Many of you will know Emma Watkins as the supremely talented Emma Wiggle. Emma grew up like many aspiring dancers, dreaming of becoming a ballerina but her dreams took an unexpected change after sustaining an injury as a teenager. Her dreams changed direction and she embarked on a different path, one that led her to university, film editing, and to ultimately becoming the iconic Yellow Wiggle. In this wonderfully generous and personal interview, Emma talks about her years of ballet training in Sydney, how she auditioned to join the Wiggles first as a dancer, and then being selected to become a Wiggle. But Emma also shares so much more, how she coped with endometriosis while under intense pressure to be pregnant, the PhD she’s studying, her passion for every child to learn Auslan and what it was like to become the first female Wiggle.
Claudia Lawson: Welcome to Talking Pointes, a ballet and dance podcast where we speak with some of the most extraordinary and famous dancers, artistic directors, and choreographers. I’m your host, CL. Today I’m speaking with the magnificent EW. Many of you will know her as the supremely talented Emma Wiggle. Emma grew out like many aspiring dancers dreaming of becoming a ballerina, but her dreams took an unexpected turn after an injury as a teenager. And as you hear, her dreams changed direction, and she embarked on a different journey, one that led her to university, to film editing, and to ultimately becoming the iconic Yellow Wiggle.
In this wonderfully generous and personal interview, Emma talks about her years of ballet training in Sydney, how she auditioned to join The Wiggles first as a dancer, and then being selected to become a Wiggle. But Emma also shares so much more, how she coped with endometriosis while being under intense pressure to be pregnant. The PhD she’s studying, her passion for every child to learn Auslan, and what it was like to become the first female Wiggle.
This episode of Talking Pointes is sponsored by Eco Dancers. Eco Dancers is the first Australian design dance wear brand made from completely sustainable, recycled and environmentally friendly fabrics. Their poppy tutu is made from 16 recycled water bottles, and their cat leotard uses 14. Eco Dancers is proud to offer all Talking Pointes listeners a 10% discount, just use the discount code ‘turtles’ at the checkout. So let’s dance a little lighter, because our choice is Eco.
Claudia Lawson: It’s just so delightful to have you here with us.
Emma Watkins: Oh, you’re so welcome. Thanks for inviting me, particularly during this time of lockdown, everything is possible.
CL: So I guess I wanted to go back to the beginning and ask you where your spark for dance came from.
EW: I originally was inspired by The Wiggles, and I know that sounds like a circular journey, but I grew up watching The Wiggles so much. And during that time in their very early incarnation, they had a huge Celtic music influence. And through friends of theirs, they involved many, many elements of Irish dancing into their music and into their videos. And my mom just said that I was apparently infatuated and just watched it all the time and wanted to jump around like the girls that were dancing on the video at the time and their curly hair and the beautiful costumes. And so my mum used to take my sister and I to their live concerts, whether that was at the community hall or down the road at the shopping center.
EW: Then in about 1997, my sister and I went to their live concert at the Seymour Center in Sydney, and I have very vivid memories of that concert. And I think it’s been made more concrete because that concert was videoed, and there is a few shots of my sister and I dancing in the audience as they cut away. I was probably about seven then, but before that I went to start Irish dancing at the age of four. But the Irish dancing teacher that we went to, she thought that that was quite young and encouraged me to start ballet. So I started ballet first, and then a year later, I went back to her to start Irish dancing at the Reilly School of Irish dancing in Boronia Park.
CL: Wow. So you trained in ballet and in Irish dancing?
EW: Yeah. And loved my ballet teacher, Miss Trudy Colette, who is an amazing teacher. And then she encouraged me to continue my ballet at the McDonald College when I was moving to high school, and I continued there for a little bit. I was a very enthusiastic student, loved school, loved being able to do ballet every single day for two hours during school time. I thought that was magical.
And the first day back of term two in year eight, I wanted to do my best and try really hard and try to do a double turn in the air, like a sous-sus turn and landed wrong on the outside of my ankle and snapped my ligament on the outside, and I was devastated. And the ballet stream were trying to figure out how I would remain a part of the ballet family there at the school, and my ankle just wasn’t recovering and they knew at that time, being a particularly enthusiastic RAD student for the last 14 years, it was a tragedy and that I wouldn’t be able to do pointe. So I was moved to the dance stream to try something that was less crazy on my ankle, and basically fell in love with commercial dance and never looked back.
CL: An injury at those ages, like 13, 14 and say 15, 16, it’s so catastrophic those years in terms of-
EW: It meant a lot. Yeah.
CL: Yeah. Was it huge at the time?
EW: I was so upset and I was quite depressed and was removed from performing arts at the college so that I wasn’t going to be more upset. It was a good move on the college’s behalf, because I think now looking back, I would have been pretty upset continuing to go to the dance class, but sit and watch. I’d had enough of that pretty much when they moved me to the prep in kindergarten class and I would actually read stories to the kindergarten children, and would do that instead of performing arts. And I think that was probably very valuable now when I think back.
CL: Are you continuing with school and then now hoping to work towards a career as a commercial dancer? Is that where the headspace got to?
EW: Well, I ended up continuing my training at full time dance at 85 International after going to film school. So I did it the wrong way around. I tried to teach myself how to use editing software for video, and fell in love with Final Cut Pro, and basically just started editing dance films, which helped me enter the film world. I received a scholarship to the Sydney Film School and my parents were like, “Honestly, you’ll never have another opportunity like that.” So I went to film school after performing art school, which was a shock to everybody. And I think my dance teachers at that time were quite upset that I wasn’t dancing.
CL: That’s so interesting.
EW: It’s so weird. My whole injury at that point was actually prolific in changing my headspace to try and think about what else was I going to do because my life was dance, I was all about being this one. I honestly thought RAD was everything to me, my ballet exams, how I was wearing my hair in a barn. I was just obsessed with ballet. All my weekends were competitions and the eisteddfods.
And so by the time that I wasn’t able to dance at that crucial age, 16, 17, my love for dance turned into dance on screen. And went to film school and had an amazing time that was very different to everything that I’ve known. And then came back and joined most of my friends at full time, the year later. So I was a little bit older than my full time dance colleagues, but I actually really enjoyed it. I was a bit more of the motherly figure in that year, and really loved it up, I just loved it.
I still had a lot of problems with my back at the time, but then continued after that and went to university at UTS to do media arts and production. And continued that for a little bit until my tutor was like, “I think you should do the masters.” And so joined the masters at UTS whilst auditioning, and I auditioned for everything, Wicked, Cats, The Sound of Music, fame. I just didn’t get anything and I was auditioning for so many different types of gigs. I would still be fortunate enough to do smaller dance gigs. And I did lots of backup dancing commercial dance for Jessica Mauboy, Marcia Hines and John Paul Young.
CL: Did you really?
EW: And that was actually amazing. And I thought, “Yep, cool. Got it. Amazing. I’m loving this.” And I was editing on the side for work. And then it must have been about 2009, I received an audition notice for The Wiggles and it was for a ballet dancing fairy. And I thought, “Oh yeah, that will be right up my alley, I’ve got hair that looks like a fairy, I can do ballet just enough to get through that audition, and I think I’ll go along.” So proceeded with that audition. And then that week, I got a call back and I was accepted to be Fairy Larissa in Dorothy the Dinosaur DVD. And that’s really where my Wiggly journey had started.
CL: I think I read that you were asked to sing in that audition.
EW: I was and I said no! And all the training leading up to that time, it was very much, if you’re in an audition, just say yes and then learn it later. And I think I auditioned for Disney about seven times. And you’d basically do that audition twice or three times a year, and I had tried to really go to crack at it. But the story was, yeah, they’re going to ask you if you can do aerial and you need to say yes. I think there was about six of us left at this one particular audition which I’ve done much better at than in previous years, and then the week later, I ended up going to an aerial class but never got a call back from Disney.
And so with The Wiggles, it was a little bit different in that the audition notice was for ballet and it was for dance and it didn’t have singing on it. It was only towards the end of the day when they asked for anyone to attempt the singing. And the dance was full on, it was a whole ballet, you had to mime and dance the whole way through. Even after the dance itself, I was puffed. I was like, “This is incredibly difficult.”
And I think there was probably about 30, 40 girls there and only four accepted the singing challenge. So you can see how difficult it was. Normally, on any audition, everyone would just say yes. But this was extremely difficult. It was not a flattering moment for anyone. It could have been Ariana Grande is thinking that and it just wouldn’t have helped. It just was a really confronting scenario. But they did an amazing job. Out of the audition for that particular role, I was just very fortunate to get the role of the fairy, which was non singing.
EW: Non-singing at the time.
CL: There like of all the triple thread skills, that singing, dancing, acting combo. If you haven’t trained predominantly in singing, I feel like that is the most frightening of all the-
EW: It’s frightening as a dancer. Yeah, it’s so frightening. And I went to full time with some incredibly talented people that had beautiful voices. If they could just work on their movement enough to get through that movement part of the audition, then they always got the role because their singing was so good. And most of my frustration, and before I audition for The Wiggles and auditioning for so many of those other musicals, I would make it through the dance round and get to the singing panel, and then go to sing and numerous times they would say I was undercooked.
And I remember seeing this one lady, and she was a musical director on the panel for many of those musicals and I’d arrive and see her again, and she was like, “Have you been to singing lessons?” And I was like, “No, I’m so sorry.” She was like, “Well, I’m not going to put you through because you’re undercooked.” And I felt terrible. Yeah, it was bad. It was a bad time. And it’s burnt in my memory, undercooked, undercooked.
CL:And it doesn’t really instill confidence going forward, I mean, you think so much now in The Wiggles. How have you overcome that?
EW: It was highly traumatic for me in the beginning because it didn’t feel like it was going to be a problem when I accepted it. As in, I didn’t think to myself, “Oh dear, I need to be the lead singer here.” The fact that Lachy and Simon were both professionally trained singers, I was like, “Oh easy, great, they’re going to do all the singing.”
CL: I think I’ve got this one.
EW: Yeah, I’ll just sing in the background a few la la las, try and keep in tune as best I can. And so really, that’s how it felt for me. And Lachy and Simon were so useful when we were first starting out, helping me with learning harmonies and trying to work out parts that I would sing in original Wiggle songs that we were singing that weren’t really written for my register. So that was really the first two or three years was just trying to figure out how I was going to integrate my voice into the keys of the songs.
CL: So did you have to audition to become a Wiggle?
EW: Well, not necessarily. I was with the company already, obviously, performing as Fairy Larissa and doing other roles. But I guess perhaps The Wiggles and other people in the management team were probably watching me, but I wasn’t really aware. I was touring with the company for about a year and a half before I was asked by Anthony, at a show in Sydney, but it was just before the show’s backstage in the dressing room, and he pulled me aside. Yeah, it was very casual.
EW: And because of its casual nature, I thought it was a joke because the boys are so used to playing pranks, they’re like brothers, so it’s always a bit of fun. And he said, “We’ve got Murray and Greg and Jeff, and they’re thinking about retiring at the end of the year and we’re actually going to create a new lineup of The wiggles.” and I was like, “Oh, wow,” and in my head, I was really sad because I’d only just joined and I thought, “Oh, it’s only been going for a year. For me, I feel like I’ve just got on board with the most amazing job ever and…”
CL: And so you thought they were saying, “So, that’s it, there’s no role.”
EW: Yeah, yeah. And I thought that it was a wrap up of the whole the live show and everything. Even though I knew this was only in about April of that year, which was 2012, and because he was saying that it was going to end up at the end of the year, I thought, “Okay, well, I’ve still got a couple more months of work.” And then he said, “We’re getting a new lineup, we’re thinking about choosing Simon.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, perfect,” because Simon had already been part of the company for a few years and he’d understudy The Wiggles in the past. So I was like, “Yep, great idea.”
EW: At that stage, I thought he was just chatting to me. He’s like, “We’re thinking about choosing Lachy.” And I was like, “Oh, my goodness,” because obviously Lachy and I, we’re best friends. Still are, obviously. But Anthony was like, “I needed to tell you, because I wanted you to come with me to tell him.” And I was like, “I’m not going to tell him, it’s your news. He’ll be thrilled, he’ll be stoked.” And at that time, Lachy was so shy. So I thought, “Oh, my gosh, how is he going to react? I don’t even know what he’s going to do.” And then Anthony said, “But also I wanted to ask you if you wanted to be part of the new lineup as the first girl Wiggle.” And yeah, from that moment, I was just a bit shocked. And I was like, “Oh, what? How? Wow, what am I going to do?”
CL: Wow. And so it really seems to me that they know how to make it work in terms of a sense of family, and that it’s almost like, if you can work together for many years like that, they already know that that lineup is going to work.
EW: And knowing each other is such a huge benefit because you’re able to know each other’s energies and strengths as well. We rely on each other as part of a group to get each other through each performance or each day for that matter. And even if a day doesn’t involve the shows, and whether it’s just traveling, you’re all there together on this journey as a group and as a family. So it is important for people to know each other and to support each other, particularly when you’re traveling together, performing and working and living essentially, all at the same time.
CL: And you don’t have to answer this, but I wanted to ask, you speak of the cast members with such warmth, and in particular, Lachy. And not everyone could work with their ex husband, but you guys seem to have such a genuine friendship.
EW: We do. And I’m so grateful that I’ve spent over the last decade with these people. We see each other more than our families, we we know each other and part of that spontaneity on stage really is us as a group working quite organically and spontaneously. And I think that’s what the parents really loved about the original Wiggles group, because they could see that for themselves.
CL: And so obviously, you were the first female Wiggle. How was that adjustment? Because obviously, the four original members and then a couple of substitutes in there, but they’ve been so successful. So how was that received when you became the first female Wiggle?
EW: I think initially, there was obviously excitement and intrigue. But over that first two years, maybe, I did receive a lot of backlash, because people felt like I was not an original member. And we would have lots of interviews which we would laugh at, and I’d be sitting there with Simon and Lachy and Anthony, and they’d say to Simon and Lachy, “You guys have been there for so long, what do you think about bringing this new member in?” And Simon and Lachy would be thinking to themselves, “Oh, I’m so glad I look so young.” And so-
CL: Because they started the same time as you, the same time!
EW: And we would have lots of interviews where people would assume that the boys were the same, even though they were totally different people. And so initially, there was just a little bit of backlash about being a Wiggle as part of the group, but I think it was an overall like, “Oh, you’re not the original.” And lots of different groups and bands over the years, and lots of different other musical categories have had to deal with the same thing. It’s really about, we had to prove to the audience that we weren’t here to rewrite the history of The Wiggles, that we were here to contribute and to continue the music on. And so once that was accepted, everyone was fine with it.
EW: It just took a few years, and it was mainly teenagers that felt like their childhood was breaking up. They’re like, “You’re not my childhood.” But then we have become The Wiggles for our generation of children. So it continues to evolve and I think that’s what is beautiful about the brand and it’s what is beautiful about children’s entertainment anyway. Children are evolving because they grow out of that phase and then they move from Emma Wiggle to Taylor Swift to Katy Perry and then they are.
CL: I wanted to ask a little bit about body image. And it’s funny that what we’ve just talked about with that, just from the colors, they thought Lachy was an original member because he’s wearing purple. But I often think that about your costuming and that it is so clever because it’s really about the colors and not the body shape.
EW: You may notice too with a lot of the original Wiggle productions and costuming, most of the questions are very modest. The focus was about people and their personalities and what they were singing or dancing to, and it wasn’t necessarily about showing off a physique. It’s been really important for the productions and the content to be focused around joy as opposed to something that’s like a physical attribute. And so yeah, the costume-
CL: Which is so important for children, which is so beautiful in that messaging.
EW: But it is confusing, I guess, because a lot of the backlash that I received was, “Oh, wow, you’re way too girly, you’re way too feminine. And why would you be wearing a skirt?” And I think originally I was like, “Oh, no, I didn’t mean to upset anyone.” I was very kindly asked what I wanted to wear, and my response was, “A skirt, please. I really wear a skirt.” And because I was always wearing headbands in my head, I had asked to wear a bow. It definitely came from my own interpretation of what I felt comfortable in anyway, as opposed to like a higher organization saying you must wear this and be a female. And I guess it’s about self expression.
And I think one other thing that’s really important about our shows is that children are encouraged to come to the concerts dressed however they feel comfortable. We would never dictate what they must dress as because children are so expressive and open minded. They might be wearing an Elsa dress with an Emma bow, and that is totally fine. That is how they want to dress. We have lots of boys coming to the show dressed not just in the Emma bow, but in the full Emma outfit. And that is cool.
CL: And it’s so good.
EW: Go dress however you want. Yeah, we’re not fast. But it is interesting, over the years, we’ve had so many interesting perspectives from people, not just journalists, but parents as well. We had a particular boy come to the show and he brought a sign and it said, “Boys can be Emma too.” And I didn’t think that… We brought it up to the stage and everyone clapped along with all the other signs that we had. And then at lunchtime, I said to Lachy, “Hey, can you put a bow on, and can I take a picture of you put it up on social media?” And people went crazy. And they were not happy that we were encouraging boys to dress as Emma or a girl per se.
And then a year later, when we brought out Emma costumes, everyone was like, “Why won’t you photograph a boy in the costume?” It just the way that the perception of dress ups and gender has changed over the last couple of years is extraordinary. I mean, I did think a few years ago, I wanted to line up a few of these media articles that were just so contradictory to each other within the space of a couple of months. It was, that they didn’t want us to do it, then they did want us to do it. And then I was like, “Wow, you just cannot win.”
CL: I know.
EW: But essentially we weren’t making any kind of statement, and The Wiggles never do. The whole point of the show and the music and the dress ups is that children can just choose whatever they want to be dressed up as, and hence why my costume is a true expression of me. If anybody knows me as me, I don’t own a pair of jeans. I’ve been photographed once in an editorial in jeans, and I still can’t even look at the picture and think that as me. It’s just not very me. I just love wearing dresses and skirts.
CL: The other thing I suppose connected to body image and you were just so beautifully open with your diagnosis of endometriosis. I think back in 2018 now, from what I know of endometriosis, you can have terrible cramping and bleeding. And that’s tough on anyone, let alone someone has to get up and put on costumes and bring a really energetic and positive role on stage every day.
EW: I was really lucky thinking back that I made sure my costume had black stocking to be honest, as a woman. Anyway, I didn’t think about it, obviously, but it made sense. But at the time of the diagnosis because it was severe and I had to make the decision to have surgery very quickly, it just seemed really appropriate that I would have to explain it sincerely and properly to the audience, not just the children, but the parents as well. And so it really changed everything for me, essentially, because I knew that I was in pain, but I didn’t really worry about it. But I didn’t know how bad it was. I didn’t realize what was going on.
CL: So was it was your normal? Is that-
EW: Yeah, yeah. I didn’t know. I just thought that this was like female problems constantly. And honestly, in retrospect, I think I’d been having that kind of pain since I was about 14. So who knows? I don’t know any better.
CL: So that just becomes your way of life?
EW: Yeah, yeah. It did become progressively worse and it was only when it got so bad that I was like, “Oh, maybe there’s something wrong.” That’s when I had many, many tests and I would try to see as many different people as I could, because I couldn’t quite understand how something could be so severe and me not understand it or know that it was happening to me. I think there was a sense of denial, I was like, “How did I let myself ignore that for such a long time or not think it was severe?” And so actually being able to explain to people that I wasn’t going to be on the show because I was about to have a surgery and I had endo was important because at the time, people thought that I was pregnant, and it was so far away from that perspective.
CL: Oh, I see, of course.
EW: And that’s why I felt that I had to explain it, because the pressure on me at that time to be pregnant was quite a lot. And so I was like, “Oh, no. It’s exactly the opposite.”
CL: And since you disappeared for six weeks.
EW: Exactly. People would like, “Okay, I see what’s happening here. She’s pregnant.” And I think I was so upset, and I was in so much pain with the endo. I don’t think I could have handled personally being able to explain myself that I wasn’t pregnant or listen to that for six weeks.
CL: And also that constant speculation, as you say, not everybody has fertility issues with endometriosis, but it’s a possibility. So that dichotomy of that being then possibly reported.
EW: Yeah. I had one moment in particular, during the show, we would go out into the audience and collect the craft that children would bring to the shows, whether that was signs for The Wiggles, or bones for Wags the Dog, or roses for Dorothy, or bows, or whatever. And I was going out to collect something and one of the mothers, she grabbed my arm and she’s like, “When are you due?” And I think it caught me by such surprise that I didn’t even know what she said to me. I was like, “Sorry, what?” She was like, “You’re pregnant, right?” And I was looking down at my costume thinking to myself, “Hang on. Wait, do I look pregnant or do people think I’m pregnant?” And it got so ingrained.
CL: Oh Emma, that is just absolutely horrendous.
EW: Well, I even had my mum call me. My mum called me and she goes, “Are you pregnant?” I’m like, “What?” And I’m like, “No.” She goes, “Okay.” Because everyone had been reporting about it in media and then people had messaged my mum saying, “Congratulations.” And then mum called me and she’s like, “Why wouldn’t you tell me?” I was like, “I would, and I’m not pregnant.” I mean, now, five years down the track-
CL: That’s right.
EW: … obviously, I’m not pregnant, still not. Endo lives on. But even within the last five years, the perception to talk about fertility issues and endometriosis alongside it are particularly sensitive, and it’s a whole different conversation. And I am not asked the question as much about if I’m pregnant or not. But definitely-
CL: Who asks that?
EW: Well, I mean, before I spoke about endometriosis, I was asked quite often or probably maybe four times a week, and I haven’t drunk for many, many years and I would always order tea when I’d go out to a restaurant. And so many times people would be like, “Are you pregnant?” And I get asked still.
CL: She’s not having her wine.
EW: Yeah. Oh, she’s not drinking, she must be pregnant.
CL: But isn’t that interesting how much that conversation has moved even in three years? Because that’s why people wouldn’t even dream of asking that now.
CL: And the consideration that people might be having issues with fertility is, it’s just in the consciousness now.
EW: It’s so prevalent. I mean, it’s sad. It’s sad.
CL: It is so prevalent.
EW: It opens up another discussion about the world and our environment, and not just our natural environment, but our work environment and stress and anxiety and the rate of infertility.
CL: And food.
EW: Yeah, and everything. I mean, it’s just huge how much of the decline is for fertility in women now, more so than ever before. And I think to have the conversation, though, and the discussion is really important. If we don’t talk about it, it’s worse. And yeah, you’re right, though, I think almost every woman and every person for that fact is dealing with their own sense of health issues or struggles that might relate to health. And so, everyone’s dealing with something for sure.
CL: And so isn’t that interesting that at the time where you told everyone, it was to shut down pregnancy rumors, but in actual fact, it promoted a conversation that wasn’t there at the time.
EW: Yeah. And hopefully, and I do have such an overwhelming response from talking about endo which I didn’t even imagine. But definitely since that day, and I remember I think I was at Channel Nine and I had a beautiful interview, and it was scary for me. I don’t think I could watch it back now. But I was really worried. I was so nervous to talk about the reason why I wasn’t going to be on the show for a period of time and on the tour. But since then, pretty much daily, I receive messages from mothers sharing their stories, and mostly in support, they’re like, “Don’t even worry about it, I had endo and now I have two beautiful children.” And so actually they are been supportive and positive. And some people do talk about their experience with infertility, but mostly, it’s about women saying to me, “Don’t rule anything out.” Which is actually right.
CL: And doesn’t that show the warmth with which you’re received, not just by children, but by the parents. It’s just-
EW: It’s very sweet. I feel more supported than I ever have in this kind of public light, which I never imagined.
CL: Before we finish, I wanted to ask you about your PhD.
CL: First of all, congratulations. What are you researching?
EW: Oh, I’m so excited that you asked. I feel like I’m researching away in a dark corner in my spare time.
CL: I think PhD is a long lonely road sometimes.
EW: You’re absolutely right in the fact that you’re not in like a classroom with other people, but self-driven learning for me is just excellent because I don’t really have time to go to class. I truly love being able to read and discover and synthesize things on my own for long periods of time. I’m doing my PhD at Macquarie University to study and be supervised by actually one of my idols in dance filmmaking who is Karen Pearlman. I was actually researching her work. Yes. And then I found her. She wasn’t actually teaching. She’s a dance filmmaker, and she’s written a book about editing for dances, like editing dance, and I was researching her book, and then somebody was like, “Did you know she’s teaching at Macquarie?” And I was like, “What?” And so I got really lucky. Yes.
CL: Wow, so she’s your PhD supervisor?
EW: Yes, yes.
EW: The person that I was researching. The one person in your PhD that you’re trying to contribute more knowledge to or learn from, she’s my supervisor. So lucky.
CL: So you’re referencing papers with her name?
EW: Yes. Yeah, I’m like, “My supervisor and this person, Professor Dr. Karen Pearlman. This is her chapter, by the way.” She’s my supervisor.
I am studying a PhD on creative and effective integrations of visual movement. So whether that’s dance, gesture, mime, sign language on screen, and using film editing techniques. That was a very long winded approach to say that and I’d be in trouble by my supervisor for not being clear. But it is creative integrations of sign language, dance, and film editing.
CL: And that is so to promote greater interpretation or greater understanding for the audience?
EW: Definitely, a greater knowledge. Yes. I think we’re in a position where we have a little bit of a lack of understanding on how important visual communication is for everyone but not just for people that might not be able to hear an auditory stimulus, like music or a narration or voiceover or an interview for that matter. Lots of people are actually learn or taking information visually, and so it’s about, how can we enhance whatever we’re showing on screen to indicate to an audience what’s going on or what the meaning is without having to rely on an auditory source?
CL: Incredible, because now not just people who are hearing impaired, but anybody who is on the autism spectrum, Asperger’s, and even not everybody wants to be in a huge crowd. How incredible?
EW: The conversation and the discussion of my research has changed over many, many years now researching this particular project for a number of years and me acknowledging my weakness in my perspective approaching this research subject as somebody-
CL: What do you mean?
EW: Well, I have to recognize that I’m a hearing person that is researching about the deaf community and it is really important to note that I don’t have a deaf experience, that’s not my primary source. And so it’s about how can I, as a hearing person and perhaps other hearing people, contribute positively to visual communication that can also be useful and inclusive, or more inclusive, for those that are part of our deaf community here in Australia, and hopefully, around the world. It will be a life goal to try and have Auslan as part of the school curriculum.
EW: I think that’s something that after this PhD that will be something that I will be definitely trying to support. I know there’s a lot of people advocating for that right now. But really, it is about being able to offer a communication system to those who cannot hear so that they’re able to communicate with other people. And being able to offer a language to those people is really, really, really, really important. And again, they might not be deaf, they might be children on the spectrum, might even be adults. I think there’s been such a shun away from learning Auslan in a particular time period that we’re actually finding now there’s a huge sector of young adults and older adults as well that actually never were given the opportunity to learn to sign because there’s no education about bilingual education back then.
CL: So you’re saying that if you don’t learn it as a child, there’s been a sense that we can’t really learn this as a teenager or an adult?
EW: There’s a huge gap. So there was basically a section in about the ’80s, ’90s, where it was like, “No, actually, it’s better for everyone to be in a mainstream.”
CL: I see.
EW: It’s better to not learn to sign if you can’t hear. And so a lot of friends that I have in the deaf community might be 50, 60 and they only learned sign language at the age of 30. Because their family or their parents or their school or their education, they didn’t even know about sign language or they didn’t think that it was appropriate. So it’s a highly contentious discussion.
EW: But basically, it’s not about right or wrong, it’s not about cochlear or hearing aid, it’s not about sign language and no English, it’s not about English and no sign language. It’s really just about providing children, as early as possible, different communication options, so that they can find out what works best for them in their world and for us as hearing privilege to be able to at least start to learn sign language on a broader sense. Imagine if everybody actually knew how to sign like, how are you? Are you in an emergency? That’s what I think. If somebody was hit by a bus, goodness, helpless.
CL: That’s so incredible.
EW: And what if that person, couldn’t talk and then you’re saying, “Can you make a sound? Can you hear me make a sound?” How are they even going to know that? Even if everyone knew how to sign, how are you? Are you okay? Are you hurt? Do you want me to call for help? That’s probably what I think about every time even though my research project is not about that. But I just think there is a really a lack of understanding in our society as a whole about even having safety measures as inclusive.
CL: It made me really teary when you said that about the emergency. I just feel like-
EW: Oh, I think about it.
CL: Yeah. I actually used to live with a girl in London when I just was flat sharing, and she was deaf. And when I moved into the share house, she came into my room one night, and she could speak, and she just said to me, “If the fire alarm goes off in the night, could you come and wake me up?”
EW: Honestly, honestly.
CL: And I actually I didn’t even understand what she was asking at first, and I thought, “Oh, my goodness, if she goes to sleep in the night and something happens and there’s a fire in the kitchen, the fire alarm would be going off and she would not know.”
EW: Yeah. There’s amazing technologies that some people have installed in their house so the fire alarm or the doorbell or the telephone is a light-
CL: Yes, I’ve heard of this.
EW: … or there’s vibration plate under the pillow, whatever. And look, that is amazing. But you’re right, what are we doing to help? I would say, nothing. As in, what do you say to help?
CL: And the funny thing is they lived in a dodgy flat in London, there was definitely no technology. So it just shows-
EW: Exactly, exactly.
CL: Yeah. Anyway look, Emma, thank you so much.
EW: Sorry that was such a tangent.
CL: No. Yeah, such a tangent. I’m really interested in that. And what a platform you have to be able to educate children who can hear about who will be their colleagues through life that we just have more communication. What could be a negative about that? Nothing. Emma, thank you so much.
EW: Thank you.
CL: I’m just so excited to watch what you do next. You will be Dr. Wiggle soon. And-
EW: Oh, it’s going to take me a while.
CL: Emma continues to write, produce, edit and perform with The Wiggles, all the while continuing with her PhD, fostering her Auslan knowledge, and working to promote greater awareness around endometriosis. To continue to follow all of Emma’s adventures, you can find her on Insta @emma_wiggle, or on her personal account @emmawatkinsofficial. Emma and I recorded remotely with Emma dialing in from Sydney on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, to which we pay our greatest respects. On the next episode, you’ll hear from Frances Rings.
Your host and producer is me, Claudia Lawson, additional production by Penelope Ford with editing and sound production by Martin Peralta. And for the latest in all things dance, head to fjordreview.com.
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