Back in March, Emma Beech was wrapping up another busy festival season spent performing with Patch Theatre’s The Lighthouse and APHIDS’ Howl when her phone rang. It was her agent, relaying a frantic request from SA Health to redeploy an older ad campaign, just as the COVID-19 pandemic had begun a wave of closures and cancellations around the country.
“My agent was going, ‘My god, this might be the last job you have for months!’”
Months earlier, Beech found herself up before sunrise to film a last-minute campaign for the 2019 flu season. “A flu epidemic had hit South Australia and they just wanted to get this information out there,” she recalls. “My call was 5am the next day, we shot for 12 hours, but it was only when I got there that I realised, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m doing?’ I thought, ‘How bad can it be?’”
Using computer-generated green goop to convey the spread of unseen germs from Beech’s person, it’s not the most disgusting flu campaign in recent years, but it’s up there. “Jesus, the world we live in, it’s hardly shocking, but it does disgust people,” Beech reflects. “It makes people go, ‘That is gross.’”
Like many actors, ad work is a necessary and bill-paying part of Beech’s vocation – there was even a brief period where in the same ad break she could be seen playing a shopper browsing a supermarket fruit section and a flu-spreading sneezer. “I got a message from a film director I once worked with saying, ‘OMG the woman with the virus has gone to the supermarket!’” she says of the strange coincidence.
All ad campaigns, particularly those with a health angle, invite a level of unflattering recognition, but there’s a big difference between a short-term flu season and a world-stopping pandemic. “Initially I said, ‘No way, I’d rather not do it,’” she says of the March request. “They are going to flog this, and not only that, I’m going to be the face of a pandemic. That’s a really weird scenario. That was really early days, and by the end of the first week I remember thinking, ‘Oh,fuck it, let’s just go for it.’ Once we said yes they immediately put the ad on.
“I don’t have a TV, funnily enough, so for me I don’t really see them. When they were asking me about this coronavirus ad, a part of me thought, ‘Just get my face off it, honestly, I’m done. I make weird art, let me make weird art! Now I’m a weird poster girl!’ But in the grand scheme of it, someone has to do that ad, and it does remind people to be hygienic.”
While her infectious image plays on loop across commercial TV broadcasts and social media, Beech has stayed at home, largely oblivious, as she works on her next production. Entitled The Photo Box, it’s inspired by another phone call she received, this time from her parents while Beech was performing in State Theatre’s 2019 production of Jasper Jones.
“I have eight brothers and sisters, all older than me,” she explains. “I’m the ninth child, very much the accident – my next youngest sister is eight years older than me, and my parents are in their 80s. They’re getting ready, getting organised, for when they die, I suppose. Which isn’t anytime soon, but they’re practical country people, and they said to me, ‘By the way, we’ve got your box of photos.’ We had this massive box of family photos, you’d have to rummage through hundreds, and they’d divided them up for us into nine boxes.”
Beech leapt at the chance to reclaim a slice of her childhood, and soon she found herself at a performance art night at Prospect’s Holy Rollers Studio (“I’m not really a ‘performance artist’ – I’m not arty enough,” Beech clarifies) rifling through the box for the first time and explaining her findings in front of an audience. The Photo Box was born.
“I could never do that again, because you can never open the box twice, but it did make me realise how much is in a photo.”
In particular, she was drawn to an image of her mother holding her infant self in front of the presbytery adjoining their local church. “There’s me as a little tiny baby, my mum holding me. She’s 41 years old, she’s already had eight children and now she’s got her ninth one.
“Mum’s looking at me, and I’m looking at her now having just turned 40 [myself], having had triplets five years ago, and thinking, ‘Ohhh.’ I asked Dad how he felt when Mum fell pregnant again, and he said, ‘It was hard,’ and for the first time I could really understand. Of course, you were done, you’d just had eight kids, they had plans. And it was fine, they moved on, but it was the first time Dad could look me in the eye and tell me a truth about that moment, knowing it wouldn’t affect me in any way.
“Had he told me that as a 10-year-old, of course, that might have really plagued me, but I didn’t know. So it’s interesting being able to look back at a photo and really see the full picture in a way I couldn’t have before.”
The more she looked at the photo, the more she teased out – tangential reflections on the role the Catholic Church plays on encouraging such large families, while offering little practical support. She soon began to pull her focus wider, reflecting on some of the darker truths behind the quaint lakeside image of her hometown.
“I’m trying to bust some myths. Families have heaps of myths, and I’ve never taken the time out to investigate them. But actually in the wake of the world in the last little while, I thought if I don’t find out some truths, and as much as I can about my own family, how the hell am I going to find out the truth about anything in a time where it seems so hard to find? I thought I’d start at home.”
Because, unlike a virus, the truth can be good for your health.
Update: The Photo Box’s 12 – 13 June development showing at Rumpus Theatre has been postponed.
Walter is a writer, editor and broadcaster living on Kaurna Country.
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