Interview: Samantha Strauss, writer and creator of Dance Academy

Australian Short Films was lucky enough to score an interview with Samantha Strauss the writer and creator of ABC's hit new children's drama Dance Academy. Dance Academy is a 26 part, half hour series following the life of Tara Webster (played by Xenia Goodman) and friends as they make it or break it at the National Academy of Dance. Samantha lives in Melbourne, collects four leaf clovers and is currently writing a film and the second series of Dance Academy.

What gave you the idea for Dance Academy?

I danced from the age of two until I was eighteen, with the goal of becoming a professional ballet dancer. When I was training full-time, I got injured (breaking a vertebrae in my back) and had to find another career path. I went to Bond University and studied Film & Television. Dance Academy actually began as my graduating short film in the year 2000 with a budget of $1000 (very different to the $10.7M for the series!). It was called Learning to Fly which is the now name of the first episode!
It was a pretty wonky short film, mostly because of the script, so over the next few years I worked on my writing while being employed as a casting director. When I was casting kids series in 2003, I was inspired by what you could do in twenty six episodes of story. I decided to create my own children’s/young adult series and as ballet was the thing I knew best it made sense that I set my world there.

Where do you find inspiration?

From life, books, songs and other series.

I watch a lot of television and can’t bear it when writers are snobby about it. Some people want to write for television but don’t actually watch it! I actually think the Shakespeares of our time are working in this medium (Aaron Sorkin, David E Kelly, David Simon). They’re masters of storytelling.

Growing up, I was completely addicted to young adult books by Australian authors like Melina Marchetta and John Marsden, and Tessa Dudder in New Zealand. I would read these books over and over until they were literally falling apart. Those sorts of books made me want to write for children and teens... and now the challenge is to come close to being as truthful.

But mostly I’m inspired by life. I put a lot of the detail of myself and my friends into the show. Now the episodes are on television my friends and family keep calling me and saying “I can’t believe you used that story!” They’re right; I have pinched an awful lot. In fact I almost feel like I need to have another life now just so I have enough material to write Series 2.

What excites you about writing, especially for children and young teens?

It’s the time in your life when you’re experiencing things for the first time – first kiss, first love, first time you get drunk, first time get your heart broken – and you don’t have all skills to deal with it, no life experience to draw on, and because it’s the first time everything hurts that more. It’s when you’re trying to work out who you want to be and I think that makes for good drama.

I love working with young actors as well because they are so hopeful, fearless really. And sometimes you can watch them evolve literally before your eyes.

What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced with your work?

My scripts always come in way too long and it’s a process of paring back. Sometimes that works well because it means the episodes are jam packed. Other times I probably should have given scripts more room to breathe and it becomes are nightmare in the cutting room.

Does your lifestyle influence your work?

I try to be disciplined and treat writing like a job. It’s easier when I’m working out of a script office, meeting tight deadlines, because then I know I have to write RIGHT NOW. There can be no procrastinating. And it’s great to be able to bounce off the other people in the office.

When I’m writing from home it’s a bit more difficult to get motivated first thing in the morning and I end up feeling guilty for not being productive enough so I keep writing into the night and don’t set proper boundaries for myself. On the upside I can wear pyjamas all day.

If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?

Trying to work out how I can get paid to watch DVD Box Sets.

What’s next for you?

I’ve been writing a film for someone and we’ve gotten Screen Australia funding to do the next draft. I’m working on developing a romantic comedy and another couple of teen series. And I’ve just heard that Dance Academy has been picked up for another series so I’m soon going to be very busy doing that!

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