Dance is more than academic for Jan Di Pietro

Actor on stage and screen, playwright, choreographer teacher and father to a young son, Jan Di Pietro has a full dance card. Currently assistant tertiary coordinator at Patrick School of the Arts (PSA), Jan is also an active performing artist. We spent 10 minutes with Jan to share a rare moment of stillness.

Ausdance Vic: Good morning, Jan, it’s great to catch up. Let’s start with a bit of history. Your background spans performing arts, film, stage, and musical theatre,  but where does dancing sit within that?

Jan Di Pietro: Dancing was my entry into the arts. The story goes that I came home from pre-school one day and said to my mum “I want to go to tap class”… From that point on I added skills as I grew up. Tap expanded to Jazz and Ballet. I did full-time dance during my high school years and slowly shifted my focus to acting and singing. I attended full-time Acting school in New York City and then have worked (mostly) in theatre since graduating. So, dance and movement have always been at the bedrock of what I do and it continues to influence my instruction to our students no matter what the class is.

My view is that all dancers are actors and vice versa. Everyone is telling a story. It is incredibly important and informative to learn how to use and nurture your body in order to assist with telling those stories.

Ausdance Vic: How did you end up in your current role at Patrick School of the Arts?

Jan Di Pietro: I was already in the ‘circles’ of PSA before joining the core staff. I had been in to teach units and classes across the years as a guest. A couple of my close friends and colleagues were already a part of the business so it made the transition fairly smooth. In short, it was a fairly natural growth into the role.

Ausdance Vic: Tell us a bit about a project you did for your Honours year, The Laika Project. I’m very interested in the ethics of artificial intelligence myself, so this type of work is right in my lane. 

Jan Di Pietro: The Laika Project was deliberately experimental. It was a way of highlighting some of the core questions around new technologies. It was a way of connecting those questions to creative writing practice and imagining a world where writers use AI tools in their practice. Turns out I was rather prophetic in that work… everyone else was fairly surprised when Chat GPT emerged. I was not one of those people. Creatively (and philosophically) The Laika Project was an attempt to ‘get in front’ of the curly ethical problems that are now arising with the diffusion of large language model AIs.

Ausdance Vic: You’re a coordinator for some of the tertiary courses at the Patrick School, what’s a typical day like for you? 

Jan Di Pietro: It varies a lot with the nature of the training we do. We are constantly trying to bring in working industry professionals to teach our students which means reevaluating and revising our operations to best align with that goal. I teach classes myself, and that involves preparation and delivery of the classes and units of study. Then there’s the ongoing production of our slate of shows each year. For example, right now I spend a large portion of my week liaising with contractors and students working on Little Shop Of Horrors, coordinating everything from set design, to costumes, to finding an old Dentist’s chair! It’s a very energetic and creative place with a lot of moving parts. The main part of what we do, really, is getting the right students into learning spaces with the best possible instructors. That’s the heart of everything.

Ausdance Vic: It sounds like an awful lot of administration, how does a creative mind like yours cope with the regularity of office hours? 

Jan Di Pietro: Given I have a young son named Colm waiting to be read a book (several books) and given a bath at around 6PM, the business hours of the dance world work rather well for me at the moment. Last year when I was working on a theatre show (A Christmas Carol) things were way more difficult. My real job is at home these days, so I don’t mind the hours so much. I’m up anyway… In terms of administration, I think my academic training and writing skills make a lot of coordination and administrative tasks seem pretty straightforward. It’s all planning. And a lot of the admin is creative in nature anyway, especially in the production of shows etc. so it’s a great learning experience for me.

Ausdance Vic: Do you still get time for your own creative practice? What are you working on now? 

Jan Di Pietro: I am a keen learner outside of my work at PSA. But some of the things I do here in my role like directing, staging, choreographing are part of my broader practice. Everything I do in that space helps me personally grow my creativity and understanding of the performing arts. 

Ausdance Vic: Patrick School Of The Arts is well-known in the entertainment world, what is the driving idea behind the classes and courses you run? I know dance is important, but you also produce some amazing “triple threat” talent. What’s the inspiration for that? 

Jan Di Pietro: The driving idea behind everything we do is to provide an environment where students can learn and excel in the skills required to gain employment in the industry. We shift our courses and classes according to what industry is asking for; what is going to get a graduating student employment now? The inspiration for building out dancer’s skills into singing and acting is again from the requirements of industry. To have the best chance at employment we find that dancers need to upskill into new areas to open up more opportunities. Vice versa for singer/actors who come to us with little or no dance skill.

Ausdance Vic: It’s audition season now for you (July 2023), and entry is highly competitive for 2024. What are you looking for in the new talent that crosses your audition stage? 

Jan Di Pietro: Potential is the number one thing we look for; then trainability. Can the person in front of us withstand the demands of our training and come out the other side ready for employment? We look for professionalism, maturity (emotionally, physically, etc.). Of course, we have to consider the applicants’ skills in the audition process, and we do look carefully at their previous training (who taught them to dance etc.), but ultimately we will ‘back ourselves’ and our faculty/teachers to maximise a person’s potential. Everyone has weaknesses and strengths; they are coming to train with us because they want to improve.

Ausdance Vic: Patrick’s is also offering a scholarship in 2024 for an “artist of colour”. Tell us how that has come about and a bit about the application process

Jan Di Pietro: AOC applicants should simply apply to audition for our tertiary courses and then indicate an EOI to be considered for the AOC scholarship.

The AOC scholarship came about through consultation with and eventually partnership with the AOC initiative. Tarik Frimpong is a PSA alumni who is one of the founders of the initiative 

In 2020 Tarik founded the Artist Of Colour Initiative as a musical theatre scholarship program, that provides financial assistance and industry support to exceptionally talented theatre performers based in Australia, that identify as Bla(c)k, Indigenous and/or as People Of Colour.

Ausdance Vic: Finally, Jan, you’re currently in rehearsal for Little Shop Of Horrors which hits the stage in September. Whom should we be looking out for among the cast? 

Jan Di Pietro: We have a cast of musical theatre 3rd-year students and I’m directing the show. In this particular production, Adam Selleck and Isabella Dymalovski have been cast as the central love interest duet of “Seymour” and “Audrey”. Both are fantastic students who are really shining early on in rehearsal.

The show will perform at The Loft Theatre, Chapel off Chapel from 6-8 September.

Ausdance Vic: Thanks for your time, Jan, and one last thing. “Chookas” or “Break a leg”? What’s the right way to wish luck to performers in musical theatre where it’s all singing, all dancing, all acting, all of the time? 

Jan Di Pietro: I use both of those terms! I like the way “Chookas” sounds when you say it, but “Break a leg” does a fine job too. The only thing one must remember is to not say “good luck” because that is in fact bad luck.

Tickets for Little Shop of Horrors are on sale from 10 July, available from Chapel off Chapel.