April 5, 2020
People & Places

Angela De Palma says it’s all “water off a duck’s back”

Angela De Palma is well-known in South Australia’s theatre and culinary worlds, starting out as a chef before working in the arts. The grandmother loves Pokemon Go and her motorbike, and plans to end up with a full bodysuit of tattoos one day.

Zoe and Angela with baby Adalita. Photo: Tony Lewis/Solstice Media

Your upbringing sounds quite “free-range”

Yes, I grew up in Prospect with Mum and Dad and my three brothers and little sister. My Italian grandparents lived next door. We were lucky enough to have two quarter-acre blocks to explore. There were three gates connecting the two properties, so we could easily go between them. My nonno and my dad tended the gardens while my mum and nonna looked after the family and kids, as well as all four also working in paid employment. We grew up with homegrown fruit and vegetables. I thought this meant we were poor. It didn’t occur to me how rich we were as far as food was concerned until the “organic” rage came about years later.

I have wonderful memories of spending hours playing in the fruit trees in both yards. To this day I haven’t seen a nectarine or fig tree as well kept and as large as these two trees. I must have eaten my weight in figs and nectarines.

There were always animals around as well including dogs, cats, chooks, a galah and even a goat.

What were you into as a teenager?

When I was about 15 I joined a theatre group called L’Estrange St Theatre. We were in the 1986 Adelaide Fringe doing a neon/black light theatre show for children called The Underwater Adventures of Amanda Cavallero. It was in an old hall in North Adelaide and I would skip school to go and make puppets for the show. It was such a wonderful time of my life. I loved every minute of it. The small amount of money I earnt went towards buying my first motorbike.

On the flip side of that was the extraordinarily awful, horrid review we got from Peter Goers, which I still have somewhere! It was very hurtful at the time but it doesn’t take away from all I learnt and loved about that experience and the fact that we were getting rave verbal reviews after the show from the audience.

Tell me about becoming a young mum

I left home when I was barely 17 years old and moved into an old building in Prospect with four flats. I lived in one with some high school mates. We were young punks with mohawks, Docs, leather biker jackets and nose rings and we soon got to know the upstairs neighbours, who were graphic art and writing students.

We also got to know other people around the neighbourhood and slowly took over the whole building. We were the Prospect crew – artists, punks, musicians, writers and actors. They were some of the best days of my life – young, carefree and wild.

This is where I met James and we had a baby, Zoe, when I was 19 years old.

Being a young mum was hard but also I think great as far as health and energy went. I have always looked younger than I am and at 19 I looked like a 12-year-old with a child so I was judged A LOT!

James and I separated when Zoe was five and from that time I continued to work with the help of family on both sides to raise Zoe. I’m happy I had Zoe so young as I have lived a full life with much more living left to do.

Motorbikes are one of Angela’s great loves.

How did you end up becoming a chef?

I wanted to be an artist when I left school. Theatre was and is my first love and I applied to study performing arts as a 16-year-old. I was told to go and get more experience and come back and they would gladly have me in a year or two – basically I applied too young.

But life happened and I ended up becoming a chef.

I started my kitchen career at The Exeter Hotel in Rundle Street in 1991 as a kitchen hand and sometimes barperson. I discovered very quickly I didn’t much care for drunk people so I stuck to the kitchen. The Exeter was a magical place of uni students and artists both in front of the bar and behind it, including the kitchen. We worked hard and played harder. The publican Nick Binns expected a lot from you, but he was always a fair and good boss – calling you Buddy if he liked you. We learnt a lot from him about how a good, fun, successful pub could be run with music and arts as the focus.

It was during this time that I formed great friendships with Liz O’Dea, Jade Flavell and the late Emily Trott (who went on to own the Wheatsheaf Hotel). This is where their business partnership began.

I loved working in kitchens and ended up working in many including Cafe Salsa, Magill Estate and The Royal Oak Hotel. I was also head chef at my last gig at Jimmies in Crafers.

What did you like about cheffing?

There is a camaraderie you find in high-stress work like this that transfers over to theatre and festivals – the long hours, days and weeks are also much the same. A lot of people joke when I go somewhere how I know “everyone”. That’s what hospitality is like and it’s the same in the theatre. I have been fortunate enough to have met many good people and had many opportunities thrown my way in both these fields.

How did you end up back in the arts?

The most pivotal point in my life was when I decided to quit being a chef and go to Adelaide College of the Arts and earn a diploma in prop making, scenic art and set building.

It’s odd that after years as a chef, I finally returned to my first love of the arts.

One of my quirkiest jobs was working for State Opera of SA as Head of Props. Some of the things I have had to do have been hilarious. A standout for me was managing the giant Jesus on a cross that had to bleed and fall on cue and not kill actor Teddy Tahu Rhodes. I am fortunate enough to have many quirky fun jobs in my field.

Working on the Adelaide Festival as a design assistant secondment under Wendy Todd and Geoff Cobham on the Barrio bar was the quirkiest and most extreme fun I’ve had in a job.

Each night of the festival was a different theme, one night would be a Bunga Bunga party, another night would be about phobias, another night a slumber party. To get in you needed to line up and make an offering of a tin of food which was then donated to those in need. I also did Lola’s Pergola.

Angela with the prop she had to manage – without killing the leading man.

Where are you working now?

Today, I am the Store Coordinator for the Adelaide Festival and it’s a big job. I ensure all the things are there that are needed to go to all the places at the right time on the right day, and coordinate from site to site if need be as well. It means liaising with many other coordinators and departments. In this role, I also maintain the workshop during the builds. It’s a great job as I get to work alongside designers and artists and crew, many of whom are my mates and peers and who I love and admire.

I’m creating all the time, but it’s still a dream to go to art school and then refine techniques and explore some other mediums.

Tell me about meeting Penny Wong?

She is my favourite politician who incidentally once turned to me at an opera opening after my loud calls and cheers to fellow cast and crew during speeches and she said: “ I need you to shout at my rallies for me.” To which I replied: “Already have Penny.”

Tell us about your battle with anxiety and depression?

Ever since I was a young child I have had anxiety. Of course, I didn’t realise this or recognise it until my late 20s when I was also first diagnosed with depression. I have managed this since then, sometimes better than other times, with key factors like professional help, medication when needed, calling on friends and family and partner support. It is important to reach out and not suffer alone – you never need to carry the burden yourself. I have great mates and we all check in on each other, I guess we have been doing  “R U OK?” for a long time.

What tattoos do you have?

I am covered in tattoos – both my arms and across my shoulders, my chest and back, both my shins and calf and down my left thigh and over my knee. The goal is a full suit. I got my first when I was 20, so it has been a long-term project.

One of my favourite tattoos covers most of my back and it’s the front cover to one of my favourite books by John Wyndam called The Chrysalids. It’s a book based on what is considered “the norm” and what isn’t which has been a recurring theme in my life.

The tattoo is a two-headed rooster rising up and fighting a “normal” one-headed rooster. It’s all about discrimination. I have always been on the side of the underdog and always left of centre without trying too hard.

Another favourite tattoo is on my left ankle and is an ode to my dearly departed mate Trotty (Emily Trott) who passed away in 2016 after a battle with cancer.

She was forever trying to teach me the notion of “water off a duck’s back”, so my tattoo is ducks bobbing underwater with tails up in the air and one of them has three water drops running off its back. Both of these are by a wonderful tattooist – Emma Meere. She has done a number of mine now and I consider her a friend. Amazing work.

Who are the loves of your life these days?

I live with my lovely partner Bron Larkins who I met online. We got chatting about writing, which led to many phone calls, and we finally met up and decided everything was great. We moved in together and we have been together for three years.

We are very supportive of each other and love spending time together, but we also are very independent and happy to do our own thing. I didn’t ever really believe I would find a relationship like this – it’s such a good feeling knowing someone has your back 100 per cent.

My daughter Zoe recently had her first child with her partner Laura.

My grandbaby’s name is Adalita and she is an absolute joy. I’m already buying way too many clothes for this gorgeous child. I was recently working in Singapore for seven weeks so I missed a little bit of Adalita’s growing up and so, in some ways, I’m still learning what makes her laugh, but when she does it is the best sound in the world. We have discovered she loves The Smiths, and Wu-Tang will always make her stop crying.

I love holding Adalita and making her smile – she already loves exploring her voice and having a good chat and I can imagine she will be quite the storyteller and perhaps a singer. I am so glad I am still fit and strong enough to run around with Adalita once she gets moving.

Angela with partner Bron

What are you passionate about?

I’m passionate about theatre, art, life, music, food and motorbikes. Life is joyous. I love my new grandbaby, spending time with her and Zoe and Laura. Spending time with Bron and my dog Duke and cat Shadow. My mates bring me enormous joy and laughter. Being at home in my garden watching the birds in the birdbaths and riding my motorbike brings me great joy.

When I’m on my bike I have no distractions: no phone, no music, just me and the bike and the road. I look over the handlebars and I feel like I’m flying – it is a real sense of freedom and fun and danger all rolled into one.

When I start up my bike I feel like Brando and I’ve named my bike Brando for that very reason. It’s a 2017 Honda Rebel 500. It’s matte black and beautiful and I love the way it makes me feel. I also have a gorgeous old Suzuki TS 185 1973 yellow girl I call Sunshine.

I also love playing Pokemon Go and have a whole community of friends whose only commonality is the game. Most of these people I would never know otherwise and I like that this is very separate to everything else I do. It’s an escape and a stress relief.

I would say today I’m happy and confident – still young at heart and a ragamuffin.

When I hit 40 my motto was “Fuck Off I’m 40”. I’m now 50 and my motto is “water off a duck’s back”.  I have finally learnt to live true to that idea.

My South Australian Life is a first-person series, published each Sunday. Read our previous profiles here.
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