In our interview with Josh Merten, a dynamic artist and third year ACA student with a background shaped by international living, we explored his journey into the world of acting at ACA. Recommended by his drama teacher, ACA became the platform for his creative pursuits. Josh also unveiled his upcoming poetry book, “Harnett Lane,” where he dives into themes of identity and intimacy upon returning to Australia. The book’s title holds sentimental value, connecting to his family’s past. He highlighted how ACA’s courses, especially the Writers’ Group, fostered his writing skills alongside acting. Josh’s advice emphasises self-acceptance and collaboration for aspiring writers and ACA auditionees. As he releases his debut book, he remains open to the unpredictable path ahead, where acting and writing continue to intertwine. Josh Merten’s artistic journey promises an exciting and evolving fusion of the two worlds.
ACA: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? What led you to pursue the acting course at ACA?
Josh: I’m from Sydney and I’m twenty years old. I really attribute a lot of the reason I wanted to pursue something creative to living overseas as a kid. My family moved to Hong Kong when I was four and we lived in Jakarta and Singapore after that, moving back to Australia when I was in year 8. As hard as it was to uproot and start over in a new place every few years, it taught me a lot about people and I got to see and live different lives than what I would if I’d stayed here my whole life. I started acting at school and I decided early on that it’s something I really wanted to work to make a part of my life for as long as possible. After doing the HSC, I did the whole circuit of auditions and was recommended ACA by my drama teacher. Luckily, I got in then!
ACA: Congratulations on your upcoming poetry book, Harnett Lane! Can you give us a brief overview of the book and what readers can expect from it?
Josh: I’ve been back in Sydney now for eight years, and at the time I was writing most of these poems it was my first year of living on my own. The book is about re-learning how to be ‘Australian’ and the kind of intimacy I’ve found with this city. I think that anyone who’s gone through the expat experience in one way, or another knows what it’s like to have a distant relationship with national identity, and I think that is the heart of the book.
ACA: How did the title “Harnett Lane” come about? Is there a special significance behind it?
Josh: The title is the street name of my mum’s parents’ old house. When I was growing up overseas it was the place we came back to visit the most and because of that it must have become this kind of reminder that there is still a home for me in Australia. They sold that house this year and it affected me unexpectedly. It’s the only house I’ve known them to live in. I’ll never forget it. The book is dedicated to their wonderful garden, and my sister, Elise, has done the most fabulous design of it on the cover.
ACA: Could you share one or two of your favourite poems from the collection and explain what inspired them?
Josh: One poem I like personally in the book is “Smoky Bedroom”. I kind of like the fact that it’s just one thought sitting on its own, which is different to the style I write in habitually — that wandering sort of gathering of imagery.
A few of them are written about places that are important to me — one of those is “Cedarwood”, which is inspired by my sister’s kitchen.
ACA: What themes or emotions does your poetry often explore? Are there recurring motifs in your work?
Josh: Like I said, the poems are so rooted in place and setting and even the titles of them become this series of place names. There are things that I keep coming back to in the book. There are jacaranda trees on my parents’ street so maybe they keep coming back to me when I’m thinking of home. Also, cigarettes. Obviously, it’s a really cinematic trope, and I kind of like making use of that, but they always remind me of Hong Kong and Jakarta. They become part of the streetscape there and I like that they link people to the atmosphere in this decadent, untidy way.
ACA: You mentioned that ACA played a significant role in inspiring you to write. Could you elaborate on how your acting course influenced your creativity as a writer?
Josh: Voice, Performance Practice, and the Devised Project were the classes that for me were most influential. I was really surprised by how much ACA fosters actors that can make their own work. I hadn’t even considered writing poetry before joining the course — it is something that’s come out of the exposure we get to it and the encouragement given, especially in first year, to devise work.
ACA: Are you part of the Writers’ Group at ACA and if so how did that contribute to this project?
Josh: I’ve been a part of the Writers’ Group since it started during lockdown in 2021. Since its beginning, it’s become a regular, welcoming space for anyone from foundation to third year to share and listen to writing by students, and we are about to put on our second completely student-run show in October. Many of the poems in Harnett Lane are things I shared early versions of at Writers’ Group. I can’t thank the people in that group, and especially Reuben Solomon who kindled that fire, enough for being so supportive and making it such an addictively fun place to be.
ACA: How do you see the connection between acting and poetry? Are there any parallels or crossovers you’ve noticed in your creative processes?
Josh: Something I’m really enjoying thinking of at the moment is ‘taste over talent’. Along with building technique, whether that be in writing or directing or acting, I think that part of being a creative person is about finding what I like to make. What do I see in other performers or writers that I want to take into my own work? That’s something that keeps the work exciting because it is always shifting.
ACA: Could you walk us through your typical creative process when writing a poem?
Josh: I usually go through a lot of edits of a poem. Editing might be my favourite part of writing, to be honest. Every poem wants to go through a slightly different process, but I don’t usually spend more than an hour on a first draft, and then it’ll go through lots of drafts and sometimes rewrites that really change it.
ACA: Do you have any specific rituals or habits that help you get into the writing zone?
Josh: I really don’t enjoy sitting down with the intent to write something. I always write on google docs on my phone before transferring it onto Word, and so I’ll write on the train or bus, sometimes walking. I like to write about things that I see, and so if it’s in front of me and I have time, I’ll pull out my phone and start writing.
ACA: Are there any authors, poets, or artists who have greatly influenced your writing style or themes?
Josh: I loved poetry for the first time when doing T.S Eliot at school, and I still think a lot of my voice I owe to him. More recently, I’ve been reading Lorca, Robert Gray, Ocean Vuong and the Man’Yōshū.
ACA: You mentioned that ACA has a culture that appreciates literate artists. How has the student community at ACA contributed to your growth as a writer?
Josh: I love my cohort so much, and a lot of us have other creative interests beyond performing — teching, producing, directing, photography, etc. It’s exciting to see everyone make their own work and we love supporting each other. The tutors at ACA have also been fantastic at encouraging us to make our own work and set up opportunities like this and the Wheelhouse program. It shows how much they care about us beyond this course, not just while we’re students here.
ACA: Are there any memorable experiences or interactions with fellow students or faculty members that have had an impact on your artistic journey?
Josh: Working on the first Writers’ Group show last year celebrated all of the writers at ACA, and it gave me a lot of confidence to keep writing. I loved working on it with Reuben from my year — we’re like an old married couple when we chat about writing and theatre, and I can’t wait to do another one with everyone.
I also have so much gratitude for Jenny West, our voice tutor, and Anthony Skuse for their love of writing, and their guidance on my writing, and on poetry in general.
ACA: What advice would you give to other students who might be hesitant about exploring writing alongside their primary artistic pursuits?
Josh: I still am a young writer so maybe it’s best to pass on advice from other people I’ve found useful. This is a quote from Martha Graham on self-criticism of creative work, “It is not your business to determine how good [your work] is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions”.
ACA: How do you balance your acting studies with your writing endeavours? Do you have any time management tips to share?
Josh: I never force myself to write! Writing is something I do because I love it, and it makes me happy, so I don’t feel like I need to manage my time around it because it’s not work. That said, I tend to write more in the less busy parts of term, and I miss it when I haven’t written anything for a few weeks. But that’s ok, I don’t need to write all the time!
ACA: With your first book about to be published, what are your aspirations as a writer?
Josh: To be honest, I don’t really know where this is going to take me next. I am still writing, and my style is growing and changing. I think with where I’m at it’s best to be open to opportunities and see where this all might go. I like that, though, it makes it all the more exciting.
ACA: Do you see writing playing a significant role in your artistic career moving forward?
Josh: It’s definitely something I love doing and it’ll be in my life whether that’s part of my career or not. Writing and acting are both close to my heart and they will bleed into each other whether I like it or not.
ACA: Are there any other creative projects or endeavours you’re currently working on or planning to pursue?
Josh: At the moment, I’m putting another book of poetry together. There’s around twenty poems in there at the moment, but I think it will have more than Harnett Lane does by the time it’s finished. With the first one coming out this year, it’ll be great to see how people feel about the writing.
ACA: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience about your journey, your book, or your experiences at ACA?
Josh: I’ve said too much already, so I guess for anyone that’s read this far I’d just like to thank them.
ACA: Final Advice for someone looking to audition for ACA?
Josh: When we were auditioning, they told us it isn’t about technique when they first see you because that’s what the training is for. It’s more about being receptive to direction and working well with others. And, if you can, enjoy it!
Thank you Josh, we look forward to hearing when Harnett Lane is available for purchase.
Image credit: Harnett Lane Artwork by Elise Merten