Leave it better than you found it: Antonietta Martiniello

Content warning: This article discusses family violence and suicide.

Pictured backstage at the National Gallery of Australia, fixing her friend’s hair, Antonietta Martiniello starred in many productions including Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas circa 1988, around the time I first met her.

Some people light up a room and leave it better than they found it; Antonietta Martiniello is that person and it’s the embodiment of how she lives her life. Signature wild black curls, long eyelashes and red lips, she is full of sass and rapid-fire witty repartee. Seeing her, you know she’s meant for the stage. When she tells an ordinary story, it sounds like a play; her voice scaling from a low, silky contralto to trill, nuanced accents and imitations, mimicking her own Italian background or that annoying person at the next table in a café.

“When I go out, I always look around the room and think ‘who could I have given birth to?’ It was 89 per cent of the people at Kokomo last night,” she says of her Saturday night dancing experience when we start our phone call on a Sunday afternoon.

I tell her I want to interview her because I love hearing people’s stories, what gets them through and what they’re about, but there’s no real ‘purpose’ to these stories other than keeping my hand in on writing and sharing the results.

“Yeah, things like this create their own purpose and reason that you only figure out later on,” she says, which ends up resonating.

I first met Toni (I’m the only one allowed to call her that) when I was in Year 10 in 1988, working my first part-time after school job at homewares shop, The Australian East India Company, in Belconnen Mall.

She started out as my boss but quickly became the trusted big sister that I never had. Once, when a school bully came into the shop to harass me, Toni hid me in the back office and told her I had gone home. Many a time I consulted her about my high school friendships, boys and what it’s all about and every time, we’d end up cry laughing as she dropped me home in her clunky old ute that she nicknamed “The Uterus”.

We lost touch over the years when I moved away for work and she had a family, so it was especially joyous to have her back in my life after bumping into her and her daughter at the National Museum about 10 years ago when I had small children of my own.

“I didn’t know what to do at end of Year 12, I was the silly kid who knew everything about the Russian revolution, I was voracious with acquiring knowledge. I like knowledge. My parents got me two big dictionaries and an encyclopedia set and I would read them – I was a total geek.”

After nominating nursing, journalism and communications as potential careers, her mentor English teacher suggested teaching because Toni was “at home at school”. The teacher suggested this new little Catholic University that required an entrance interview in the admissions process.

“I think if they interviewed new teachers now, we wouldn’t have all the failures in teaching we have today,” Toni says.

“Because they connected with you. I wore my converse and extremely loud purple shirt that from afar looked like a convict outfit. My head was shaved on one side and it was only when I got there I though, oh shit! This is like a job interview!”

She got in, and started her life in teaching, drawn to the responsibility for improving children’s’ lives.

“Just the other day I did a course that looked at teaching as a vocation. She asked us ‘what’s the moral imperative of what we do?’ and that appealed to me, because I though she’s not talking about outcomes, standardized testing and funding.

“They said ‘this is a vocation’ and it is. After the first year of studying teaching, we lost half a dozen people – mostly guys – who didn’t feel it in their heart.

“My philosophy is always make things better and leave things better than when I found them: The room, the school, my kids. I like to meet my students and know where I can take them.

“Me and them are going to have a personal chemistry that we won’t have with anyone else, so I need to leave that kid with more positive than negative experiences and make change that’s lasting. Make both of us better than on the first day we met.

“It takes a lot of energy, but I always think, you might be the only good thing that happens to that kid or your colleagues in that day.”

Toni sings Mezzo Soprano in opera and A Capella. She taught drama for five years and acted in multiple productions in Canberra and interstate. In the late 80s, she was invited to be part of Canberra City Opera and put on theatre, musical theatre and operas for years in what became an exciting and challenging time in her life.

“I didn’t realise at the time, but it an amazing opportunity that gave me a lot of growth and breadth. I was 17 and I’d be rehearsing La Boheme all weekend – you couldn’t find that opportunity in Canberra on the landscape now. I was very lucky.”

Performance would become a critical part of her life. In the years that I lost touch with Toni, she met her husband and had two children. We had never talked about it, but a couple of her social media posts signaled her support for Canberra’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service.

“You know, marriage is a lottery. You didn’t know what your partner would become. Quite often, I don’t talk about it, because people are dismissive. I have met new people since my divorce that didn’t even know I was married.

“I reckon in every room I go into, it’s the big not talked about thing. People who are happy don’t want to hear this shit. It’s the great thing we don’t talk about.

Pictured with her beloved daughter, Katia.

“I’ve seen [the experience of family violence] in a lot of people that I wouldn’t have expected it to be [with]. There was a lady who would cry on the last day of school because it meant she had to spend the holidays with her controlling husband. It’s everywhere and it’s what people don’t want to talk about.”

Feeling the extremes of joy and sadness, Toni said her marriage was arduous and traumatic.

“Domestic Violence is incessant, it’s going through everything, through your family meal times and through your children and how you look. You get this constant criticism and I just thought ‘that person is very sad and he cannot relate to people and his wife and his kids weren’t his friends’.

“When I was in the relationship, he was always telling me it was me – but I realised that he has never had the repertoire to love and be loved. He didn’t know what that means.”

In those painful years, there would be moments that gave her back a sense of who she was before her husband. These moments always came from the stage.

“In 2000 to 2004, I was in an ‘80s cover band called Glomesh; two dear lesbian friends saved my life.

“I had gone to Tilleys because Eddie Reader was singing there, and I looked across the room and I saw a girl who was in my choir and Jane. I went up to Jane, who knew Helen, who played instruments, so the three of us became this band.

“That decision to go to the concert and start this band I can say, it saved my life. It reminding me that Antonietta was still there, even though she had to be a warrior and put food on the table.

“With music I’m self-medicating – I’m going into a zone where I’m safe, I’m happy. I’ve had to do these really way out things to balance the dark side.

“It was the smallest pinprick of light I had to prize open.”

In 2006, a time she describes as “the height of my Italian divorce” Toni got to play the role of an Italian lady who yelled at her husband a lot in Lend me a Tenor for the Canberra Repertory Society.

“The role of Maria allowed me to be an over the top, stereotypical Italian – I played my mother and myself – we had three fight scenes – Maria was very jealous.

“We’d read it a lot of times and all get very hot and bothered. The man playing Tito said ‘that felt very real’. I went at him. I think it’s where I got all my stuff out, that play. I went at him very hard. I said it is real – I’m giving you everything I’ve got!”

Toni won the 2006 Canberra Area Theatre Award Best Supporting Actress in a Play for that role.

“It was so huge. I thought if I can just hold my breath through the nominations, I’ll be ok, then they called me up. That was the first time I received affirmation and I needed affirmation.

“So next to the little pin prick of light, that was another moment that possibly saved my life.”

I get the sense that Toni smoothes things over in her narrative to make it easier for me – and others – to digest. But at the heart there is a deep sadness she can hardly bare to recall.

“[Back then] I thought of ending my life all the time. It dribbles in and then it dribbles out. For quite a while. It’s gone now. But it’s right there and I vividly remember the feelings it brings.

“One of the things that stopped me was that if your parents commit suicide you have a very strong chance of doing it yourself.

“It’s not just the wife, it’s the kids who see you when you’ve been thrown on the floor and cracked your head.”

Toni remembers the moment she stared down her husband after their divorce.

“I became larger than life to crush him. It was a war and I had to win it. It was a war and I won.

“There’s no shame in surviving and someone might read this and it might make them change their mind [about suicide].”

When it comes to who helped her the most when she made the decision to leave, Toni says it was the Domestic Violence Crisis Service.

“I couldn’t even speak anymore… I couldn’t talk about it and they suggested I write it down, then two ladies came over and they read it while I sat there, crying. It was the saving moment of my life: To be heard when I couldn’t speak.”

Toni left her husband in 2004 and was divorced in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2012 that she started openly talking about the experience that had come so close to destroying her completely.

“Divorce is like climbing a mountain; you think you’re going to save [the relationship], but you get to the top and think, this isn’t going to work. So, it’s this big arc. It was 12 years and it was hard work. I’m a positive, building person, but I realised this one was broken and just had to walk away.

“Until 2012, I was uptight and sensitive to what had happened and I kept to myself. In 2012, it started to happen that people would come up to me and start telling me what they were going through asking for advice.

“It’s pretty amazing. I don’t premeditate what I say to them, but I do always say this will be over soon. This will be over one day.

“One woman came back to me when it was finally over and said the only thing that gave me hope was that you told me it would be over one day. She said that was the only thing pulling her through.

“Those little impossible outcomes are what you hope for. It’s happened in my work life, in my family, with new people that I meet. It happened the other day at a course during a role play – I mentioned that in a DV situation when you don’t centre yourself, you can be pushed over and this woman said ‘wow, I wouldn’t have thought that you would have come from that’.

“Even just to sit with someone and say I hear you – I feel privileged to be someone that people can talk to about this. I think I’ve left this person better than when I found them.”

Just last month, Toni did her first stand up comedy set. When she left, she called her best friend and told her what she’d done.

“Yeah, I was afraid but I needed to feel alive. My daughter said it was so brave that I did that – but I need to go that far to say it’s OK, I’m safe.

“It’s a pretty way out, crazy thing to do you know, comedy! I’m 50, I know I’m supposed to learn how to knit now, I know!”

If she has to make a choice, though, my money’s on a return to centre stage very soon, where she belongs.

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