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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About bryantandfrank

Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank write musicals. www.bryantandfrank.com
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