Playing the part of a sexy witch, Marina Prior is attempting to shake off the tag
of theatre's "nice girl". But with her angelic looks and a husband training to
become a pastor, she'll find it tough.
Ten-hour days, six days a week for the last two months in the bunker-like confines of
Melbourne Theatre Company's rehearsal rooms don't seem to have taken their toll on Marina
Prior. She is bursting with cheerful brio, exuding rude health. She possesses
the uncanny ability to conduct this interview with devoted attention, while applying her
make-up and fielding questions from various cast members all in between sips of her tom
She is almost 39 and has had two children, yet her figure is a teenage
size eight and her face gamine-like. She says she is immensely vain but has yet to
go under the knife in an attempt to stave off old age. She doesn't rule out the
prospect of plastic surgery, nor does she embrace it. "If ever I thought I really
wanted it, I would definitely go ahead and do it, with no guilt whatsoever," she says.
Though in a bold attempt to cast off her superannuated teenage look,
Prior recently took the plunge and lopped off her gorgeous waist-length hair. "I'm
too old for that girlish hair any more," she says. "I've been so identified with it
for so long it's quite liberating to get rid of it. I'll never have it long
again. One day I'll cut it all off in a short little pixie cut and that will be
Often irritated by the general perception that she is always the "good
girl" of Australian theatre, Prior is keen to emphasise that her most recent roles have
all been complex, difficult women including, now, the wicked, sexy Jane Smart in the
musical version of John Updike's novel, The Witches of Eastwick. "There is a
school-marmish element to Jane, particularly at the beginning. She is mousy,
repressed and so-o-o ugly -- well, not so much ugly as plain. She is beige from
head to toe -- her clothes, her hair, her face, her shoes, her stockings -- beige, beige,
beige! The next time you see her, POW! She looks like Rita Hayworth, a spirited,
In real life, though, Prior will still be "Princess Marina", as she is
known by family and friends. Raised in suburban Mount Waverly, her parents
encouraged their only daughter's artistic pursuits and aspirations from a very early
age. The proud couple have attended each one of Marina's opening nights, orchestral
concerts and recitals all over Australia.
Prior is a committed Christian and her husband of 11 years, Peter
Lowrey, is training to become a pastor. They have two children, Olivia, six and
Campbell, 18 months. "Who would have thought I'd ever be married to a pastor?" says
Prior. "He'll be the pastor of a contemporary ecumenical church. It's more
simplistic, there's not so much ritual, which is something we both like. He is
really suited to it. He has the right disposition. He's fantastic, gregarious
and funny. He's extremely non-threatening. People just open up to him."
She found religion herself at 13. "I had a kind of epiphany of
sorts; I had an imparition of the Holy Spirit. When I got to university I drifted
off. Life got in the way. There was that whole parable, "The seed fell into
the rocky soil covered in weeds." I had lots of weeds: my career, my life, my
everything and it got choked off, but later on when I got to about 30-something I looked
at my morality and I questioned my whole being. God helped me find my true spirit
and heart again."
Having just sold their East Malvern home, the family is moving into a
sprawling outer-northern suburban house replete with bushland and a tennis
court. Secluded without being remote, it will provide an embracing retreat from the
city and showbiz. A great place for the kids to roam and play. Prior says
gleefully, "There's no street lights."
Fiercely protective of her family's privacy, she is slowly discovering
how to successfully balance her career and motherhood.
"It's tough, it's much harder with two children than it ever was with
one. Campbell, being a toddler, is very demanding. He has no idea what it is
that takes me away from him. Olivia, being olderl, is more understanding; she is
absolutely fantastic, my own little friend. She has very profound insights; she's a
very mature little girl."
During the long run of Witches Lowrey is combining the role of
house-husband and full-time student. He has also proved to be a decent salesman: a
successful performer in his own right, after he finished his role in the long-running
Mamma Mia, he successfully sold Tupperware for a few months. The couple now
possess a kitchen full of it. "A Tupperware lover's dream come true," Prior says.
Daughter Olivia currently attends a private Anglican girls' school but
the couple intend to send their daughter to a small Christian school next year. Prior
says they both want Olivia's school to be a place where she is taught with a more holistic
approach, a place where spirituality is addressed and any chances of her growing up a
prima donna will be greatly diminished.
"The spirit of God is not all about that 'Thou Shalt Not' kind of stuff,
not church and not people like Pell. The spirit that breathed creation into being
is a force and power that so many people go looking for in crystals, in meditation and
Red Indian chants; all that sort of thing -- I'm not dismissing any of that, whatever works
for people, but, I believe the 'thing' that runs through all of that is the direct source
which you are connecting to.
"The church we attend as a family is based completely on the teachings
of Jesus. I think that it's a fantastic way to live your life. It's a brilliant
way to live your life. I'm not into all the dogma and doctrine of formal churches;
it's just not for me. The religion we practise is much more simplistic and it's an
"It's comforting and provides such a strong foundation," she says.
It is only recently that directors have stopped casting Prior as the
young heroine. Known for her effortless light soprano and trademark long, curly
locks, the mantle of Australia's premiere ingénue has worn thin. She is
finally being offered meaty, grittier roles as a matter of course. No longer is she
expected to stand woodenly on stage, just looking and singing prettily.
Her king-hit against type casting came with director Roger Hodgman's
last Melbourne production of Guys and Dolls in 2000. He initially offered
her the role of Sarah, a sweet and innocent Salvation Army girl. After reading the
script, Prior asked Hodgman if she could audition for the "bad girl" role of Adelaide.
It was not the sort of role she was known for playing. She
recalls: "When Rodger gave me the role, there were so many people saying, 'What are you
doing? Why are you doing this? You must play the beautiful girl with the
She believes the role of Adelaide was probably her best work to date,
and certainly it was her best received critically. "After Guys and Dolls it
was great to be asked to do this role of Jane Smart, which is so very spiky and, once again,
not at all nice. For years people have seen me as the good girl and now I'm being
bombarded with things like, 'Finally, after all these years, this is your coming of
age.' If there's one more 'Marina coming of age' thing -- it's so
exasperating. I'm pushing 40; they are all roles, characters -- they are not me."
Witches is the most overtly sexy musical she has ever
encountered; with a bump 'n' grind to rival that of Chicago and
Cabaret. "It's pretty over the top," she says.
"Because my character goes on such an extreme journey, it's very
challenging. She is absolutely nothing like me. When I work on a character I
try and find a point that I can identify with, or else I try to find somebody they remind
me of. Sometimes they're an amalgam of people I know."
Not only is she not using "that hair" in Witches, neither is she
using "that voice". The soprano she is famous for is being traded in for a much
lower register. "In this production I don't use 'that voice' much at all, with the
exception of one song that ends with me singing a top C -- that's the real money note."
Merlyn Quaife, Head of Voice at Melbourne's Conservatorium and a
nationally regarded exponent of contemporary music and opera, has been teaching Prior for
"She knows how to bring out the best in me. I trust her
implicitly. Merlyn doesn't pull any punches. She tells me things, she's
tough. She's so smart. I'll work with her on everything, from a recital with
a huge orchestra to a role like this, which is a real character sound (not my natural
voice). She helps me ensure that I don't strain my voice in what is essentially, an
unusual role for me."
With websites devoted to her and a fan club that includes a Melbourne
drag qeen who regularly impersonates her, Marina Prior is a household name in this
country. Does she want to conquer London and Broadway?
"I know I never will. I just won't. I used to be intensely
goal-orientated but I'm not so much now. My goal now is to just improve every time I
do something. You know, just learn about it and get better at it. I don't
have a specific set of particular achievements I need to fulfill any more. I just
want to continue to do good work and get better at it; to understand it more. The
more I do it the more I realise there is so much more to learn.
"The way that we are set up in Australia, unless I become an
international movie star -- which, let's face it, is not really on the cards -- then there
is no way I would be cast in a Broadway show, and rightly so. There are plenty of
people on Broadway who can do what I do. Their Equity would never allow me in.
"I was going to go to London for a big show, but decided against
it. Things happened -- the concerts I did with Jose Carreras. I was poised to
to to the UK then, but the chance of singing with him was something I wanted to do much
more at the time. Since then, I've been offered great parts here as well as taking
time off to have Campbell."
People recognise Prior just about everywhere she goes, but rarely do
they intrude on her life. "It's not like being a teen idol, it's more like I get
nice little old ladies coming up and saying, 'I loved you in The Phantom'."
Like fellow actor Sigrid Thornton, Prior has been given a new
Saab. Nothing so vulgar as advertising or money is involved, it's just a matter of
her driving about, and presumably being noticed by the general public in her bright and
"My life is incredibly blessed. I don't take anything for
granted," she says.
When her contract is up with The Witches of Eastwick, Prior has
committed herself to a dramatic role with The Ensemble Theatre in Sydney.
"I'm doing my first straight play. It's called Harp on the
Willow by John Misto. It's a beautiful piece, incredibly well written. It's
a true story about Mary O'Hara, an Irish nun who now works as a missionary in
Africa. She's about 60 now. It's a fascinating story. It's almost a
one-woman show. There are a few other small parts in the play, but essentially, it's
a big gritty part. I feel ready for the challenge; I'll be going from a singing
witch to a talking nun. It's a nice contrast.
"The art form is no longer my reason for living. I'm not driven
by my career. Sure, it's important, but now I'm driven by the love I have for my
family and that's where my priorities are. The relationship I have with my husband
and having children is easily the most fulfilling and best thing I've ever done in my life."