2017

2017 has been a massive year of change and growth. There were milestones, there were shows and then there were the few things I took on that changed who I was. I’m on a plane now – flying from Phoenix to Orlando for a working holiday (but much more holiday than work for once) – so it seems like a good time to take stock.

My relationship to the work I make has changed over the year. I directed four original productions this year, remounted two, wrote a new cabaret and worked on my first Shakespeare. Every show had major challenges, but as the year rolled on, the toll of those challenges lessened – chiefly due to one major life change – halfway through the year I gave up alcohol.*

I’m a world champion drinker and was actually pretty proud of it. I bought into the ‘alcoholic artist’ big-time – I was proud that I could drink every night and still be at the gym next day at seven – that it never got in the way of my creative process – that it made the hard work of tech and night-time notes worthwhile. I was probably drinking a bottle of Shiraz a day on quiet days, and then more as the week wore on. It never affected me, I said. And though I’d wake up every morning with a leaden head, thinking “how much DID I put away last night?” and swearing to have an AFD, by 6pm I’d be excited about cracking open another Billi Billi. And I needed to drink, really – I’m a terrible sleeper and it’s the only thing that actually got me to fall asleep – plus I get nervous in social situations and what are foyers but highly concentrated social situations? I didn’t really see a problem with it. I mean, I did, but not enough to do anything about it. And yet – I would talk to friends who had given up, how did they get by, what changes did they notice? Quite methodical conversations, it turned out: research. After a non-eventful but drunken Adelaide Cabaret Festival, I decided it was time and texted Mathew saying “not gonna drink at dinner tonight”. I took it day by day, not making any long-term choices, just not drinking that day. But open to it if (when) I needed to.

Within a week I’d changed a lot. I was falling asleep easily and sleeping through the night. The anxiety and depression I’d assumed were part of being me disappeared, never to return. I finally got up the focus to take on the next major change – doing the three month Body Coach program – an eating and exercise program out of England that promises to get you into your ultimate natural shape. Over three months I stripped down to the fittest I’d ever been – at 40 I had abs. When I visited Sydney I could run up the McElhone stairs without even getting puffed. My skin now glows, and it sure as hell didn’t on one bottle a day.

And workwise – wow – it was amazing. I directed two productions in a row that were the happiest I’d ever done – zero tension in any part of the process – the casts were joyous and involved, the work was exciting, I enjoyed rehearsals, I didn’t stress out at the massive technical requirements both demanded, and I couldn’t be prouder of the results.

Another change I adopted early in the year was to restrict reading reviews of my work. Both negative and positive. I didn’t want them to have power over me, or change the way I looked at the work I’d done. I’ve dipped in an out over the year, but it’s been freeing to glance at rather than inhale the critical reception of the work. It’s necessary – criticism puts a context for the work, it gets people along to see really exciting/new stuff, and it can be how a piece’s achievements travel through time – but not always for me. I noticed I didn’t suffer from not reading raves, and I was less affected by pans. What also helped was context – I read some philosophy this year – Stoics (Seneca and Marcus Aurelius), The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck and The Courage to Be Disliked – all great reads and really useful in realising how ephemeral anything we do is, so don’t get too caught up in it.

And though it disappears with the final bow, the work you make moulds you. I learned a ton by doing this year’s projects – the tricks involved with certain material, the sort of acting and design I like, the audience relationship to material.

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Born Yesterday was first cab off the rank. When I first read this a few years ago I knew it would be a perfect vehicle for Christie Whelan-Browne – and my god, it was. She dazzled in the show – going from a self-involved, shut-down ornament of a girl, to a passionate and political humanist. The pleasure audiences found in seeing her Billie Dawn bloom cannot be overstated. Christie found every nuance in that role – a tricky one 60 years after the play first appeared – with a lot of complex motivations. The entire cast were so full of charisma and fun – we loved making the engine of this type of play go – it was really hard, dramaturgy like that doesn’t exist anymore – but finding layers in each character, and the resonances with now – corruption in Washington, and a bullying businessman getting his comeuppance as he tries to buy power – when it fired it was exhilarating. And Dale Ferguson outdid himself with his tribute to Dorothy Draper – a two level 5 star hotel with views to die for. And exquisite costuming. I also adored the music Mathew composed – a tribute to Copland and Gershwin. And a few audiences got to see our jazz tribute to Belinda Carlisle. Probably my favourite part of the production was the card game – a non-verbal illustration of Billie and Brock’s relationship  through poker. The chemistry between Christie and Russell each night was electric – only matched by the chemistry between Christie and Joel in the second act, as Billie took on education.

It wouldn’t be a year without Priscilla – this time was Cape Town. God, what a beautiful city! Table Mountain looms over every part of it and is thrilling to look at. The show went smoothly – I had three amazing leads, Daniel, David and Phillip – who took to the scenes like they’d done it in a former life. Our assistants, Anton and Duane, looked after us beyond compare – taking us out to dinner almost every night, to wineries and other sights on the weekends – we were spoilt. And then they got engaged on opening night – talk about bang for your buck!

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The challenge of the next show, Two Weddings, One Bride, was doing an operetta, once the world’s most popular art from, 150 years after that moment. The plot was an update of an old French operetta, but was mostly invented, and peppered with the gorgeous tunes from the glory days of Continental operetta. A glorious design and fabulous cast put this madcap piece across the footlights, and it was a nice surprise to see audiences embrace the silliness of the story and the skill of those singers doing that material.

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I wanted to AD to Simon Phillips on Macbeth to see how a Shakespeare was put together. The production was epic – an action movie onstage really – and it was amazing to be back in the room with a master of craft like Simon – teasing everyone into giving the best performance they could, working his creative team, both on the floor and then in tech, to give the audience a marvellous and thrilling experience of the story. The cast were fantastic – warm and generous and so willing to keep chipping away at moments again and again. The production ended up thrilling audiences intensely and was a huge box office success.

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Adelaide Cabaret Festival marked the last part of the Diva trilogy I made with Michael Griffiths – after Madonna and Annie Lennox we came back to Oz with Lucky: Songs by Kylie. This time we added a rock band, and it was nostalgically wonderful to hear the Stock/Aitken/Waterman catalogue reproduced live onstage. We’d stopped and started writing the show a number of times, never quite sure of what angle to take with our most famous pop artist. The show that eventuated was naughty and loving and a testament to what Kylie has gifted our culture. Packs of women literally danced through the last 20 minutes of the show, transported to their youth I suppose.

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The first thing I ever directed was Sondheim’s Company (which provided a model for the last show I worked on this year, Vivid White) so it was a thrill to direct Assassins for the Hayes as my first professional Sondheim (as director – I was AD on Simon’s Forum a few years back). The production was blessed from the start – Lisa Campbell’s passion for doing the work (this story, this world, the anger, now), David Campbell leading a remarkable cast as John Wilkes Booth, an exquisite design by Alicia Clements and Ross Graham working together, and brutal choreography from Andrew Hallsworth. Every second of making this show was exciting – every cast member was so into it, and so full of ideas, of research, so delightful to be around – it really gave life to a dark and twisted show, that love the cast had for the work and each other. It sounded amazing, thanks to the work Andrew Worboys and Steven Kreamer did, and Nick Walker’s amazing sound design. There were so many highlights for me in the piece (the skipping rope number, the swings, the dodgem car moment) but that first ten minutes where we simply followed Sondheim and Weidman’s lead – and introduced everyone to the world of these assassins – was the most thrilling to watch each time.

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While I was doing Assassins, Christie and Matty popped across to London to premiere Britney Spears: The Cabaret at The Other Palace. We were stoked when Goose and Paul programmed it and honestly just chuffed they’d take the risk on it. But my god, the response the show got was incredible. From the first preview, it instantly sold out, standing ovations every night, laughter like they’d never heard before, and amazing critical response. Even Lord Lloyd Webber himself came to see it. And they really GOT it. To have this show continue rolling on, eight years later, going from strength to strength, was amazing.

About now was when another surprising highlight occurred – an evening of our writing at Chapel off Chapel through Homegrown. We’d said yes to it long before I realised how hard the next project would be (and that Matt would be across in Perth seeing a production of Once We Lived Here) but it was a perfect bookend to our combined 40th/20th anniversary earlier in the year. The birthday event was full of our closest friends, with some highlights of the work we’d done – and probably the most special night of my life thus far – but this evening was special in a different way. Spending an evening listening to work you’ve written, especially when you haven’t written for a while, could be mortifying (and some of my lyrics were) but mostly it was thrilling. The performances were sublime, each and every one, and the opportunity to talk about why things came about (or didn’t) was cathartic. But the reminder of the thing that Matty and I love to do most of all, but haven’t for a while, was telling. We won’t let as much time go by again before the next thing we write.

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My final show for 2017 was the one I poured everything I’m capable of into – Eddie Perfect’s new musical Vivid White. We didn’t call it a musical for ages for a number of reasons – it wasn’t one for a while, it was a play with a few songs – and as the songs poured into my email from Eddie, I realised we were making something entirely new – a satirical piece about contemporary Australian concerns in the vein of Brecht/Weill. Even after we realised it would have a full score we resisted the temptation to name it – so the audience could experience it for what it is. I’ve only just opened it – it’s playing to packed houses at MTC as we speak – but my god I loved making that show. The cast were beyond sublime – seven humans who put every part of themselves on the line – learned to play instruments, worked as a band, learned puppeteering, survived serious injuries and illness to keep moving forward, and made a huge piece of theatre with an entirely original script and score.

We often talk about making bold Australian music theatre and Vivid White walked the walk. We were lucky to have MTC fully behind us the whole way – the various workshops of the company deserve medals of honour for what they solved and made on a budget – but the story support and enthusiasm we received as we moved forward was incredible. And Eddie was awesome – in amongst workshops and writing for TWO Broadway shows, he rewrote and shaped and encouraged and laughed and was entirely awesome to collaborate with. Super human work was done by every member of the creative team – Owen Phillips endlessly surprising set, Tim’s tracksuits, Ross’ cavalcade of lights (often squeezed into the strangest spots), Russell’s movie sound design, Andy’s smart, quick work and of course, Joe Blanck’s incredible 10 foot tall Guus. But James Simpson deserves the biggest kudos – he took Eddie’s wonderful demos, turned them into arrangements for live instruments and then taught a group of actors to play them onstage – cajoling and encouraging them until they could do it as second nature. Amazing.

But the cast. The cast. What a bunch of legends. Verity, Jinny, Chrissy, Gill, Keegan, Ben and Brent. I wish all of you the joy of a cast as brave and funny and hardworking as these. And as SKILLED – to be funny, sing that well, puppeteer a greyhound, be IN a monster puppet and then play a range of instruments – they made this crazy show not only achievable, but an utter delight.

Vivid White was a tough show to make – it’s original in form, is doing a lot of things (a satire on satire, an homage to monster movies, a musical, a class war only Melbourne could have) and I was never sure if we’d pull it off the way I hoped. But we all just kept ploughing ahead. And opening night the piece landed exactly as we’d hoped – the jokes hit, the cast were secure, the music was great and the audience jumped on board from the first moment to the last spectacular dance number. It’s rare to get a standing ovation at an MTC opening night, so it was a real thrill to experience something that was so hard to get up, such a labour of love, receive one. We all feel very lucky to have been able to make this work at this time.

I saw a ton of theatre this year too – too much to go into detail, but there are things I’ll never forget – the gorgeousness of John’s opening night, Zahra Newman’s solo at The Book of Mormon family and friends, the brilliance of Mr Burns at Belvoir, the utter joy and exhilaration of every single aspect of Black is the New White, the clarity of Bell’s Merchant of Venice, Esther Hannaford lighting up the opening night of Beautiful.

Often by this point I’m wiped out – but at this moment, even after massive flight delays on my way to join the Priscilla cruise again – I’m just excited at what’s next. Part of that is that the last few projects have been so satisfying – my anxiety at directing, and how it’s received, mostly disappeared when the alcohol went – that I just want to keep making, keep writing, keep exploring. It’s probably a good time to get a dose of that extra enthusiasm that a theatre trip to New York City always brings.

*I have had a handful of drinks in the last month or so. For the first few months I was denying myself – it was easy enough not to drink, but I was aware I was deliberately not doing something I loved. So once I’d finished the first part of the eating plan, I occasionally had a glass. It’s fine. I feel no urge to have another (a big part of why I had to stop altogether) but what is interesting is that I can feel it start to increase my anxiety immediately, headaches and difficulty sleeping kick straight back in. I don’t know how it will go going forward, but right now it’s a relief to not have it be a large part of my daily life.

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Things I Did, Things I Saw

 

Rehearsals started yesterday on the first 2016 show of the year – Little Shop of Horrors. Started with a meet and greet, and then a design meeting – which I found slightly hard to take seriously after satirising the process in my last show of 2015, Jerry’s Girls. Having talked about and stared at the designs for the set, the costumes and plants for the last half-year, to the point where the novelty had worn off, it was great to be re-invigorated by the cast’s thrill. Then we got into a read through with a lot of tears, laughs and “oohs”. Then music calls. I like music calls because it’s my last bit of rest time before it goes all in. I’d like to say that’s when I sat back and started to reflect on the year’s work that had just gone by, as that would make a classy segue to this retrospective, but I really just thought about how difficult it is to get to UNSW from Potts Point.

Anyway, I did lots of things in 2015 and I saw lots of things. I kind of subtitled it “The Year of Living Fearfully” in my head, because I approached a lot of the work I did with a big fear hanging over every show. That’s normal, of course, you don’t really create anything without the fear that you’re about to fuck it up, and hopefully you’re taking the sorts of risks that exciting theatre requires that conversely also have the potential to fuck up. Throughout the year I also saw a ton of theatre, so I thought I’d pepper the blog with things I did and great things I saw.

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Sweet Charity

What I was concerned about with the return of Sweet Charity was how much the rapturous reception of that show was tied into the tininess and newness of the Hayes Theatre. We were now in the Opera House in a 400-seat theatre, and touring to bigger theatres around the country, including the Playhouse in my home-town, Melbourne (around 850 seats). Would the heart of the story stand up? And the set had been…well, the Hayes itself, painted. We weren’t taking the theatre with us. And our first port-of-call required us to bump in and out each night, sharing with one of those multi-storied treehouse shows. There definitely were challenges, but Owen’s new design gave the a show a real personality that it imposed on the spaces we went into. The performances had deepened, if anything, and of course our leads were all music theatre pros, so were adept at sizing-up to whatever space they happened to be in. In fact, the show was even more exciting this time around, and played to amazing audiences all around the country.

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Gaybies

Simultaneously, I directed Gaybies for Darlinghurst Theatre Company. My fear here was that an evening of verbatim stories about kids being raised by gay families might not sustain dramatically. WHAT IF PEOPLE GET BORED? (This pretty much powers anything I do). It had been an event at Midsumma, when a cast of celebrities did it for a week, but this was now creating a dramatic version to sustain a month’s season for theatre audiences. The ensemble cast was wonderful – funny, kind, musically brave, politically passionate and we had a great rehearsal period. My brother came down to work his music with the cast – it’s tricky to make folky music work for mood rather than narrative. It looked great, it was charming, it was publicised more than anything I’ve ever worked on. And a lot of people loved it. Though it sold well, it wasn’t a smash, it was sweet. Lovely even. Though we all worked out hardest on creating a structure from real people’s lives, and a message that the country needs to hear (ie, there is no issue with gay people raising children) I think people really hunger for a narrative in theatre. I had a conversation recently about this piece with a very clever friend, where I said that I wondered if I could’ve made the piece darker or more political somehow – I don’t know though. I really enjoyed meeting the real people and then transferring that experience to the stage.

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Gypsy and Imelda Staunton

I got to see this production and performance when I was casting the cruise ship version of Priscilla in London. I adore this musical, I know it back to front and when I saw this production at the Savoy, I thought – well, that’s it then. Perfect musical. Done perfectly. It is such a pleasure to see such a smart text and score served so well by everyone working on it. And especially Imelda Staunton. You just could not take your eyes off her. She made every line of Arthur Laurents’ wonderful dialogue seem invented in that moment. I rewatched this on youtube a few weeks ago as the BBC did a brilliant job of recording it live – it really is the perfect version of Gypsy, and maybe the best filmed live musical ever. It’s easy to access…so go do it!

Fun Home Circle in the Square Theatre Cast List: Michael Cerveris Judy Kuhn Beth Malone Sydney Lucas Emily Skeggs Joel Perez Roberta Colindrez Zell Morrow Oscar Williams Production Credits: Sam Gold (Direction) Danny Mefford (Choreography) David Zinn (Set and Costume Design) Ben Stanton (Lighting Design) Kai Harada (Sound Design) Chris Fenwick (Music Direction) Other Credits: Lyrics by: Lisa Kron Music by: Jeanine Tesori Book by Lisa Kron

Fun Home

The cruise tour moved to New York (life is pretty good sometimes) and I got to see a spate of new works in New York City, including the hilarious Hand to God – there’s a whole heap of virtuoso performances there, and a brilliant set too. But Fun Home was the treat of that trip. I’d loved the score since the first time I heard it – accessible, forward-moving and unique. Great melodies (the ever-brilliant Jeanine Tesori) and equally great lyrics (a first-timer, playwright Lisa Kron). The performances were contemporary and truthful, with the kids an authentic delight and the staging was nothing I’d ever seen before. A musical in the round, where pieces of furniture disappear down traps to reappear somewhere else. Virtuosic and really helpful in creating the fragmentary world of a middle-aged cartoonist trying to figure out her family history. This and the soon-to-be-discussed Hamilton reminded me of everything I wanted to do when I started writing musicals. And proved that what the sort of musicals I aspire to, can also be 1/ exciting and 2/ profitable!

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Anything Goes

Got off the cruise casting to do a musical set on a cruise. The old warhorse Anything Goes. I’d done a version with Andy for Production Company a few years earlier, which had led to this GFO/OA co-pro, but here we were in 2015, doing the first professional Australian-created production of Cole Porter’s classic. My fear here was, what does this show have to offer a modern audience? I think the book is hilarious, but if you study it too closely, it’s nonsensical. And I had a group of actors who weren’t just in it for the shits and giggles, but wanted to understand why their characters were doing what they were doing. This rigour from them, especially Caroline O’Connor, helped build a layered version of the script, that certainly didn’t stint on malarkey, but always tried to push forward, character-first. People think doing scripts like Anything Goes is easy. Go for it! The jokes and momentum can be flatter than the Atlantic Ocean ever is. There was so much to love about doing this show – the principal cast were fantastic, the ensemble were one of the most supportive I’ve had the pleasure of, Dale’s costumes were practically edible and then there was that 8 minute tap number that never failed to send the audience mad and won Andy a deserved second Helpmann award. Caroline and Alex both picked up awards too, which was thrilling. The Melbourne opening night will always live in my memory – it was the real juice of what makes those classic Broadway musicals a drug of their own.

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Show People

Meanwhile, I’d written a new show. My first character monologue show. Christie Whelan-Browne has a fan in Barry Humphries, and he wanted a new show for his Cabaret Festival and I thought, well, you don’t turn down the chance to write a show that already has a booking. So we all said yes and then went – what the hell is this show going to be? You can read all about the travails of the making of Show People in a previous blog, but suffice to say that Christie’s performance is career-changing, and it’s probably the best writing I’ve done. Certainly the funniest, if our one-off Melbourne show is any proof. The archival honestly sounds like it has canned laughter. This one has a big life ahead, and will start appearing around the country sometime in the next year.

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The Dog/The Cat

This was just delicious. The writing (Brendan Cowell, Lally Katz) was enchanting, real, hilarious. The staging was so simple and SO clever. And the three performances were brilliant. I don’t know what makes theatre so wonderful sometimes, but whatever the magic is, this Belvoir premiere delivered. Total fun.

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Asian Provocateur

Josie Lane is like a little sister to Matty and I. He taught her from age 14 and I first saw her sing solo at a kids concert, giving her distinctive belt to “Out Here on My Own”. We’ve worked with her ever since on a range of shows, and she’s been studying stand up over the last few years, trying to find a way to match her love of comedy and singing. Well, this cabaret for the Hayes did that in spades. She explores her half-Asian life history with a matching set of “Asian” songs from musicals. So basically she’s rudely hilarious and gets to belt the hits of Miss Saigon. The show looked a treat at the Hayes, and Josie moved into a whole new stage in her career – she owned the room, she made them go where she wanted them to go, she shocked and entertained. I was so proud. And last night she picked up Best Cabaret at the Sydney Theatre Awards. So, yay!

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Birdland

I almost walked out of this MTC play. The lead character, brilliantly portrayed by Mark Leonard Winter, is inexcusably awful as a human being. And he was just punishing people again and again. I wanted to heckle, to walk out, to do loud things that a shy-ish person like myself never does. But then it all got very interesting. He begin to pay a price for who he was. Not in a panto sense, but a very real, I’ve gotten myself into this shit, sense. And it was gripping. The show was brilliantly performed across the board, Bert LaBonte has never been better, and Mark was incandescent. And I was very pleased to see Anna Samson for the first time, who, one very short audition later, became Kyra, in my production of Skylight in that very same theatre in a few month’s time.

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Priscilla on the Boat

I’ll probably blog about this some other time. It was the best of the times, it was the blurst of times. Mostly it was a lot of fun in very strange places. And resulted in yet another version of our old drag show. And it also took me to New York, where a certain show had just opened.

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Hamilton

This show is genius. It’s exciting to listen to, it’s told so well, it seems inevitable and it’s a smart unlikely hit. If you pitched it, you’d be told “that will never be a hit musical”. It’s period content, history, about a founding father who doesn’t really get rated, it’s told with hip hop and rap, it doesn’t really have any stars, and it’s a fully original musical. It’s everything that commercial producers tell us the public doesn’t want. But my god, they WANT it. The show had been bubbling along for a few years, and had absolutely blasted NYC when it opened off-Broadway at the Public. By the time I was rehearsing in Florida, the cast recording had just gone online and the ticket hunger was building to crazed levels. Luckily I have a friend in said cast, who managed to snag me a single for the one day I was in Manhattan. So I got to sit down amongst the lucky/wealthy and experience this beautifully done piece of theatre. I’m not going to review it, you can find that anywhere on the internet. I just feel lucky to see it with the original cast, and also feel grateful that it exists and has been so welcomed.

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Rent

I got back home from Barcelona (that’s where we got off the Priscilla ship) and went back to see off another cruise – Anything Goes closing at the Opera House. The cast were buoyant, they’d had a wonderful two months there, and in fact, their best house ever, the night before closing. I didn’t see that penultimate show because I was at another wonderful one – Rent at the Hayes. I just loved this experience so much. I loved Shaun’s clever direction, I loved the interesting performances, the sound of that show, seeing that show in a space I love so much. I fell in love with Rent in the 90s when the double-CD came out. I saw it a few times on Broadway. But I never felt so connected to it as this production, with some stunning performances from Loren Hunter and Chris Scalzo especially. Some people bagged the sign language, which didn’t bother me at all – and it seems strange to criticise something that makes a piece accessible to a wider audience. Anyway, it was witty and moving.

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The Weir

My final highlight for the year was MTC’s The Weir – a gorgeously put together talk-fest – pitch-perfect design by Dale Ferguson. A pub in rural Ireland, that is the haven for a number of the townfolk. Essentially a collection of mild ghost stories about the town, it lives and dies on how much you enjoy spending time with the characters, and I did, very much so, brought to beautiful life by Sam Strong and the actors. It made clear for me how we use each other (and alcohol) to get through the night – and life is just a collection of nights.

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Jerry’s Girls

And then there was one. One last show for the year. Jerry’s Girls is a revue of Jerry Herman music done by stars. My goal with the show was to take the revue format, a once-beloved form, and make it sing anew in 2015, by showing the rehearsal process behind putting on a lavish concert and having the stars play heightened versions of their real personas. And what stars! 11 brilliant women, aged mid 20s to mid 70s. Because I was trying something I’d never done I was quite concerned about the reception and so worked incredibly hard in the lead up period, making sure that there was enough in the evening to delight an audience when there’s no storyline to cling to. The women jumped on board and it was one of the most delightful rehearsal rooms I’ve ever been part of. In the lead up to rehearsals, the constant refrain from outside was “I’d love to be a fly on that wall”, insinuating that a room full of female leads would be a Showgirls-esque nightmare. It was completely the opposite – fun, inventive, supportive and kind. And this energy went right through to closing night – one of the loveliest and most in-love groups of performers – no, THE most in-love group of performers I’ve worked with. The show became so much more than I expected, a real highlight of a production. As The Age review said, “there are too many highlights to name them all”. And really, each woman had at least one staggering moment – I’ll never forget Deb’s stripper, Nancye’s dance with young Kirby, Christie’s Andy – every one of those girls showed why she’s landed the roles she has. And then Brent kept the whole thing ticking along with his typical charm and inventiveness. The team did such brilliant work on keeping the level of surprises coming – Dale’s gorgeous rehearsal-room set which transformed into a red-velvet heaven in seconds, Owen’s parade of neutral clothes that turned into gowns, Matty’s hot brassy band, Meg’s performance as Meg and Matt’s endlessly inventive lighting. It was absolutely one of the hardest shows I’ve ever put together, but a truly fitting end to the year.

2016 is a little calmer – Little Shop tours the country and then the gorgeous Skylight for MTC. After such a huge year it’s terrifyinggreat to have the time to dream up future shows and check in with where I actually want to go. But right now, I have an oversized plant to wrangle.

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Blondes Might Have More Fun, But Who Cares?

The process of creating a new show for a Festival can be a tricky one. Festivals tend to plan their brochures many months in advance, and if you’re making a world premiere the show you plan to do may not exist at all at the point you’re required to title, summarise and photograph it. Which is how the show we sold to Adelaide Cabaret Festival as Pure Blonde became Show People by the time it went on.

Barry Humphries saw our first show for Christie Whelan-Browne, Britney Spears: The Cabaret, in it’s first Sydney season. He became a fan of the show and her, and when he took on the position of Artistic Director of this year’s festival, he asked her to come up with a new show. Britney had just finished it’s fifth Australian season the year before, so we knew we wanted to make something new for Christie, a friend and actor who has gone from strength to strength since our first collaboration. We talked for a few months in late 2014 about what we could do. My career had gone from strength to strength too, and I had pretty much directed non stop for 18 months, with an other year of work still to go. I worried that I wouldn’t have the time to create anything new for Christie. But I really hate to pass up an opportunity, so I said yes, let’s do this, I’ll make it work.

We were one of the last shows that commit to the Festival, so had to come up with the idea and name in the space of about two weeks, in order to make the deadline of the Festival brochure of late January. I wouldn’t be able to write the show until after Sweet Charity and Gaybies were finished, but I needed something to sell. I knew I didn’t want to do another bio-show for Christie, and that what I wanted to show people (ahah, a pun!) was that she was a brilliant character actress. So I was going to do character monologues. Something I’d never written before (when you have no time, why not challenge yourself with something you don’t even know whether you know how to do!) Seeing as Christie always gets cast as a blonde, I thought she could do a series of typically dumb blonde characters, who actually turn the tables – ie, Marilyn Monroe’s entire role call (another pun!) We were going to call it Dumb Blondes, and the song part of the evening would be either blonde-type songs that existed or new ones by Mathew and I. We decided Dumb Blondes was a bit off-putting so Tom Sharah, a friend of all, suggested Pure Blonde. I wrote a blurb about “Saturday Night Live sketches meets Alan Bennett with songs from the blonde songbook”. I figured whatever I wrote would be similar enough to that when it came into being a few months later. Christie did a photoshoot where she did a number of different wacky faces (an idea we borrowed from Vanity Fair). The festival program was signed off.

Time passed and the two weeks that I had spare to write the show were approaching. It had become clear that I didn’t want to write about blondes, and that one of the things I most loved about Christie was her ability to tell stories about the many exciting folk we spend our time with in musical theatre. A world I know best of all and a world where I deal with a mix of charismatic and complex people under very trying circumstances. I decided to lift the curtain and write a series of fictional characters that populate this world. I didn’t know how the songs that are necessary to a cabaret would fit into this world, but seeing as they all sing for their living, they would HAVE to find a way to make it in, right?

I chose eight personalities of different age and gender, six performers, a director and a blogger. Every day I would sit down at the City Library and write a monologue straight through. First up was a new drama graduate from my own alma mater, WAAPA. It’s all a bit meta, but she was there to introduce Christie’s new show – so we got to set up Christie’s career, and the point of what was still called Pure Blonde – a night of monologues from people who work in musicals. The new grad hijacks the show in her desperation to be given a chance, and ends up crumbling in despair that she might never get a job in musical theatre, while performers like Christie are handed them on silver platters (a falsehood, of course, but one that every new graduate feels keenly). I wasn’t sure about the material (I never am) but emailed it through to Christie who replied instantly that she loved it, and we were off. By the end of the next week all eight monologues were done, and we’d worked out that musically we only really needed 20 minutes worth, max – most of this diagetic music (I learned that term at Uni – diagetic music is when the song is in the reality of the situation, non-diagetic when the characters don’t know they’re singing) – so the songs were the drama grad auditioning her entire repertoire, a diva performing her cabaret and an older gent singing a farewell. Plus a love song by an usher for her idol Rob Mills and a song about chorus boys.

My trusty guides read the script and gave feedback and I took Simon Phillips’ advice to cut the director and blogger, so that the arc of the piece became a performer’s life over the entirety of their career. I then went into an overseas casting trip for Priscilla and Anything Goes rehearsals while Christie memorised the script. Occasionally she’d send audio snippets via facebook messenger which Matt and I would lol over on the couch. The first time she did four of them for us was amazing – I’d barely directed her at all and yet here were 4 subtle and vastly different humans, hilarious and moving. Christie’s process in memorising 60 minutes of spoken material required her to nuance and direct herself, basically, so by the time Anything Goes was on and we were ready to “rehearse” she was word perfect and completely alive. Which was good, as the premiere was 11 days later in Adelaide.

We did a showing for theatre friends just before we went to Adelaide – the piece was as bare bones as theatre can be – Christie in (what she felt was pretentious) blacks, a chair, a stool…that was about it. The first showing (to a rather starry audience – Geoffrey Rush, Gerry Connolly, Virginia Gay, Verity Hunt-Ballard, Esther Hannaford), terrifying for her, was a triumph – under fluros in a function room, there was wave after wave of laughter and applause, and a standing ovation. We hoped it would play that way for the audience we wrote the show for, but realised Adelaide would be different.

We knew going into the three shows in the Artspace that it wouldn’t be the same. Christie’s show had sold well early, so was at capacity, and what they had bought was the pitch for Pure Blonde – a show that became something completely different – we even referred to it as Show People now. We hoped that the audience that had come to see Christie be a funny blonde would go on the journey of a darkly satirical look at musical theatre performances told by a brilliant actor. The technical team at the Cabaret Festival were brilliant (as always) and very into the show – having worked in that capacity on big musicals – and the show looked and sounded great. The first audience was an older demographic, attentive but quiet – as we expected really. I was so proud of Christie maintaining her poise and focus in front of a different audience than a few days earlier. She was bouncy afterwards, and when we got a fairly mixed review the next day – furious that the show advertised was not the one that turned up – she took it well, her opinion being we’ve created a show that we love and we’ll take that to the audiences that want it. She went back out for night two to a vastly different house – about 15 theatre people were in, and that was enough to tip the balance to hilarious laughter and a standing ovation. And Barry Humphries was in and adored her (he lead a round of applause after her terrible drama school endowment of a cup of cold water as a cup of hot tea), though plaintively asked “why did you have to make what we do look so grim?” And night three was a GP audience, but Christie attacked with even more confidence, and they came to her willingly. And later reviews came in that happily took the work for what it actually was – “an exciting and deftly balanced work that is as much a celebration of the Australian musical theatre industry as it is an indictment of it.”

It’s scary premiering a new show, and even more so when the show you’re bringing isn’t the one you originally intended. But that’s new work, and we are so excited by the actual show that exists, Show People. I’m looking forward to seeing Christie bring to life these funny and flawed and fabulous performers, in front of an audience that actually knows they’re coming to see a show about funny and flawed and fabulous performers.

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A Year In the Theatre

2014 was easily the biggest year in theatre I’ve had, the one I wish I could point out to my mid-20s self to say “yeah, keep going, it seems like it’s impossible now but one day you’ll put Todd McKenney in a clam dress to improvise oyster jokes”. Every one of the nine shows I directed/created was special and achieved the goals I had for it. Every one was enjoyed by an audience, some en masse, and some by a small number, but passionately. There was a number of personal achievements – I won my first Helpmann Award, I directed my first play for the Melbourne Theatre Company, by working in the Fairfax I’ve now directed in all four Arts Centre Melbourne venues, our London debut as musical theatre writers, directing the first original work that I didn’t write, my first show to feature Rhonda Burchmore singing a medley of Wrecking Ball and Nothing Compares 2 U in a wig cap. Each show featured a brilliant and committed cast, and even more dedicated and wonderful creatives and crew – and if you’re interested in that, I have an exhaustive website that features that info. This is a casual list of what I did and what pops out.

Show #1 – Sweet Charity

This show was a lovefest from the second Lisa and Richard brought me on board. Everyone we spoke to jumped in, fully committed, excited by what the Hayes wanted to do. We had a thrilling rehearsal period, and from preview 1 it was clear the audiences were ready to eat this show up. Verity and Martin led a superb cast of performers, the creative team were at their most inventive, the space was new, the nights were hot, and the opening(s) were hysterical, with tears and laughter in abundance. The show is touring the country from mid January, a remarkable feat for an independent production.

  • Milestones: First show at the Hayes Theatre, First Helpmann (of 3 won from 8 noms)
  • Hero: This was Verity’s first show back after the birth of her gorgeous daughter – a massive role to take on AND she moved the family up to Sydney to do it – she was heartbreaking as Charity, never complained (as did none of the many mothers working on the show) and I was “bloody stoked” she won the Helpmann for her perf.
  • Thrills: Having one of my idols John Tiffany ask to meet me on opening night (we got pissed at Stonewall after).
  • Whoops: SiliconGate. Someone prudently put silicon onto the floorboards to seal them and avoid water getting underneath. Before our final dress. Now silicon is used for a number of things, including lube, so you can imagine how slippery it got. I furiously called a halt to the proceedings just before the Frug (we had no covers) – all of which was caught on archival video.

Show #2 – Once We Lived Here

Mathew and I love this show, but it’s tricky taking a piece of Chekhovian-Australiana to London – they really don’t know or care about any of the issues of the show. But we got a brilliant cast who cared a lot about the the characters and story, an amazing design team, a great band and a tiny theatre with tons of history to perform in. One of the major challenges was actually being in London – luckily I was hosted by Peter Rutherford, Justin Nardella and Gareth and Paul, respectively. Coming back to this piece after 5 years, I was most surprised at how well it held up.

  • Milestones: First London production of Mathew and mine
  • Hero: Chris, our designer, who really made magic happen on the tiniest budget ever. The original design, by Micka, was truly beautiful and I had grave concerns about a new one – and yet, Chris’ design, lit beautifully by his partner Seth, was gorgeous and complex.
  • Thrills: Actually having our first preview – Melle had a terrible accident on the day of, and we were concerned that she’d ever get on, let alone a few hours later – yet she did, and did a brilliant job.
  • Whoops: The corrugated iron we used on the set cut pieces out of our cast’s digits. It was a gorgeous yet painful set.

Show #3 – DreamSong

I roped myself into this show – Rob asked me to give my feedback on it and, having avoided it for months, I scanned the libretto on his way over – and LOVED it, to the point that I spent our meeting figuring out how to say I wanted to direct it, and that he’d have to change it’s schedule to suit me. Luckily he and Hugo both agreed to and I got the chance to direct this witty, naughty and brilliantly structured new Australian musical. Rehearsals were tricky – we did three weeks before I went to London, then opened when I returned, but I found it so wonderful to see that this show existed.

  • Milestones: First original show that I directed (that I didn’t write)
  • Heroes: Hugo and Rob, naturally – their skill, wit and ability will be appreciated on future projects in years to come, but being there at their start was amazing. Plus I love both of them, Rob could be my next youngest-brother and Hugo is that crazily-smart guy you’re just happy agrees with you.
  • Thrills: Feeling the momentum build from Brent’s Jesus dance to Connor’s “Just Have Faith” – that ten minutes was what music theatre is – the momentum and audience thrill was wonderful.
  • Whoops: We only did one preview and then opened. The response and performance at the show after opening was brilliant – I learned a lot from that.

Show #4 – Vinyl Viagra

I first worked with Rhonda Burchmore on my first professional job, AD on Urinetown, where she played Miss Pennywise. Rhonda (or Ruda, as this show named her) came to me to create an “I’m Every Woman”-esque show that would allow her to be naughty and camp and sing the shit out of some modern music. I got on board, and dragged Matty on to do the arrangements and together the three of us built a show that celebrated all that was wonderful about Ruda. The show is touring the country this year.

  • Milestones: First show I directed that I never got to tech
  • Heroes: Matty, who took Ruda and my aims and made it actually work musically.
  • Thrills: Getting a FaceTime call from Ruda after the first night to hear the audience stood and people were talking about the show being career-defining.
  • Whoops: Ruda’s dogs really liked my crotch when we were rehearsing.

Show #5 – Priscilla Seoul

The music theatre industry in Seoul is huge, and it’s really the top arena after NYC and London. Nonetheless, the culture is not actually Western yet, and a musical that is fairly pro-gay, in terms of a drag queen that’s a dad and a transexual who finds love is hardcore progressive. We struggled to find the cast, who then turned out to be the hardest-working cast I’ve had the pleasure of (matched with an equally brilliant crew). A city I didn’t expect to like, I loved, and the show ended up being beautiful. It was tricky rehearsing a triple-cast, and the language is so far from what I understood, but the time for me remains gorgeous.

  • Milestones: First show in Asia
  • Hero: Seri, my translator – she came on board after a week and made the whole experience a joy – she was sassy, naughty, disrespectful and exactly my sort of girl. She also translated brilliantly and made a process that should have been impossible, possible. Andy’s translator, Layla, was equally gorgeous.
  • Thrills: Being told that Seoul audiences will never clap or laugh, and 45 seconds in hearing them scream and laugh and have the best time ever.
  • Whoops: I was told Soju was dangerous, but I never believed it. 5 bottles one night proved the point.

Show #6 – Britney Spears: The Cabaret

This show has always been blessed and the only surprise is that it has had such a long and prosperous life. When Lisa and Richard said they wanted to do another 7 weeks this year (we’ve toured for five years) I said, yay, but really? And then it sold and sold and sold, and got another round of 5-star reviews, and I just thought, how lucky we were to write it, and to have Luckiest believe in the piece. Working with Christie is as good as theatre gets, and I sat in awe of her each performance. I love the piece, I love her, I love what we did, and I love that we got such a good life out of it.

  • Milestones: ANOTHER Australian tour?!
  • Hero: Christie, of course – she’s as good as performers get. Why do I love her? She is a brilliant comedian and singer, she reinvents every night, and she is funny as fuck on a break.
  • Thrills: Selling out this many years in.
  • Whoops: Britney bloody keeps improving her life, it’s tricky to tell our story while making sure we’re being true to her actual journey!

Show #7 – Priscilla Madrid

I have really good memories of this experience, which only shows how resilient the human spirit is. The city is gorgeous, the actors are wonderful and the show is great, so what does it matter that it was the hardest show to get on I’ve ever had? Summer in Madrid is ridiculously hot, it was mid-30s every day for a month. And that does crazy things to people. What was clear from the start was that the Spanish culture and Priscilla was a good match. Audiences were outrageous, the gay bars were outlandish and the experience was unforgettable.

  • Hero: Andrew Hallsworth – really the hero of any number of shows I do, but on this one he kept me sane, literally. If you want someone in your court, get this guy. Runner-up – Miguel and Sonia – as good a team of assistants as has ever existed. They ran our show, made us laugh and kept us cultured.
  • Thrills: The first audience – insane, and so gratifying.
  • Whoops: I was sick for 50% of the time and it was not pleasant. Big thanks to Carmen and team for looking after me.

Show #8 – I’ll Eat You Last

This is the first show where I was chosen after the lead actor. But when that star is Miriam Margolyes, you feel pretty lucky. My job interview was in her house in London where we bonded over mutual friends and raw spring onions. Miriam and I (and Leith and Christine and Julia, especially) went on the journey of Sue Mengers’ monologue so joyfully that all the hard stuff felt blessed. Because it is ridiculously hard to expect any actor to learn 90 minutes of material and make it detailed and funny and moving. And Miriam approached it, not as a star, but as a jobbing actor who had to make it work. And though the road was tough, when she finally nailed it, it was a truly euphoric experience. This show was so very joyful, that when we got raves and sold-out audiences, it was nice, but nothing compared to the process by which we’d achieved it.

  • Milestones: First play with MTC, First Fairfax show
  • Hero: Christine and Julia. I think that Miriam, Leith and I would agree that those gals kept the room running brilliantly, never let an ounce of tension in there, and made us feel that everything would work out. I’d worked with both before and I would beg for the chance to work with both again.
  • Thrills: Watching Miriam every run or performance. She’s an artist who will always do what the two of you discussed, but find a new way to express it. She’s a goddess.
  • Whoops: That fucking cigarette lighter – why won’t you light???? What else are you put on this earth to do?

Show #9 – La Cage Aux Folles

This show is in my bloodline. I love the story, the politics and the theatre it allows. And Production Company allowed me to explore those fully. Another blessed experience. I got to work with one of my favourite actors, Todd McKenney, partnering professionally with Simon Burke for the first time (a brilliant friend) with Rhonda, Marg Downey and Gary Sweet as supports. And then the most beautiful Cagelles and supporting cast that you could ask for. It was heaven! And then to have crazed sellout houses, standing ovations, and laughter that you could not pay for – one of these would be enough to make a year, let alone the capper of an overfull year. What I wanted to achieve was a contemporary feel – the fact that this story is so 2014, and it did. And then we got the laughs, the gorgeousness and everything else. I’ve seen a lot of happy audiences this year, and this audience was the happiest.

  • Milestones: Running a Fairfax and Playhouse show simultaneously
  • Hero: Owen. I haven’t mentioned, but Owen did almost all of the shows I did this year, as well as last year. He is a genius. He did Charity’s set, DreamSong’s set, Miriam’s set and costume and La Cage’s costumes – and every one he did brilliantly. When I saw his costumes turning up I just thought, ok, this is it, he’s amazing. He is lovely to be around, funny, goodnatured and someone you could happily spend hours with socially. To find someone like that is a gift, and I feel very lucky. We’re already doing three 2015 shows together, and if I’m lucky, we’ll do many more. But this guy is the real deal.
  • Thrills: The rapt attention during the La Cage Aux Folles number – we planned that section so thoroughly and to have such a happy audience each time was great.
  • Whoops: Perspex cracks.

And thus ends 2014. I’ve already cast Anything Goes since the last show (brilliant!) and started writing a new show, as well as planning numerous others. Charity will tour, Gaybies will play Mardi Gras, Priscilla will cruise and there’ll be a lot more. I couldn’t do what I do without a massive support group – my family and my boyfriend, Lisa Campbell who is basically my unpaid therapist, and then just the loveliness of every creative, crew and cast member I work with. I’m frightened, a little, but excited a lot and I just want to keep making theatre that excites everyone who has bought (or been comped) a ticket.

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The Particular Pleasures of a One-Person Play

Having done a ton of highly populated and hugely technical musicals, the challenges of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers weren’t necessarily apparent on a first read. In rehearsals I’m used to there never being enough time and having to push forward constantly to even be ready by tech (where the set, costumes, lighting – and often in my case, a huge animatronic bus – are added) which then brings a different set of time-consuming challenges. What would I do with four weeks of rehearsal time and a generous tech period, for a play that specifically asks your solo performer to only sit on a couch and deliver a monologue about her life as a Hollywood superagent in the 70s?

And Miriam Margolyes, the beloved British/Aussie actor, came into rehearsals with an already-brilliant reading of her character, the German-born Sue Mengers. Miriam is widely known for her dexterity at dialect, and it was clear at the first read that the accent wasn’t going to be a stumbling block. And her text work was immaculate – everything John Logan had put in the script was already clearly being brought to life. So we weren’t going to spend a week learning how to do a good American accent, and we weren’t going to have to do a lot of work finding out how to deliver the script. And god knows the cushion on the couch was pretty easy to find. How on earth were we going to fill four weeks of rehearsal?

As nature abhors a vacuum, it turns out rehearsals do too.

As soon as you have your world marked out – one woman, one couch, one 80 minute monologue – you immediately set the parameters of that world and begin to explore in minute detail. If you have a bus, flying girls and 500 costumes as your production elements you work on that scale. When you have the lighting of cigarettes, filling a whiskey glass and the placement of throw cushions as your production elements, suddenly deciding when to do each, and where to place each becomes as challenging as any revolve, chandelier or helicopter. Miriam and I have spent hours now working out the best places to light a cigarette, when to drink from a glass and what positions to lie on the couch as if we were planning the opening ceremony at the next Olympic Games. When your world is a couch, and your time is a month, these decisions become monumental.

Which is not to say that we didn’t work on the accent and the text interpretation. We were gifted with having the brilliant Leith McPherson on board (as well as her gorgeous puppy-in-crime, Scout). Leith and I tag-teamed our way through the text, so that after a week or so, every word had been dissected from a dialect point-of-view, and every sentence mined for it’s various thematic, comic and character value. We started at the table, then moved to the couch. The couch is Miriam’s supporting actor in the show, so it was important to make sure it was comfortable – it’s the nest that Sue welcomes us into her home from – as well as providing enough space so that Miriam didn’t ever feel constricted. And everything has to be in reaching distance, as she is not allowed to get up for anything (when you see the show, her not-being-allowed-to-get-up-for-anything provides a couple of key comic highlights). Once on the couch we repeated the process, analysing accent and text while adding smoking, drinking and lolling about.

The whole time we were building the show, Miriam was building the memory-stamina required to deliver 80 minute with nothing to prompt her – no other actors, no stage manager, no music, not even the physical reminder of moving to a different part of the stage. We would finish our explorations mid-afternoon each day, and Miriam would then work with our gorgeous stage management team, Christine and Julia, on drilling the script for memory purposes. Her work ethic was amazing. Often she’d go home after rehearsals, have a short break and a bite to eat, then continue to drill lines until late at night.

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Because, no matter how brilliant the work you do together, a one-person show cannot come to life until you are so confident with your ability to remember it, that you forget you once didn’t know it. It’s like riding a bike – it seems impossibly hard to get the body to work with the bike to work with gravity until you suddenly realise you’re coasting down a hill on it, handsfree. Moments would come where Miriam would fly through a section. Then the moments began to join up. And one day a whole run happens without any prompting, and a world comes to life.

After the memory-stamina comes the actual physical-stamina required to get through a show unsupported. Most plays allow you to go offstage for a bit, have a drink, a bit of a whinge about the audience, then head back on, refreshed. In this play, you have to figure out how to refresh yourself. This part of the process tends to feel like sports training. You just run and run and run until you know you can keep that energy going the whole time. In our last week of rehearsals Miriam did 18 runs of the play. It was Herculean. Seeing a show that many times without an audience can tend to blur your vision of what you even have. So it was a relief to do the company run for MTC and finally hear some new laughs and feel the engagement of an audience entering a world you’re creating. A relief and a terror, of course.

The final part of the process was tech, where Sue’s apartment, gorgeously created by Owen Phillips, lit by Ross Graham and aurally enhanced by Russell Goldsmith, was waiting to welcome Miriam. Like everything on this play, it was an experience in micromanagement. Where EXACTLY should the couch be in the Fairfax space to make sure every seat had Miriam as close as possible? How do you light a show to make it seem like they never change, and yet subtly show the passing of the day and support the emotional weight of the text? How big should a chocolate be to make sure you can still talk while eating it?

4072And then you add the final element, the one that’s identical whether you’re doing a huge blockbuster musical or a one person-play – the audience. The only element you have no control over, the element that has informed every decision from the start. You watch them entering the auditorium, chatting away, glancing at the set, listening to the preshow music and hope that what they’re about to see will surprise and delight them. You want them to forget they’re in Melbourne for a spell and enter Sue’s modest little hacienda in the Hills of Beverley for an evening of good dish.

The whiskey’s poured, the cushions fluffed and Sue’s ready to meet you. Let the party begin.

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?

Priscilla shouldn’t have worked in Seoul. When we auditioned we really struggled to find the sort of actors that we need to do this show – diverse, sexy and unique performers who aren’t afraid to be all things. We also figured out, during auditions, that Korea doesn’t really talk about homosexuality – they don’t judge it, but it “just doesn’t happen here”. After a while I asked, why are you doing this show here? And the answer was “We want a Mamma Mia – lots of colour, movement and great songs”. There are also lots of things that are unique to Korea’s theatre culture – they double cast everything. The reason? A combination of using stars who have busy schedules, and fulfilling the fan base desires. Fans are VERY important here, as we learned when care packages would arrive at lunchtime regularly, with food for the entire cast and crew. And Priscilla had to go further, as ever, by TRIPLE casting the leads. Most of whom didn’t actually audition, but were assembled through a combination of youtube links, many of which weren’t even material from the show. Now, on top of this, we had the shortest tech period we’ve ever had on the show, and some of the major creatives (or their representatives) weren’t here at all. So, for the first time, a group of Korean natives were going to figure out how to make masks, how to costume, and how to light the show.

Hoy, one of three Felicias, with a cake from his fans.

Hoy, one of three Felicias, with a cake from his fans.

But we were putting it on in Seoul nonetheless, making the licensed Asian debut of Priscilla (if you’re interested in the non-licensed debut, it was in Manilla the month before – they cast a fat Felicia which should probably clue you into the creative decisions made). The musical market is booming in Seoul – it’s probably the third major musical capital in the world at this point, after Broadway and the West End, and Koreans LOVE musicals, and all whom sail in them. But it is a new new territory here, and so the attitudes and talent pool haven’t quite caught up to the demand.

On the first day we were told that audiences would not get up to participate in Country Boy and that Cynthia’s routine would be unacceptable here. We were also warned that the script would not get the huge laughs we’re accustomed to, but that they would clap loudly at the end. We went to Wicked quite soon after (beautifully done in every department) and saw for ourselves – the audiences barely laughed and sometimes didn’t even clap major production numbers. “Loathing” felt like it was met with, well, loathing.

But we began. It was hard for us. Korean names are made up of syllables Australians never pronounce, so learning the cast names was embarrasingly hard. But we practised with our beautiful translators again and again to learn them and soon enough we had them down. Though we didn’t feel that we’d achieved anything more than basic human decency, we were told at closing by the cast that we were the first Western creative team to learn their actual names, instead of calling them by their character names or (horrifying) calling them by the names of the original American/English cast members.

It was clear from the start that the actors in this country are hardworking, lovely people. They were reticent to begin, in going where Priscilla has to go, but once we gave them permission, they owned the sexuality of the show, the humour, the boldness and were brave and naughty. This bled into rehearsals which added a lot of fun to our time. Almost no-one can speak English here – which is normal, but hard for us, because Australians barely speak English, let alone any other languages. We cruise through life expecting everyone to join our party. So we had translators, for Andy and I, Layla and Seri. Seri was my second translator actually, as the first one fired herself when she realised that I was going to stand in front of crowds and talk a lot. Seri had never worked on a theatre show before, but she had what the Yanks would call “gumption” – she’d actually learned English when she was student-exchanged into Oklahoma. She was exactly the sort of girl who should work on Priscilla. Funny, inappropriate, with a massive grasp of colloquial phrases in both languages, she was perfect for the show and perfect for me. She really took the piss, and I didn’t even have to train her to do that. She became my voice on the show, just like Layla (a total theatre girl) became Andy’s.

Me and translator Seri at the infamous Cast Welcome.

Me and translator Seri at the infamous Cast Welcome.

Rehearsals were normal in many ways – teach “It’s Raining Men”, move onto the phone call with Marion, etc etc. Andy got the cast very cheerfully exploring the homosexual world – it was strange, at first we assumed that the cast must be closeted, as any Priscilla ensemble is almost entirely gay, but as time went by we worked out…nope, they’re straight – and they jumped at the challenge to play act the world of gays, paintbrushes and cupcakes. For me it was fairly strange directing three casts at the same time. I would stage an intimate scene with what felt like 100 people in the room, but the process works because the actors are so friendly, respectful and ego-less. They jump up on the floor in front of each other, make the roles their own while staying within the framework, help each other out constantly, and make sure that no-one falls behind. They also work 10am-10pm when necessary, doing an extra 3 hours at night to catch up anyone who missed rehearsals, or just needed the extra attention. Probably the most challenging part of the process was that actors are NA quite a lot – they have other work commitments, study, sometimes compulsory military days. The ensemble were pretty good, but the principals, especially if they’re famous, aren’t always there.

Because I was concerned about getting three sets of leads ready in time for tech, we went very fast. The room was run very well by our beautiful stage manager Eun Mi – we had every prop for the show from the start, as well as a rehearsal bus, and they were brilliant at making sure things were ready when you needed them. This continued throughout tech – once they figured out a problem, it stayed figured out permanently. Because we worked so quickly we ended up being super ready for tech, with each cast getting the chance to do many runs of the show (except one of our Bernadettes, who was simultaneously playing Hedwig – he rehearsed and teched and opened before Priscilla did!) The show in the room was a joy, though there weren’t that many laughs it just felt right. The supporting roles here were just wonderful – the Shirl improvised a line that played off the Korean word for “idiot” and “thong” being the same, the Jimmy was the most joyful we’d had, the Miss U totally fierce and the Cynthia brave and comedically very witty. It was a great time – the weather was beach-perfect every day, we’d all have lunch together in one of the many tiny Korean cafes, and we got to know the cast via our translators. We had one rip roaring night of Korean BBQ together to celebrate the beginning of rehearsals which went to 5am for some cast members and involved a lot of the infamous soju. Unfortunately for them, it was held on a Monday night, so everyone could come, and at 10am the next day they had to stage Country Boy. Lots of alcoholic sweat was aired that day.

Andy and Layla.

Andy and Layla.

(Speaking of sweat, sauna culture is pervasive here. Our hotel had one in the basement. On Andy’s recommendation I decided to have a skin scrub. He had warned me, but nothing could prepare me for the actual experience of lying naked on my back in a room full of men, having water of all temperatures thrown over me while a man in very small shorts rubbed me vigorously with a textile cheese grater. Everywhere. No part no matter how small, shrivelled and terrified was left alone.)

By 5 weeks into rehearsals all 3 casts were ready to go, and had even spent a day doing quick change rehearsals with their dressers – pretty tough ask to have costume have three sets of lead principal costumes (and wigs and masks) by dress rehearsal – but they did. It was here that I started to see how good the Korean backstage teams were going to be. Normally it takes a good three tries before we start nailing the principal costumes changes in the time they can take (often 45 seconds). Here the dressers were often getting it perfect the first time they did it, and always on the second try. Really impressive work. They were so calm during them as well, as were the performers.

We dry-teched Act 1 on one day – there’d been delays getting various flies into the the theatre. The bus, usually a beast, had gone in very nicely and was behaving with grace. The FOY system was working perfectly (we were truly blessed to have the actual head of FOY, Joe, come out to install and redesign the extra flying for this version – that’d be like having Stephen Schwartz take the note-bashing sessions for Wicked in Melbourne). The Korean team didn’t want to start dry teching until everything was there and perfect, but we assured them that we didn’t expect it to be perfect, or even right, but that it was better to get started. It’s a good thing to want to be accurate, but in theatre, everything starts messy.

Tech itself was a pretty fluid experience – especially miraculous given the amount of translation that had to happen to get anything moving forward, and that there was no-one backstage who’d worked on the running of the show before. I had certain knowledge so jumped in to solve tech issues back there, and Andy took costume solving upon himself, but once we gave the Koreans permission to make up the solutions themselves, they jumped at it and moved very quickly. The cast were always calm and no-one really came close to injury ever, rare on a show that involves so many things flying in, spinning around and coming in from each side. The divas flew as if they were born to it, and the ensemble made all their costumes changes first time – with the rarest of exceptions.

And then the Les Girls stairs got stuck onstage, which essentially killed two tech sessions. They’re big – they trapped the bus behind them, they took up most of the stage, and you couldn’t even fly in front of them. So the time we had made up, we started losing. Luckily the issue was sorted fairly rapidly, and we jumped into Act 2.

Act 2 was when the anxiety started to kick in. We were on track still, but we hadn’t dry teched any of Act 2, and there just starts to be a lot of pieces to juggle. If you haven’t seen the bus move, while the Divas are flying, while benches are coming in and drops flying in, plus actors walking around onstage – it’s really scary. You start to feel concerned that someone is going to get hurt. We who’d done ten of these know where everything is coming from and what dangers are ahead, but for a new team, it’s highly stressful. This was when some calming down had to occur and I had to really make sure I’d talked everything through with all departments as we made the steps forward.

But we pushed on and finished tech slightly ahead of time. This bought us the opportunity to do two dress rehearsals per principal cast, so we even had the luxury of a very gentle rehearsal the afternoon before our first preview. Now remember, we had been warned time and again, Korean audiences don’t really laugh, don’t clap that much and find sexual humour foreign. I’d taken the precaution of having one of our Felicias record a funny pre-show speech saying the usual stuff about mobile phones and wigs, but added in the advice that drag queens are addicted to attention, so laugh and clap loudly. It felt a little Theatre-In-Education but I wanted the audiences to know they had permission to party if they wanted to.

So it was the first preview. We had our TV star Bernadette (who looked gorgeous once wigs and makeup had had their way) and K-Pop star Felicia on and a full house. The overture started and the disco ball was hit – and they screamed and clapped. The Divas flew in and they screamed again. The boys burst through and they screamed again. Almost every moment that gets huge response around the world got the same response here. Some moments, like Felicia ripping the wig off in Material Girl (showing that it was Jo Kwon, of the 1 million twitter followers) got a response I’ve never heard before. Bernadette’s tampon moment was met with silence – we still can’t figure that out – many theories have been put forward from Koreans not liking it when people are mean to women, Korean women being more pad-centric than tampon-friendly, or possibly the line just not translating. But overall it was an ecstatic response. And the second preview, with an entirely different principal cast, was even louder. It was an exhilarating feeling after all the work everyone had put in, and how much they’d taken the show to their hearts.

Btw, Cynthia got a great response and the audience practically threw themselves onto the stage to join Country Boy.

Our team left after the 4th preview. Opening nights aren’t really celebrated here in the same way – there was no gala party, reviewers don’t really come for a few weeks – so we had a goodbye with our producers and the creatives in a classy Korean terrace, then a messy one with the cast with fried chicken and soju (now my mortal enemy). It was typically melancholy leaving a group of people you’ve connected to over two months – the beautiful cast, who never complained, the incredibly hardworking crew and producers, and of course, our gorgeous translators Seri and Layla who looked after us in every way, and who will always have a place in our hearts.

Chicken, soju and goodbye.

Chicken, soju and goodbye.

It’s a bold move programming Priscilla in Korea. But it feels like the country is broadening every second, opening it’s eyes and learning who it is in the 21st century. I hope that our show plays a small part in the acceptance of the gay community, while retaining their spirit of generosity and warmth. Cambe!

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3 months, 3 shows, 3 cities

Someone says in Into The Woods “Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor” – I’m hazarding a guess with Jack’s mother.  That piece of Lapine wisdom has always stuck with me and led me to pretty much say yes to anything that looks exciting career-wise, in case it doesn’t pass me by again.  During the visit to London for “Liza” last year I met up with the King’s Head theatre folk and pitched a few shows to them – they came back eventually saying they really like “Once We Lived Here” and we figured out how to get it on there in early 2014.  The King’s Head is one of London’s original fringe venues, and has a decades-old reputation as launching the careers of many actors and writers.  I even name checked it in “Newley Discovered”.  However, it’s also a fringe venue, and though prestigious, it comes with the usual fringe issues, as well as those issues that come with the fact that it is based in London and I live in Melbourne.  To direct the show, I would have to fly myself there, find a place to stay in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and subsidise the general cost of living in aforementioned $$$ city.  But when would the opportunity come to launch our writing in one of the two major music theatre cities in the world?  So, we figured out a way to make it happen and settled on a timeframe.  It was a pretty empty start to 2014 at that point.

Then I sat with Dickie Carroll at a Production Company show, and he mentioned that he and Lisa Campbell were doing “Sweet Charity” as the first show at the new Hayes Theatre.  I called Lisa up the next day to say I wanted the job – again, opportunity is not a lengthy visitor – and she said that she’d be thrilled to have me on board, but to remember that it was the first show of the Hayes, and they weren’t as yet able to accommodate etc.  But a chance to direct a musical that I’ve always wanted to do, and on that scale was too good a chance to miss just because of having to find a place to stay, so I rustled up a crack creative team and thought, I’ll figure out a way to make it work later on.  

Things moved on apace, we cast “Charity” with a crack team and I was about to fly to London to cast “Once We Lived Here”, when Rob Tripolino asked me to give notes on his new musical “DreamSong” that he was producing at Theatreworks in a few months.  I read it, was hooked and immediately wanted to direct it.  But it was impossible.  It bumped into the theatre the day I got back from opening night of “Once We Lived Here” in London.  So I gave Rob notes on what I thought needed improving and wished him all the best.  But Jack’s mother’s advice kept going through my head, along with that feeling of “do you want to let someone else direct this?”, “when does a good original Australian musical come along?”  I sat down, took a breath and made it work.  If I had the “DreamSong” cast rehearse the Monday after I opened “Sweet Charity” in Sydney, I could get the floor rehearsals finished by the time I flew to London to start rehearsing “Once We Lived Here”.  If “DreamSong” met once a week while I was away, then we could all remeet on the Monday I landed back and tech, preview and open four days later.  I took this plan to Rob and his partner Hugo, and they went, what the hell, let’s do this.  It was a ludicrous schedule doing three essentially independent musicals in a row, each one with in a different city, two of which I didn’t live in, each one challenging in various ways.  

They were all received differently, both critically and amongst my peers, friends and family.  They all looked and sounded completely different.  They all sold differently.  But what they had in common was that they were brilliant experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything, that they each had a cast and creative team that I would rush to work with again, and that getting each of them on proved that you can make anything work if you answer the door when opportunity knocks.  And have a massive support team around you.

3 musicals, 3 sets of auditions, 3 designs, 3 rehearsal periods, 3 techs, 3 sets of previews, 3 opening nights.  13 weeks in a row of full-time rehearsals.  In the middle of it, I wondered if I would get to the final opening night, but now they’re all in the past, I wonder how I even doubted we’d get through.  So of course in the second half of 2014 I’m doing 3 MORE shows in a row.  Only 2 different cities this time, but this time 15 weeks in a row!  Opportunity is getting to be a lengthier visitor.

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