“Busy is an understatement!” laughs Vanessa Ellen Powell, BA(Hons) Musical Theatre alumna, when asked what she’s been busy with since her LASALLE days. After dazzling audiences as Mama Rose in her graduation musical Gypsy, Vanessa went on to win the LASALLE Award for Academic Excellence, perform at Universal Studios Singapore for several years and set up her own singing school, Vanessa’s Voices.
One of her most cherished career highlights to date is appearing on Australia TV Channel 7’s 2018 talent show All Together Now, which brought together 100 singers and performers from all over the country as judges for a nationwide singing contest. As one of the invited judges, Vanessa rubbed shoulders with the likes of Ronan Keating, Rhonda Burchmore, Sylvie Paladino and Amanda Harrison.
“Working with these celebrities and some of Australia’s best musical theatre stars, as well as lots of amazing industry professionals from all walks of life, was an unforgettable experience,” Vanessa recalls with pride.
But in the midst of a global pandemic that has seen theatres going dark worldwide—where gathering 10 judges in a room, let alone 100, would be impossible—Vanessa, like many of her peers in the performing arts industry, has had to re-think the nature of her work. Along the way, she’s learned a few things and surprised herself.
Vanessa as Mama Rose in Gypsy (2013)
Now based full-time in her hometown of Sydney, Australia, with her usually packed schedule suddenly freed up, Vanessa took the opportunity to finally realise a long-standing dream of hers: a one-woman show inspired by Adele.
“I’ve had the idea of an Adele show for many years, but was too busy doing other things professionally to put it together. I first began to come up with some concepts around 2016/17 and chipped away at it like a side project after that.”
Side projects, however, have a way of lying dormant for a long time when you’re constantly in demand as a performer and teacher, something Vanessa experienced firsthand for the first few years as she continued to make her mark in Sydney. “Then COVID-19 hit—every gig and paid job was cancelled and suddenly I had a lot of time. I thought, you know what, it’s now or never, so I got busy!
Vanessa premiered her one-woman show Someone Like Adele on Facebook Live on 18 April, where it has since attracted over 3,000 views. The warm response spurred her to create another online show, COVID Cabaret, which went live on 8 May.
“I learned a lot from doing Someone Like Adele and the reception was overwhelming. I am technically challenged, so having to adapt to the COVID-19 situation has taught me to always upskill and not to be afraid to ask people for advice,” says Vanessa, who also had to take her singing school online for 10 weeks while Australia was in the thick of lockdown. Opened four years ago, Vanessa’s Voices has over 30 performers and students enrolled, whom she mentors and teaches personally.
“Initially I was worried—I thought online lessons might be a total disaster. It was trial and error with a bunch of different platforms. We tried Zoom, Facetime, video calls in WhatsApp. In the end I let my students and families decide which platform they preferred, which worked out well. I also set up a professional recording microphone that plugged into a mixer, then into the device I was using to call students. When I got the perfect flawless sound and video working it was like magic!”
Vanessa credits LASALLE for her resilience and adaptability, two life skills that are more relevant now than ever. “The one thing I learned from LASALLE that has stuck with me to this day is to always be prepared for anything! You never know when things can change and you need to adapt to the scene.”
As Australia eases out of its lockdown and Vanessa returns to teaching in person, with hopes of performing on stage for a live audience soon, she has no intentions of abandoning the digital realm now that she’s had a taste. She’ll be working on adapting Someone Like Adele further and exploring new ways to make use of social media livestreams.
“As creatives, we need to constantly evolve to suit the time and audience and this sudden change in circumstances has in a way forced that. It’s always positive to change and grow.”