Acting up

BCA graduate talks Ten Pound Poms and the transformative power of storytelling

The creative arts can hold up a mirror to our society, drawing us to look deeper into who we are and what we believe. For actor, singer, dancer, and writer Sarah Furnari, it’s a potent avenue for shaping a better world.

“That’s the value of acting, of giving people a story to latch on to and relate to,” she says.

“Storytelling is the most powerful tool we have to teach, to encourage people to think more deeply about their ideas and prejudices. By putting the big questions forward in stories rather than lecturing, people are often more receptive and hopefully more empathetic to the struggles of others.”

The UOW Bachelor of Creative Arts (Performance) graduate recently lit up our screens as spirited Italian migrant Maria in BBC and Stan’s acclaimed new co-production Ten Pound Poms. The six-episode historical drama series explores the experiences of British migrants who settled in Australia under the Assistant Migrant Passage Scheme in the 1950s. 

Pictured above: Sarah Furnari (left). Ten Pound Pom promotional poster (right).

Furnari’s character left post-World War II Italy in 1956 on the promise of a better life, only to find the reality of life in Australia’s migrant camps far from what she envisioned. Becoming a spokesperson for the Italian community, Maria faces ridicule and racism, dismissed as illiterate and overly emotional. 

Though the story centres on the plight of English migrants, the series brings into sharp focus the experiences of those from other countries, like Maria, whose journey shares parallels with the actor’s own grandparents who migrated from Sicily in 1952. 

“The series is confronting in its exploration of the concept of the ‘other’ in Australian society. This is shown through the attitudes towards the new arrivals, as well as towards the First Nations characters. These communities are all mistreated in different ways by the characters who brand themselves as ‘Aussies’.” 

Ten Pound Poms is far from Furnari’s first time in the spotlight. Her appetite for storytelling began as a child, her earliest memories of watching her mother – then heavily involved in community theatre – in final dress rehearsals.

“Other kids would be running in the aisles or falling asleep, but I was transfixed the whole time. I remember asking my mum, ‘When am I going to get to do that?’”

Performing in her first full-length musical – a community production of The Sound of Music – at six years old, Furnari immersed herself in theatre throughout her years at Caringbah High School and placed fifth in NSW for HSC Drama. Embracing the full spectrum of performing arts, she was offered early entry to UOW’s BCA program and awarded a Creative Arts Excellence Scholarship for the duration of her studies.

“The dramaturgical element of the course was fantastic, and Wollongong students had a reputation for comprehension of dramaturgy that was way ahead of other schools,” she recalls.

“It was also incredibly valuable to learn about theatre-making, particularly the contemporary theatre-making process, and how to deconstruct a dramatic narrative and present ideas and stories in a new way.”

Since graduating in 2012, Furnari has appeared in improvised sketch television with comedian Julia Morris, featured in a host of theatre productions including Kinky Boots, Little Miss Sunshine: The Musical, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Pygmalion, and earned film credits on Chasing Comets and 2021 Cannes Short Film Festival selection Tell Your Friends to Pull Up. Last year, while filming Ten Pound Poms, she was also cast in the new Stan series Year Of.

In 2015, she co-founded independent company Short Poppy Theatre, co-writing and producing her sold-out show Not at the Dinner Table for Sydney Fringe Festival. The company focuses on stories about women, specifically young women.

“When we started, we were finding that most of the scripts we were reading were either about teenagers or women aged 30-plus; there were not a whole lot of roles in the 20 to 25 age group in which we sat. So, we wrote some.”

Furnari is also passionate about performing arts education. She teaches acting for a range of companies including the celebrated Australian Theatre for Young People, where she mentors and trains young artists in creating original new theatre works. She has also toured regional Australia extensively with Gibber Australia’s Theatre in Education program, which empowers primary and secondary students in low socioeconomic communities to pursue higher education.

“Seeing my students thriving over the long term, watching their personalities blossom and the connection that has to their creative arts experience, is so rewarding,” she says.

“It affirms what we all know about the creative arts, which is how valuable they are for young people to explore their identity and the world around them, to understand and empathise with other people. Every time I teach, I'm reminded of the value of the creative arts: why we act, why we perform, and why we tell stories.”

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