Saturday, January 21, 2012


Dean Bryant - Interviews

Midsumma @ fortyfivedownstairs

Written by Paul Andrew   
Friday, 20 January 2012 09:57

Prolific writer/director and musical theatre prodigy, Dean Bryant, returns to the 2012 Midsumma festival with a new work celebrating the life and art of a pop culture icon – In Vogue: Songs By Madonna. He speaks to Australian' Stage's Paul Andrew.

Dean BryantIt seems you have been rather busy Dean?
The last twelve months have been crazy, actually, and the busiest of my life – and it’s not letting up any time soon – the year started with a revival of Prodigal, the first musical I wrote – with Britney MD Matty Frank) and Liza (on an E) – both of which were huge hits for Midsumma Festival. I went to NYC to put up the Broadway premiere of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – which is still pulling in crowds and is a popular hit. Then my directing debut at Melbourne Theatre Company with Next to Normal, my opera directing debut with Hansel and Gretel for OzOpera and my Production Company directing debut with Anything Goes, co-directed with Andy Hallsworth.

I wrote two new shows for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival – Josie in the Bathhouse – which is playing the Spiegeltent at the Arts Centre in March and In Vogue: Songs by Madonna. Then I flew round the world casting Priscilla in Brazil, Milan and recasting NYC and finally moved to Milan for two months to direct the production in Italian – quite the experience, brilliant cast, very rocky tech period, but another big success. Now, it’s quite a relief to be staging two single actor shows for Midsumma.

Tell me about how In Vogue: Songs by Madonna first 'vogued' about?
Michael Griffiths, the star of the show approached me – he’s a huge Madonna fan and I was a huge Michael fan – I’ve been begging him to do a cabaret forever. We studied together at WAAPA and he was in Priscilla – he’s hilarious and has the most beautiful singing voice.

I wasn’t keen on the Madonna idea as I felt like I was retreading the Britney territory, however in development, the tone became vastly different. His arrangements are like art songs for a start. However, he rewrote the first draft I did – very cheekily I might add – and after we’d had a huge fight, we rewrote the show together, and I’m so much happier with where that went. His passion for the song writing of Madonna has made the show what it is.

How did you first imagine the narrative voice in Michael’s “Madge” show?
The narrative voice is most definitely Michael’s voice – he has a very sophisticated sort of humour – and is kind of like the essence of Madonna – smarter and more confident than everyone else in the room. She’s almost untouchable, really, unlike Britney, who is an open wound. This show evolved very moment by moment, improvising jokes, making sense of why an arrangement would be where it was. Michael has a pretty amazing sense of what does and doesn’t work.

Is the show part Juke Box Musical, part Cabaret ?
Yes, the experience on creating Priscilla with the team gave me great insight on how to construct a jukebox musical and I think I took those skills, along with the structural ones I’ve developed writing original score musicals for a decade, into the world of shaping these cabarets. I prefer to think of Britney as a monologue with music and Madonna as a master class in pop song writing.

Was it actually conceived as a Midsumma high note?
I had such an exhilarating experience with Prodigal and Liza last Midsumma, having such excited audiences coming to see these shows in the summer that I was really keen on repeating the experience. Both these new shows have a fairly queer sensibility, ie, mine and both feature performers doing what a queer audience love – Christie is designed to be a Star Diva and Michael is like a Buff Stephen Fry.

A narrative per se?
I’m always looking for structure as that’s what gives an audience an emotional memory to take away – the Britney one is very much the rise and fall of a young woman, whereas the Madonna arc is more like a philosophical exploration of complete success.

“Michael Griffiths IS Madonna”. Tell me a little about Michael and indeed, his peculiar take on gender bending?
Michael plays the grand piano the entire show; an incredibly difficult ask for a seventy minute show where he is all alone onstage. Madonna has always been considered to have a masculine drive and energy so it’s not a stretch to have a man play her, and not in a drag sense, just to embody the inner strength and feel of the woman.

We wanted it to be a celebration of her achievement, though, we do of course have some fun with her – she’s an extreme and divisive figure by choice – but ultimately she has achieved everything she’s wanted to and is in full control of her destiny, as much as anyone can be. That’s to be applauded.

Michael sounds like one of those magical stage all rounders?
I’d seen him in cabaret (doing ten minute slots) and I wanted him to finally show that he was an incredible talent. So when he finally came to me with an idea I had to seize on it. Plus I love Madonna’s music.

Britney, Liza and now Madonna – why Madonna?
I’ve never known a time that I wasn’t aware of Madonna. As I get older as a creator, I admire even more the effort that has gone into every stage of her career – constantly being told she’s not good enough to do what she wants – but she still does it. I don’t know that she’d make a particularly good friend or partner but she’s a mesmerising figure in popular culture. I’d be terrified to meet her, I think. Unless she’d seen a show of mine and then I think she’d be interested. Unless she can find a use for you, I don’t think she’d notice you.

How have your earlier artistic works informed, helped or hindered, the making of this work?
Always helped, in that my craft improves every show and I know how to write more efficiently and with the audience in mind. Hindered in as much as I really dislike repeating myself, so, I need to find novel ways to tell real people’s stories.

Tell me something juicy about your own personal brush with the Madge factor?
I used to subscribe to Who Weekly when I was twelve – I’d cut up the best pictures and put them on my bedroom wall (on the back verandah of a dairy farm) – Who did a big story on the sex book and had the pictures! So I cut out many of them and plastered the wall. I still turned out gay.

Tell me about these “art song “ musical arrangements in the show – touch of minimalism perhaps?
I’m begging Michael to record them as they’re so beautiful – there’s a touch of Satie, of Rufus Wainwright, Phillip Glass, Michael Nyman – Michael trained as a classical pianist so his sources are eclectic. But there’s a lot of traditional stuff in there as well. Michael would record them and email as he was creating them and I would download to my iPhone and imagine the show that was going to evolve from them – the music is always what creates the joy of a new show for me.

Describe the work in seven words, no cheating Dean.
Camp handsome man singing beautiful Madonna arrangements.

Something absolutely fabulous that has happened during the season so far?
Michael did a preview of the show as a special treat for the Volunteers Concert the day before his Adelaide Cabaret Festival debut in the 2000 seat venue. We assumed it was a sophisticated audience and did the first twenty minutes of the show without editing – Michael is short sighted and couldn’t make out the audience. Anyway, within that first twenty minutes of dialogue there are several “fucks” and an anecdote about a photo shoot Madonna did with Mickey Mouse where he was “basically finger fucking” her. There was lukewarm applause at the end. As Michael was walking offstage he realised that the concert was mostly for pensioners, families with young children – it was an absolute PR disaster and a public apology was demanded the next day. Nonetheless, as it so happens, the show became infamous and sold out.

Speaking about performer's with a marvelously monstrous ego destined for a Midsumma musical  sometime soon– are you working on a cabaret about Oprah by any chance?
Bitch can’t sing. Whitney’s next for sure – now THERE’s a tragedy.

In Vogue: Songs by Madonna is now playing at fortyfivedownstairs until Sat 28 January, 2012

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Helen Thomson- Summer of the Seventeenth Doll - INTERVIEWS

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll- Melbourne Theatre Company \
January 2012

Written by Paul Andrew   
Wednesday, 18 January 2012 07:53

Love, friendship, anniversaries, shattered hopes. Two blokes meet up with two female friends in Melbourne each year for a good lark; over the course of time, things change. Since 'The Doll' was first performed at the Union Theatre in Melbourne on 28 November 1955, it has become a classic of Australian theatre.

Paul Andrew speaks to actor Helen Thomson, who plays Pearl, about what makes the play evergreen.

Helen ThomsonA snappy snapshot of your biography so far?
Heck. I'm a graduate of the drama course at the University of Southern Queensland and then went on to work for the Queensland Theatre Company as Abigail in The Crucible, directed by Roger Hodgman. Roger kindly invited me down to work at the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Two highlights of that time are Desdemona in Othello and acting opposite Geoffery Rush in The Dutch Courtesan. I moved to Sydney, where I am still based and have worked largely in the theatre, but also film and TV.

I received an AFI nomination for my work in Gettin' Square, it was a thrill to work opposite the English actor Timothy Spall. Some of my theatre highlights are (for STC) Arcadia, Judy Davis' production of The School for Scandal, God of Carnage and last years In the Next Room or the Vibrator play (for which I received a Helpmann nomination) and for Belvoir, Measure for Measure and of course Summer of the 17th Doll.

A personal and satisfying career highlight?
Perhaps it was being directed by Judy Davis in School for Scandal, for STC. I played the glorious Lady Sneerwell. It was a fabulous production in every way. Judy encouraged such excellence. Her instincts are so good.

Your earliest memory of seeing a stage play?
I grew up on a farm in central Queensland and I was not a theatre goer and I'm sometimes surprised at how I fell into this career. But when I was about 14 years of age, my mother took me to a touring production of Steaming in Rockhampton at the Pilbeam Theatre, which is a long two and half hour drive from home. I remember absolutely loving it and was so impressed by the world they had created.

It was Genevieve Lemon who played Dawn, the mentally handicapped daughter of one of the women who stood out for me most of all. I completely bought her character. When the play ended the character of Dawn literally melted away and this intelligent actress took a bow. I was so shocked and immediately thought – I want to do that.

What have you enjoyed most about working with Director Neil Armfield?
This is the first time I have worked with Neil and it has been a career long ambition to do so. Thankfully I can report that he is everything I had hoped for. He is very relaxed and calm. I've never heard him raise his voice or lose his cool, so the rehearsal room is fun. At the same time he is a perfectionist. Neil has an incredible eye for detail – so, get used to notes, notes, notes.

Neil is also very widely read and intelligent and curious about everything. You feel very supported in one of his shows.

Did you study The Doll during your USQ years?
I crewed the third year’s production of 'The Doll' when I was a first year at drama school. I absolutely loved it then as I do now. I remember Pearl as being starchy, which she is, but what I've discovered recently is that it’s a funny role too, it's really a brilliantly written role.

The play is set in Carlton in the summer of 1953, tell me about the production design from an actor’s point of view?
All the clothes and props are of the era, the set is too but it’s very pared back in design so that the emphasis is on the acting.

The Doll as it has become known over the years is considered one of the most influential plays in Australian theatre history?
Look, it's just a ripping yarn. It really is. All the characters are likeable and real. It's like a very satisfying three course meal.

What do you feel is the most enduring quality of the play for 2012 audiences?
Just the recognition that none of us have got our lives completely together, that we all struggle with life at times. Each of us, in our own way,  tries to find our own through line to happiness, just like Roo, Barney, Pearl and Olive do.

What do you feel are the most evergreen qualities of Pearl's character?
I don't know how Pearl would cope in the modern world, everyone is far too casual and their manners too lax! She does know how to laugh though and tell a good joke. She's also always very well turned out.

Tell me the details about the funniest moment during rehearsals?
It was trying earnestly to get through the Community Singing at the piano with Robyn Nevin (as Emma) without laughing. I have to sing flat, which makes Emma very cranky.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is now playing at the Arts Centre Melbourne, until February 18, 2012

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Charles Mercovich

Written by Paul Andrew   
Sunday, 15 January 2012 20:32

Marco is sick of his family pressuring him to meet a nice person and settle down, 
so he hires a straight male model to play his boyfriend. Landscape Dreaming is a fresh original Australian farce filled with sharp, witty dialogue, physical theatre, evocative music, visual sensations and outrageous costumes. Paul Andrew speaks to writer and producer Charles Mercovich about his latest play featuring during Midsumma 2012.

Landscape DreamingTell me something of your artistic biography so far ?
My first play Somebody Dug Up Daddy was put on at the University of Melbourne. It was heavily autobiographical, but I think all first works need to be.

In 1996, I was lucky enough to meet actors from the CPA (Adelaide) at a playwright’s conference and spent three weeks as a writer in residence to work on Dionysus Incarcerated. The play was about an overly-exuberant grandparent who lectures the apathetic occupants of a share house about their need to seize the day, and they end up punishing him.

In 1999, I collaborated with a composer, to deliver the book and lyrics for Devil's Snuffbox - A Musical. In 2001, I won the St Martins Young Playwright Competition with the short play, Blood Is Thicker Than Ink – a black comedy about writer’s block. That same year, I wrote, produced and acted in Doppelganger at Theatreworks.

Then I stopped writing plays and travelled. My love for theatre stuck with me, even throughout career changes. When I began teaching Drama at a secondary school, its insistent door knocking became impossible to ignore. I began working with a director of physical theatre, and my understanding of the modern stage broadened considerably. I set myself the goal of prioritising writing and producing theatre in 2011, and this was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

In 2011, Beneath The Floorboards was produced as part of the 2011 VCAA Drama Playlist and I wrote and acted in The Long Divide (for the 2011 Melbourne Fringe Festival). I am currently working on a new play to be shared with New York and Melbourne audiences later this year.

Is there a particular early memory you have where theatre or a stage experience absolutely enchanted you?
I played the Elephant Child in Grade One and dropped the oranges into the audience. It was my first understanding of the power of breaking down the fourth wall. As I got older, I kept acting but usually missed out on the parts I wanted. So I started writing works I could star in, and this drive for revenge and fame actually forced me to learn the theories about crafting plays.

A career highlight so far?
One of my most rewarding writing experiences occurred last year, when I was crafting a two-hander. We had done some of the devising on the floor, and the director decided it was time I developed the script, so we could begin rehearsals. With four weeks until the script was due, I had reams of plans but couldn’t get into the zone. Procrastination and distraction kept getting in the way, and we were on in six weeks.

So, I drove out of town and locked myself away at my sister’s beach house for a week. During the day, I was at the computer or doing creative development on the back beach. By night, I lit fires and worked to a tight schedule. As I was also acting in the show, I was on a strict diet and exercise regime to play a military-fit character. So, for the whole week, I embraced the whole world of the show. The director preferred that my character carry the weight of the text, so I developed stories, monologues, and poetry. By the end of the week, I had a raw two-hander that suited what we had found on the floor. It was an extremely fulfilling creative experience.

I recently tried the same thing with a show I am developing for New York. But just locking yourself away is no recipe for success. I ended up lying on the beach, cooking cakes, and came up with only a few pages that have been used for creative development. Unfortunately, the creative spirit will not always do your bidding in a time that suits. What I’ve learnt is you have to keep working regardless.

Landscape Dreaming is an “Australian farce”. Tell me something about farce as a genre, its tropes, its tendency to high exaggeration?
This is my first attempt at a full-on comedy. I’m very nervous. With drama, you work with pathos, inspire thought, and share meaning. With comedy, you do the same, but the Sword of Damocles is ready to drop, if people walk into a theatre expecting to laugh.

From what I’ve learnt from experience, reading, watching, and devouring books like The Cheeky Monkey by Tim Ferguson, farce is fast-paced with complications, mistaken identities and falsehoods. I love the idea of raising the stakes, and building chaos over the course of the play.

Landscape Dreaming presents a man who wants what he can’t have and gets it, only to lose almost everything he has in the process. It was fun working with characters that lie to themselves and to others about what they truly need. 

What makes this work "Australian"?
Landscape Dreaming is centred on Marco, a well-to-do, 30-something man who has almost everything he wants: the house, the car, the job, the friends; everything except the perfect boyfriend. We live in a country where we are privileged to have the opportunity to live a modestly successful life, and this is the starting point with the protagonist.

His best friend, Trent is similarly privileged. Trent is the more jaded of the two, and gets more of the sharper observations of the world around him. In writing these two main characters, I deliberately tried to avoid gay stereotypes. The best way to do that was to base them on people I know.

Tell me about the writer's joy you experienced while writing this work?
When I started writing Landscape Dreaming, I wanted to address the idea of gay marriage.

Personally, I am not overly-passionate about the issue. I think there are more issues of importance, such as the civil rights of asylum seekers. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t stand the homophobic vacuum-heads who have no other cause but to prevent the right to love. But I am actually quite apathetic and cynical about the institution of marriage.

I wondered, “Is it about love? Does love even exist? Isn’t friendship more important?”

Farce’s you adore?
One of the greatest comedies I’ve seen in a while is Arrested Development where the protagonist is surrounded by absurdly comical characters. Michael Hurwitz showed how it’s possible to have the central character flawed and supremely comic in his narcissism and self-delusion. This definitely inspired me to write comedy.

Describe your play in seven words?
Landscape Dreaming is a comedy about wanting what you can’t have (11 words).

It’s a part of the 2012 Midsumma month of cultural festivities, why so?
The play fits in with Midsumma Festival because it has been developed by both gay and straight artists and addresses issues of sex, sexuality, relationships and the importance of friendship.

Something funny that happened during rehearsals?
I tried to stay away from rehearsals as much as possible. It was a liberating and necessary step in the process. As producer, I have remained a part of Landscape Dreaming since the get-go, but it was much more fun to work away from the floor, and trust the show would develop as it needed to, without the writer needing to be there.

I occasionally got phone calls about certain lines, and had to bite my lip when some had been changed, and characters were interpreted in different ways. On the final day of rehearsals, I got to see the full show. It is always rewarding to see how something you wrote has evolved.

I am definitely interested in continuing to develop plays that incorporate layers of physicality and look forward to working with more artists in the future.

LANDSCAPE DREAMING, plays at La Mama Courthouse from Jan 18 – Feb 5, as part of Midsumma 2012.