My best teacher Tina Arena

17th March 2000 at 00:00
I started appearing on Australian television at the age of eight, which meant I worked five days a week after school on rehearsals. I went to an ordinary primary school and it was hell for a time because children can be really nasty without knowing what they are doing. I was the daughter of Sicilian immigrants; I looked different and I had this gift of being able to perform. They picked on me and I'd go home crying and not understanding why.

But it got better. When I left I cried my eyes out because my friends went to the high school and I went to St Columbus college in Melbourne. It was a girls' Catholic school and it was traumatic, but that was where I got an education in musical theatre.

Judith Martin, the English teacher, was the woman who introduced me to it. The first year I was there the annual play was The Boyfriend. There were auditions in the school hall and I turned up at lunchtime to sing. Mrs Martin was behind the piano. She was a little woman with a bowl haircut, really sweet with a very welcoming smile. I can't remember what the song was, but at the end she just said, "Thank you, Tina, that was lovely".

A week later they posted the cast list in the assembly hall and, holy smoke, I'd got the lead. I was a bit shocked because I was only 12 and I really thought the older girls would get the best parts.

The art students built the sets and Mrs Martin directed. She taught me to be myself. She wasn't a qualified drama teacher: she was an English teacher who had an immense passion for music and theatre. She responded to my enthusiasm and we had a ball.

She would help me learn the lines but she never gave me instructions. If I was approaching something the wrong way, she'd say, "Tina, this is what is happening in this situation. How do you think you should play it?" And I would think and say, "Maybe a little more like this". And she would say "Exactly, darling. Off you go!" Later she took me for English classes. I'd sit there and do impersonations and make the clas laugh. Thinking back I was such a goose. I don't know how I managed to pass every year. Art and music I was passionate about. But maths and science never had any relevance to me. I'd sit in algebra lessons and ask, "How is this going to be applicable to anything I'm going to do with my life?" I knew I wasn't going to be sitting behind a computer punching in numbers.

The second year we did Bye Bye Birdie and the third Sweet Charity, in which I played the lead. That had all my funniest school recollections. There is a scene where Charity goes to the penthouse of an Italian actor. She's just a fan but the actor's girlfriend shows up when Charity is there. He freaks out and locks her in the closet. while she is hiding there she lights a cigarette. So I smoked on stage in front of all the nuns, which seemed pretty daring.

There was another scene where she says "Up yours!" I was really worried about saying that in front of them. I told Mrs Martin I couldn't do it but she told me they would think it was hilarious. She was right.

I've kept in touch with her. I'd love it if she could get on a plane and come over for the opening of Notre-Dame de Paris in the West End. It's based on the Victor Hugo book and I play Esmeralda. It's the biggest role I've ever done. I know she would be beside herself with excitement.

Tina Arena was talking to Nigel Williamson


1967 Born Philopina Lidia Arena in Melbourne, Australia

1975 Begins appearing as Tiny Tina in the television show Young Talent Time

1985 First single "Turn Up The Beat" released

1989 Debut album Strong as Steel number two inAustralian charts

1995 "Chains" becomes her first British top 10 hit. Album Don't Ask sells4 million copies,making her Australia's biggest-selling female artist

1998 British top 10 hit with title song from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down the Wind

May 23, 2000 Notre-Dame de Paris opens at Dominion theatre, London. Sound-track released last month

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