From screening her films at Tropfest and the Sydney Film Festival to collaborating with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Emily has achieved more than most of us do in a lifetime. And – with the help of a great support crew and some savvy problem solving – she’s done it all in spite of the barriers to employment that many people living with a disability face. Emily tells us about her amazing career, her inspirations and advice for other young writers, and gives us the low down on what it’s like to get a call from Margot Robbie out of the blue.
Listen to Episode 7 here
Andy McLean: Hello and welcome to Cerebral Conversations. I’m Andy McLean
Ben McAlary: And I’m Ben McAlary. Welcome to episode seven. In this episode, Andy and I speak with award winning actor, writer, speaker and disability advocate Emily Dash.
Andy McLean: That’s right, Ben. Emily is the definition of a multi threat artist, and it would take us an entire episode just to go through all of her accomplishments on stage screen and behind the camera.
Ben McAlary: Yeah. And just thinking about our conversation, Andy, what really stuck out for me during our talk with Emily is that you do get a greater understanding of what is possible when you have the right support network in place. Once you have that network, you’re able to be a self-advocate, you’re able to live life inclusively and independently. And ultimately, I think, to the fullest.
Andy McLean: Yeah, and to be honest, Ben, what stuck out for me was just trying not to be starstruck because Emily is an incredible actor in her own right, and the people that she’s worked alongside is like kind of a who’s who of great Australian actors is just extraordinary. So she’s really living proof that it’s possible to overcome barriers to employment with a disability and have an exciting, fulfilling career of your own, choosing.
Ben McAlary: 100 percent. And so without further ado, here is our conversation with Emily. Enjoy.
Ben McAlary: Emily, thank you very much for joining us today.
Emily Dash: Thank you. I’m really excited to be here.
Ben McAlary: Emily, I just wanted to start off by asking you what kind of cerebral palsy do you have?
Emily Dash: So I have spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy. I was born three months premature and it came from that.
Andy McLean: OK, and how does that sort of manifest itself for you, Emily, in terms of your daily life?
Emily Dash: In terms of daily life my cerebral palsy kind of effect everything. So I’m a full time wheelchair user electric wheelchair, but I also do require support with every aspect of daily living things like eating, dressing, personal care, getting around in the community and stuff like that. But it doesn’t stop me from doing all the things I want to do.
Andy McLean: Okay. And you’ve talked about how it doesn’t stop you, and that’s kind of an understatement because I think you’ve packed more into your life than most people do in an entire life. Well, the things I’m really interested in, Emily, is the acting and the writing. How did you get started with all of that? It’s quite extraordinary.
Emily Dash: It’s quite a story. I did a bunch of honours in sociology and gender studies and I received first class honours in sociology. And if you know anything about academic studies, you know that getting first class honours kind of destroys your social life and all other aspects of your life. So by the time I achieved that, because I went straight from school to university, I was done with uni, I was ready for a break. And so I took a year off and I had offers from the university to go back and do more academic study in teaching and things like that. But I took a year off and I decided that I wanted to get back into pursuing my creative practice, and I started looking for opportunities. I didn’t really know where to look, but I found a accessible dance class for people with disabilities. I said, Oh, OK, I’ll do that. And so I signed up for this dance class. And when I told my mum that I’d signed up for dance class, she said. I think you have strength in other areas. And I said well thanks Mum, but I want to do this, so I’m gonna go do this. So I did. At the end of the class, the person that was teaching the class of me but never done drama because a local, inclusive theatre company was looking for some new actors with disability. And I said, no, you know, I’ve never really done drama but I would love to. So I joined this theatre company and did my first show at Carriageworks, and then from there I started sort of making my own work and doing all that stuff. So the rest is history after that I suppose.
Ben McAlary: Tell me about the moment in time where you felt like you’d found you know your calling or your passion. You were, you know, you mentioned that you attended the dance class. Was that the moment you knew that that’s what you wanted to do?
Emily Dash: It was definitely the moment that I started getting excited about possibilities. I think that opening night on the Carriageworks show was pretty exciting. And that was kind of maybe the moment that I was like, Oh, maybe I want to do this for a career. But yeah, I think with every project, you sort of have a different moment where you’re like, Yeah, this is kind of where I’m meant to be.
Andy McLean: Right? So acting came first and then writing, is that the order that it went in or?
Emily Dash: No, so I’ve been writing since I was 12 years old, but in terms of pursuing professionally, I joined the theatre company as cast and then they sort of realized, I think I wrote a monologue and they kind of realized that I had a passion, perhaps some sort of talent for writing. Yeah, so writing came first. The people ask me, you know, which I like better. And the thing is that they give you different things. It’s the same as, you know, asking me whether I like film and TV or theatre better. They give you different things.
Andy McLean: Presumably, the one helps the other, right? So as an actor, you’re a better actor for having written and vice versa when it comes to the writing.
Emily Dash: Absolutely. It’s also easy to remember lines that you’re the one that wrote them.
Andy McLean: That’s true, and I’m sure this is a question you got asked all the time. How do you remember all the lines, especially when it’s live on stage and the pressure’s really on?
Emily Dash: It’s an interesting question. I actually think, you know, I’ve always had quite a good memory even when I was in school studying and things, so it’s interesting for me and I think it’s partly because I can’t write things down. So my brain sort of adapts in a way that’s going to help me because I can’t write things down. I don’t know. It’s kind of weird. I have a really good memory. So that’s never been an issue for me. You know, it is all just about repetition. So when I wrote my short play that I wrote, that was called Freefall. I became completely obsessed with learning lines and would just run the whole show and make my friends and support workers be the other character, I could just like, keep going until I had the lines down.
Ben McAlary: Thinking about your career today, and maybe especially those early years from that first Carriageworks performance, can you talk a little bit about some of the obstacles you’ve encountered along the way and maybe some of the tactics that you’ve used for tackling these?
Emily Dash: Definitely! There have been a lot of obstacles along the way, I think the first and the overriding obstacle is this idea of attitudinal barriers as people with disabilities, you know, physical barriers can sort of be, you know, we can work around them. But those attitudinal barriers, they really are the ones we come up against and causes exclusion and discrimination and all those things. So, yeah, I think. I didn’t even know early on in my career, if there was a place for me in this industry that I was so excited about being part of. I didn’t know if there was a place for me to sustainable career in that. So I was kind of cautious, I guess, and didn’t really know how long I’d stick around. Spoiler alert: I stuck around! I think one of the important things that really helped me in those early years is really having the confidence to build relationships and to work with the people who can get you where you want to go. And you might not even know where that is. I certainly didn’t, but it’s being open to the people who are around you and seeing what skills they have that can help you take opportunities and be open to opportunities and things like that. So yeah, it really was for me just about trying things and being open to the people who were in my corner, I guess.
Ben McAlary: Absolutely. Just going back to some of those influences that you’ve had along the way, have there been any mentors that you’ve established those relationships with, whether formally or informally?
Emily Dash: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So I want to give a shout out to Dean Watson, who was the movement director on my first show at Carriageworks. He was also the one that encouraged me to strike out on my own and start making my own films and writing my own stuff. So he’s been a real asset to me. Alison Evans, who for a while, used to work at Rozelle Neighbourhood Centre was really instrumental in those early years of my career in that community art space, we made shows together and that was great. And also, I will say Kylie Harris, who used to work at CPA and we used to be part of a company called Can You See Me Theatre, which has since become Midnight Feast.
Andy McLean: When people talk about diversity and inclusion and opportunity. One of the things that I quite often hear is that in order to aspire to be on stage, to be a professional writer, for example, you need to see role models, you need to see examples of people like you doing that. Have you had any of those sorts of role models to kind of aspire to or to look out for an example and inspiration?
Emily Dash: Absolutely! 100 percent! people like Daniel Monks is a peer of mine in my industry, and I really looked up to him as a disabled artist who has done a lot of stuff nationally and internationally really aspired to that that when I was early on in my career. But yes, there are an amazing array of disabled artists. We have a great community of artists and I’m thrilled to be part of that. And we’re not going anywhere.
Andy McLean: Let’s move on to, I guess, career highlights Emily, of which I know there’s a number for you. But when you look back on the past few years, your experience on stage screen and writing. What are some of the things that you look back on most fondly?
Emily Dash: Couple of things. Making my first film, I’m not a work of art, which is the first film I made and wrote by myself, that was a really extraordinary experience, being short listed for Tropfest, that was pretty cool. We didn’t make the finals, but we got shortlisted. And more recently, making my film Groundhog Night which is being screened nationally and internationally. I just got nominated, unfortunately, I didn’t win, but I got nominated for Best Achievement in Screenplay at the St Kilda film festival. And, you know, from an advocacy kind of perspective, something that really sticks out to me recently is I won what’s called the Rad Advocacy Award for work that I’ve done with a charity called Young care. And what was special about that award is that I was able to share it with Margot Robbie, the Hollywood actress, and she was also the one that presented that award to me, so that was pretty fun.
Ben McAlary: Mm-Hmm. So, Emily, tell me, how did that make you feel when Margot Robbie announced that you were the winner alongside her for that award?
Emily Dash: It was it was a very extraordinary moment, and the weeks leading up to that, you know, it had been quite a weird time because I’ve been told that there was something big happening, but they didn’t want to tell me what it was because they wanted that surprise factor. So it was really quite bizarre. I was like, I feel like I’m being tapped, like the CIA or something because they would not tell me anything about what was happening. And then I just try to convince myself it was nothing that I was making mountains out of molehills or whatever. But I’d been told that I was being interviewed by a journalist. Just for a random interview. So that’s fine, what’s the big deal with that, right? And so I’m waiting on Zoom in the waiting room thing and the white screen, and I’m waiting waiting. And then all of a sudden Margot Robbie pops up! I was so starstruck that I just sort of reverted to like the absolute pure version of myself. So I just went “Hello! How are you going?” Like, there was no pretence whatsoever on either side. It was a really magical, magical moment, and she’s just so lovely. And to have someone of that calibre with that kind of reach for people, to be involved in any sort of disability advocacy is really quite extraordinary. And to be able to share that award with her was a great honour. It’s quite a story.
Andy McLean: Margot Robbie, just one of the illustrious names that you’ve worked with. And I have to ask a fanboy question here, Robyn Nevin is somebody I’ve seen on stage and screen for years. And you managed to secure her for Groundhog Night, which you wrote and starred in yourself. So I just wondered, how did that come about? And what was it like working with her?
Emily Dash: Yes, and believe me, I was perfectly aware of that when I was doing it! W ell, you know, I wrote this script and sent it to BusStop films and they agreed to produce it for me, and the director of my film, who is also in it, Genevieve Clay-Smith, has been, you know, she’s been making films a long time, successful and well known in the industry, so she knows a lot of people. And so when it came to casting for the film, she sent me an email with all of the people that she wanted to be in my film. And she was like “and I thought we’d get Robyn Nevin for Rose”. And I was “Oh, OK, great. Yes, let’s do that!” And in my head, I’m going oh my God, that’s insane. Yeah, but it was really extraordinary. We also had the rest of the cast was also really great people like John Batchelor and Susan Prior, Chris Haywood. So we had a really really extraordinary cast. And working with the cast like that, you learn so much, but also, believe me, in your head, you’re like, Oh my goodness, I better bring my A- game because, you know, this is an opportunity that I’m not going to get ever again, really. So, yeah, it was really special. And all those people were just so generous and welcoming, and made it really easy for me.
Andy McLean: I just want to find out a little bit more about the kind of origin of Groundhog Night, Emily. And where did the idea come from?
Emily Dash: Yes, so, that’s a bit of a story, too. What I like to tell people is that Groundhog Night is not a true story, but it is a very real story. And what I mean by that is that a lot of what you see in the film and the things that people have said to me, things like this are things that have actually happened to me. So it was drawn from my own personal experience and my family dynamics, and, you know, the kind of close family that I have. But yeah, I think what we really wanted to do is show the funny side of disability and the poignant side of disability, and I think we strike that balance quite well. In terms of the actual origin story, and where it came from, I can’t roll over by myself in the night. So if I need the role of, as you see in the film, I call out to my parents. They come in, they’re half asleep, they roll me over, they go back to bed. You know, they barely even wake up. Which generally, is totally fine. Except. One night, my maternal grandparents, who I’m very close to, came to stay. They’re nothing like the grandparents in the film. But they came to stay and they stayed in my room. And so I shared a room with my sister, and that night I was calling out for a really long time. Nobody came. I called out again. Nobody came. And then I read this “JOHN!” That’s my grandfather’s name. And what happened is my dad, in his half asleep state, has gone to my room and try to roll my grandmother over, so his mother-in-law over. Yes. So that’s where Groundhog Night came from. Even before I was an artist, we were sitting around the dinner table like, that’d make a really great film.
Andy McLean: Yeah, well, it’s funny, you know, because these things so often they come from life experience, don’t they and growing up that my grandfather was disabled and it was funny because I was watching it, it kind of resonated with me, both in terms of the family dynamics and everybody can recognize those. But also having someone in the family who’s disabled and just having those moments of humour and levity as well, you know that that really, really kind of hit home for me as well. It’s kind of funny, really.
Emily Dash: I’m so glad to hear that. Thank you so much.
Ben McAlary: Emily, tell me about your creative process, especially when you’re writing your poetry. What does that look like?
Emily Dash: People ask me about my process and I don’t really know what to say to people. Because, I definitely write from personal experience, and particularly with poetry, often I’ll just, you know, it will be something that’s really affecting me emotionally that I just have to get down paper on a lot of my poetry never sees the light of day because it’s very personal and very deep and dark and secret. But yeah, it really is that thing, of just needing to get something down on paper. And then, you know, a particular rhythm or rhyme or something might come to me and I might write that down. And then, you know, it kind of expands from there is quite an organic, beautiful process. In the case of my first short film, I’m No Work Of Art, began, as you probably noticed, as a spoken word performance piece. I got asked to write something about discrimination for this multi art form exhibition, I think for Accessible Arts. And I just started writing as prose. All the experiences that I thought could inform this piece, and then I went back and went, Oh, that could make a good poem. Oh, you know, so really was this kind of like beautiful organic process that I wish I could replicate more than I can, but it doesn’t happen like that.
Ben McAlary: Can you tell me because your energy, your enthusiasm, your drive, it’s unbelievable. So you’ve gone from, you know, acting on stage, writing you’re doing short films? What’s next for Emily Dash?
Emily Dash: That’s a pretty great question, because we are actually looking at developing Groundhog Night into a television series. We’re hoping that will happen at some stage very soon, because I think the character dynamics in that short film, people really responded to them. We’ve had a great response to the film and we thought, maybe this story is not over yet, so we’ll see.
Andy McLean: That’s hilarious, because just before you came on the call, Emily, practically the last thing that Ben said to me, this is absolutely true. He said, you know, this would make a great series.
Ben McAlary: So I guess we’re producing that now, too, Andy.
Emily Dash: Oh, yes. You know, watch this space and we’ll see what comes out of that.
Andy McLean: Can’t wait to see it!
Emily Dash: Also working on a couple of web series as well. One that’s currently in development with SBS through the Digital Originals program. It’s called Free Wheelers so look out for that, yeah, I’m doing quite well.
Andy McLean: Obviously, you’ve talked a little bit about the mentors that you’ve had and the role models. Well, you kind of becoming a bit of a role model yourself, right? They’ll be younger people coming through looking at what you’ve done and thinking, I’d like a piece of that too. They may have cerebral palsy, they may not. But if you had advice for any aspiring writers or actors out there, maybe particularly those with cerebral palsy, what would your advice be for them?
Emily Dash: My advice, and I love this question, it’s something that I take really seriously. My advice, I think, would be to genuinely just go after what you want, even if you think that there’s not a space for you or that you don’t know how to do something. The thing is, sometimes it’s just about thinking about things a little bit differently. And particularly if you live with disability, I don’t know if other people find this, but I find that we spend a lot of our time, you know, figuring out how to do things a little bit differently. So you’re already doing it, you’re already demonstrating the skill that you need. And it’s just about finding what your passion is. As I said, being open to those opportunities and just really enjoying yourself because it’s got to be a little bit fun. So have fun with everything I think would be my advice.
Andy McLean: My final question, which is actually something that Ben talks about on another podcast that he’s on, which is the Slow Your Home podcast. A question they quite often ask their guests is, your why. Do you have a kind of a philosophy for life or a reason for getting out of bed in the morning? Could you encapsulate it neatly, do you think?
Emily Dash: So, one day I was at a theatre performance with my friend Julie McCrossin, and we decided that we were getting ice creams at intermission. And that all sounded really great, until I discovered that it’s very hard to feed someone ice cream without making a very large mess. So we’re laughing and trying to get me cleaned up before the lights went down again and she said she admired my determination in eating the ice cream. And I told her it was kind of like my life. And she said, “What do you mean?” And out of nowhere I said, “Life is like eating an ice cream, it’s often difficult, sometimes messy, but always enjoyable if you can find the sweetness in it.” And that is something I would say that is like my life motto from then on out. So, there you go.
Ben McAlary: Amazing. Emily, it’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you today and all the very best for your future projects.
Emily Dash: Thank you so much. Thank you.
Ben McAlary: You’ve been listening to Cerebral Conversations, a podcast produced by Cerebral Palsy Alliance.
Andy McLean: To learn more, check out the show notes to this episode. Over at cerebralpalsy.org.au/cerebralconversations
Ben McAlary: And if you enjoyed the show, please rate or review on your favourite podcast platform.
Andy McLean: And to join the conversation, follow us on Facebook and Instagram.
Ben McAlary: Thanks again for listening!
The music for this podcast was kindly supplied by Ocean Alley. Check out the band’s music on Bandcamp or visit Ocean Alley
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