MADS About Theatre

28 Apr

The cast of theatre restaurant production, ‘Tiptoe Through the Tombstones’. David Warner is in the middle, wearing a black shirt.

When recalling his first time on stage, David Warner jokes about how scared he was. To those that know him as the tough director of the Gulgong Musical and Dramatic Society (MADS), this would be quite surprising.

After joining the MAD Society over 30 years ago as a favour to a friend, David Warner is considered the soul and driving force behind the amateur theatre group.

“I sort of got conned into it by Maurice Gaudry back in the late seventies,” David recalls.

“I remember the first thing I was in, my son Ian was about two years old, and all I had to do was sit on stage with Ian on my knee.  I was supposedly Henry Lawson’s father and Ian was Henry Lawson and I didn’t have to say a word but I was absolutely terrified.”

The MAD Society in the small town of Gulgong has been around for over a century, and has since grown to become a well-respected and professional group amongst the town and surrounds.  Their home, the Prince of Wales Opera House is the longest continually running opera house in the country, which is a credit to the group, who purchased the building in 1972 to prevent it from being demolished.

The group have managed to keep the Opera House running, by funding renovations and upgrades to the National Trust building through revenue from their popular shows and performances.

David Warner, who’s been directing now for over 20 years, credits the success of the group to the dedication and quality of the people involved.

“We’ve always attracted a really good group of people, I mean if you’ve got 50 people and you’re trying to pull them together and all work together, it’s not easy,” David explains.

“But the fact that we can do that intensely over about a three-month period, I think it says a lot about the people who are involved.”

The MAD Society has a reputation around town as being one of the most professional groups around.  David believes this is partly due to the strong direction and professional approach the group has taken over the years.

“When I first got involved, the director, Yvette Barwick ran a very tight ship,” David says.

“Yvette established that anyone who dared peek through the curtain or who arrived out in the audience in costume and make-up, she just read the riot act.”

David has adopted this strict approach to his directing, as many current and former cast members will know, especially when it comes to those precious two rules.

According to long-time member, Brian Cook, the wrath of David is enough to make everyone perform their best.

“The professionalism of the performances is better than anywhere I’ve seen, we’ve got a director that’s so cranky that we’re all scared like hell of him and that brings out the best in us,” Brian says chuckling.

Although for the past five to ten years MADS has been at its strongest, David worries about its future.

“Long term, I don’t know, because the unfortunate thing is people like my boys who get involved and do a fantastic job while they’re at school, have to leave the town to go to university or whatever, so we lose some really good people that way.”

With the majority of the cast over 40, David is hoping the future of the group will be secure with some of the younger members of the group.

“What we’re trying to do now is keeping a look-out for people in the town who are staying in the town who are a bit younger than us who can take it over, because it’s certainly a very worthwhile thing,” David says.

Although it will still be a while before David gives it up.

“Maurice always said to me, ‘when MADS no longer ceases to be fun, I won’t stay in it’ and I’m exactly the same,” says David.

Theatre’s history is worth it’s weight in gold.

28 Apr

The Opera House when it was originally built in the 1870s. Picture by Gulgong Information Centre.

“Rough-built theatres and stages where the world’s best actors trod, Singers bringing reckless rovers nearer boyhood, home and God, Paid in laughter, tears and nuggets in the drama fortune plays – ‘Tis the palmy days of Gulgong – Gulgong in the Roaring Days.” – Henry Lawson

Henry Lawson wrote about it, Dame Nellie Melba sang there and boxer Les Darcy fought there – the Gulgong Prince of Wales Opera House is rich in history and continues to provide the town with entertainment.

Built in 1871, the unassuming building situated in the centre of town, holds the title of Australia’s longest running performing arts theatre.

Over 140 years on, the building hasn’t changed all that much, not unlike the rest of the historic town, whose narrow streets and charming weatherboard buildings look as though they belong to a time long-gone.

Born on the rough goldfields, the Prince of Wales Opera House was originally a bark structure with a dirt floor and no roof, built by John Cogden during Gulgong’s thriving goldrush days.  At a time when Gulgong’s population was up to 20,000, the theatre was doing a roaring trade.  People flocked from the goldfields to be entertained by some of the world’s greatest actors, singers and dancers.

Booking organiser for the Opera House, Brian Cook, says that Cogden and his business partner, international actress Joey Gougenheim, were running two shows a day, seven days a week.

The Opera House as it is today. Picture by Gulgong Information Centre.

“They were making pretty good money,” Mr Cook says.

“I’ve seen some old programs and they say they can fit 2000 people in here, which I very much doubt, but maybe 1000, and the minimum price was two and sixpence, so if you work that out they had a pretty good income each day.”

“It’d be better money than you could make these days,” Mr Cook says laughing.

Gulgong’s population is now just over 2,000 and the Opera House seats only 340, however it continues to be used for everything from plays to concerts to movie nights and for the local Eisteddfod.

“During a typical year of 365 days, it’s probably used about 150 of those days,” Mr Cook says.

The theatre is the home of the local Musical and Dramatic Society (MADS), who usually put on a theatre restaurant or one act plays every year, which are very popular amongst the locals.  Not only do MADS use the opera, but they also own and run it.

Mr Cook, also a member of the MAD Society, says up until the early seventies the opera house was being primarily used as a movie theatre, however, with the introduction of TV, it was in decline.

“That’s how our Music and Dramatic Society came to take over the building because they were going to demolish it,” Mr Cook says.

Mr Cook says that the MAD Society are very lucky to be one of the few dramatic societies that own their own theatre.

“We pay a whole two dollars for membership, so it’s pretty heavy,” says Mr Cook laughing.

“Our major expense is insurance of course, because it’s a national trust building so that’s why we’ve got to run the shows, not only because of that but because we love doing it.”

The rustic building oozes character and charm.  The red velvet curtains are over a hundred years old, the blue-patterned velvet seats lining the rows are as old as they are uncomfortable and the wooden floorboards creak as you walk.  Some locals swear the place is haunted by the ghosts of those that had once trod the stage.  The original iron bark roof creates such impressive acoustics that microphones aren’t needed.

Mr Cook believes that is part of the appeal and why it has attracted some first class musicians such as pianist Roger Woodward and trumpeter James Morrison, who regularly return to perform here.

“We get good artists wanting to use it in between our shows,” Mr Cook says.

“We’ve got John Waters coming up in June, so that’s another major show.”

Strange Attractors of Physical Theatre

23 Apr

Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. Solomon will play one of three Robert Mapplethorpe’s in ‘Strange Attractors’, while Patti Smith will be played by seven different actors. Picture by Norman Seef.

When it comes to his future in theatre, Solomon Thomas is quite honest when he admits he doesn’t know which way to turn.

One thing is for certain, though, he is willing to twist himself into knots in the pursuit of his love of physical theatre.

In his latest production, Strange Attractors, the University of Wollongong performance student is not only acting in the play, but also co-directing and choreographing. And whenever possible, he is bringing his love of physical theatre to centre stage.

“The movement, physical theatre stuff, choreography is always a huge thing for me,” Solomon says.

“It’s always what I’m inspired to do and it’s always what I want to do.”

Besides first being introduced to theatre in year three when he played a pharaoh in Jospeh’s Techniclour Dream Coat, Solomon’s interest in physical theatre began a number of years ago when he joined a professional physical theatre youth company in Bega.  Although he has creativity pulsing through his veins thanks to his artistic parents, Solomon says his six years with the fLiNG Physical Theatre company has influenced and developed his love of theatre.

“That was like my starting in theatre and where it all comes from and that influences all of my work, especially this kind of stuff.”

As a physical, more external actor, Solomon has been struggling to learn a New York accent for his role as one of three Robert Mapplethorpe’s in Strange Attractors.

“My weakness as an actor is probably my voice, so that’s been really hard and I’m still struggling trying to get that accent,” Solomon willingly admits before giving us a demonstration.

“Can I some cawfee?”

Strange Attractors, a play based on the lives of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith and directed by Cath McKinnon, opens at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre on May 24th.

Emma Hoole

23 Apr

Emma in ‘Woyczek’

She may be a little rusty, but Emma Hoole is eagerly anticipating her return to the stage.

Having been involved in theatre throughout her teenage years, the second year Creative Arts Performance student lives for the stage and is looking forward to playing a crazy doctor in the upcoming performance of Woyczek.

This will be the first show Emma has been involved in since beginning her course at the University of Wollongong in 2011.

“It’s really exciting! I’ve done plays and that outside of uni before but I haven’t done it for a while, so I feel like I’m a little bit rusty.  But it’s so much fun; I’ve forgotten how much fun it is!”

Although her role in Woyczek, directed by Chris Ryan, has proved a challenging one, Emma is fully embracing it and enjoying every minute.

“It’s a pretty big part I guess, I have heaps of lines to learn, but I’m pretty stoked with it, it’s so much fun,” Emma says, unable to contain her enthusiasm.

“It’s such a caricature and it’s a really comic role as well, so fun to play around with.”

In order to prepare for the role, Emma has done a significant amount of research in order to perfect her portrayal of the doctor, who in the play performs crazy experiments on the lead character.

“I researched into scientific logic and how people use the left and right hemispheres of the brain,” Emma explains about her process of developing a walk for the character.

“I figured he’s a doctor and he probably uses a lot of his left brain, plus he’s a very curious character, so I kind of developed a walk where I walk really fast because he wants to get to his point, find out things really quick and kind of on his toes a bit because he’s really keen to know the facts I guess.”

One of the biggest challenges for Emma has been trying to find a voice and physicality for the gender-neutral character.

“There’s a scene where we’re at a club and we have to dance and first of all when we ran the scene I was just dancing like a normal sexy girl in a club and I was like, ‘wait a minute, I’m not a girl’. So I stopped dancing like that,” she says giggling.

When asked how one dances gender-neutrally, she replies laughing, “Like a real dag, basically, no hip action – it’s hard to restrain.”

Although she has struggled with the extra hours involved in second-year, Emma thinks it is worth every minute to be doing what she loves.

“I’m loving the course.  It’s really intense, I’m there 26 hours a week, it’s double the hours that I did last year, so it’s really full-on, but absolutely loving every minute,” Emma gushes.

And there’s nothing else she’d rather be doing.

When she first discovered the joys of theatre in year 8, after joining a theatre company in her home-town of Newcastle, Emma instantly knew that is what she wanted to do.

“I just thought, ‘oh my god, I could do this for a living’ type of thing.  It was the most amazing thing ever.  I don’t know what else I’d do really,” Emma says.

“I know it’s a really tentative industry to get in to, but I think it’s worth having a crack anyway because it’s what I love.”

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Time to re:group

23 Apr

A scene from ‘Floorboards#01’ – a site-specific work by ‘re:group’. Photo courtesy of re:group.

For someone who got into theatre because it seemed ‘like a fun thing to do’, Ryan McGoldrick has come a long way.

From doing drama in high school to co-establishing a theatre collective, the fourth year honours student can think of nothing else he’d rather be doing.

Although he does admit his direction has altered since beginning his degree.

“What I’m doing now isn’t anything like I thought I’d be doing when I came into the course three years ago when I finished high school.  I just wanted my name in the lights, like most people really, so yeah, I guess I’ve undergone a bit of twist on that,” Ryan says.

As a graduate of the University of Wollongong Creative Arts degree in Performance, Ryan played a significant role in forming the performance collective, re:group, which he says is something he had been considering for quite some time.

“Certainly for me, that was something that I really wanted to do,” Ryan says of forming the group.

“There was a lot of people in the year, in the faculty that I wanted to work with quite closely, so I just sent out a few emails and pitched to a few people, is anyone interested, and got a really overwhelming response and we’ve taken off since then.”

Ryan says that the group, which was established towards the end of last year and is made up of about 10 people, takes a cross-disciplinary approach to theatre, using a number of different mediums.

“Basically we’re just a collective of graduates from the performance course.  I guess we share an interest in aesthetically rich image-based work that crosses medium boundaries, so we play with obviously performance and the live body but also video and sound.”

So far, the group has put together two pieces that both explore what it is to inhabit spaces; Floorboards #1, which was a site-specific work and Brickworks, a video installation piece which was exhibited at Project Contemporary Artspace in Wollongong.

Ryan is modest in admitting that the group were chosen by the Wollongong Youth Centre for their National Youth week launch festivities.

He is also realistic in recognising the challenges of pursuing theatre, with re:group as well as personally.  He says that the biggest challenge, particularly in Wollongong, is finding an audience.

“I guess the challenges of any type of art endeavour in Wollongong is there’s just not a very large field of…I wouldn’t say interest, but you know, funding and stuff like that.

“It’s not something that I endeavour to make millions of dollars from.  I’m under no illusion for the funding restrictions and things like that in this country but having said that I’m absolutely dedicated to art, it’s what all of us in the group are so passionate about.”

And passionate he is.  Ryan’s love of theatre is obvious, especially when he gets to talking about hybrid theatre practices, which is the type of theatre he hopes to pursue.  No longer interested in being just an actor, Ryan has dabbled in writing and directing, and particularly enjoys experimenting with sound and video.

“Personally I’m leaning more towards the creative side of things now as opposed to on stage performing,” Ryan says, although he’s aware that he needs to keep his options open in this industry.

“I do believe that art is a utopian endeavour, particularly contemporary art, a lot of the kind of abstract ideas, the kind of Fantastical with a capital F, that you can engage with and ideas that you can engage with in contemporary art,” he says of his love of contemporary theatre.

“You can’t do that in any other institution or discourse in the world – its so boundary-less and exciting.  You can deal with so many issues and aspects of life and expression that you can’t in other institutions.”

Review: ‘Midsummer (A Play with Songs)’

10 Apr

Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon in ‘Midsummer (A Play with Songs)’

If you want humour, sex, alcohol, drugs, love and a bit of crime to top it off, look no further than Midsummer (A Play with Songs).

About a one-night stand between two people who really shouldn’t get together, and their weekend of adventure that ensues, Midsummer is a romantic comedy that will make you laugh, and at times, cringe at the hopeless mess of the lives of Helena and Bob.

Helena and Bob are, according to Cora Bissett who plays Helena, opposites with nothing in common besides being middle-aged, single and not knowing what they want with their lives.  Bob is a drop-out petty criminal and Helena is a career-minded divorce lawyer.

“They come from opposite ends of the spectrum and on paper they should never work,” says Bissett.

“But they’ve both reached stages in their life where they’re kind of in a real rut and they really don’t know how they’re going to go forward and the place that they’re in is not a happy one.  And they meet and something really works.  And so it is a very life-affirming story about finding hope and happiness in very unexpected places.”

And that it is.  Midsummer is guaranteed to leave you with that feel-good, uplifting feeling that romantic comedies do best.

A scene from ‘Midsummer (A Play with Songs)’.

However, this is not your average play.  With only two actors, Bissett, and co-star Matthew Pidgeon who plays Bob, the show is uniquely performed through a combination of acting, narration and talking to the audience.  This approach makes the audience feel a greater connection with Helena and Bob, as Bissett and Pidgeon talk through scenes, describing their characters’ feelings, providing background information and telling us what is about to happen before they switch back to acting and continue with the scene.

Not only do Bissett and Pidgeon play the two main characters, but they play all the minor characters too.   One minute Bissett is Helena, the next she becomes Bob’s gangster boss, or Bob’s son kicking round a football.  The ease with which both Bissett and Pidgeon change persona is impressive considering neither once leaves the stage.

“It’s just two of you on stage and it’s quite irreverent and it’s quite messy and you’re completely on the stage and there’s no kind of polite entrances and exits, everything happens on stage – you change on stage, you have sex on stage, you know, it’s all bared,” Bissett says of the challenges.

It takes a well-seasoned actor to convincingly play a man while still wearing a dress,   however, Bissett pulls it off expertly.

Although the set is Helena’s bedroom, the majority of the action takes place in other locations – a bar, a church, a park etc.  This sounds confusing, but with the narration from the actors, and the improvised use of space to pretend the bedroom is in fact a bondage club, for example, the audience is able to imagine the setting.

A scene from ‘Midsummer (A Play with Songs)’.

Music is used to help tell the story, however, the play is definitely not a musical.  Rather, an anti-musical, Midsummer features acoustic guitars and cutesy indie-type songs sung by the talented Bissett and Pidgeon, reinforcing the heartwarming, feel-good attitude.  All of a sudden, the two will grab their guitars and break out in song, which in a way adds to the comical side of the play.

The humour in Midsummer is one of its driving features.  It is blunt, satirical and at times crude – typically Scottish humour, which an Australian audience can much appreciate.  We are encouraged to laugh with the characters, at their most embarrassingly humiliating moments, as well as at the hopelessness of their situations.

“You’re going to look at the mess my life is in, but hahaha, isn’t it quite funny too? I think the humour is a little bit that, it’s kind of cheeky,” says Bissett.

Midsummer is funny, sad and romantic all in one.  For the young, middle-aged and young at heart, it has something for everyone.  We might not all be in our 30’s and facing a mid-life crisis, or still searching for our life partner, but we can all relate to that idea of change and the need to do something meaningful with our lives.  With outstanding performances by Scotland’s finest, Midsummer (A Play with Songs)is not one to miss.

The set of ‘Midsummer (A Play with Songs)’.

More Reviews:

Rom-com will melt hardest hearts

Midsummer (a play with songs)

Midsummer (a play with songs) – Arts Hub

Cora Bissett

10 Apr

The first thing that strikes you about Cora Bissett is her sense of humour – that contagiously cheerful laugh as she says something cheeky in her hearty Scottish accent.  She radiates an energy and sense of enthusiasm that you can’t help but be drawn to.

This exuberance is not just an on-stage act.  Bissett is one of those actors whose personality naturally seeps into her characters.  This is certainly true of Bissett’s latest role, where she plays Helena in the international hit, Midsummer (A Play with Songs).

Bissett admits she sees a lot of herself in divorce lawyer Helena.

“She’s someone who is very, very together in many ways.  She’s quite bullet-proof in her job and professional life, but there’s actually a lot of vulnerability underneath that and I think that can be true of a lot of us,” Bissett says.

“She’s someone that has a huge sense of fun.  I mean when she has this opportunity to let rip, she absolutely has a ball and discovers that maybe that’s her truer self.  And I think there’s that dichotomy with me.  I work extremely hard, I’m juggling 10 jobs all at once, but man I love a really good time!” she says laughing.

As she laughs about the fun-loving similarities between herself and Helena, you get the sense that Bissett isn’t joking – she really does enjoy letting loose.  Bissett jokes that her love life, or lack of, is one of the biggest things she has in common with Helena.

“Well, she hasn’t found her life partner,” she says heartily laughing.

“I’m still sampling, shall we say.  Experimenting, getting closer each time,” she says cheerfully through fits of giggles.

Bissett says that the decision to become involved in Midsummer (A Play with Songs) was an easy one for her.

“David Greig, the writer is one of our national treasures so I would have jumped at the chance to work with him and also to be involved in the actual creation of the piece.”

Bissett and co-star Matthew Pidgeon who plays Bob, not only act in the play, but based some of the characters’ adventures off their own embarrassing stories.

“Matthew and I were involved in the very early stages of putting it all together.  So the play’s sort of been built around us, with lots of us moving into it,” explains Bissett.

“It takes a really sort of interesting perspective on life and things, so it was just a great project to get involved in.”

For Bissett, one of the greatest appeals of the show was the freedom it gives her as an actor.  She says that it is different to your typical play because not only is she acting in it, but she’s talking to the audience and narrating at the same time.

“There’s just a kind of great liberty and feel about that and it’s kind of much more direct, it really is us talking to the audience.  There’s a real warmth – when we get it right and when the audience is really with us I think we all leave feeling like we’ve all met each other, you know?”

Although Midsummer is a play with songs, it is not a musical.  According to Bissett, it’s an ‘anti-musical’.

“It’s the indie, nerd, geek’s version of a musical which is just really three-chord songs, played on a guitar, totally live, no back-up, really kind of understated but just very honest, very earthy.”

Bissett describes Midsummer as a “life-affirming story about finding hope and happiness in very unexpected places.”

She says the humour in the play is very Scottish, which Australians will be able to relate to.

“Scott’s are really known for being incredibly self-effacing, we really like taking the piss out of ourselves,” Bissett laughs.

“So there’s lots of moments of humiliation and degradation, where you know, we’re encouraging you to laugh with us.  And it’s quite bleak at times, it can be quite dark.  You’re going to look at the mess my life is in, but hahaha, isn’t it quite funny too?  I think the humour is a little bit that – it’s kind of cheeky.”

Midsummer (A Play with Songs) opens at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre on Tuesday April 3 and will run until Saturday April 7.