at Victorian College of the Arts was smitten. "Magic" is the word director Evans uses when he recalls her performance in the college's production of Hamlet in 2003, which is the reason he cast her four years later in the role of Honey for the MTC's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. "Honey is kind of clueless but she gets manipulated and betrayed in the cruellest of ways and your heart really needs to break for her," he says. "The thing about Alison is that she's got such a big heart and such a keen intelligence that an audience immediately reaches out to her. She can play this clueless character and get the humour out of that but then she can turn on a dime and you understand the tragedy of her [character's] situation."
It was a role, along with a body of work from the same year, that won the young actor a Green Room award. Also nominated were Bojana Novakovic and Kat Stewart, whose careers have also blossomed.
The following year, Evans cast Bell in Blackbird, a play in which a victim of paedophilia confronts the man who abused her. Staged at the MTC amid the 2008 Bill Henson furore, when police confiscated the photographer's work from a Sydney gallery and debate raged about the sexualisation of children in art and mass media, the production earned Bell another Helpmann nomination: her competition included Cate Blanchett, Pamela Rabe and Robyn Nevin. She says "it was a ridiculous honour to be in that gang" and while she lost, she's proud the role was recognised.
"It's extraordinary when a play speaks so directly to the Zeitgeist, when there's electricity around [a topic like that]. It's a devastating play and its moral ambiguity is incredibly confronting. We were part of something bigger than ourselves, which is rare and exciting."
Evans recalls working with Bell and co-star Greg Stone on a script that required delicacy and intelligence.
"Both Greg and Alison had approached me independently and said they really wanted to do that play but it was plain to me that you needed to be in a room with smart and incredibly brave people. We had to hammer away in very difficult, painful territory." Evans subsequently worked with Bell on The Ugly One, also for the MTC, penned by young German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, with whom she'd worked on Moving Target at Malthouse Theatre. It was about the same time scriptwriters Marieke Hardy and Kirsty Fisher began casting for Laid and Bell, who'd appeared on their previous show, Last Man Standing, seemed the obvious choice as Roo.
"Roo as a character does extremely questionable things and we needed someone to carry us through the journey but for us to still be on her side and in love with her and wanting her to win out," Fisher says.
"We needed someone who was going to charm people, so that when she did these questionable things you would still watch and think to yourself, 'Yeah, I can kind of see myself doing that in a similar situation.' "
The format for the series was picked up by NBC in the US late last year and while Fisher is excited about an American "translation", she's apprehensive about the directions it might take. "[The show] was never 'Hey, we're empowering women' in a 'look at us being sassy in our high heels' way but it was about ordinary women and sex. Most women, even the generation below me, do have quite a few sexual partners and it's not such a big deal.
"I know that Roo's number [of sexual partners] in the first series - 22 - well, my parents and their friends discussed that a lot: 'Is that realistic or just pushed for comedy?' But if you come back a generation, it's very realistic. And that's what I like about the show. It doesn't make judgments about who you've slept with or how many people you've slept with, where you slept with them or how you slept with them." Roo is neither virgin nor whore, she faces neither death nor redemption: a break with enduring story arcs.
Having handled the jump from vernacular Aussie to Shakespeare, Bell's next challenge, for Tribes, lies in mastering sign language and the piano. Rather than voice and breath, she faces embodying a character through her hands. She wriggles her fingers in mock fascination."It's a play about hands, really."
Later this year Bell will tackle the language of dance in Lucy Guerin's Con-versation Piece. Described as "a kind of X-ray of the surprising hugeness that lies beneath our daily chit-chat", it puts three dancers and three actors on stage to "talk" in motion. Its juxtaposition of disciplines brings to mind Bell's turn in Michael Kantor's Sleeping Beauty, which also combined the talents of Renee Geyer, Ian Stenlake and Grant Smith. "It's always exciting working with people who are highly skilled but in areas you don't know anything about," Bell says. "I remember the first rehearsals for Sleeping Beauty and thinking to myself, 'Oh, my god, I'm on stage singing with Renee Geyer!' "
Tribes previews from February 4.