Mooroopna film and theatre technician’s big-time work takes a back seat to the small stuff thanks to COVID-19

By Spencer Fowler Steen

MOOROOPNA product Meg Ashforth specialises in the unconventional. She's made all sorts of costumes including Hagrid for the recent Harry Potter stage production, a monster for a Guy Sebastian music video, and even costumes for the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise.

At school, her choice to follow her heart and pursue a career in the arts was considered unusual. So unusual, she had to attend two secondary schools at the same time to make it happen, almost forcing her to pursue a career in science instead.

This year was set to be a massive one for Ms Ashforth; Fox studios in Sydney, where she worked, was booked out a year in advance, and Sydney was scheduled to have a year of films being made back to back.

But then the coronavirus pandemic struck, wiping out virtually all of her opportunities for work.

To make ends meet, Ms Ashforth has ingeniously channeled her costume and prop making skills into making hand-crafted leather bags.

And only just recently, a small trickle of work has started seeping back into her life — something that makes her feel tentatively hopeful for the future.

Ms Ashforth went to primary and secondary school in Mooroopna, where she was born and raised.

“In Year 11, I was doing maths and sciences and I was quite good at it — I wanted to become a viticulturist,” she said.

“I just realised halfway through that it wasn’t where my heart was, so I switched to arts.

“It was an unusual thing to do in the country, and my maths and science teachers were pretty disappointed.

“There wasn’t as much access to arts and culture in Shepparton and Mooroopna as somewhere like Melbourne.”

However, Ms Ashforth said she was fully supported by the staff at Mooroopna Secondary College, who facilitated her passion for visual arts, music and drama.

“The theatre staff at Mooroopna were really supportive, they went out of their way to help me continue doing those things in Year 12,” she said.

“It was a really sporty school, so that type of support was unusual.

“The teachers at the school could see that I wanted to continue doing arts in Year 12, so they really helped me to pursue it by allowing me to go to two schools at once.

“I did one subject at Shepparton South Technical School, and the rest at Mooroopna.”

Ms Ashforth graduated and went on to study a performing arts and secondary education double degree at Deakin University, majoring in dance and drama.

At just 21 years old Ms Ashforth started teaching drama and dance at Essendon Keilor College, sowing the seeds for her current career making spectacular costumes and props.

But, not quite satisfied, she decided to hone her artistic skill-set through a three-year production, crafts and properties course at the prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art in Melbourne.

“The course I went to at NIDA was integral to the building blocks of my career,” she said.

“In three years, we learnt everything from welding to life painting — it was really fantastic.”

Since then, Ms Ashforth has enjoyed every minute of a 15-year career making costumes, sets and props for all sorts of productions — a difficult and demanding job where deadlines constantly loom and 70-hour working weeks are common.

She's made costumes for Aquaman, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Mad Max III – Fury Road, Where the Wild Things Are, and recently, White Night in Melbourne where she constructed a six-metre-high puppet, to name just a few.

She's even created a monster for a Guy Sebastian music video — Let Me Drink.

“We had a really short time to make it, so I pulled a team together and somehow we pulled it off in two weeks,” she said.

“You might have six months if it was a major motion picture, so the time limit was challenging.”

On one occasion, Ms Ashforth was commissioned to make a full set of Roman armour by a client who wanted to stand out in his live-action role-playing club.

“A lot of the time we use fake materials to make costumes look real, but for that project, we used real metal, horse hair, feathers and leather,” she said.

Luckily for Ms Ashforth, making costumes and props is a complicated business that can involve a lot of science — something she is naturally inclined towards.

“You’re often using concepts from physics, engineering and chemistry for prop and costume making,” she said.

“We often do casting in resin or fiberglass and we’re often mixing and creating with chemicals.”

But no amount of science or artistic flair could have prepared for her for the stroke of terrible misfortune that was the coronavirus pandemic.

Like so many other workers employed in the arts with sporadic jobs from different employers, Ms Ashforth found herself unemployed without any support from the government when the pandemic hit.

Prior to lock-down, cultural and creative activity contributed an estimated $111.7 billion in Australia's economy, according to the government's own figures. That's not to mention the immense, intangible benefit such activity brings to Australian society.

But in December last year, the Federal Government decided to axe its arts department, and said the industry sector should feel at home under the new banner of Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

Luckily, as a sole trader, Ms Ashforth was eligible for JobKeeper. However, many of her artistic colleagues who worked from contract to contract were not so lucky, and were excluded because of the rapidly changing nature of their employers.

Many artists such as Ms Ashforth — who has never had a full-time job in her 15-year career despite working full-time — are employed on contracts for periods of under 12 months.

If these workers were not sole traders or on contracts when JobKeeper began, or if companies were not able to receive JobKeeper payments and so let staff go — they were ineligible.

“It’s rare in our country to get a full-time contract with a theater company; often you work on lots of different projects and you take what you can get,” Ms Ashforth said.

“It’s been a struggle — I haven't had work for two months, and I'm trying to keep my studio running, to keep paying the rent.

“I've only just received my first JobKeeper payment.

“We have amazing people who have been doing this whole life, paying their tax dollars, working just as hard, if not harder, than other people.

“It’s a really hard profession to work in; sometimes you’re working 70-plus hours a week on a film production.

“It’s sad to see some of those people aren’t being supported at the moment.”

Ms Ashforth said she had noticed many of her jobless colleagues in the arts had started generating new sources of income during the pandemic, just to survive.

“With all the time I’ve had and an empty studio, I’ve started making leather bags,” she said.

“I’ve heard of so many people in our community doing things like that.

“A lot of colleagues have had to redirect their skills into ways of surviving.”

Having recently just launched a website for her bag business, Ms Ashforth said some work had finally come in for the first time in more than two months.

“It still doesn't seem like we will back and running in the entertainment industry for a long time, but getting a little two-week job does make you feel a bit more hopeful,” she said.

Although she now lives in her Sydney studio, Ms Ashforth has never forgotten her creative beginnings in the Mooroopna and Shepparton area, where she still goes back to visit her parents each year.

“I think in some ways to grow up in the country, you have to work a little harder, or want it a little more,” she said.

“It’s the only place I grew up in, and I've definitely got my roots there.”

● Visit to see more of Ms Ashforth's creations and bag range.