“Keeping the Passion Alive”: An Interview with 3 Young Australian Performers
Following a recent conversation I had with new Australian musical theatre writers Hedger & Nicholson, I was interested to further explore the topic of the role of youth in supporting and developing NMT in Australia. This led me to seek out three young Australian performers (and friends), two of whom currently study musical theatre in respected performance-based courses and one who has just left the safety of education and is making a go of it in the world of independent and professional Australian musical theatre.
MEET THE PERFORMERS
Grace O’Donnell-Clancy is one of the students and is relatively new to the world of musical theatre. Although she is a triple threat and studying to become a stronger one, her background into her late teens was mainly in dance. Since beginning study in a full time musical theatre course this year, Grace has had the opportunity to work with many new Australian writers, including Hedger & Nicholson and Matthew Lee Robinson.
Kate, the second interviewed student, has been involved in many forms of Australian theatrical arts from a young age. She has always been invested in both the local and international musical theatre industries, following new musical theatre developments in whichever country they come from. Like Grace, she is currently studying and through her institution has had the chance to work with our best contemporary theatre writers.
Kathleen Amarant, who graduated in 2014 from two years at ShowFit, a twelve-month musical theatre intensive run by industry professionals, has been rather successful in gaining work within the new and developing musical theatre industry. In addition to working with Matthew Lee Robinson, Kathleen has also performed recently with Hedger & Nicholson, and she was an original cast member of A Super Brady Cabaret (based on The Brady Bunch) in 2015, written by Robbie Carmellotti & Drew Downing. The show is set to tour in 2016.
BREAKING INTO THE INDUSTRY
I wanted to know what each of these interviewees, as a current or recent student of musical theatre in Australia, considered to be some of the biggest challenges facing them in their attempts to gain employment in the musical theatre industry. I received varying responses from each of the women, but ultimately they all agreed that the number of talented performers in Australia vying for roles in such a small pool of professional musical theatre productions is one of the largest problems in making a living from the art form. As Kathleen told me:
“I think now that there are so many avenues of getting fantastic training there are a lot more graduates trying to get in the (audition) door, let alone the show. I think as new graduates we have to work really hard to gain recognition, but that’s the trick. Work hard. It doesn’t come easily. If it did, everyone would be employed. The good news is that independent music theatre in Australia is absolutely thriving and provides a fantastic opportunity to gain experience, to learn from incredible industry professionals and start to get some fantastic shows under your belt.”
If the difficulty in talented people gaining employment in our industry lies in a lack of available work, is there anything Australian audiences could do to improve their support of musical theatre, thereby increasing the amount of theatre produced? Kathleen thinks the answer is “yes,” but there are other factors that prevent Australian audiences from doing so:
“I think we (Australian audiences) can always increase our support of Australian music theatre. The problem is that if the general public haven’t heard of it, they won’t venture out of their way to see it. There is so much talent here in Australia and so many exciting things happening under the radar. The more we can communicate that, the more familiarity and interest there is.”
To Kate, the problem isn’t simply lack of support – it’s lack of numbers:
“I think that we have a very strong core of musical theatre supporters in Australia. Unfortunately it isn’t a huge portion of the population and as much as those of us who love it don’t necessarily understand that, we have to remember that it’s only one form of entertainment and not everyone’s cup of tea.”
Is there a way to attract more members of the population and bring musical theatre into the mainstream? Grace made particular mention of Australia’s sporting culture, saying that she “constantly wishes there were Australians lining up outside our theatres dying to get in, as much as they do the McG to watch a football match on a Saturday.” Grace’s words reflect a wider hope in our industry that one day, theatre will be as respected within our culture as sports, and that more media attention will be given to it.
BROADWAY IMPORTS VS. HOME-GROWN MUSICALS
Grace, Kate and Kathleen all agree that Australia’s trend of importing large shows from Broadway or staging revivals (or in some cases, revivals of revivals) can be frustrating at times, but these shows are necessary to sustain our industry. Most Australian theatre fans understand the logic of re-staging a touring production of an older crowd favourite every few years (like CATS and Grease), as they allow our producers to fill their purses with minimal risk involved and, in most cases, later fund a newer work, like Matilda or Once. Kathleen speaks to another benefit of bringing in Broadway’s newer hits:
“It can be frustrating to industry people knowing that the (…) shows being produced on big stages in Australia are really only the tip of the musical theatre iceberg, but we do it because we love it and it keeps our industry and our artists/creatives/crews employed. In 2016 there are a number of shows never before seen in Australia coming to our shores – Kinky Boots, The Book of Mormon – and that is so very exciting. (It’s) time to hand the passion over to many new faces that will experiences these shows we have listened to on repeat for years.”
Seeing Rocky Horror make the rounds every few years can sometimes make us feel like our country is stuck in a musical theatre time loop, but the means certainly justify the end and in most cases, our creative teams and performers can bring something new to a show, even if its last professional tour was only a few years before. Grace sees the positives in this production strategy too:
“I think the staging of classics and revivals as well as the transferring of new musicals from Broadway is very important. At the end of the day, these shows are the ones that appeal the most to the wider public and keep our industry going. They are our longest running shows and they allow performers, creatives, stage crews and management to stay employed with longer running contracts.”
But if the Australian musical theatre scene is completely consumed by Broadway imports, what will happen to Australian writers creating new musicals here? Kate thinks that the problem lies in audience support and openmindedness:
Understandably, the Australian musical theatre audience is primarily drawn to the mega musical and commercial successes that are imported from the U.S. because they are tried and tested and successful. Personally, I feel that if the general audience was a little more open to the development of works produced in Australia by Australians, then in the future not only would we have a strong sense of pride in our own country’s work, but we could have a thriving musical theatre industry, where no theatre is left with their lights off for an extended period of time.”
With audiences remaining relatively strong for our art form, now may be the time to begin writing parts of our history in to our theatre, like Lane Hinchcliffe is doing with The Front (a musical based on the ANZAC’s and the battle of Fromelles in World War I), and Adam Lyon is doing with the history of Ned Kelly, a famous Australian outlaw. Grace says, “I think it’s amazing that writers are creating works that are unique to our country and represent our heart, soul and history, like the recent production of Ned.” Perhaps shows like these are key to bringing in bigger audiences and showing them that they should be proud of the musicals created at home.
Mathew Lee Robinson in rehearsal for New Voices in Melbourne, featuring students, graduates, and young industry professionals.
NEW MUSICAL THEATRE IN AUSTRALIA
On the subject of industry support and whether the people that make up the general Australian musical theatre industry support enough new theatre, Kathleen talked about seeing the cancellation of much anticipated shows like The Addams Family in 2013 and recently announced and promptly cancelled Jekyll and Hyde (the press release says postponed, but that word is synonymous with “never going to happen” in the Australian industry). Kathleen believes the future of developing and new Australian musical theatre has found its home in independent productions, smaller producers and venues, rather than strictly professional ones:
“There are (…) lots of avenues for new work, thanks to fellow artists, creatives and the independent scene supporting one another. You can enter new work in numerous festivals in Melbourne or seek the support of incredible venues with staff that now go out of their way to do what they can to support new work. In Melbourne we have the family at Chapel off Chapel and in Sydney we have The Hayes to only name a couple. Venues who know and understand the needs of the developing industry and immediately make you feel a part of the family. The Butterfly Club is always showing new work and new faces.”
Kate believes that while she is involved with a lot of industry people who prioritise the development of new musical theatre, what is lacking is an industry structure to facilitate the huge leaps needed in between a workshop production and a fully staged run. Kate cites government funding as a place that could definitely use some improvement:
“There are constantly workshops taking place and the industry is full of wonderful writers and performers ready and waiting to create these new pieces, but what is missing at the moment is the monetary support to take a show from the workshopping stage to its first full scale production.”
THE AUSTRALIAN MUSICAL THEATRE YOUTH
As the young people that will inherit the Australian theatre industry, all three women believe that they have a role to play in the continuing development of the parameters of musical theatre. Whether it be promoting interest in new works or supporting those that already exist, it is clear that our up and coming performers and creators know that they as individuals have their own ways of representing musical theatre in our country. Kathleen is eager to take part in the developing musical theatre scene:
“(My responsibility within this industry is) being as active as possible. Seeing shows, learning about new work, auditioning for new work, communicating with others that wouldn’t normally have a conversation about it. If I was to get the chance to be involved in new work, I would jump at it! To be involved in a show, in a role and to build it from the ground up is an incredible opportunity and an experience that an actor can learn so much from. After all, all shows started that way and it is exciting to see it evolve. I also think it’s my responsibility to stay positive and keep the passion alive. Reminding myself why I started and finding ways to be inspired… For me that means seeing new work.”
Kate agrees, emphasizing the youth’s responsibility to support new writers if they want to even have the opportunity to perform in new work:
“I think it’s important to go and support new Australian writers. Go and see workshops and small-scale productions and keep the conversation going! There are wonderful fringe festivals in nearly all the states across the country that nurture developing pieces as well as cabaret nights like Home Grown and Oz Broadway that showcase new works. And if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to be involved in the development of a new piece, take it!!”
While the conversation within this piece barely brushes the top of what is and can be new musical theatre supported by youth in Australia, Kathleen said it best while discussing the pride she feels when performing new Australian works: “Something I noticed from these Australian writers is that anyone who has the privilege of performing their work carries a piece of the writer within them, a bit of their heart. I have never felt more nervous than I did when singing their material because it meant more to me than singing my favourite Broadway shows.”
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