'Good art can re-wire our brains': Meet Dr Kat Henry, Theatre lecturer at the University of Melbourne

Kat Henry sits on the edge of a bed in a small room.

Photo credit: Southbank News

Dr Kat Henry is a theatre director and the coordinator of the Master of Theatre (Directing) program at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). Her teaching credits feature Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art and major universities, her directorial credits span Melbourne Theatre Company and other companies across the country, and her performance art includes spending 10 days in temporal isolation during a residency in Berlin – and all that's before you consider her work directing rock concerts.

We talked to Kat about her relationship with theatre, teaching at the VCA and her art.

In a few sentences, can you tell us about who you are and what you stand for?

I am a theatre director, a performance artist, an academic, and a mum to a toddler – not in that order. My life right now is busy and full and chaotic and terrifying and wonderful.

Why did you decide to pursue a life in theatre?

I distinctly remember a moment when I was 18 years old, waking up late and bleary-eyed one morning, and thinking that I if I went into a life of theatre I could live my best late-night life and never have to get up early.

The naivety of youth eventually gave way to the reality that, like many others in this industry, I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else. The challenge of making better and better art, the deep community bonds, the adrenaline of opening night… Ultimately, the ongoing enquiry into why this live experience is so powerful has sustained me and my work.

What do you think is world-changing about theatre?

I think that good art, in any form, can re-wire our brains in ways that were previously inconceivable to us – it lets us look at ideas afresh. I think that theatre, for me, is especially adept at this.

Taking a dark, black space, and creating a world within it that previously didn’t exist, and then allowing an audience to enter that space for a time can be a transformational experience.

What’s the best thing about working at the VCA?

The opportunity to work with ambitious, sensitive, curious, diverse students and staff to make performance. There is nothing better.

What do you think makes a 'good' student?

A good theatre or directing student is deeply curious about life and humanity, is driven to explore some possible answers to that humanity in collaboration with other humans, and – not least importantly – lives with an intention to be a good human themselves.

What works have you created that best showcase your creative vision?

Even though I have worked across many performance mediums – plays, physical theatre, rock concerts, live art and more – I think my most satisfying work falls into two camps. Well-written narrative plays, with which I can experiment with style, form, and aesthetic, is one. Performance art is the other.

In the first category, I've worked at main stage and other theatre companies around the country and have been fortunate enough to access the resources to play with some wild ideas. In the second category, I have a deep practice in extreme long-durational performance art, which formed the backbone of my PhD.

What do you consider your greatest achievement to date?

Well, I just had my PhD accepted, so I’m pretty relieved and excited about that right now! But above everything else my two-year-old son, Walt, gives me a sense of joy and purpose about everything I do. I can’t wait to share theatre and performance with him more and more as he grows.

When and where were you happiest?

When I’m with Walt.

I think that taking Walt to the Bluey stage show in January 2021 (after being postponed for months during lockdowns) might just be the conflation of two things I love the most: Bluey and Walt! Haha – no, I mean theatre and Walt.

Is there a philosophy that has held you in good stead throughout your career?

Be a good human.