She’s best known for roles in Carla Cametti PD, A Fistful of Flies and Packed to the Rafters—now Dina Panozzo is getting in touch with her roots in the State Theatre Company’s production of Elena Carapetis’ The Gods of Strangers.
When Panozzo walks into the room, it’s like a mini tornado has been let loose. Laden down with bags, I’m dragged from pillar to post before we settle swiftly on a beautiful Chesterfield sofa.
I was unsure of what to expect walking into this interview, but by the end I am completely bewitched by her. This is surely Panozzo’s endless power as a performer; you just want to sit and listen to her talk for hours.
And there are plenty of stories to tell, such as her family’s emigration to Adelaide from their northern Italian home: ‘It was terrible. My mother was only 19. Two of us on a ship coming over to my father, who was just a labourer, on a ship called Neptuna. Queen Neptuna! I think it took 6 weeks, those trips. And the men were separated, the women were separated.
‘And my poor mum! Lactating.’
She lets out a hearty laugh, the first of many. I ask her how it feels recalling these memories and stories for The Gods of Strangers, a new trilingual play written by State Theatre Company’s Resident Artist Elena Carapetis, which draws on “the oral histories of Greek, Cypriot and Italian migrants to regional South Australia”.
‘For those of us recalling our past, and languages, I think you get filled up with your ancestors, with your parents, and so you have to open your heart to the work.
‘You’ve got to go to a place with the language that takes you back to when you were small, to when you heard your parents, to when you were surrounded by your own culture—and back then you were, you stuck to your own cultures.
‘Everyone would work, like my father would work eighteen hours a day building, until he taught himself to become a carpenter. And my mother was a housewife, that’s what they did.
‘[But] when they’d gather, all the Italians, all the Venetians here for instance in Adelaide had […] the Veneto Club, and there was the Abruzzi Club—you know, all the different Venetians had their own Italian clubs.
‘I would hear them all gather and talk, and it’s only now by doing this play, truly, am I recalling the joy that was involved in it.’
This love has not faded one iota, but the word melancholia is one that crops up again and again as we talk. It’s clear that it runs far deeper than a ‘yearning for what you lost’.
‘When I recall, I also have sadness. You know, the melancholia is “Oh my God, I didn’t understand how fabulous, beautiful and delicate was my own culture!”’
‘My mother expected me to be like the village, work work, just cook, just clean. My father was war-torn, ‘cause he was very young […] So it was all fairly pericoloso, little bit dangerous inside the family.
‘There was a lot of sorrow to carry, and a lot of fear—they were very young and they had nothing.
‘My mother sent me to school with prosciutto, rocket, taleggio cheese, and I’d go “Dear GOD” and I’d throw it away. And finally I shamed my mother enough to say “Could you please make me a lemon spread sandwich.” Imagine!’
In the 1970s, Panozzo fell in love with Adelaide’s thriving amateur theatre scene. ‘I’d run away from home, poor mum and dad, ‘cause I couldn’t bear it anymore, didn’t wanna work at the bank anymore, or clean the kitchen one more time.
‘I cut my teeth doing amateur theatre in Adelaide. And it was really rigorous and exciting. […And] the Adelaide Theatre Company was the place. We’d all go and play there, and you know what.
‘I found my tribe. I found it. I found the place I was supposed to be. They were a bunch of eccentric, driven, passionate, kind of wounded, kind of not, kind of searching, crazy people. Good crazy people. Funny. I love Adelaide for that.’
I ask Panozzo to talk a bit more to her character, Assunta, based on a real woman who ran a boarding house on Hindley Street.
‘I did ask clearly who she was to both [director] Geordie Brookman and to Elena, and they just said ‘Look, she was a force of nature.’ Which I would like to think I am!
‘My version of her is me, my aunty, my scary cousin, the one I heard about who killed her husband with an axe you know, cos he slept with the neighbour. Just bits and pieces.’
For a lot of white Australians, their only reference point for Australian Greeks and Italians is television shows like Acropolis Now, which Panozzo has appeared in. This brings out merited derision.
‘Can you see the eyes roll back into my head? I really… bless them, I hated it then, and I still don’t like it. Only because—look, it’s a beautiful piece of sketch comedy […] but it still always fires up the idea that we’re funny people who make funny sounds, and takes away any delicacy or any complexity about who we are, about my own uneducated parents! They had dreams.
‘My father went to one opera and spoke about it for the rest of his life, because it touched him.’
We talk about Panozzo’s roles in Carla Cametti PD and upcoming film Bloodshot Heart, where she plays roles that are ‘elegant and really well written, because, written by Italians or produced by Italians.’ The Gods of Strangers works in this same vein. I ask Panozzo if she thinks the play will cause some audiences to dig into their own family history, and overturn some embedded stereotypes.
‘I think anyone that sees this play is going to recall what their parents, their grandparents and before that—and now!—what it is to make up a community, what it took.
‘We can ask a certain generation of people who never come to the theatre—that’s my parents age, your parent’s age, your older aunts and uncles—we need to encourage them, and say “Come, come and hear! This is your story!”
‘It’s [not just] for people who can afford it, people who speak the language, and people who know how to behave in the theatre.
‘I imagine that a lot of the Italians who’ve never been may indeed call out to me!’
Immigration is a hot button topic in Australia, and it as Panozzo makes clear, always has been. That isn’t to say we’ve learnt from history though.
‘Sometimes I get shocked. […] I used to hear the ladies—sorry ladies—those gorgeous ladies, generous ladies […] talk about “Oh yeah, but the new immigrants, they’re different. They’re not like us.” And I go “But how? They’re just mums and dads—they’ve got kids! They wanna eat! They don’t wanna die, they don’t want a bomb on their head!”
‘I know why, ‘cause you’re full of fear. ‘Cause you made your way. ‘Cause you don’t want someone to take your place. You don’t wanna lose your stuff. What about the Indigenous, dear God! We took their whole fucking country! It’s human, but honestly.
‘That’s why, this won’t change the world, but this is a beautiful, beautiful little message out there that it works out, it’s beautiful. It’s worth it!’
We wrap up, and I’m gifted with a kiss on each cheek, but there’s just one more stand-out moment that goes a long way to illustrating this extraordinary woman. Sometime into the interview, a crew member walks into the room not knowing we were there. This was Panozzo’s (tongue-in-cheek) response:
‘Look at those people. Get out of here will you! We’re speaking about truth! And survival! What’re you speaking about? What you’re having for tea!’
Dina has been a familiar face to television audiences over the years, having had lead roles in series Richmond Hill (Network Ten), Wedlocked (Seven Network) as well as major roles in the series Carla Cametti (SBS), Bed of Roses (ABC), Packed to the Rafters and A Place to Call Home (Seven Network). Other television credits include Underbelly: The Golden Mile, Headland, Water Rats, White Collar Blue, Headstart, Wildside, GP, Acropolis Now, Mission Impossible and A Country Practice.
Film credits include Bedevil, Fistful of Flies, The Man who Sued God, Love’s Brother and Black & White & Sex. Theatre credits includes The Shifting Heart, From Door to Door, Il Magnifico (Seymour Centre), The Plot (Sidetrack), Anna in the Tropics (Belvoir B Sharp), Kimberly Akimbo (Ensemble Theatre), The Garden of Granddaughters (Playbox/Sydney Theatre Co), Varda Che Bruta…Poretta, a one woman show written and performed by Dina in collaboration with Open City (Festival for Carnivale Sydney, International Women’s Playwright Conference at The Space /STCSA), A Little Like Drowning, Love and Magic in Mamma’s Kitchen, S.O.S., A.B.C. Nicaragua (Belvoir), Sisters, The Imposter (Playbox), Dreams in an Empty City, Peter Pan, A Touch of Silk, On the Razzle, Richard III, Muses of Fire, Big and Little Scenes and Beatland (STCSA). Awards include The Glugs: Norman Kessell Memorial Award for Best Actress for an Outstanding Performance (Kimberley Akimbo), Best Actress Award (Fistful of Flies) at both the Spanish and Russian International Film Festivals 1997, and the Best Actress Award (A Touch of Silk) at the South Australian Critic Awards 1992.
State Theatre Company of SA’s production of The Gods of Strangers, starring Panozzo, Eugenia Fragos, Deborah Galanos, Elizabeth Hay, Renato Musolino, and Philippos Ziakas premieres at Port Pirie’s Northern Festival Centre on Nov 9th, before opening at the Dunstan Playhouse on Nov 15th. To find out more and book tickets, visit