Adelaide born Kris Stewart is the founding director of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. As a director and producer, his works have been seen in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand and he is currently Resident Director for the Australian production of Wicked. Kris spoke to Australian Stage's Melita Pereira about his latest production, Life's A Circus currently playing at Melbourne's Theatreworks.

Kris StewartWhat drew you to directing musical theatre and how did you get your start?
I think a lot of directors, when they start, think they're going to be actors. I spent a lot of my teen years while growing up in Adelaide, thinking I was going to be an actor. I did my B.A. in Adelaide and I when graduated from that I had done a little bit of stage directing, and a little bit of film directing and a bunch of acting. But I found that after I graduated, people didn't really want to cast me. So I was obviously much less cute than I thought! But a lot of the opportunities I started to get offered were directing opportunities.

I was running a small youth theatre company in Adelaide, and directing for them while I was doing other things as well. My direction of musicals got the most positive response. I did a whole lot of Sondheim musicals that were seen by the head of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) at that time who spoke to me about coming and doing my postgraduate at WAAPA.

There's never really been a strategy - at least, not early on. It was more kind of chosen for me. I kind of wandered arse backwards into it and woke up one day directing musicals! It's a weird turn of events, but over the years, I've found musicals suit my personality. I don't really have a personality for writing novels, or painting portraits. I enjoy the act of collaborating with people. I enjoy the dialogue, the conversation that happens and I enjoy working with a bunch of people, all from different perspectives. Musicals really give you that opportunity, above and beyond any other art form, because it is such a collaborative, communal experience.

How does your experience in New York influence your work here?
I was in New York for some time, probably six or seven years. I think I thought I would go there and experience something vastly different to Australia, but the talent level isn't incredibly different. If you're good in Australia you're probably good in New York, there are just more people like you.

One major difference there is that musical theatre felt centred to popular culture, whereas here, theatre itself is a little more peripheral to what goes on. Also the nature of New York and American sensibility is a little more entrepreneurial. Whatever your idea is, there'll be a bunch of people saying "yeah, let's just do it". I think Australians are a bit more reticent by nature. We don't want to rush into that kind of stuff and get ahead of ourselves. There isn't the same kind of level of aggressive sprinting towards something and then solving the problems later here.

There was a lot that I learnt there about the process of musicals, because it was such a key part of my life there. I don't know if it's physically possible to get that kind of experience in Australia because the number of new works are smaller. I was able to be a part of a large volume of work there, and you can't have that same experience here. So it's nice to come back to Australia and not feel as intimidated by the act of addressing something that's new. Because new theatre is such a difficult thing to do and there are so many challenges involved it's nice to not be intimated by it, to know that its something that's possible and realisable and just do it.

Drawing back to Australian theatre, what drew you to Life's A Circus and why were you motivated to direct it?
I've known Anthony Costanzo's work from when he was a student at Monash. A year or so after I graduated from WAAPA I spent a year working at Monash where Anthony was then a student. He was a very young guy then, probably first or second year. Around that time, he must have written his first show with a performer here in Melbourne named Mary-Ann McCormack. It was a very lovely show, clearly written by young people, but he was an obvious talent. Such a gifted composer. When I returned to Australia last year to start work on Wicked, Anthony was a cast member and we caught up again socially.

Then last year there was a concert workshop of Life's A Circus and he asked me if I'd come on board and stage it and in the act of doing that I realized it was a really exciting show.

Even though he had been writing Life's A Circus for a few years, it was still in the early stages of realising what the show really was. I think it was bringing on Peter Fitzpatrick and knowing that we had a deadline for this production that really heightened the necessity of saying "What is it about this show we really like?", "What is important?", "What's the most valuable element of it?" and "What do we want to focus on?" That has really helped us develop it into a better show. The more time we spent on it and bringing actors of this calibre in really allowed Life's A Circus to evolve something.

Anthony writes beautifully for the voice. He actually adjusted all three roles to suit these three performers, but also wrote these beautiful harmonies that they sing. It's just so warm and enveloping. It's a lovely aural experience. He's still a young guy, but he has a real natural gift for knowing where he wants the song to be and what it can do and what he wants the audience to take away from that song and I think that that's what is really successful in Life's A Circus.

What was the specific talent you spotted in Anthony Costanzo at that time?
It's actually a melodic talent. The thing he does that is surprisingly rare is how melodically inventive he is. He writes stuff that just catches on your ear and it's not an exaggeration to say that he would be in the top 5 composers that I have worked with at my time at New York Musical Theatre Festival. It's such a rare gift to be able to write great melodies.

People think that that's the easiest part of the job, but there's a lot of very successful musicals that don't have the weight of good songs the way Life's A Circus does. That's innate in him, it's not learned. It's something that his ear has.

You mentioned earlier the process of working with the music and composer to get the show that you ultimately have in Life's A Circus. What were the key factors that you and your collaborators picked up on when you were working together?
I think different collaborators bring different perspectives. When Peter Fitzpatrick came on board for this production, both of us wanted to flesh out what was at stake in the show, what was at stake in the book. Because the characters were originally written to be mid to late twenties, one of the things we did for this production was to flip some of the ages. We made the two friend characters quite a bit older, sort of in their mid-thirties. The guy they both fall for is in his mid-twenties and so it starts to have a different context where its not so much the literal narrative of this person arriving and two people falling for him. Rather, you start getting a sense of a life beyond the show and why they need someone. This mid-thirties anxiety, this feeling of "What do I really have to show for my life?" gives some of the relationships and some of the choices the characters have to make a deeper drama. I think, there's more at stake.

Given that musicals are a very specific genre of theatre, tell us what its like working with a composer like Anthony and what considerations do you take into account when directing a production like Life's a Circus?
I think, especially with new works, you have to be very respectful of the idea that no ones really seen this before. People don't necessarily have a pre-conceived idea about it. But also, you need to slightly put your ego aside and realise it's not all about you. It's not like a production of Macbeth that you can bring a fantastic new concept to. You have to realize that you're serving the show because this might be its only chance. So you need to present what the writer is going for in as good a way as possible, so it's not an opportunity lost for them.

You're also coming at it with the idea that the audience don't know these songs, they don't know the story and they are hearing everything for the very first time. So you need greater clarity in your storytelling. You need to make sure the moments are really clear and people can understand them and also that they're exciting. Also in musical theatre, people aren't used to hearing lyrics as part of a story. So its partly about making sure that you're giving it an audience's ear and ensuring that moments of music that need to land are really landing all the way through so that people stay engaged and stay right where you want them to be in the story.

As a director, how important is it to you to have an audience that's invested in the characters and the story?
Absolutely. I think different director's prioritise different things. I've never been a director that wants to direct because I'm interested in form, for example. Mostly what interests me is story telling. It is that people get really engaged by the story and identify with it and find something they recognise in the story. I like them to be surprised and feel like things are unexpected. You don't want the audience to get ahead of you in the story. But I also don't think just showing off good music or great concepts for its own sake is a particularly worthwhile thing to do. I think that's great, but its just not for me. So I find the main thing that is important to me when I'm in the room is making sure that the story is immediately clear and moves quickly and grabs your attention and that it takes the audience with it. I'm also conscious of their attention span. Coming as a relatively young director with a relatively short attention span, I want to make sure that it moves as quickly as their mind moves so we don't stay somewhere indulging something, we keep the forward momentum.

Given that musical theatre is such a popular genre in New York, why were you motivated to found the New York Musical Theatre Festival?
There seemed to be a really big gap in NY. There seemed to be a lot of support for writers, to put on a reading or do some early development, but nothing beyond that, so many musicals that seemed to end up in people's draws because there wasn't that mid-level.

I guess to a certain degree, that's what Life's A Circus is. You hope it isn't the last time the show is produced. It is identifiably a full production. It's fully staged and it has great talent and is visually interesting, but it's not a $10 million production. It's just a chance for us to get the work up and seen and I think that's what was really missing then in New York. Somehow, there wasn't an opportunity for writers to self-realise their work and get their shows on because musicals are so expensive and resource-heavy. And another part of it was that it seemed really odd to not have a musical theatre festival in New York. So I thought "we could do this".

It's such massive task to get something like that off the ground, how did you get it from the concept to the reality?
A lot of it was just by standing up and saying that "This is happening". And I think that if you say it enough, people go "oh okay" and accept it. It was literally a force of will because there was no money in its first year. I think it was partly that once it was happening, there were enough people that wanted to see it exist. There were a lot of people in positions of power that thought it was a great idea, but never thought it would actually happen. In some ways, I had nothing to lose, because it if it went really terrible, I could just come home to Australia and no one would know what had even happened.

Reputation unscathed?
Yes! I could fly back to this side of the world and say what a lovely holiday it was in New York and no one would really know. So it was much easier for me then. I don't know how many of these things you have in you in your life. I don't know that I've got another one in me, but at that point in my life, it just felt like something I was desperate to see happen. I think it was the biggest achievement in my career and the biggest flag I was able to wave. When I came to NY there was part of me that wanted to have done something significant in my time there. I guess I was as scared that I'd spend three or four years living there and come home and not have enough to show for it. So it became a really important opportunity and a really important thing for me to ensure that I tried.

Why did you choose New York to host such a festival?
To a certain degree, some elements of that festival could only have happened in New York. You needed a critical mass of performers, venues, writers and producers. You needed a lot of those things together, because there was a cross over point for all of them where, for different reasons, they all wanted to see this kind of festival exist, but not enough to be the ones instigating it. They needed someone else to kind of take advantage of that and bring that to bear and that was what we did. We were able to speak different languages to these different groups to say, "Here's why you need this". So they all came on board and they weren't expected to be the sole force making it happen. But actors and producers loved seeing it happen. It was great to have this festival happening. So everyone had a reason as to why this festival was worthwhile. They just needed someone else to press the button to make it happen.

How do you find the musical theatre scene in Melbourne?
I think Melbourne is the musical theatre capital of Australia. That's probably true of performing arts in many ways. A lot of the great talent is here and certainly company's like The Production Company and the venues that we have here give it a really vibrant identity. Company's like Magnormos exist well here.

Melbourne maybe moves a bit slower, but it has a greater foundation of people that care for this kind of work. A lot of great theatre companies needed to happen in Melbourne before they could exist anywhere else and I think there's really incredible talent here and I've always thought that. One of my ambitions in the future is that I hope more work like this can take place in Melbourne because I think there is an audience and I think there's a need for it. So, hopefully we'll see greater and greater support for this kind of native Australian musical theatre works. Especially works written by us. But, even if they are internationally written works, works that are staged by Australians, cast Australian which feel very contemporary and are of our country at this moment because that's rare and I think we need more of that.

Because Anthony's music in Life's a Circus is so brilliant, do you know if there's a chance of having a recording of the production?
I think we'll do a cast album. We've been talking about that over the past week. Most of the work has been done to get it ready so now it might be that at the end of the season we get everyone together and give them a chance to record everything in the studio and that's not a particularly difficult thing to do. It think it's important though. As things get lost, we need this kept for posterity. We need it to be heard by other people and a cast album is something that allows that to happen and I think I would like to say its almost a certainty that once we get to the end of the season that we will get the cast to record it. We would love for people to know that before we get to the end of the season because I think a lot of people who have seen Life's A Circus would love to have a copy of the recording. There are some great songs in the musical.

Finally, what can we expect from you in the future?
That's an interesting question. I just love the chance to be back home again and I've enjoyed the chance to be working with Australian authors. The thing that excites me most is the chance to be able to assist people like Anthony getting these works seen in Australia.

I think if there's anything long term that I would like to contribute it's to keep expanding the level of support and volume of activity that happens in new musical theatre here in Australia. I think it's a vital part of what we do and I think it's reasonably under-serviced. I think if you look at how engaging musical theatre is and how much Australians enjoy it, compared to the level of support it's offered, it's really kind of tragic that there isn't more of this work seen and produced. I do think though that there is a slow tidal wave of change toward recognising the value of musical theatre here and how incredibly skilled our creators and performers are. Hopefully if there's anything that can happen in my future it would be a greater involvement and a greater contribution to seeing more of that happen.

Life's A Circus plays at Theatreworks until August 15. Further details»

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