exploring vulnerability
in powerful storytelling.

Text: Kristina Mazalova
Feature: Maiah Stewardson

Maiah Stewardson (she/they) is an Australian-raised actor and podcaster. Along with performing in theatre nationally and internationally, Maiah also leads on the screen - most recently in My First Summer. Unrelentingly curious, Maiah hosts diverse, fascinating conversations on her podcast called Let Me Ask You This.

Maiah and rosewell caught up on a weekday afternoon, prior to which Maiah attended a session with a voice coach. As someone who wears many hats - an actor, a podcaster, a mental health support worker, and an all-round humble and kind human being, it is no wonder that her schedule is packed with places to be and things to do. Driven by the ambition to continue the legacy of storytelling as a powerful influence for change, Maiah spends a lot of her energy on the craft of an actor. “If storytelling is done authentically, it can really change the world,” Maiah said, “it is about creating opportunities for other people to learn about themselves and the world around them”.

Maiah fostered her love for storytelling, and later, acting, as a teenager. Finding it challenging to make friends and facing baffling things about the world, Maiah turned to art forms that told stories - film, TV, theatre, music, novels. “There were times when these characters became the oldest sibling I never had, or a parent for a moment, or a best friend”. Stories provide a sense of comforting company, and a peculiar feeling of being understood. For Maiah, creating opportunities for other people to learn about themselves through storytelling is the most selfless thing she thinks she can do.

We are constantly and continuously surrounded by storytelling, and it is deeply impactful - emotions and perception are affected by everything from news messaging to branding to the consumption of individualised media. Maiah resonated, bringing up that humans are, essentially, “obsessed with storytelling” to a point where we even do it in our sleep when we dream. The kind of stories that we surround ourselves with, then, are crucial.

“We love to see ourselves reflected...And that’s why I am a big believer in diversifying the people that we have on our screens; we need stories that are often glossed over and ignored. As a white able-bodied actor, it means passing the mic and really championing other people having opportunities to tell stories that are really vital.”

Along with driving opportunities for the expression of others’ voices, Maiah advocates for diversity and inclusion.

“We're used to seeing straight-washed media. And the lack of diverse kinds of bodies on my screen in particular has had, like I am sure it has for a lot of people, damaging effects. Being an actor, and working in a highly looks-dominated industry can be really hard on the brain. Actually, it can be truly so brutal. And I know that there are so many brilliant plus-size actors that are just not even given the time of day to tell their story and give remarkable performances because we’ve prioritised really thin actresses since forever.”

“And that is changing, and that's really good. But in the next five to ten years, I'd really love to see myself coming to peace with that and understanding what that really means for me, and why it bothers me so much. But that's kind of all a bit of a process.” says Maiah.

On and off the screen, Maiah has also initiated conversations about sexuality and culture, noting that she has found comfort in her own ways of loving and living. Though when talking about gender expression and sexuality in public, especially as a storyteller, she admitted that she does feel slightly worried.

“You worry that people will get the wrong idea, or they'll typecast you or ask questions that are well meaning but kind of inappropriate,” Maiah said. At the same time, she highlighted that she wants people who see her work to see her talk about those things, and know that they can also use their voice to talk about those things in their life if they would like to." Maiah goes on to say,

“The joy of being human is that you get to meet yourself for the first time every day.”

Then, at the start of each day, it is up to us to show up and make friends with who we are in the moment. Ultimately, as someone who cares about these matters and her community, Maiah does her best to support those who follow her journey by providing awareness about services and information. Juggling both the online life and real life is no easy feat, especially as an actor. As the conversation deepens, Maiah and rosewell reflect on the weight of expectations as an actor. “People message me as if I’m the character that they recognise; and I absolutely adore that this character can be a safe place for a lot of people. Though sometimes those lines get blurred, and so I have pretty firm boundaries on what I emotionally take on”.

Others’ perceptions of her as an individual, and her own sense of individuality that is separated from the characters she plays, incite Maiah’s priorities for setting boundaries and exercising self-care. “It’s really important that I emotionally check in with myself at the end of each day… to make sure that I’m separating my real life from the character.”

Understanding what boundaries we need and what kind of care we long for is an explorative process. As the process takes twists and turns, Maiah recognises that transformative periods are so crucial for developing a stronger sense of self. Along with a clearer sense of self, come new mechanisms and tactics for self-care. “I am starting to learn that what I was doing to hold space for myself doesn’t quite cut it the way that I need it to right now. That might be because the nature of what I'm feeling and the circumstances that I'm experiencing are fundamentally different from what they were three or four years ago when I really started to tighten the routine around protecting myself emotionally”.

Cue the inner child work. Noting that she is not a huge crier, Maiah shared: “I got to this point the other day where I've cried six times that day, and it wasn’t even midday. There was clearly a lot happening for me”. What grounds Maiah in such moments? Giving herself the permission to freely express herself in whatever way feels right, and embracing that she is constantly changing. With that, of course, come many emotions.

“There’s a real strength and character growth in sitting through feelings. Sometimes you have to acknowledge it and sit with it.”

This, along with vulnerability, was what got Maiah through the lockdown and uncertainty surrounding her career as an actor.

“I remember when the pandemic really hit, it was looking like I wasn’t going to do any acting work for at least two years...I lost all of my work overnight.”

“I actually was a bit powerless, and the only thing I could do was really control how I responded to what was coming out naturally within myself. And by being empathetic and curious with myself was the way that I really survived.”

As Maiah’s industry was in despair, she seized the opportunity to upskill in a different capacity and became a mental health support worker, as she has always been passionate about mental health

With so much vulnerability intact and so much trust in the process, Maiah embraced feeling everything to full capacity, sat with herself, and met herself every day. Along with that, she fostered meaningful, supportive relationships with others.

“I think creating a fulfilling connection is really about creating a judgement-free space and a space that welcomes growth at both ends. No matter what point in the journey each individual is, it is important that they feel seen and heard and fully accepted for where they are.”

Only with courage and comfort with the unknown do we pave the way for the expression of our authentic selves - values, thoughts, advocacy. We’re always going to be changing. During these changes, in Maiah’s words, listening to the inner voice and others’ voices, and sitting still, are the ultimate ways of showing up for ourselves.

Kristina Mazalova is the Marketing Coordinator for rosewell. She is based in Canberra, Austalia.