Author, performer, actor, TV host and mum of three, Justine Clarke.
Justine Clarke has to be one of the busiest Australians in show business. Right now, she’s touring the country with her band, filling big venues with screaming preschoolers. In between, she’s taping episodes of Playschool and new ABC series The Time of Our Lives, from the creators of The Secret Life of Us. Oh, she’s also a mother of three children - Josef, Nina and Max - with actor Jack Finsterer. Plus there’s that new book she just put out, called The Gobbledygook is Eating a Book.
But on the phone Clarke is calm, sincere and very excited about the new tour for her album A Little Day Out, which features favourite songs from her previous three albums for children, captured in a live and intimate style.
Clarke admits that it was hard choosing which songs to include on the album and in tour, but went for “the most physically engaging, or the ones that kids can move to, or simple singalong songs”. There’s also an interactive, video-based element to the show, based on Clarke’s new book about a furry little monster that eats books.
Clarke's new book, on sale now.
“Judging by [the first show] the kids really enjoyed it - they get to be very vocal and also help out in the story. I think they love that,” she says.
Clarke admits she tries to balance the need to keep her young audience engaged - including the ones right up the back - with a desire not to overstimulate little ones who may not have attended a live concert before.
“It’s kind of overwhelming for them,” she says. “Even getting to the Opera House is overwhelming ... it’s such an incredible place to be, there’s so much stimulation. I try to focus on that, rather than overload them with more.”
Unlike many touring acts for children, Clarke performs without a backing track, preferring to work with a trio of live jazz musicians. “We’ve put together a really good sound, and quite an intimate sound in some ways, because there’s only three instruments,” she explains.
But the versatile band members don’t just limit themselves to jazz, and Clarke admits that she loves to rock out to Jelly Jelly Jelly and Dancing Pants.
(Fans hoping to pick up dancing pants of their own at the merchandise stand might be disappointed to learn they’re not on sale this tour, as the allocation is almost exhausted. The pants were made by Clarke’s mum!)
On the subject of balancing her working life around her kids, Clarke is pragmatic. “Growing up in the film and television industry, all the adults were doing what they loved - it was a great example of fulfilling your passion, I suppose.”
Skype and email have made organising tours much easier, to the point that Clarke says that live shows are one of the most ‘gentle’ forms of work she takes on.
When it comes to other projects in film, television, stage and music, Clarke says she's led first by the material, and then by the team around it. “It’s got to be inspiring enough to sacrifice time away from my family, and it becomes a sort of group decision, a discussion between my husband and I about what’s going to be right for everybody," she says.
"I think that’s what's really changed [since having kids] ... the conversation is much more about what’s going to work for everyone else, not just you and whatever your passion is. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to do the things I love. I think that comes back to being around it as a kid.”
I suggest to Clarke that having parents who are happy and fulfilled has a positive flow-on affect to the family.
“I think it does,” she says. “I feel quite confident about that. But also I think doing lots of things is a practical decision as well, particularly in this country. Because there’s not work 12 months of the year in one particular part of the industry."
Like many Australian actresses, Clarke has felt the lure of the US market. “Look Both Ways came out in America the same time as I was over there for a Sydney theatre production of Hedda Gabler, so I got an agent and I went to LA ... for a couple of years. I wasn’t there for very long, my family were young and we couldn’t sort of be there with them and I couldn’t be there without them.
"I was getting a lot of work here around the same time and the things here were far more interesting, to be honest. I got close to a couple of things but once I’d already had a family the idea of moving there wasn't as exciting.”
Clarke started performing in television commercials and stage musicals at the age of seven, while attending Woollahra Public school. A film role in Mad Max soon followed, and at 17 she dropped out of school to play the character of Roo in the then-brand new series Home and Away. She played the role for two years.
Asked whether she’d be happy for her own children to follow her path, Clarke is cautious. “If they really wanted to do it and have a real passion for it then I’d be 100 per cent happy with that. I just would encourage them to stay at school, finish school, go to university. If they wanted to go to drama school, go [study drama at university].”
Of course, to the little boys and girls of Australia, Clarke is a beloved host of ABC’s Play School, now in its 46th year. It’s a role Clarke relishes and returns to, filming episodes around her many other projects. I ask her what's behind the show's continued success in an era where the average three-year-old can operate an iPad.
“I think it’s direct, it’s honest, it’s gentle,” she asys. “It’s a really strong format and I don’t think there’s anything else like it here or in the UK or America. It’s an intimate show. One thing we were always taught is to talk to one child, just talk to that one child at home who’s watching. I think it’s world class, I really do.”
Parents would agree.
Visit Justine's website for more information on her Pop Up Tour.