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Meet nine backstage heroes responsible for your favourite shows

These are some of the unsung stars that help make on-stage magic when the curtain goes up

When it comes to theatre, playwrights, actors and directors get all the cred. So we’re shining a light on some of the unsung workers behind the onstage magic...

Words Rose Johnstone, Jessica Bellamy & Alyx Gorman
Photography Daniel Boud & Graham Denholm

 

 

 

↑ Jacob Nash

SET DESIGNER, DANCE

When Jacob Nash was designing the set for Bangarra’s recent work Bennelong, he had a number at the forefront of his mind. “In Australia’s history, there is a number, which is 1788, which seems like it is the start of the book. But really, it’s not. It’s just a number that doesn’t even exist in Aboriginal culture. What is that number? What are those letters? It’s nothing. How do you reclaim that number, through Black eyes? How do you break it, and just go, ‘fuck you, you’re not a number’?”Bennelong’s centrepiece ended up being a large red 1788, with deep grooves chiselled into the deconstructed figures. This set, Nash says, “is a protest. But then, at the same time, you’re seduced by the colours, and the red, and the markings on them. You go: am I looking at numbers? Am I looking at traditional scarring? Is that a weapon? What am I really seeing?”

This chance to play with symbolism writ large seems a dream career for the art and architecture enthusiast. Did young Jacob know a job like this existed? He laughs. “It’s not something that the career advisor puts up as a possibility.” A Murri man from Brisbane, Nash moved to Melbourne with his family as a five year old, and his art teacher parents ensured that the family visited galleries or sculpture parks every weekend. His love for architecture, art and design came to a head when he found himself visiting his now-partner in Sydney at the same time that a graduate design show was on at NIDA. He found himself thinking: “Oh my god, maybe this is what I should do.” After graduating from NIDA’s design department in 2005, Nash worked as a set designer with major theatre companies including Belvoir and Sydney Theatre Company. He found casual work at Bangarra through flatmates, and his talents were quickly recognised by the artistic team. He began designing their sets and other artistic output (including video work for Vivid Festival) and became their head of design in 2011.

“I look back at designing plays previously, and I think: plays have a different set of rules. There’s a script, and there’s characters and actors that have to do things. I think [theatre makers] get locked into ways of doing things, and we just break a lot of rules [at Bangarra]. That’s the really exciting thing to do.” Nash works closely with artistic director Stephen Page in the devising of new work. Page pinpoints the focus of the work, and the emotions behind it, then Nash must find visual references to support that emotion, usually linked to the traditional country from which the story originates. “It could be a landscape, or a gorgeous sunset, or the haze over the harbour at the end of the day.” From there, the designer asks himself, “how can I transform this into something that feels ‘of today’? Each year I have to create a new visual language that suits the show, so you have to dig deep in creation.”

Nash rejects any firm label when it comes to his work. “I don’t fit in a western box of what theatre is, in a pigeon hole. Maybe the question’s wrong: the perception of what Aboriginal design should be. Why should it fit in a box of needing to fulfil the idea of what installation is, or what we perceive theatre to be? Bangarra has created its own visual language, its own music and choreography. That all grows out of 60,000 years of culture, and this is a contemporary expression that celebrates our culture.” Jessica Bellamy

See Jacob's work in: Bangarra's 2018 season
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Photograph: Graham Denholm

Marg Horwell

COSTUME AND SET DESIGNER

Marg Horwell is a master of mind control. As you’re watching a show she’s worked on, the impact of her costume design might be influencing the way you feel about a character or a scene without you even realising. “I like exposing people’s knees when they’ve vulnerable,” she says. “I like shoes that don’t quite fit or clomp around, or when actors have to pull their cardigans forward and tuck things in. It should be something that becomes part of their body, and becomes part of that space.” Horwell is a freelance set and costume designer, and Malthouse Theatre’s resident designer for 2017. She rarely splits the two design roles, and ventured into costumes when she realised that she liked making the space first, then dressing the people who belong to that space. “And I love actors: I love knowing who’s playing that role, and designing for their body.” Often, Horwell designs new Australian works, relishing the challenge of a blank slate. She’s worked with mainstage companies across the country, as well as Melbourne independent companies like Dee & Cornelius (Shit) and Sisters Grimm (Lilith: The Jungle Girl), picking up Green Room and Sydney Theatre Awards along the way. She begins work on her projects usually six to eight weeks before rehearsals begin. “I like to be in rehearsals a lot, and move with a new work. You could design something at the start of the process but then if scenes are cut, it could change everything.” Plus, she’s got to work with logistics; in Malthouse Theatre’s rapid-fire farce The Homosexuals, which was packed with quick changes, Horwell had to make outfits “where you’d pull a string and they’d just fall off your body”. When a work involves just one costume – as it does in the monologue The Testament of Mary, starring Pamela Rabe – there’s even more pressure to convey character through costume. “We want Pam’s character to be really displaced, like she’s not in her clothes. I like that in theory, but it’s difficult to show.” While Horwell loves creating “crazy costumes – really big designs or where everything’s made out of plastic” – she finds contemporary costume design equally challenging. “It’s deceptively difficult to execute,” she says. “You don’t want the audience to recognise where things are from.” Rose Johnstone

See Marg's's work in: The Testament of Mary
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Photograph: Graham Denholm

Eugyeene Teh

SET AND COSTUME DESIGNER

In a past life, this Melbourne-based set and costume designer was an architect, but couldn’t resist the endless possibilities of creating ever-changing worlds on stage. “Architecture and theatre design are actually very different,” says Teh. “The thing about set design is that it’s not stagnant; as soon as the actors come in and the lights come on, the set changes significantly. In theatre, you respond to the script and the actors, because they form the image as well. You have to consider what they’re wearing… and it also depends on how you create the design with the lighting designer, the director, and the whole team.”

“I like to trick the audience, give them something they don’t expect”

Teh works freelance, oscillating from stark, moody landscapes (MTC’s Endgame) to tongue-in-cheek cartoon worlds (Malthouse’s Blaque Showgirls) to the abstract, all-gold set of Fraught Outfit’s biblical adaptation, The Book of Exodus: Part 2. In each of these works, every detail is imbued with meaning, whether the audience notices it or not. “I take two things from architecture: firstly, the sensation of space, and secondly, it’s about the tiniest details that really make the design. When we have conversations with the team [early on], there are thousands of ideas, but then you have to take some of them, and meld them together. I think, ‘how do I make those 15 ideas happen in one item? And how do I make it work? Is it available – can I order it in time?’ A lot of factors come into play for one decision.” For example, Teh’s glimmering set in The Book of Exodus: Part 2 works on several levels; one, to evoke the image of the golden calf constructed by the Children of Israel; and two, to provide a complete contrast with the all-white set of Part 1. Teh has the greatest degree of creative control when working with his company Little Ones Theatre – and that’s when he likes to get even more subversive. “I like to trick the audience; I feel like they come to see a show and they expect a particular image, but then I like to give them something completely unexpected.” Little Ones – comprising Teh, director Stephen Nicolazzo and lighting designer Katie Sfetkidis – are loved for their carefully cultivated queer and kitsch sensibility, which, Teh says, has become more “refined and simple” over the years. In 2018, the trio will hit the mainstage with MTC’s new production of Mike Leigh’s comedy classic Abigail’s Party. Rose Johnstone

See Eugyeene's work in: Abigail’s Party
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Photograph: Graham Denholm

Emma Valente

LIGHTING DESIGNER

Many high school drama students dream of standing in the spotlight someday, but Emma Valente fantasised about controlling it. “We had the most rudimentary lighting set-up in the drama room,” says the Melbourne-based lighting designer, director and dramaturg. “I remember randomly turning on some of the lights and starting to understand how lighting made everything better! I got fascinated with the way that lighting design can contribute dramaturgically and aesthetically.” Today, Valente is an in-demand freelance lighting designer who has worked in major performing arts companies across the country. She’s also co-artistic director of the Rabble, an independent company known for experimental, design-led works that reinterpret familiar stories. “There’s this adage about lighting design that it shouldn’t be noticed, but I don’t necessarily subscribe to that. Often you need to get out of the way and not show off… but I like to think that sometimes, the design elements can be just as influential in telling the story.” An example: in the Rabble’s most recent work Joan, one of the most meaningful moments was a wordless 15-minute scene in which Joan of Arc encounters God, represented by hundreds of thin beams of light. While Valente believes that “anything goes” when it comes to lighting, she has developed her own set of principles. “It’s kind of painterly, in terms of thinking about each plane of action separately… and trying to create depth. I use front light sparingly just in order to see people’s faces, but trying to light the body and the design in interesting ways. I like to be surprising, and I really like colour.”Rose Johnstone

See Emma's work in: THE RABBLE 2018 SEASON
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Photograph: Graham Denholm

Adena Jacobs

DRAMATURG AND DIRECTOR

Ask any dramaturg to define what they do, and you’ll probably get a different answer every time. Often, it’s about the development of a script and research into the context of a play. Or, in the case of Adena Jacobs – a Melbourne-based director, dramaturg and co-artistic director of independent company Fraught Outfit – it often involves working on projects that might not have a script at all. “I’ve worked on live art projects, and experimental theatre or dance works,” she says. “So what I’m looking for in that case is not ‘traditional’ dramaturgy... it’s about responding to meaning, structure, and the way that signs and symbols resonate.”

One such work was The Dark Chorus: an award-winning 2016 dance piece by leading Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin. “I have no experience in dance, and that was what Lucy was interested in: somebody to reflect the work back to her who wasn’t embedded in the language of contemporary dance... and to provide provocations to her. Often my questions were, ‘what does this moment mean? What is this metaphor?’ In dance contexts, those questions need to be asked in a different way, because the movement of bodies in light and sound is the meaning in itself.”

As a director, Jacobs brings dramaturgy into her practice, often alongside co-creator and dramaturg Aaron Orzech (most recently in The Book of Exodus: Part 2). A number of her works have re-imagined ancient Greek or biblical texts, and in that case, dramaturgy is about “research into that original source text, and thinking about ways of interpreting it, and also finding references to look at, which can range from literature to critical theory to visuals arts to music.”

As a queer artist, Jacobs also brings a “queer dramaturgy” to her work; which is, as she describes, “a kind of interpretive approach which is is about bringing a queer and feminist lens to material which may or may not inherently have had that in its original form”. Rose Johnstone

See Adena's work in: Fraught OutfiT’S 2018 season
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Photograph: Graham Denholm

Kelly Ryall

COMPOSER AND SOUND DESIGNER

If you’re wondering what turns an eight year old into an artist, the answer is: Star Wars. Kelly Ryall, composer and sound designer, can still remember the first time he heard John Williams’ iconic soundtrack. It awakened something in him. “I’ve always been obsessed with film soundtracks; there’s such an epic element to [them],” he says. Like his hero, Ryall’s approach to making music involves much more than cleverly organised chords and rhythmic experimentation – it factors in more emotive concepts. “I think the best music is produced from an intuitive and emotional place.” What does this look like? “I don’t sit in my studio sobbing or laughing manically to myself, but often I’m sitting there listening to music and visualising all the things that will be going on around it.” From there, the technicalities of the job come into play. He researches the era in which the play is set, and immerses himself in the rules of engagement that relate to that era in music. “I end up making a number of fast musical sketches. This then opens a discussion between myself and the director and we make discoveries.” For the recent production of Di and Viv and Rose at Melbourne Theatre Company, Ryall’s influences included electronic sound, and scores from 1980s sci-fi and John Hughes flicks, from which he gathered a tonal palette. “From there, I use my musical intuition to knock together particular pieces of music. By that time, if I’ve got the ingredients right in the first place, the music will follow through very easily, because I’ve done the hard work in discounting some tonal or rhythmic options, and I end up with fewer and fewer ingredients until those left are the right ones.”

“I’ve always been obsessed with movie sound-tracks”

Ryall likes to get involved at the very beginning of a show’s creative process: “We all influence each other, so what I contribute gets reflected in the writing, the directing, the design.” This mode of working isn’t possible for every project – especially for existing classics that are being faithfully reproduced, such as Melbourne Theatre Company’s Hay Fever. In works like this, “you have to pay heed to the doorbells and gramophones and pianos. As soon as you step sideways in that naturalism, it deflates the humour that’s in there. I let the play and the work dictate what my musical or design rules are.” Jessica Bellamy

Hear Kelly's work in: BROTHERS WRECK
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Photograph: Daniel Boud

Nigel Poulton

MOVEMENT SPECIALIST AND FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHER

When I speak to Nigel Poulton, he’s just finished the photo shoot for this profile. It was one of the good ones, he says, because it didn’t involve having to pose with a sword. “I try not to get myself photographed with weapons, because fight choreography is only one part of what I do.” That’s the first takeaway from even a quick chat with Poulton: his movement expertise applies to scenarios much more complex than biffo. The Sydney and New York-based fight director, weapon and movement specialist pursues a huge variety of martial and movement systems in many parts of the world. For example, every time he returns to New York to work with large production houses, he is able to resume his fencing practice with his US-based teacher. Poulton admits, with a wry laugh, “classical fencing isn’t very big [in Australia].” Poulton has also been training in tai chi for the last ten years. “One of my first tai chi teachers said to me that tai chi would take everything I knew as a martial artist, and give it a better engine to run off. I’ve used that as a language and philosophy for everything that I do.”

“I see stage combat as a movement system”

Poulton’s remit is much more than duels and carefully executed door slams (as in Melbourne Theatre Company’s recent farce Noises Off) – though those certainly are part of the job. “I’ve always seen stage combat as a movement system rather than a compendium of tricks. It’s a great way to help an actor develop an understanding of their body in motion.” Poulton’s preferred mode of working is through the frame of theatrical biomechanics, a movement system developed by Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold. Poulton has found that actors relish the opportunity to learn a new movement system in detail. “Actors love to be taken through a process that has rigour and integrity to it, that will help them negotiate their way through a rehearsal process, that will help them move better, and help them understand their body better. The joy of my job is that relationship.” In fact, all of Poulton’s most treasured professional memories – many of which revolve around his ten-year collaboration with director Peter Evans, over multiple Bell Shakespeare shows – involve steeping his actors in a movement system from the very beginning of rehearsals. “The more that you’re brought in early and included in the process, the better the outcome. I like to be acknowledged as being able to shape theatrical vision, along with every other creative in that space. When you’re coming in to just make things safe, it’s unfortunate.” Jessica Bellamy

See Nigel's work in: ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
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Photograph: Graham Denholm

Geraldine Cook-Dafner

VOCAL AND DIALECT COACH

That myth that Aussies have a slurred, closed-lip parlance stemming from the need to keep flies out of our mouths? No. It’s much more likely due to the use of our tongues, the soft palate and the geography of our faces. But you know what’s indisputable about our accent? Its friendliness. Dr Geraldine Cook-Dafner found that, in the early years of her relocation to Australia, “If I didn’t smile when I was speaking, people thought I was really unfriendly. When I go to visit my brother in the North of England I think, ‘That person was a bit rude…I’m home!’” Cook-Dafner has been here long enough to pepper all her interactions with a smile, while building a career in Melbourne theatre and academia. She is an honorary senior fellow at Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne, and also works with theatre companies and community arts organisations (in 2018, at Melbourne Theatre Company alone, she’s working on productions of The Children, Abigail’s Party and Wild). When we speak, Cook-Dafner is working as voice and dialect coach for MTC’s production of Hay Fever – a role that’s broader than you might expect. For example, her collaboration with director Lee Lewis uncovered the fact that “we didn’t want perfect Noël Coward delivery. That sound sets people’s teeth on edge in Australia. It reminds them of a particular British colonial voice.” Cook-Dafner quotes German singing teacher Alfred Wolfsohn as central to her approach: “The voice is the muscle of the soul.” The question she asks all her clients, actors or otherwise, is: “What do you know and experience while speaking? How can I help you develop that?” In an acting context, this often means breaking down the socially constructed voice into one that is more natural and instinctive. “I remind [actors] that when they were children, there was no separation between the voice and the body. It’s society that [does that].” She’s particularly concerned about the “creakiness” edging into young women’s voices (aka vocal fry), which she believes relates to the overwhelming criticism faced by women in public life. “If you walk into a room and feel ‘I’d better be careful what I say,’ then already the voice, the muscle of the soul, is relaying that containment and constriction, so that you don’t hear too much of what I might be feeling.” Jessica Bellamy

Hear Geraldine's work in: The Children
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Andrew Keshan works his magic on soprano Jane Ede
Photograph: Daniel Boud

Andrew Keshan

MAKE-UP AND WIGS ARTIST

“It’s like the pit at the Grand Prix,” says Andrew Keshan, head of performing wigs and make-up at Opera Australia. “The actors just stand there while all this commotion goes on around them.” He’s talking about quick-changes, those momentary touch-ups backstage that can take a soprano from love-interest-pretty to dying of consumption in under two minutes. “The soprano usually starts out really beautiful – then the tragedy is, at the end she dies.” How do they achieve this? “Lots of shading under the eyes, under the cheeks, under the jawlines.” Even for Opera Australia’s lavish productions, there are just four make-up artists backstage at any given show. Their job is to transform the stars into their characters – which can be a tricky ask. “Opera is cast for voice type – for Madama Butterfly the character is 15 years old, but a 15 year old could never sing that role.”

Typically, the singer will be in her thirties or forties. “To make them look really young is smoke and mirrors, make-up and lights… The good thing with theatre is we have distance on our side.” Meanwhile, armed with a “bag of goodies” and a photographic reference, the extras do their own make-up. Keshan has been with Opera Australia for 22 years. It’s his job to execute a costume designer’s vision.For a new production, this process can take over six months – a single wig takes over 40 hours to make, must be individually fitted to a singer’s head size and hairline, and costs upwards of $3,000. That’s why, whenever possible, they’ll pull from Opera Australia’s extensive archive – a forest of hair so deep not even Keshan knows where everything is. Thanks to an improvement in LED lighting technology, Keshan has noticed make-up is far lighter than it used to be. But in two decades, one rule hasn’t changed: “At the end of the show the wig comes off first. We’re always trying to protect the wig.” Alyx Gorman

See Andrew's work in: The Merry Widow
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