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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.