Growing up in Hobart in the early nineties, I remember only two notable trips to the ‘mainland’. The first was a family holiday that culminated in a much-anticipated trip to The Phantom of the Opera at the Princess Theatre. I bought the glow-in-the-dark tank top.
The second was my school’s annual Grade 7 tour of the cultural highlights of Melbourne, the brightest of which, for me, were staying in a motel on my own for the first time – and Les Misérables.
Such formative theatre experiences are common to many Australians but for those children who live outside Melbourne or Sydney, and whose parents can’t afford to take them interstate, they are simply out of reach.
Craig Wellington, producer of the amateur production of Les Misérables that has just completed a three-week run at Hobart’s historic Theatre Royal, is very mindful of this reality for Tasmanian audiences.
“To pack up the entire family to go to Sydney to see a show is actually physically, economically, out of the question for a big sector of the community,” he says. “They might do it once in the entire period of the upbringing of the family. It is, however, plausible that they could afford tickets in their home town.”
The plan of attack
In fact, this production is the fourth amateur version of Les Misérables staged in Hobart since a Gilbert and Sullivan Society version back in 1995 - and it probably won’t be the last.
So why choose Les Misérables? Simple. Wellington asked. Out of a selection of prominent Hobartians surveyed, the overwhelming majority picked Les Mis as the musical they would be most keen to buy a ticket for. Give the people what they want.
And want it they do, with shows well-attended and an atmosphere of palpable excitement in the foyer of the Theatre Royal each night. Notoriously lax local audiences could be seen arriving early, with some even dressing up for the occasion.
“It was sort of serendipity,” Wellington recalls, “Setting up the Tasmanian Unit Theatre Trust and getting private investment to do a massive show, getting lots of people to take a little bit of risk each, made it plausible. Then an email arrived saying, ‘Les Mis is available’”.
“It’s immensely popular, immensely big and difficult, and I thought, ‘Well, if we’re going to put ourselves on the map, let’s not start small and grow, let’s play the highest stake risk we can and put ourselves on the map’.
What does ‘amateur’ mean anyway?
But with ticket prices of up to $70 are audiences getting what they paid for? What exactly is the difference between a professional and amateur production of a show like this?
Robert Jarman, a respected and prolific local director says: “This is certainly not amateur in its production values and the way that we went about doing it. But, yes, there are enormous differences. An amateur cast works on an amateur schedule and you never have the luxury of time to rework things. Essentially, the first time you do it you’ve got to get it right. There’s also a world of difference between trained and untrained actors”.
“But we’ve got extraordinarily good voices and probably 90 per cent of the cast are either trained singers or are undertaking training. From a purely vocal point of view, you could say that the cast that we’re working with is not amateur”.
For Wellington, it’s more straightforward. “The distinction, at the end of the day, is entirely legal. We’ve got the rights to present an amateur production of Les Misérables, so we have to present an amateur production. It doesn’t prohibit us from employing theatre technicians who are professionals but the performers and the orchestra have to be amateur performers”.
“The cast are volunteering their services because they want to do the show, want to have the opportunity to perform in Les Misérables. No one in Tasmania would ever be granted professional rights to a show like this. And funded government theatre companies must do what’s appropriate - they can’t do a cast of 40 with an orchestra of 20”.
“I get letters from people saying ‘It’s outrageous you don’t pay your cast’. Some of these cast members could sing anywhere in the world and in fact some of them have but they live here and want to do this. Thank God, because it’s great for the public and great for us”.
“‘Unpaid professionals’, we like to call ourselves,” laughs Di Richards, who plays the role of Madame Thenardier. Richards has been appearing in musical theatre for many years, including a long stint in dinner theatre.
The auditions were open to the public, Jarman explains, and a tone quickly set. “Once we started to put together a cast we saw that the real strength was going to be vocal quality”.
The cast includes stalwarts of local theatre, like Nicole Simms in the role of Fantine and Styne Ashton as Thenardier. The chorus is largely made up of university students and associated arts workers.
Brett Budgeon, who runs a singing studio in Devonport in the state’s north-west, appears as Jean Valjean. He’s been a soloist with the Sydney Philharmonic Orchestra and has performed lead roles in professional productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Oklahoma!
By contrast, Chris Richardson, cast as the ruthless Inspector Javert, takes on his first major dramatic role after an extensive background as a singer.
“I think the standard’s up there,” says Richardson. “In this show I think the line between amateur and professional is a little blurred”.
“We’re lucky to have the money and the backing to do a show like this at this capacity,” says Craig Irons, the 20-year-old performer who plays the role of the young hero, Marius.
“It’s an amateur show that’s costing the better part of half a million dollars,” says producer Wellington, pointing out a professional production would be more in the realm of $5 to $10 million.
Jarman is all too aware that you can’t do Les Mis on a shoestring. “There’s going to have to be a barricade, there’s going to have to be a gate - things that are so taken as read. Savings are made on a production like this is in the time in the theatre and in the technical time”.
Technical rehearsals for the show, with a running time of over three hours, were conducted in just two days. “Saturday, act one, Sunday, act two. Wednesday we opened”, says Jarman, with a slight grimace. “You compensate by planning incredibly well”.
Re-imagining Les Mis
But how do you bring something new to such familiar material? Should you even try?
“There are some things in Les Mis that you know are the way you do it,” says Jarman. “Act One finale they all do the famous Les Mis march on the spot. Well, if you didn’t do it the audience is sitting there thinking, ‘Whats going on here?’”
“One thing I was clear about wanting to achieve was to tell the story really well. Muck around with it or try to impose too much you’ll just run into trouble”.
Di Richards agrees. “I don’t think there’s any special mark you can put on it. I think you either play the role well or you don’t play it well,” she says.
But Jarman does have his own interpretation of the material. “There’s a line very early on that the chorus sing - ‘It’s a struggle, it’s a war’. We took that as the starting point that everything was a struggle, that nothing came easily”.
“We put in a lot of detail to create a world that was genuinely difficult, genuinely forbidding for those people to live in”.
“The director has taken the show in a different direction,” says Craig Irons. “It’s definitely more gritty, I think there’s a lot more realism and there’s a lot more detail placed on single phrases.”
The production is notable for the level of detail throughout the ensemble, with plenty of action to follow and mini-storylines. It also features some subtle reinterpretations of familiar moments.
The ABC café scene, for example, with its interplay between Enjolras, inciting the students to rebel, and Marius singing about his newfound love, is more humorous and complex than expected through the idiosyncratic characterisations.
Says Jarman. “Well, more fighting. There is a sense throughout of not just the oppression but of the aggressiveness when people are living under those circumstances”.
But what also emerges strongly is a sense of humour that goes beyond the show’s prescribed funny scenes, like ‘Master of the House’.
Theatre in Hobart
In Hobart people do go to the theatre. “Tasmania has an incredibly high theatre-going population per capita but you’ve got a small population base that can never supported large-scale commercial enterprise”, says Jarman.
“We’re never going to be running four funded professional theatre companies,” agrees Craig Wellington. “I think with the arts, individuals and small clusters and cooperatives have done far more than any sort of big, funded company has ever managed to achieve. There’s still great work created here. Great professional and pro-am and community work.”
Hobart with a population of 200,000, can provide a steady output of theatre. But while there are professional actors and technicians in Hobart, it’s not necessarily possible to make a living. “It would be very difficult to be a freelance performer in Tasmania,” says Jarman, who explains that, while he’s never short of directing work himself, he knows well he’s one of the lucky few.
“Certainly the freelance performers who are around need a tremendous multiplicity of skills. You can’t just say, ‘I'm an actor and that’s all I do’. You have to be a singer and you have to be able to turn your hand to puppetry and you have to be prepared to tour schools. It’s possible to carve a career in Tasmania but you’ve got to be flexible”.
Di Richards agrees. “Well, there’s not a lot of paid work but there’s an awful lot of talented people here. It depends on which way the wind’s blowing and where you are and the opportunities that come your way”.
The impact of a show like Les Misérables is undeniable. “One of the reasons is to give our best performers who stay in the state the opportunity to perform,” says Wellington, “That’s a valid and big reason. The second part of that is to empower them, to give them a big show experience, so also they get to work with theatre professionals in technical areas”.
A stepping stone?
But what about leaving Tasmania? After all, if you’re serious about theatre, you’ll eventually have to go where the work is.
Chris Richardson, a definite standout of this production, says he’s thought about it. “It’s something that I would consider doing but I guess I'm very happy with the life that I have in Hobart”, explains the father of three, who runs a private music school.
“For me personally what I do in performance and in acting is part of my life but it’s not all of my life.”
Craig Irons, on the other hand, is ready to make the move. “I’d like to make it a career if possible,” says Irons, who is studying musical theatre at the Conservatorium of Music.
A likeable stage presence with comedic flair, Irons knows Hobart is giving him significant opportunities to hone his skills. “There’s not a huge professional scene in Hobart, it’s just that there’s a massively strong amateur one”.
Such a career path is certainly possible - and sometimes long after the moment seems to have passed. John Xintavelonis, a very familiar face to Tasmanians after many years in local productions, was offered a role in The Lion King in 2005. He was 35 at the time.
“The change was not that big in that I already treated acting as a job and took it very seriously,” says Xintavelonis, who successfully capitalised on his big break and is now appearing in Billy Elliot in Sydney in the role of Mr Braithwaite.
“The main difference to me personally, with Lion King and now Billy Elliot, is that I only have to worry about acting and singing my role and everything else is taken care of by other professional people.” Quite a difference indeed.
I asked Xintavelonis what he thinks of Les Miserables, now that he’s looking at the Hobart theatre scene from an industry perspective. Does the production measure up?
“I think it was the strongest amateur production of that show ever produced in Tasmania, especially in direction and vocally”. But he adds, “It wouldn’t be fair to make a full comparison to a professionally budgeted production. It's like comparing a Toyota Corolla to a Ferrari, which has every luxury money can buy”.
Xintavelonis believes Tasmania provides an excellent training ground: “Because we have no professional industry, you get the best people working in amateur musicals and there are many advantages. Probably at the top of the list, it teaches you a great work ethic that is often lacking amongst certain mainland professionals”.
Last Saturday’s Mercury featured a front-page story farewelling the show, complete with a photo of three smiling actors and the quote, “Thank you, Hobart.” Sentiment aside, there is a definite sense that the community has given this enterprise its support.
“It was ambitious, we set our standards very high,” says Craig Wellington. “I don’t think we met them in every department but we came close and the public have embraced it and felt proud that this was here. Some mistakenly say, ‘Isn’t it good it came to Tasmania?’, to which we say, ‘No, you see everyone in this is Tasmanian!’ Which is a lovely thing to be able to say.”
“It is a big deal,” says Chris Richardson, who says ticket sales snowballed in the final week due to word-of-mouth. “I think people are actually surprised at the standard when they come to see it. There’s a lot of excitement”.
A strategy to build on
Creating buzz was what this production was always intended to do - with the aim of developing an audience base for big shows.
“You couldn’t budget a project on this scale with a show that no one had ever heard of,” Wellington explains, “But you can showcase the standards of artistic excellence, with something that people will flock to”.
“We’re not shying away from the fact we’re doing a big, bold populist work. With the aim being that it creates a surplus to do another big, bold populist work, and then in tandem with that to start doing some smaller scale stuff”.
“Possibly even non-musicals,” laughs Robert Jarman. “Possibly even plays, heaven help us.” He believes the key is providing consistent quality and high production values. “As long as we maintain faith with our audience, I think they will support it”.
“It would be great to do another big musical, one that’s completely different,” says Wellington. “We’ve got the rights to The Producers, which we desperately want to do. That would be a Tasmanian premiere of a brilliant traditional Broadway book musical.”
Jarman is optimistic: “I’d be very hopeful that after two or three more we’d be able to say, ‘Okay, now we want you to take a bit of a risk. Now we want you to come and see a show that will have exactly the same performance and production values but it’s not a musical. What do you reckon?’ And let’s see if they’ll follow us”.
“There is a very vibrant, healthy, high-standard amateur scene here,” says Craig Wellington. “But the term ‘amateur theatre’ implies a completely wrong thing. I think it should just be ‘theatre’ - and, well, ‘professional theatre’”.
Top Right - Producer Craig Wellington
Centre & Bottom Right - From Les Miserables. Photos by Tony McKendrick