INTERVIEW: Guest Writer Hums Engineer Interviews Tyran Parke, Artistic Director of the Australian Musical Theatre Festival

Australian Musical Theatre Festival

By: Apr. 24, 2023
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INTERVIEW: Guest Writer Hums Engineer Interviews Tyran Parke, Artistic Director of the Australian Musical Theatre Festival

It's the moment we're all waiting for. Tyran Parke, Artistic Director of the Australian Musical Theatre Festival, has been working tirelessly for all musical theatre aficionados, industry professionals and those wanting to bask in the ambience, to organise this year's Australian Musical Theatre Festival, to be held in Launceston. Tyran aims at bringing the history and local culture of this beautiful city to the forefront by combining it with musical theatre in new and unique ways, and has created a program that is as diverse as the participants and the talents they bring. I caught up with Tyran to find out exactly how he has achieved this and what we we'll be singing along to this year, in the city of glorious wine, food and festivals.

By Hums Engineer

1. Hi Tyran. Thanks for your time today. I trust you've been extremely busy with organising this years' Australian Musical Theatre Festival. How has that been going?

It's kind of like you're rowing along and there's a waterfall coming up ahead and the pull towards it happens a month before, so we're in that now, so it's a timely question. It's going well but there are 50 events that are sitting in my head that I have to get at various points all around Australia, so at this point, it's looking really good in my head.

2. Why did you select Launceston as the location for this year's festival?

I didn't. Launceston selected me. People scratch their heads about this, but the biggest most exciting thing in Northern Tasmania is musical theatre. I understand it because I grew up in Newcastle. In these small places, musical theatre thrives. They don't get the big touring shows that come through (to the big cities). They wanted an event in Northern Tasmania and that's where it came from. When we all get on planes and go to the Adelaide Film Festival, we are all away from home. Not because Adelaide is the cabaret festival of the world, but because when we all are away from home, there's this beautiful energy where everyone is not rushing back home after the theatre. The nature of everybody being there, means you are having a drink with Todd McKenney after the show and then you're seeing Rachael Beck in the mall. My experience of growing up in musical theatre is that I was always the alien in Newcastle, but for 5 days in Launceston, everyone else are aliens because It's completely covered in musical theatre. Going to Tasmania is fantastic. People love the food, the wine and the culture and we join that with musical theatre.

3. What was the process in selecting this year's headliners - Rachael Beck, Todd McKenney and Elenoa Rokobaro?

I've done this three times and I do have a bit of a formula. I always think it's great for us to hear from someone who has been in the business a long time and Todd McKenney is celebrating forty years in musical theatre this year. I also like to have the up-and-comer and Elenoa is currently starring in Tick Tick Boom, which is a show that I directed and opens in Sydney this week. Rachel Beck was a clear and obvious person because Todd and Rachael have done so many shows together and I directed them both in Barnum and they're such good friends. Once I've got those three people booked in then I go about creating shows that really celebrate their talent. We've got a gospel show in a church because Elenoa sings in that style. Then we've got Todd McKenney - he's the greatest showman, so we've got some Barnum stuff and Choir in the Pub is where you go and have a drink and you learn a Peter Allen song and sing with Todd. The festival is not just about how talented you are, it's about connection. I thought they'll have a wonderful time, and because they're having a wonderful time, we'll have a wonderful time.

4. What are some of the highlights of this year's musical theatre festival that fans are going to get?

I do have particular highlights. Last year was the first year that I really questioned the fact that we're the Australian Musical Theatre Festival, but we don't do musicals. It's only 5 days so how can we? I had a ridiculous, audacious idea to present a musical and so we did. This year we're presenting Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell me on a Sunday. The other thing that sells out every year is Ghost Light, where we try and match the local culture with songs. This is a tour through the Princess Theatre, a beautiful ornate theatre. You get access to backstage and hear the stories of the theatre and then the ghosts of the theatre come out and sing some of those stories. It's beautiful. Pussay Poppins' Big Bus Tour is a drag bus tour to all the wineries, and we have Sing-A-Long A Sound of Music. You don't have to be a great singer. It's just about getting involved and people love it. One of the things that's nice about the festival is that people love musical theatre, but they don't necessarily want to be in it. There needs to be access points for everyone.

5. Can you share a little more about Andrew Lloyd Webber's, Tell Me on a Sunday and how it's being prepared remotely and rehearsed?

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell me on a Sunday was a show done in the 80's and hasn't been done in Australia for a few years. It's a one-woman show and we got permission from Andrew Lloyd Webber to have a different woman in each scene. It's never been done in this format before. It plays the same woman, but all our fabulous headliners come on. We are currently rehearsing it on Zoom because we have people in Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne and Sydney learning their own bits and then we come together and pull it together 2 days before the festival and we do one performance. It means we get all of our really extraordinary leading ladies to sing one of the songs on this journey.

6. How does it compare to last year's festival? What's the biggest difference?

Part of the reason why I stick to the formula is because it stops being about musical theatre and starts being about connection. When I say formula, we all go to the festival bar after the show. I literally stand on the stage after Tell me on a Sunday and a curtain comes in and then it opens and it's a bar and everybody gets down there and talks to the actors. In terms of it evolving and developing, we've got many more shows. We've got a new Australian musical (never done before) called Paper Stars, which is based on the life of P. L. Traverse, who wrote Mary Poppins. We've developed it over 2 different development periods with Phoenix Jackson and Loren Hunter, who were the leads in Six, coming down to do it. Each year we kind of evolve the ideas a little bit further.

7. Do you receive feedback post festival about how it went, and do you take on that feedback to prepare for the following year's festival?

The biggest feedback is "How many tickets do you sell?" That's an indicator of what people want to see. These (shows) are not all in theatres either. Sometimes they're in alley ways or in bars, so I ask, what are people interested in and as this evolves, it's become more international, and I know there's always something that combines musical theatre and the local culture and that's very important to me. I know that we always have that and it never gets boring. But what I want is people that will work around diversity and inclusion, so I'm constantly wondering how we evolve it? How do we make it different? Once upon on a time we didn't do a musical and now we do (for example). But it's about taking on that feedback and giving everybody something they can access.

8. One of the things you are trying to bring into the festival each year is a wider variety of diversity. How have you achieved that this year?

I am very aware of the various hats that I wear. I am head of Music Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts. My own research is around how to revive musicals in a commercial sense in Australia, but not revive the social aspects that are problematic, so I can't just put that away and then go and do festival that ignores that, and nor do I want to. For the past few years, we've always made sure that one our headliners are people of colour and that there is a diversity and inclusivity conversation that happens. When you look at our line-up of Tell me on a Sunday, it has traditionally been performed by Sarah Brightman, Martin Webb and Bernadette Peters. It's never been performed by Elenoa Rokobaro or Shanice Osita Chuku or Mia Palencia - all Australian, all of diverse cultural heritage, who come to the material with an approach or idea. We consciously talk about where the female writers are and where the POC writers are and what does that look like? The thing about musical theatre is that it has always borrowed from cultures, and I ask, how does musical theatre go into the mainstream and other cultures? Raise the Roof is looking at how we take Great American Songbook and make it a gospel or folk and I want to make sure that people hear that kind of music. My definition of music theatre is that it's about stories through music, so if that's the case, then that can be any kind of music. The festival is for everyone, and we need to make that clear.

9. This year you aim to feature a musical walking tour. Can you describe what this is about?

We've never done this before. When we started investigating it, we asked ourselves, what is the idea? You can have singing, but it could be a bit twee. What I found was history. These buildings have all been used in different ways and buildings become buildings when they have their own energy and a purpose. The walking tour is largely for people who are visiting Launceston, but anyone can do it. You start at the Princess Theatre, and you do a walking tour through Launceston, but the history is punctuated with songs. and so, you'll stand in front of the bell tower and you'll hear about how everybody hated the bell tower until the clock was put there and suddenly it was a place to orient yourself around. From that, you'll hear a song that isn't just about why the bell tower was made, but a woman who sings The Story Goes On, a song about how she felt the kick of her baby for the first time. Then it talks about how the story goes on from one woman to the next, to the next. Then you go into the menswear store, that used to be the Majestic Theatre and you hear about the history of that and someone comes out of the change room and sings Puttin' on the Ritz. It's that world where you go back in time and realise this is the song that reflects that experience.

10. What are some of the biggest challenges you face in putting a festival like this on the map?

The biggest challenge is in the logistics and the strange rhythm of doing a festival, where you have a year to put it on and then 5 days to create 50 shows. That is madness. That's the beauty of live theatre; if you were there, you were there. It's never going to be repeated. It's gone. What is amazing and challenging about festivals is that you get up the next day and you do the next thing that wasn't there before, then the next thing and it's like you get on this ride. But I genuinely think we punch above our weight in terms of creating a festival that covers so many things. We have great success stories of people coming in as students who then go and get cast in shows and or align themselves with particular directors. There's that world going on, aside from our performance world and our cultural world of creating new musicals. All the artists I am in the debt of, who are constantly generous and have such grace and enjoy the idea of a festival in a new way that's different from commercial music theatre. You get down there, you get on the ride and you go. But there are a lot of challenges to set it up so it goes smoothly.

11. Talking about students, is there anything in the festival that allows students or novice actors to come together to showcase their talents?

Yes, there is so much. There's an education program that runs parallel to this with schools. This year we have schools from South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, ACT and Tasmania, and they have classes all through the day with people like Todd, Elenoa, Rachael, Queenie van de Zandt and Andrew Holsworth, the choreographer of Muriel's Wedding and Priscilla. There are classes going on all the time and performances. They run youth karaoke, they have in-conversations with the stars and many of them are in our various other performances as well because you can audition as part of this. You can send in a tape and I'll put you in places. I've just sat through over a hundred videos and out of that we find the people. We've got 2 people in my first year at VCA that I met at the festival. I met them there, they auditioned and got into VCA. We start that conversation now, that will be their career.

12. My understanding is that you're hoping to put his festival on the map, much like Adelaide Fringe. How close are you to achieving this?

This is only our fourth festival, and it has catapulted. There was an original festival that I was a teacher at and it felt like a Tasmanian festival. Then the next festival was cancelled because of Covid. This is the first festival I've done "out of Covid". There's a really strong board and a strong team and this year is a tipping point for us because it's the first year where people can travel more easily and we're seeing the numbers go through the roof as a result. We get more of an indication of what that looks like and then we can look at bringing particular people that have not been in our reach till now. There's also a school's program of master classes, which means it has more than doubled this year. The thing for me is, you can see Todd, Elenoa and Rachael in any number of shows. But you can't see them in combination with each other and in conversation with the community, whether that's doing shows in the beautiful countryside of Launceston or in the way that you get access to them, so I'm hoping that becomes more and more appealing to people.

The Australian Musical Theatre Festival will be held in various locations around Launceston from 17 - 21 May 2023. For details of the event, the 2023 program and more, visit www.amtf.org.au



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