Behind the Scenes
10 October 2023
Canberra born and bred, Paul McDermott returns to embark on a creative partnership and musical odyssey with Glenn Moorhouse and the Canberra Theatre Centre, fleshing out the bones of two different ideas. Ahead of the development, Paul articulates his experience of creating new material and of the challenge of stepping out of your comfort zone.
Insights from Paul McDermott
The first concerns a prominent politician. It’s lyrically visceral and highly critical of his political career. Over the week we also aim to make it factually correct, comically rich, and sonically beautiful. The central theme is a short piece of music that cycles and repeats – endlessly. The repetition is intentional. It works for us, but, will it work for the audience?
Our second objective is to clarify a larger and far more involved piece for multiple player/performers and orchestra. We’re seeking to find pathos and humour in a devastatingly dark and difficult time. The working title is ‘No Singing, No Dancing,’ a line Gladys Berejiklian used at the start of the 2020 health crisis. As someone whose entire life has been devoted to singing and dancing, it felt like a personal attack.
I’ve always found the first steps of creation the most thrilling. The moment the spark of an idea strikes, or something that’s been slithering about in your thoughts finally finds its form. That moment of clarity, of excitement and inspiration is very pure. Reality hasn’t crushed it yet. Once it’s outside the shell what follows is the sometimes complex, often chaotic, and occasionally torturous experience of bringing it to life.
An idea demands attention and needs to be played with, teased out, worked on.
It can be fraught when it’s so fragile and is forced to face dissenting voices. Or when self-doubt erodes it from within. But if it survives examination and scrutiny, the next step is presentation.
That’s when the material finds life – when it’s shared with others.
I’m returning to my hometown of Canberra, a city I’ve never really left, for a week of experimentation, exploration, frustration and madness. Glenn and I have been performing as Paul + 1 for three years. We were born in Covid and carry the scars. We are both looking forward to this week and working with The Canberra Theatre to bring something new into the world.
Canberra native, director Charley Sanders, is currently working as Assistant Director to Sarah Goodes on CTC and STC’s upcoming production of Julia by Joanna Murray-Smith. Charley reflects on the process, and how having grown up in Canberra influences her work.
1 March 2023
Insights from Charley Sanders
Assistant Director, Julia
At some point during our second week of rehearsals for Julia – the new Australian play by Joanna Murray-Smith exploring Julia Gillard’s life and influence – someone opined that director Sarah Goodes is near-unique among Australian theatre directors working today in how non-hierarchical her rehearsal rooms are.
It’s no doubt true that Sarah’s rooms lack much discernible hierarchy. She leads brilliantly, with instinct finely attuned to the team and with a vision for what we’re forging together, but always with the feel of a mother duck leading her wayward chicks on a journey. Sometimes forging ahead and allowing the line of ducklings to follow as they see fit, but more often encouraging them to run forth, take whatever path they will, and shepherding them back in the right general direction when one goes too far astray and risks falling into the pond.
It’s a style of creative leadership that is wonderful to watch and work under, but it wasn’t until someone pointed it out that I realized its rarity. This may be partly due to a few formative creative leaders encountered during my childhood and adolescence in Canberra, who in their way embodied a similar ‘lead from the rearguard’ approach.
When I was growing up in the Canberra of the 90s and early 2000s, there was no professional theatre industry to speak of. One had to move to Sydney or Melbourne if one seriously wanted to make a living as a performer or theatre maker. But there was an incredible community theatre scene, fueled in large part by artists who had chosen to make Canberra their home but had a deep commitment to the art of making theatre – so they made it in their leisure time, around jobs teaching theatre and drama at high schools and unis, or working in other industries.
I was a prolific theatre kid – I made my debut at the age of seven on the Canberra Theatre stage in HMS Pinafore and haven’t stopped looking for or making the next piece of theatre since. Among the many things I’ve always loved about theatre making, one of the most enduringly inspiring is the deep need for collaboration. The act of collective imagination that results in an imagined world richer than any one mind could concoct.
My fondest memories and earliest lessons in that art came from directors, performers, and other theatre makers in the community theatre scene of Canberra. Whether playfully exploring the imagined habits of a gang of Weimar vagrants to build a living world for Cabaret or picking and pulling at possibilities for simple theatrical gestures that would evoke the great love and heartbreak of living at the epicentre of the AIDS crisis in Angels In America. I can think of so many times that I was part of a group of makers who, under the loving hand of a leader who knew they alone didn’t have all the answers, found – together – something wonderful, something we would never have found alone, nor would we have found it in a constrained hierarchical space. It’s one of the great lessons of my creative childhood in Canberra that I carry with me to this day.
Growing up in Canberra taught me other things that have come in handy lately too. There’s a joke among theatre people that everything we know about the world we’ve learned from theatre; from the different times, places, people, and worlds we have researched and inhabited for the work of making it. For most people, working on a play about Australia’s 27th and first female prime minister might have meant a big learning curve in politics, but not for a Canberra kid.
I didn’t particularly think of Canberra as a political town when I was growing up there, but having now lived in a plethora of other towns, there’s no doubt that being in constant proximity and network with the seat of national political power does something to the way Canberrans think. There’s a recognition that the halls of power are filled with people who need a third coffee on a tired Friday just like everyone else because we’ve seen them at Kingston cafes buying it. And there’s a belief that the dirty, imperfect work of politics and policy can be a force for good – if you know the game – that learning the rules of the game can be quite fun, and that playing it is something we can all be a part of.
It’s a lived experience that has allowed me to bring some small, unique insights to the making of Julia, and I couldn’t be prouder to have contributed in that way.
We’ve got two more weeks of rehearsals in Sydney before the trucks get packed to head up the hill and open the show in the nation’s capital. It seems fitting for a play about a political life. I’m looking forward to a few weeks in Canberra’s crisp autumn air putting the finishing touches on this truly insightful and beautiful new addition to the Australian theatrical canon. I’m looking forward even more to returning to the building where I first fell in love with theatre twenty-eight years ago and sharing a couple of hours of collective imagination with Canberra audiences.