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Ursula Yovich stars – and sings – in Barbara and the Camp Dogs
Photograph: Daniel BoudUrsula Yovich stars – and sings – in Barbara and the Camp Dogs

Ursula Yovich plays two tough women on stage – without losing herself in the process

Written by
Elissa Blake

There are two tough women named Barbara in actor Ursula Yovich’s life right now. One is the mouthy Wollongong battler dreaming of better times in Diving For Pearls at Griffin Theatre. The other is a rock chick with powerful abandonment issues, the title character of Barbara and the Camp Dogs, coming soon to Belvoir.

“I am Barbara until the end of the year!” Yovich says. “But I love ’em both. They are incredibly feisty women. They have a massive life force. Both of them are unafraid to say what they mean, they just say it.”

Diving for Pearls is entering its final week at Griffin. Then it hits the road, touring to the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta and then to Wollongong. The reviews of Katherine Thomson’s play have been overwhelmingly positive, with all praising Yovich for her Barbara, a factory machinist dreaming of a new life with an old flame, Den (played by Steve Rodgers), while just down the road, the steel works that sustains the town is being wound down.

Ursula Yovich as Barbara in Diving for Pearls, Griffin Theatre
Photograph: Brett Boardman

“Barbara is one of those classic Australian characters,” Yovich says. “She is pure battler. She never gives up. It’s one of those roles where you have to pull out everything you’ve got and leave it on the stage. It has stretched me as an actor so much because it is incredibly emotionally demanding. As an actor, you pay for it in ways you don’t expect when you first read the script.”

To play a tough broad, Yovich drew on her own life, as did her cast mate and fellow Inner Westie Rodgers. “We’re both people who love our mates fiercely, and our partners fiercely, and our kids fiercely,” Yovich says. “But we are both sensitive, too and we brought that to this love story under stress. Barbara and Den give each other hope. So when things start falling apart on stage, it’s very hard for us as people. The whole cast is like that, to be honest. You need to be that kind of actor to tell this story.”

Ursula Yovich and Steve Rodgers in Diving for Pearls
Photograph: Brett Boardman

Yovich’s next Barbara is a different kind of tough. The heroine of the play she wrote with Alana Valentine is an Aboriginal woman, a rock singer doing the hard yards while dealing with the trauma of family breakdown and abandonment. “She’s a bit wild but she’s fun,” Yovich says. “I wanted it to be musical and I wanted to write the music. It means I was able to put the things that I really love doing together in one show but also talk about family breakdown in communities, which would resonate with anyone who goes through that whether you are Aboriginal or not.”

Yovich says Barbara and the Camp Dogs is not autobiographical to any great extent although there are parallels. Yovich’s mother left the family when she was young and she was raised by her dad.

“The show isn’t about me,” Yovich says. “It’s about a lot of Aboriginal people, or anyone who comes from a broken family. It’s me asking, what is a family unit? We tend to think of it as one thing, but it’s not – if you’re getting the love you need. But it still hurts to know the people who created you and brought you into the world are not there to give you the love that you need,” Yovich says. “That weighs very heavily on you all your life. I feel that. It comes up in little things. If I think I’m in any way neglecting my daughter, I pull myself up and work twice as hard.”

After Barbara and the Camp Dogs, Yovich joins Hugo Weaving, Anita Hegh and Mitchell Butel in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. It will be her third play with director by Kip Williams, having worked with him on The Golden Age and Love and Information. Then she focuses on writing a script for a large-scale aerial show with Legs on The Wall, which will be revealed in 2019.

“I’m hoping my life will move more towards writing,” Yovich says. “I want to write music because I feel like I am better at communicating when I’m singing. If I’m happy, I can really show you I am happy. But I also want to write plays. It will give me a chance to step back from the stage a bit. I want to be flexible enough to write for a few hours and then pick up my daughter from school at a reasonable hour. That is the dream.”

Diving for Pearls plays until Oct 28 at Griffin Theatre, and from Nov 8-11 at Riverside Theatres.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs plays from Dec 2-23 at Belvoir St Theatre.

See what else is on stage this month in Sydney.

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