Killing It For Kicks – An Analysis of Jekyll & Hyde The Musical

Jekyll & Hyde The Musical was recently staged in Ballarat for the first time by Ballarat Lyric Theatre Inc, at Wendouree Centre for Performing Arts. In terms of production values and performances, the show really was excellent. A jaw-dropping set, belting vocals and crisp choreography lived up to the hype. And yet, I felt so deeply uncomfortable during the performance that I nearly walked out of the theatre.

Based on the classic story by Robert Louis Stevenson and featuring a thrilling score of pop rock hits from multi-Grammy- and Tony-nominated Frank Wildhorn and double-Oscar- and Grammy-winning Leslie Bricusse, the content of this show is presented as entertainment, but I don’t enjoy watching a woman get raped and murdered, no matter how well she sings.

Jekyll & Hyde has been described as cross between Phantom of The Opera and Sweeney Todd. Unfortunately it combines the worst parts of those stories – the jealous controlling of a woman the protagonist professes to care for, and the protagonist reveling in violence for the sake of it.

It is the very existence of Hyde, allowing Jekyll to be unaccountable for his actions, that made this story so unpalatable. Acutely aware of the harm he is doing, as he lies to his employees, ignores his fiance, and manipulates his trusting friend John, Jekyll is forever held at arm’s length from the horrors his experiment inflicted. The appearance of his alter-ego Hyde effectively makes him a victim of his own violence, instead of being the cause of it, which he most certainly is. Jekyll is never allowed to reconcile his two sides and acknowledge that good people – good men – indeed do evil things.

In Lyric’s production program, the director’s notes made no mention of the social context into which this production was being offered. The story could have been a perfect vehicle for an exploration of the effect of toxic masculinity and what happens when suppression of men’s emotional needs leads to them acting in violent ways. Switch the big gothic Victorian era London laboratory for a suburban Australian shed, and the chemical experiments for a couple of stubbies and suddenly the two faces of Jekyll & Hyde are not so unfamiliar. It is a horror story which many loved ones endure in reality – the two faces of a man who uses substance abuse to mask his anger and an alter ego to take the blame for his negative choices. A man who manipulates those around him by alternately showing his loving and caring side, and the face of his ‘chemical’-fuelled anger.

It’s 2019. There is really no need to see a man killing people or raping women on stage. I know a lot of people like horror as a genre, and this is what Jekyll & Hyde offers, but considering that in Australia, one in six women, and one in 16 men have experienced real-life horror as a victim of sexual assault, the themes are too close to home for many.

I’m not advocating for never telling these types of stories or avoiding all violence completely. On the contrary, I’m interested in seeing stories which explore these topics. But so many of the depictions of violent acts in Jekyll & Hyde did not add to the story or character development, and seemed to be included only for kicks.

For example, in Jekyll & Hyde, the scene where Lucy presented at Jekyll’s rooms for medical treatment and showed the wounds inflicted by Hyde is so subtly effective. We didn’t need to see him inflicting them to understand what he was capable of. We don’t need to witness the rape or watch men being slain to understand that those things are horrific. The sight of bleeding scratch marks down a young woman’s back is horror enough, surely?

The story of Jekyll and Hyde still has merit, it still has things to teach us. However the story must be reframed for the modern context, it must make a social commentary on today’s struggle with the epidemic of violence that infiltrates so many of our lives. If there is not a strong message behind the performance, then it serves to further normalise these behaviours. Leave more to the imagination, be less explicit but more thought provoking. I would have liked to see the complexities of the story and its relevance to the conversation in the age of #MeToo brought centre stage, not hidden within a production that was – to pardon the pun – killing it.

If you or someone you know is experiencing violence or abuse, you can contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or through online chat.

Flashback Friday – Poem – “Mistress of The House”

This poem about my Nanna, who passed away in October 2016, was written shortly afterwards. It was then part of the Minerva Speaks project in March 2017.

A performer read the poem as Minerva from the highest balcony of the Ballaarat Mechanics Institute while audience stood in the Titanic Bandstand and listened to the live broadcast of local literary works.

 

 

The Mistress of The House
A poem for my Nanna.

A yellow brick house called Remuera
Full of wonders
Silver bells and tiny shells
For playing bridge
We use as money for a shop
Stop and hide the thimble now
Go and look with nimble fingers
Turning over precious things
And sneaking through the Den
Getting warmer
Warmer still
Our hearts fill up with love
For our Nanna
Calm and safe and a little bit stern
But a twinkle in her eye
Tiddly-winkle
And so many wrinkles
I take her hand
And pinch her skin to see how quickly
It falls back into place
She commands her space
From a brown chair
She is always there it seems
At Clairmont Ave
Baking rock cakes
And making cumquat jam
Squatting in the garden
And popping up to Bentleigh shops
Gently guiding us and showing us
The best way to be kind
The be funny, to be bold
To be thankful and to be old and wise
In this guise it’s harder to see
That in her youth she was a beauty
But more than that
She was courageous
Her stories tell of places far away and foreign
Of black boys and lost boys
And little graves on islands out to sea
Of colourful hats made beacons
And of four sisters dark and bright
We cast our minds back to a beach
Where Nanna dives into the surf
And smiles ruddy-checked and sticky with salt
We can taste that curried egg
And soup and bread
And at the back of our throats now
A lump is forming
All the ferns and camellia are still
Adorning her front door
But the mistress of the house is there no more.

Where Is Ballarat’s Professional Theatre Company?

This article was commissioned by the Central Highlands Arts Atlas and first published on 12 February 2019.

Ballarat is a self-proclaimed creative city. We have one of the country’s longest running heritage theatre buildings and a big modern theatre, both of which present a range of professional performances each year. We have a well-regarded tertiary training academy for actors and musical theatre performers. We have three community theatre companies as well as a number of highly successful performing arts schools. We have the annual Royal South Street competitions and we have performing arts creatives working at Sovereign Hill, Kryal Castle and as teachers.

So why don’t we have a professional theatre company?

Late last year, I interviewed a number of local female theatre-makers. When I asked them about the theatre scene in Ballarat – encompassing theatre made by community groups, independent professionals and students – some core narratives emerged. The consensus was that Ballarat has a under-supported independent theatre scene, with equitable access to small-medium sized professionally fitted-out theatre spaces and lack of support for development  and production being major barriers.

The first major barrier to the establishment of a Ballarat based professional company is space.

While hiring a 600-seat theatre is appropriate for the next big community musical, the presentation of drama requires intimate spaces. It is true there are plenty of halls and function spaces that could host a performances, and often do, but the lack of adequate technical equipment and backstage facilities means the production values are low and is inconvenient for the actors and crew.

To hire one of the few professionally fitted spaces in town – owned and operated by educational institutions – are either prohibitively expensive or perpetually unavailable.

This situation forces theatre-makers to hire sub-standard spaces which in turn means sub-standard productions. Hire fees are not cheap, and so spaces are used only for the season, limiting time to rehearse in a space or spend time in development of new works.

Which brings us to the second barrier, the investment of money & time.

Creatives are often choosing not to follow through on new theatrical work, because the risk is too high and the effort is not balanced by the return. Creatives who must be not only writers, performers and directors, but also project managers, marketers, publicists, technicians, designers and often funders become burnt out very quickly, preferring to sink their energy into local paying jobs or simply moving away to where there are more opportunities.

Those that do stay and make work just want to get on and put on a show. Most are doing it around a paying day job, and therefore are unable to dedicate the time needed to ensure the work is of high quality. This means that we have a vibrant but low quality independent theatre scene. And that hurts everyone because without high standards, we cannot hope to convince funders of investing, and audiences who are interested to try theatre are not compelled to return.

In order to encourage a higher quality of work, we need to offer creatives time, financial remuneration and peer support. They already have the desire to work and the passion to create theatre, but with all the investment and risk taken upon themselves, it’s easy to choose not to bother.

With a small amount of investment by council, existing venues and professionals in business and arts administration, Ballarat will truly become a creative city.

There are two avenues to establish a professional theatre company in Ballarat. Firstly, we establish our own. We have enough creatives in town with experience and willingness. Many are already doing the work in a self-funded way. Many graduate from university each year and rapidly disappear seeking work. Many are involved in community theatre but are wanting more. Some start-up funding and a space, with some support for administration and strategic planning to ensure the company is sustainable would allow the creatives to do their best work. An example of this in practice is City of Greater Bendigo’s Performance Subsidy Program which offers no-cost hire of a black box theatre  for up to 7 days. This opportunity for subsidised use of professional spaces and staff can be used – and is designed for – the development and presentation of new theatrical works. A similar in-residence program is now being offered by Castlemaine’s Phee Broadway Theatre.

Secondly, we can invite an existing company to move here. Arena Theatre Company, a long-running company making theatre for young people, relocated to Bendigo last year, and has already made an impact on the local theatre industry. The move came after the company lost federal funding and the board developed a strategy to re-develop as a regionally-based theatre company. Supported by local and state government, the company are now the in-residence company in Bendigo’s council run black box theatre The Engine Room. The company collaborates with young people from the Greater Bendigo Region in the research and development of all of their new work, and then premiere that new work locally before touring it nationally and internationally. In March 2019, they are launching a new development lab, in which creative teams from across Australia will join local theatre-makers to develop new works, network, discuss work, speak with presenters who will also attend.

Investment of this kind is essential if we want a thriving independent theatre sector which encourages new talent to remain in our region and if we want to expand offerings to audiences and build audience literacy around what theatre is and can be.

With the new Creative City Strategy from City of Ballarat, and venues like The Lost Ones and Ballaarat Mechanics Institute beginning to partner with performing artists, rather than operating as simply venues for hire, there is hope that we will soon see a flourishing of independent theatre in the region.

 

What I’ll be up to in 2019

It’s mid-February and I’ve got a full year of exciting projects which I’m really pleased to share with you.

I’ve co-written a play with Jacob Honeychurch called The Belly Dancer. Tripwire Theatre Inc. are presenting the world premiere season in Bendigo from 15-18 March. I’m producing the season so I’m really busy getting everything organised before opening night. I’m also super excited to see what the cast and director Alise Amarant have made of the writing. You can book tickets here.

Mid-year, I have my auto-biographical play The Let-Down Reflex premiering in Ballarat. I had two days of development in January with my actor Kate Suter and stage-manager Katrina Hill and we showcased some of our work in progress. We got great feedback from the audience about how we can improve the show and also a lot of love for Kate and the stories in the script. So we’ll be heading into rehearsals for that in the next few months with a view to a season in June. Stay tuned to my website and facebook for announcements about LDR.

I have a series of workshops lined up for 2019. The first two I have secured are thanks to Art In Dereel. I’ll be heading down to Dereel to run a Spoken Word workshop in May and my Short Play In A Day workshop in July. If you’re interested in joining me or if you’d like to book me for another one of my workshops, you can send me a message on my workshops page.

I’m very happy to announce that I’ll be directing for Hobo Playhouse, based in Maldon. I’ll be directing Jeffrey Bryant-Jones in a one man show called The Carer, by Alan Hopgood. The Carer will tour to three locations in Central Victoria in November.

It’s going to be a busy year, which is just the way I like it.

 

Starting School

Yesterday, my eldest child started school.

I’ve been counting down for five years until this moment. I thought I would skip off merrily after dropping him on the first day, and with a big sigh of relief have myself a mid-morning cocktail and a rest. I was sure I wouldn’t cry.

 

But there I was on Sunday, alone in my house while the kids are with their dad, balling my eyes out.

And there I was on Monday, in the school kitchen, listening to some other Prep parents chat about how drop off hasn’t affected them, watching my daughter and ex-husband eat slice and weeping into my tea.

I was crying not because I’ll miss him being around during the day, although I will. Not because I’m proud of him, although I am. Not because he wasn’t ready or seemed too little, because he was raring to go.

I’m upset because it means the hardest five years of my life are over. There is a sense of achievement, and yet this celebration is bittersweet because I still feel like a failure.

Firstly, my identity as a mother of two preschool aged children shifts again and I am one step closer to the reality of what I will do with my time when both of my children are at school. In the next two years, I will need to ensure that my chosen line of work reaps enough financial rewards to fund my life – and meet my children’s needs – and I’m terrified because it probably won’t.

Being a mother of two children at home is really tough, but it’s still a luxury because my life is funded (to the bare minimum, don’t get me wrong) by the government. Thanks to that, I’ve been able to be more artistically prolific than ever in the past five years. Looming on the horizon is the day I am no longer eligible for Parenting Payment and my efforts in making a living from making theatre and writing will be tested.

Secondly is the fact that the family I thought I was bringing this child into no longer exists. While we were able to wave goodbye and wish him luck at the classroom door together, the nuclear family portrait only has a passing resemblance to our dreams and plans of five years ago. After we drop off our son, I will take my daughter home and their father will go his separate way until the next co-parenting event.

This moment of shared parental joy will forever be underscored by our failure as a couple. I think I did more to nurture and prepare him for school, and I resent that burden of the uneven load enforced by our separation. I’m sure his father feels like he has missed out on moments of his childhood and resents that too.

So in my moment of pride, I am distracted by worry – not that our son will be bullied or find the work difficult or have separation anxiety – but that our failure will mark him somehow.

Buddhism says that if you are sad, you are living in the past, and if you are anxious you are living in the future. I find really hard not to follow these thought paths – one into the past and one into the future – at pivotal moments like this. It’s hard to just concentrate on how proud my son is of his new uniform or excited he is at the new books and pencils waiting for him at his desk when my head is a whirl of future worries and past regrets.

So I am starting school too. I’m committing one evening per week to attend drop-in meditation classes. They start tonight at the Ballarat Mechanics Institute. Unfortunately I will have to wait until next week as I have another event on tonight! But as of next week, I will invest more in my own mental well-being, and hope to break this habit of following negative thought patterns. I’ve found reading about Buddhism to be helpful so far, and now I’m keen to learn about actually practicing it. I hope that my learning means that I can fully appreciate the moments in my life for what they are – full of joy, pride and love.

Flashback Friday – Poem “Another Scorcher”

I maintain that a flashback to a month ago still counts. I wrote this poem in the middle of the night, by the light of a streetlight on a random piece of paper near my bed. I read it at last month’s Words Out Loud but unfortunately my set was not recorded so it’s performance was not kept for prosperity.

Another Scorcher
The sheets radiate heat like the mirage
Shimmering off the sticky black tarmac
I can’t stand the street light but I have no choice
But to sleep with the windows open
Desperate for any breath of air
The sound of a baby crying wakes me in the night
It takes a minute to realise it’s not mine

In the morning I’m thankful that I don’t have to endure
The public transport torture
As I batten down the hatches
Bracing for another scorcher
I am reminded of the days when I could
Shove open the carriage windows
And feel the sea breeze in my hair
All the way down the Frankston line

The evening meal is cold meat and salads
It’s too hot to turn on the gas
And I feel sorry for those poor fools
Dripping in front of the fryers at my local F&C
But I order anyway and eat chips with gravy
Until the cool change arrives around nine

January 4, 2019

Why I’ve Turned My Back On Community Theatre

In April last year, I submitted three proposals to direct for a community theatre company in 2019 and 2020. In November 2018, a long six months later, I got a response to my proposals. And it floored me.

My relationship with this company was already rocky. Their rejection of my proposal to produce Hollow was what lead me to create Tripwire Theatre Inc, and ultimately lead me to where I am today with my theatre-making work. You can read the backstory on my blog.

In the most recent submission, I urged the committee to consider that now is the time for a more artistically diverse program, and to be the heart of a change, leading the way among community theatre organisations who continue to make safe programming decisions which do not challenge either their members nor their audience.

After six months, I enquired about when I would get an outcome, as I had other 2019 projects coming up for consideration and wanted to make sure I could honour the proposals I had made, should they be successful. It was suggested to me that working with this company would not be satisfying an emerging professional director and that I should pursue other projects.

I immediately wrote back with a justification of why an I had submitted in the first place and why I would still like to do the job. While working with community theatre may not be financially satisfying, I have found it rewarding and I was looking forward to meeting and working with more local theatre aficionados. I directed for Creswick Theatre Company in early 2018, and while not without its challenges, I was very proud of the production and pleased to be able to focus on directing, rather than spreading myself thin doing producing as well. The opportunity offered by this particular community theatre company presented a the chance to direct in what is otherwise a very limited amount of opportunities locally.

In hindsight, it was obvious that my core values as a theatre-maker and those of the company simply did not align. They were right about that much. However, that does not mean that I deserved to be communicated to in such a disrespectful and condescending way.

When I eventually received an outcome letter from the committee it was so disgustingly patronising I honestly could not believe what I was reading. After the initial shock, it was actually laughable that a person could think it was appropriate to send it to another person in a professional capacity. They quoted my submission back to me in inverted commas. It was unnecessarily detailed in its outright rejection of my ideas, using words like abhore and detest to explain in turn why each proposal was utterly untenable. I was asked to explain the reasons for my given unavailability in order to accommodate someone else’s preferences.

And as the final insult, after tearing apart my ideas and hating on directors who have ‘concepts’, it contained an offer for me to direct a severely compromised version of one of my proposals.

It took every ounce of diplomacy to not immediately fling back an angry email. And it did cross my mind to accept the offer and carry out a subersive production which undermined the company from within. But the offer was one I was clearly never meant to accept. So, I didn’t waste much of my time thinking about it. I took the high road and sent off a very professional “thanks, but no thanks, and good luck for your future seasons”.

Community theatre plays an important role in the ecology of our sector, by providing an introductory level of involvement in the performing arts and becoming a place of belonging – with creative and social outcomes – for hobbyist thespians. But I won’t be spending any more of my time there because it’s not a place that I belong. For me, making theatre is not a hobby, or a side project. It’s my job. I’m passionate about what I do but I’m also serious making a career from it.

I will focus on making professional independent theatre that is edgy, relevant and makes a social or political commentary. And I will focus on working with people who respect me, who trust me and who are willing to pay me.

You won’t find my name among the credits in a community production anymore. And I don’t mind one little bit. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.