Actor, Playwright, Director / State Theatre Company
Elena Carapetis has had a stellar acting career. While many thespians talk about the hardship it takes to get ahead in the industry, (i.e. years juggling waitressing gigs) Elena focused on her craft, her love for the industry and the work.
We are all kinds of obsessed with Elena, not only was she on the popular 90s program Heartbreak High, but she pathed the way for Greek girls wanting a career within the industry. With Greek-Cypriot parents – it was hard at the time for Greek girls like her to break into the arts, or even admit to their parents that they wanted a career in it! But she fought for it, and ended up getting into NIDA.
YES. THAT. NIDA.
In this Interview Elena takes us on her journey of growing up in Adelaide, working in television, film and theatre. We also talk about her time touring nationally and overseas for theatre shows, and why she moved into being a playwright.
This #careerstory is for anyone dreaming of becoming and actor, playwright, working in television or the theatre. Elena’s journey is epic, and so is her advice.
Don’t underestimate the amount of work it takes to master something. You are not going to be brilliant immediately.
Please meet, the one and only Elena…
It’s lovely to have you here Elena. Can you start by telling us where you grew up and how your experience shaped the person you are, and the career that you are in today?
Well, hello. I was born in Whyalla in country South Australia and spent my childhood in Port Pirie before moving to Adelaide. Basically, I was a small town kid from a Greek background. My parents worked very hard so I spent a lot of time being looked after by my yiayia (grandmother) which meant lots of hours on my own to make up stories. I come from a storytelling culture – it is the way we connect to each other – so the attraction to becoming an actor was a very natural one for me.
Where did you go to High School and how was that experience for you?
We moved around a fair bit but I ended up doing my final two years at St Michael’s at Henley Beach. I was an introvert and a drama nerd, but I found my tribe in other kids who were creative and a bit ‘out there’. I was lucky to have wonderful teachers who helped me to identify my passion for theatre, story and acting. They were committed and generous people who believed in me – all it takes is to have one person believe in you and say ‘hey kid, you have talent, you can do this if you want to’, to open up the potential for your whole life.
Did your high school play an important role in helping you choose your further education and future career?
I always wanted to be an actor but had no idea if I had any talent or if there was even a career in it for me. Having a teacher and your classmates encourage you makes all the difference. So if you see a friend who has a talent they are afraid of expressing, tell them that you believe in them. We need more artists and creators in the world. You can’t outsource or automate the expression of humanity, and it is a vital part of our society. We’d be lost without art, expression and beauty.
Did you complete any internships or work experience placements in high school? Tell us about that experience.
When I was at school I wasn’t aware of any placements for actors. And I was busy working part-time in my family business – but I did learn life skills and gained a really strong work ethic that has helped me build my career as a theatre maker.
Did you go to College, University, Tafe or another equivalent? Take us through the courses that you studied and why you chose them?
I went to Adelaide University and completed a degree in Classical Studies and Drama. While I was there I heard of a school called NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) in Sydney, which was apparently the place to go if you wanted to become a serious actor. It was also difficult to get into with thousands of people applying for less than 20 spots per year. I went to the audition to see what it was like, never expecting to get in. I think because I was there to do the work and with no expectations, I was relaxed and open. To my surprise I got in and graduated 3 tough years later.
Tell us about your career journey so far. Who you have worked for, and explain any highlights.
Being an artist is wonderful and hard at the same time. I’ve had years of unemployment and years of having lots of work. The pay isn’t always great, which, to me, is a reflection that artists are generally not respected enough within our society. My first big gig out of NIDA was here in Adelaide, for the (sadly now defunct) Magpie 2, the Education company for State Theatre Company South Australia. It was a show called Features of Blown Youth by Raimondo Cortese, directed by Benedict Andrews. Benedict has gone on to have a stellar international career as a theatre and film director and I’m so proud to have worked with him. I also landed a regular role on a TV show called Heartbreak High, which screened here in Australia as well as all over the world.
Since then I’ve done other television, film and theatre. I’ve toured nationally and overseas a few times for theatre shows – and met some amazing people. I’ve also moved into being a playwright and have had 5 of my plays professionally produced – I’m still pinching myself on that one. And in June I’ll direct my first main stage show, End of the Rainbow, for State Theatre Company South Australia as part of Adelaide Cabaret Festival. I also teach acting at drama schools and do voice overs.
How did you get into the job that you are in now?
I first worked for State Theatre Company way back in 1997 when I did Features of Blown Youth – but in 2017 artistic director Geordie Brookman invited me in full-time as the Resident Artist. That was a result of a long term forging of my relationship with the company and through cultivating my skills as a creative. I’d appeared in shows as an actor for the company, and then I started writing. Geordie came to see my first play The Good Son and asked me to pitch a show for the Education program. I wrote a play called Gorgon which was received really well by our audiences, and then Geordie asked me to come on board full time. It’s been an amazing opportunity to get to know how a company is run and managed, as well as to supercharge my development as an artist.
What is the hardest part of your current job?
Keeping a work life balance is pretty tricky. Being an artist is a bit like being in a cult… it can kind of totally absorb you if you’re not careful. For me, it’s because I love what I do and get into a really lovely flow state that time seems to fly by and by the end of the day I have little energy left to spend with friends and family. I have to make a conscious effort to make them a priority, because as much as I love my job, I love my people more. The other hard part is dealing with negative feedback and criticism about a work you’ve made. Making a show is so personal, you put all your heart and soul into it, so it’s difficult not to take things personally when someone turns around and says something mean, dismissive or misunderstands your work. But I’m getting much better at going ‘meh’ at that stuff now, thank goodness.
What does a day a typical business day look like for you?
If I’m rehearsing a play that I’m acting in, I get to the rehearsal room early to settle in, make a coffee and warm up. Then I spend all day on the floor with my lovely co-artists working out how best to tell the story- how to get the words on the page to appear like real life humans on the stage. I make offers, I listen to the other actor and the director, we ponder what it is to be human, we push through the challenges and we laugh. It’s a great day.
Who has been your hero, or greatest inspiration growing up and why?
The women in my family have been inspirational because they didn’t have the opportunity I had growing up. My mum was the first of her family to go to school. My grandmother couldn’t read. And yet, they strived and toiled, all so I could have a better life.
I also love the artists Kate Bush, Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Missy Elliot, Massive Attack – heaps of musicians inspire me. These artists are totally unique and made the music they wanted to make without fear or apology. They are not like other people who make music, they changed the rules and made the world take notice of a new voice.
What advice would you give girls who are interested in your career?
Don’t underestimate the amount of work it takes to master something. You are not going to be brilliant immediately. The only thing that will make you get better is to do the work. Be curious. Read. See loads of art of all sorts, music, theatre, dance, visual art, all of it. It will feed your creativity. Learn to own the phrase ‘I don’t know yet…’ Watch every episode of Inside the Actors Studio. Read books on acting. Figure it out.
And have the backs of the women around you. There are too many myths in our society that girls are natural born enemies. This is a lie. Another lie is that the most important thing you can be in this world if you’re a girl is hot. You are more than your looks. Your true beauty lies in finding your life’s purpose and pursuing that with all your heart and soul. Be bold, be kind, be grateful, be openhearted.
List your most valuable resources that you turn to constantly for inspiration in your profession?
- Favourite Websites: I generally use the internet as a starting point for research… so no one fave site really.
- Name an Instagram Account that you can’t go a day without checking: _nitch (an account that features great artists and the amazing things you can learn from them)
- Favourite Podcast: Hidden Brain
- Favourite Netflix Series: Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, Queer Eye.
- Favourite all time book/s: Perfume, To Kill a Mockingbird, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Lord of the Flies, My Brilliant Friend, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, A New Earth… so many
- People: I have always made an effort to engage with artists who are of all ages, but I love working with young artists. They are the iconoclasts, the ones who will inherit the earth and who have nothing to lose. Young people have a perspective of the world that enables them to say, ‘hey that bit of behavior/politics/thought/society’ is really outdated and I want to smash it down and start again.’ And so they do; they make entirely new forms of art that express their point of view. That’s how culture moves forward. That’s how we got the Sex Pistols and Hip Hop and Drag. Young people inspire me.
- Others: Jack Kornfield and Ram Dass are spiritual teachers who remind me how precious life is, that we are all one human family and that the earth is the only home we’ve got.