Gretel Scarlett: The universe helps, but you've got to work for it
FOR most people a gap year might mean backpacking across Europe or binge watching Netflix, but Gretel Scarlett took an entirely different path: studying nuclear medicine.
There was a time in her life when the Rockhampton-born performer was sure she wouldn't be back on stage and certainly didn't imagine she'd one day take on Olivia Newton-John's iconic role in Grease the Musical, wowing audiences in a nation-wide tour.
Last week, The Morning Bulletin sat down with Gretel during a rare week-long visit to her hometown where she caught up with former teachers and relived her Rockhampton memories with visits to her former school, childhood home and dance studio.
Gretel farewelled Rockhampton at 15, taking up a place at a full time Sydney ballet school.
While she excelled at ballet, training at this level meant giving up other dance styles.
"It wasn't for me,” she said.
"I didn't enjoy doing it as much as I thought I would because I had to give up tap and jazz and contemporary and singing.
"I put that all aside that year.
"I kept doing my schooling through distance education.
"It was so difficult. I was worn out. I was so tired.”
On top of this exhaustion, Gretel found out she had six stress fractures in her tibia.
Although this put an end to her ballet for a short time, it also gave Gretel time to reflect on her future.
During her down time at the ballet studio, Gretel used to jam on a guitar she'd brought with her to class.
Sitting on the floor making up songs, she was quite a contrast to the rigid and disciplined students around her and it didn't go unnoticed.
Gretel recalled a day when the studio pianist walked over and sat next to her.
"He would never sit on the floor,” she said.
"He came and sat down and went 'this isn't for you, is it?'.”
It was a moment which stuck with Gretel as she realised she wouldn't be fulfilled as a professional ballerina.
"It wasn't really a heartbreak moment for me to realise it wasn't really for me,” she said.
Dance dreams on hold, Gretel went back to school and, with the gentle encouragement of a dance teacher, started performing in her spare time again.
"I owe her a lot for pushing me back in the direction,” Gretel said.
"But I wasn't ready.
"Being from Queensland, we are young when we graduate.
"My final HSC exams, I was 16 still and everyone else was 18.
"So I was surrounded by all these older people.
"I was not immature by any means, but I knew I wasn't ready to chuck myself back into performing arts.”
Science and maths had always been an interest for Gretel, who had started to consider a future with nuclear medicine after seeing the technology used to diagnose her own dance injuries.
The branch of medical imaging can be used diagnostically on sport injuries, as well as therapeutically on many types of cancers, and neurological, gastrointestinal and endocrine disorders
After graduation, Gretel was accepted for degrees in medical science at the University of Technology Sydney, nanotechnology at University of New South Wales and nuclear medicine at Sydney University.
She opted for her first preference at Sydney University, a course which at that stage only took in 30 people a year.
Science was now Gretel's main focus as she took time off from any performing arts.
"It was the best year of my life,” she said.
”I wanted a backup plan because I didn't want to get hurt again.
"Not hurt in the sense of injury-wise, but hurt in a sense of a career being finished because that's what I felt when ballet finished.”
Roughly half way through the year, Gretel found herself yearning to once again be centre stage and auditioned for the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).
"I felt ready and mature enough to go and lock myself up in Perth,” she said.
"I just wanted a Plan B.
"I was scared of that concept of not being able to do what I love in life again.”
Gretel made her professional debut as Sal in the 2009 production of Breast Wishes, followed by ensemble and understudy roles in both Mamma Mia and Wicked before her breakout lead as Sandy in Grease the Musical in 2013.
But this success didn't come without thousands of hours of hard work behind the scenes.
"It was tiring,” she said.
"In understudying there's a point where people get really bored.
"I learnt as an understudy, it's never about you.
"I learnt to be quiet when it came the point to come on stage, to hold the curtain up, that's what I was doing as an understudy.
"I was doing the best show possible to keep everyone else around me happy.
"That can be really hard for some people mentally.”
Before landing the role of Sandy, Gretel had decided she wouldn't take any more understudy roles, but said the process had strengthened her skills immensely.
But the role left her at another career crossroads.
Again she took herself out of the spotlight and turned down roles.
Instead she started to pursue film and television, something she's keen to continue after finishing the national tour of Singin' in the Rain.
In Kathy Seldon, it offered the only role which could convince her to enter the industry again and the one which has remained closest to her heart.
Reflecting on the role, Gretel said it came down to everything aligning at the right moment.
"I feel the universe really pushes you in the right direction at the right time,” she said.
"I think it works both ways.
"You've got to put out there what you want and work hard at what you want.
"It's not just going to fall into your lap. The right thing at the right time will turn up and you've really got to have that pull to want to do it.”
Although Grease left her feeling unsatisfied with the industry, Gretel said it did teach her some of the best lessons about competition and comparison.
"Comparison is the thief of joy,” she said.
"We start to compare ourselves to the person next to us and we want what they have.
"The thing is we forget to look at our strengths and weaknesses and look at what we have.
"There's nothing worse than hating on someone because they've got something you don't have.
"You've got to understand they have that for a reason.
"It's nice to have healthy competition and constantly be aiming for a goal, but you can't compare someone else's successes to yours because everyone's journey is different.”
For Gretel, performing isn't about winning awards or being praised; it's about finding joy and sharing it with an audience, be it five people or 5000.
"The measure of success is the joy you give in changing people's lives and inspiring others,” she said.
Simply being able to see herself in the children beaming at the front row of a performance, or eagerly waiting outside stage door, is how Gretel knows she's leaving her mark.