Musical Theatre in Brisbane and Where to After Graduation: a few thoughts from 2012

Theatre sign

It’s that time in the year when I look back over the one almost gone and think about the changes that have happened. I have had quite a few conversations of late with young men and women about to enter the profession. All are ready; all are hungry to work.  Where to now? Then this from 2012 appeared as I was clearing out old files. I’ve dusted it off and am posting it here. How have things changed? Much, little, not at all? What do you think? Join in. 

April 9, 2012

A few weeks back I found myself in front of a lot of Harvest Rain interns at one of their regular Friday Behind the Red Curtain seminar sessions. On the panel (chaired by Artistic Director of HR, Tim O’Connor) were three other actors: Steven Tandy, Bryan Probets, and Cameron Hurry.  As you’d expect, the students’ questions and subsequent discussion revolved around the business of acting.

One of the questions put to us was whether, after training, taking work in an amateur theatre production would mean an actor would not be ‘taken seriously.’   The response to the query was an emphatic ‘No,’ from all of us – with the caveat that an actor needs to seek out work with the best people, and especially when getting started.

Each of the actor-panellists at the session had either begun their stage careers in amateur theatre or have returned there from time to time – for various reasons. There was no local training, for example, when I left school and the newly-created NIDA was barely a blip on anyone’s radar. Times have changed and there are many training avenues available to those who wish to make the theatre their life-calling or profession. For those who, for whatever reason, are not able to train like the many successful professional actors who started down other career pathways, other avenues need to be sought. Often it means seeking work in local amateur productions. Then there are those who do manage to get a place at a formal, award-granting training institution or a commercial training enterprise. Where to on graduation?  Getting representation with an agent is seen as a goal and, whether or not successful, it’s a case then of getting showcases for your work, finding what’s casting and doing the rounds of auditions and screen tests – in short, working at your chosen career.

The fact is most recently-graduated actors will be unemployed for most of the time; acting’s a part-time job after all. What’s a young actor to do? Most would rather do something instead of waiting for the phone to ring.

Amateur theatre has always been and will continue to be legitimate as a career pathway for many – often the first step along the way. However, for others, it’s a leisure pursuit which many do for the sheer love of it.

I was in the audience last weekend for the Ignatians’ current production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd directed by John Peek. It was my first experience of their work which, as their website puts it, has professional standard aspirations whilst still maintaining an amateur status. I’ve seen the work of Blue Fish – last year in their production of Guys and Dolls. This company aims to provide professional pathways for their members. The Empire Theatre Projects Company in Toowoomba has produced hugely successful musical productions for over 10 years now. I saw their The Wizard of Oz last weekend. I have served on the Board of the Empire for nearly 10 years and can vouch for the quality of the work and for the opportunity the EPC continues to give to young (and not so young) artists seeking to develop their skills. Many have gone on to professional careers or are in training now.

The home-made, musical theatre scene in south-east Queensland is pretty much either part-time independent or amateur. Fully professional musical theatre companies are simply economically unsustainable in their current models. The big, commercial tours of blockbuster musicals appear usually at QPAC, but it is currently left to companies like Oscar, Harvest Rain, Blue Fish, the Ignatians, Joymas Creative and Zen Zen Zo in Brisbane, and the Empire Theatre in Toowoomba, and the Gold Coast Centre to showcase the work of local artists and creatives on local stages.

The independent-professional companies which do produce work can do so only because someone in the ranks is subsidising the production, whether by taking a cut in pay or by working for no remuneration. It’s a business model which has currency for the simple reason that producing musical theatre is a hugely expensive enterprise. However, it’s not all smell of an oil rag stuff. A member of a local amateur musical company recently used the term ‘pro-am’ to describe the nature of another company which hires creatives – usually in executive positions like Director, Designer, Choreographer or Musical Director – in order to produce shows as, indeed, does the Empire Theatre Projects Company for its productions. In most companies, the performers agree to a ‘profit-share’ (a term that usually meets with hoots of laughter amongst my actor mates), or an agreed stipend. Rarely do these come even close to covering expenses let alone provide a living wage during the project’s life.

With the coming of the Conservatorium of Musical Theatre course under Paul Sabey, there will be an even larger potential group of well-trained, young, triple-threats looking to work here and elsewhere. I, for one, am excited for the future of musical theatre in the state – as long as it’s not all blockbusters.

As the old saying goes, there are many ways of skinning the proverbial cat, and perhaps just as many to make the theatre one’s life calling or profession. The high quality production work emerging from many of the state’s pro-am/community/amateur theatres is one of these career pathways, and one that I found myself (along with my colleagues) recommending to the young Harvest Rain interns. Seek out the best and work with them. ‘For the sheer fun of it,’ certainly but for a terrific opportunity to learn and to be seen.

Author: Kate Wilson

Actor, director, teacher, dabbler with paint, serial traveller.