Leah Purcell … school wasn’t on her agenda.

Don't get on the back foot

Kerri Carr

“I’m not very good with big words,” Leah Purcell admitted to the autocue lady on the set of her first TV job in Sydney.

Actor, scriptwriter, singer and director Leah Purcell told Federation’s Aboriginal Members Conference on April 5 that experience was her initiation to the importance of education.

She said she encourages kids to grab at their opportunity for an education and use it, “because you don’t want to be on the back foot all the time”.

“I’m living proof that every day is a challenge … I hate cold reads … if they throw me a script I just baulk and I go hang on a minute, you have to give me five minutes,” Leah said.

Leah told Federation members that school hadn’t been on her agenda as a child because her priority was to look after her mum, who had turned to alcohol. But, Leah liked writing and storytelling.

She wrote a story about a neighbour who stabbed her netball before he sent it back over the fence. When she got the story back from her teacher there were remarks in red pen all the way through it and on the bottom it said, “See me.”

Leah recalls the teacher said it was a really good story and she was prepared to work with Leah on improving it.

“For a split second I grew seven foot. I went, wow, someone wants to help me,” Leah said.

“I went home and I was doing rewrites, I was on a roll. It was the first time I was up at 7.30 and at school before the bell and wanting to stay back and work on it.”

Leah went on to win two local writing competitions for the story.

“They gave me some certificates and a pen and it was a passion sparked. Someone had taken an interest.”

But Leah said there wasn’t much hope in her family. Leah recalls that when she told her mum she wanted to be a dancer her mum looked at her and said, “I dunno, we’re from the bush, you’re black, you’re a woman, I think you’re either gonna be a nurse or work at the meatworks like your sister.”

Leah said the theatre was always her passion and she has never understood why her family wanted to squash that.

She said her mum was a “phenomenal singer”.

“At family gatherings around a fire and a carton … my mother would sing; I had an Aunt who played guitar and sung,” she said.

“My mum’s trick was bottle tops on her toes, so she’s get up and do a little tap routine and tell a little yarn, and I grew up with Uncles and Aunties who tell better jokes than Robin Williams or Whoopi Goldberg.

“That was my breaking ground to performance. I was always a bit bummed as to why they didn’t want me to go down that path.”

Aged 12, Leah’s older sister asked her what she wanted to be. “I said a theatre nurse … I had no idea what a theatre nurse was. I thought when I was sewing someone up I could be singing Doris Day songs. In my mind it was very theatrical and I was brilliant. I was dancing around in the room with the doctor and sewing things up, but it kept them off my back for a while.”

As to Leah’s trouble with ‘big words’, she said a dictionary from her friend Ben Mendelsohn was “a great tool”.