Trained at American Repertory Theatre at Harvard with Moscow Art Theatre Conservatory, Joanna played Natasha in Three Sisters and Yelena in Uncle Vanya. Stage credits in Canberra include the title role of Atajara in Widowbird (The Street Theatre) and various music theatre works at QCC including Blood Brothers and Fame, both directed by Stephen Pike. In 2016, she played the lead in Scott O’Brien’s short film Comes Around. Joanna completed a degree in International Relations at ANU, followed by a scholarship to Harvard University. The 2015 ACT Telstra’s Young Business Woman of the Year, she is the first PhD candidate to be accepted into Virginia Haussenger’s 50/50 by 2030 Foundation.
THE STREET TALKED TO JOANNA RICHARDS WHO PLAYS HARRISON IN BOYS WILL BE BOYS OPENING AT THE END OF OCTOBER.
YOU ARE THE FIRST PHD RECIPIENT OF THE 50/50 BY 2030 FOUNDATION. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU?
It’s an extraordinary privilege to work with women who are so inspiring and committed to gender equality. Virginia Haussegger and her team work tirelessly to cover progress and support research relating to the advancement of women. They are actively and enthusiastically involved with the Australian equality conversation. My research is supported, and I have access to so many female academics and brilliant minds who are willing to help me with my work. I hear terror stories of PhD students who struggle to prove their research is necessary to their faculties, so being part of a team that just gets it is an absolute gift.
BOYS WILL BE BOYS DEALS WITH CONTEMPORARY GENDER EQUALITY ISSUES, THE POWER STRUGGLES TO SUCCEED IN A MAN’S WORLD AND THE SACRIFICES WOMEN MAKE. HOW DO YOU RESPOND TO THIS?
Well I certainly agree with that statement. I don’t think the show is trying to say anything; it’s not trying to preach, or moan about how hard the world is for women. Rather, it asks the audience to question the views they already hold. That is true for women who would disagree with the idea that women operate at a disadvantage and staunch feminists. The women and men who don’t believe that historically masculine domains are forced to sit through a show that does not apologise for presenting a demonstration of the many accounts from men and women in the business of what it is really like. Feminists, on the other side of that coin, are asked to consider what is lost when the focus and goal is success within the system. They are asked whether progress in the policy area is enough to combat culture, and whether insisting that every choice a woman makes is a feminist choice further entrenches the problem rather than fixes it.
YOU ARE PLAYING ONE OF THE LEAD MALE ROLES IN BOYS WILL BE BOYS? WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO THE ROLE OF HARRISON?
I am always fascinated by the people that we categorise based on their actions. People who are consumed by binary thinking. Everyone in this show exists in a grey area; no one is good or bad, male or female, winners or losers. And yet as human beings it is a natural instinct for us to categorise in binaries so that we can understand our world. Harrison as a character consistently straddles every line in this show. He is a man, but he is not one of the boys. He does horrible things, but he presents as a nice guy. He has no talent, but comes from an extremely well off family. I love characters that highlight how odd it is to think in this categorical way. Overall the show is so technical and brilliant, so I was desperate to be involved in any way possible.
WHERE DOES JOANNA MEET HARRISON?
Not in many places, but that’s a real gift for me. My job is to find what I can relate to, and try and understand the way a character’s mind works that is quite different to my own. What I would say is similar, is that for a large part of the play Harrison is good at taking things in his stride. He is able to contextualise his experience and doesn’t play the victim, despite being on the receiving side of some pretty horrible stuff. But outside of that I’ve really had to work on finding that connection. It’s great though, that’s the kind of work I love. In many ways it is easier to play a character who is completely dissimilar to you than one with whom you identify.
TALK US THROUGH THE PROCESS OF BRINGING HARRISON TO LIFE. WHAT IS YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS IN A WORK LIKE THIS?
Harrison’s character is filled with contradictions, so my work was very much centred around finding balance. Because I am playing a man, but not an overly masculine man, the work really had to start in the body. I was very fortunate in that the production team made sure that we tackled physicality early and comprehensively. It was an interesting task to decide what parts of Harrison were masculine, to basically discover what kind of man, or boy, he was. On top of that, the work is a satire, so finding the balance between exaggeration and believability was important. This work isn’t a send-up or a caricature; everyone still needs to agree that the characters on stage truly are the genders they are playing. Once the physicality settled into my body, it was largely the work mentioned above, try to understand the character, so that I can play him in a way that the audience understands him too.
THERE ARE FIVE WOMAN ACTORS IN THE WORK. WHAT HAVE YOU DISCOVERED TOGETHER IN REHEARSAL?
It’s certainly different. There is more natural trust, and also stereotypically, more natural talk. It’s really lovely actually, the ease with which we are able to work together. I wouldn’t say it’s any better than a normal cast, but it definitely feels special and changes the process. Having a singular sex cast in a show that very much explores gender and performativity means we have a uniform starting point. I think some of the most salient moments in the show probably wouldn’t shine in the same way if we had a mixed-sex cast.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT FOR YOU TO A SUCCESSFUL AND FRUITFUL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AN ACTOR AND DIRECTOR? AND OTHER ACTORS IN AN ENSEMBLE?
Trust and respect. Those two things go hand in hand. If you respect the people you are working with you will be prepared, consistent, and open. If someone is all of those things they can be trusted. I think trust needs to be established in the rehearsal process because no matter how experienced you are, stepping on to stage in front of 250 people and performing is terrifying! It needs to be something that we all do together, both those on stage and those behind the scenes. You need to know that you are not out there alone. Especially in a work like this, which deals with some fairly intense content, knowing that the people you are working with are in it with you and looking out for you is essential.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
While I am not quintessential outdoorsy, I love nature and find it very inspiring. I have always had an overactive imagination, and paired with the Australian landscape, it’s the perfect recipe for creativity! Every morning when I walk out the door I feel so fortunate to live here. I also love art. At the moment I am really enjoying the works of Basquiat, Picabia, Soulages, Agnes Martin, and I’ve always been a big fan of Rothko. Oh and hip hop from Chicago!
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING LATELY?
I wish I had the ability to read for pleasure! Unfortunately most of my reading relates to my thesis. My intense interest in my research area means that I don’t have to suffer through this process, but all the same. There is so much creativity in the television space at the moment. I love Outlander and Black Mirror, and I’ve recently revisited The Nanny to help me wind down at the end of the day!