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Tamasein Holyman, founder of Secret Squirrel
Photograph: Secret Squirrel

Future Shapers: Tamasein Holyman, who wants Australia to own its arts scene

The founder and creative director of Secret Squirrel Productions wants Melbourne to get back to what it does best

Cassidy Knowlton
Written by
Cassidy Knowlton

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in this Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe), Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability VictoriaPat Nourse (creative director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits, who is in a separate business partnership with Tamasein Holyman) and Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoriato help us identify the people and organisations changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In the arts, one such person is Tamasein Holyman, founder and creative director of Secret Squirrel Productions, executive creative director of Underground Cinema Australia and creative director of Immersive Cinema Australia.

Tamasein Holyman couldn't have picked a worse time to return to Australia from the UK with big dreams of working in theatre than 2009. "I came home after being overseas for over ten years, right into the global financial crisis," she says. "I was trying to get jobs in production, because I'd just come from England, where I was doing production work in live theatre. I'd have meetings with people and their staff would literally be walking out the door with their boxes, like you see in the movies. I hadn't been here in ten years, and in 2009 we weren't glued to smartphones, so an overseas CV wasn't actually necessarily the coolest thing. It was sort of like you were an alien from another planet."

Given that theatre companies were shutting down, people were losing their jobs and Australia was scaling back arts funding and spending, was it time to cut her losses and give up on her ambition? "I came back into that environment. And so obviously, I thought it was a good time to start a progressive, immersive, never-tried-before production company in Australia," she laughs. 

That company was Secret Squirrel, which puts on immersive theatre shows and activations. Its biggest and best-known arm is Underground Cinema Australia, which puts on immersive cinema experiences. Audiences rock up with only a vague theme, dress code and location, then interact with actors and complete tasks to achieve various missions. The events conclude with a screening of the film. The company's first film was a French documentary about parkour, and Underground Cinema hired parkour practitioners from around Melbourne. "We put up scaffolding all around the building, and then before the film we had this intense, insane parkour show, with all these parkour artists doing flips and jumps and insane stuff that most people hadn't seen up live. And so we were immersed in that world." 

One of Holyman's favourite productions was a screening of Casablanca, which was put on in an airport. "We did it with a B52 airplane, and we had a camel, because you have to have a camel whenever you can have a camel. I really hate the idea of just sort of tepidly theming a night and not really committing. I really like the idea of epic, ambitious. And like, holy shit, there's a camel and a B52. And there's a live band playing and I'm in Casablanca because the set teams made Casablanca and there are actors all around me speaking French and ... Arabic."

Not everything Secret Squirrel does is movies, however. The company collaborated with Activision on an immersive Call of Duty activation inside a shipping container. "It was an immersive live zombie escape room. It was absolutely awesomely terrifying. We got a 40-foot shipping container and we built these escape room puzzles in it. It was live and interactive. So we had cameras on everyone, and we had actors sitting in a booth who were able to communicate with the people inside, and then at the same time, we had live zombies outside. They had to get through in a certain time before the zombies came and ate them."

That activation was so successful that Holyman became the "zombie queen" for a while afterwards, with anyone who had a zombie-themed artwork wanting to collaborate with her. It wasn't necessarily a comfortable moniker for someone who only watches horror movies in broad daylight with the lights on, and only for research. 

In 2019, Secret Squirrel decided to go bigger – way bigger – than anything it had ever done before with Immersive Cinema, which put on a Dirty Dancing experience like no other. Some 20,000 people turned up to Kellerman's summer camp for dance lessons, picnics on the lawn, games and a completely immersive experience that transported them to the 1963 world of Baby and Johnny. "Immersive Cinema is really what I've been doing for the last 11 years, but blowing it up ten times bigger," says Holyman. "As opposed to 500 a night we're doing 5,000 a night. We had over 100 artists on the field, and we had incredible dancers. I worked with the choreographer, Jarryd Byrne, who was amazing. And so it's always about evolving and growing and as you get along your field, working with other like-minded and awesome humans... If you can think it, if you can make it up, we can do it."

Holyman hopes one day to do Blade Runner with Underground Cinema "but I wouldn't want to half-ass it. I would want to really bring it." As for Immersive Cinema, she has more epic plans. "We really want to do Back to the Future, or a Star Wars, on a really big scale, because who doesn't want to be in Hill Valley, and who doesn't want to go to the diner and see Marty McFly?"

But for the moment, she's planning to return to Kellerman's, even though she had not intended to repeat the show. "I've gone from steadfast, arms crossed, saying 'never', to 'Oh, yeah, actually, I don't know everything'. And sometimes the audience is right... Sometimes as well as being challenged, we just want to be wrapped up in a fluffy blanket that we know... We talk about what stories we wanted to tell out of the pandemic, and I think as a storyteller, this feels like a right story to tell, for audiences, in summertime, when they've earnt that."

Holyman says although the pandemic has obviously been extremely damaging to the arts, there is opportunity in it too. "To be very clear, I started with nothing in the GFC and I know I'm comparing apples and oranges, the GFC is not a global pandemic, but it was a time of great uncertainty, it was a time of 'don't begin', and it was a time of fear. Starting in a time of such extremity really makes you lean, and strong... I was in my mum's back room, I had no savings whatsoever, I was on the dole, and I ate soup for the first year. I didn't become an entrepreneur or an artist because of dreams of grandeur, I did it because I had this compulsive need to create. If as an artist and a creative your career is being born now, it's an incredible time. Because all bets are off."

She says Australia is also finally realising that art does not have to be imported to be good. "When it comes to our arts, we definitely have a big brother complex. It's all about importing our art, we love bringing international overseas production to Australia, we just do. And if it came from London, or it came from New York City, whatever, as long as it wasn't made on the shores, let's put all the money and support we can on it. We always talk about how we had these talented artists here, but then I feel like there's often a railroaded experience with Australian artists to just produce what is identified as 'Australian work'... But I think the gears have shifted, 2020 has really changed a lot of things and a lot of Australian artists have come back, we know the film industry is going gangbusters because of the safety of what our country has achieved. I think that's also hopefully going to translate into live experiences and theatre and so forth. Because if we're allowed, and if we're supported, and if we are given the opportunity, we can and 100 per cent do produce world-class work, epic world-class work."

She is currently working on an epic, world-class work with three collaborators, together calling themselves the Four Horsemen. Although the details are under wraps for now, one thing it definitely won't be is second-rate. Firstly, that's not how she's built. And secondly, if she opens in Melbourne, audiences just wouldn't take it. "My experience, and I've worked with audiences around the world, is that Melburnites are explorative. They're brave, they're incredibly supportive but they're incredibly demanding of quality. They will not put up with shit. You can't just produce shit food, or coffee, or entertainment. They're going to call you out, they want quality... So Melbourne audiences are my best barometer, they're the ones who are demanding. And that's good for me it's good for the soul, and it's good for art."

Read about more of our Future Shapers

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