Such are musicals Ned Kelly and the arts boom in regional Victoria
Bendigo is hoping its shiny new theatre and an original new musical will help transform it into the tryout town for Australian work,
It’s a late autumn’s afternoon in Melbourne, and young actor Nelson Gardner, squinting down the barrels of a rifle, is stalking dramatically around the vast interior of Kensington Town Hall. Nearby, fellow actors Robert Tripolino and Brent Trotter swap teary vows of male fellowship over a bottle of whisky. “Dan, I would die for you. I would take a bullet for you.” “And I you.” It’s the third week of rehearsals for Ned, a new musical based on the story of Ned Kelly, Australia’s favourite outlaw, and it is hipster beards and prop guns at 50 paces as four young men led by Bendigo-reared actor Gardner play out a crucial scene.
At one end of a long table cluttered with laptops, music scores and props sits the creator of Ned, Adam Lyon, a big, barrel-chested study in concentration as two of the actors sing White Dove, a soft lament he penned. Lyon’s wife and the musical’s book writer, Anna, makes notations on the script while music director Loclan Mackenzie-Spencer, hands moving in dreamy waves, studies the score. Director Gary Young watches from the side, calibrating everything from a death by gunshot to emotional reactions: a bit more gravitas there, he calls, as slabs of angst and intimacy and sudden violence are roughly plotted and staged.
There’s a good-humoured tussle over a creative problem: should there be silence when a traitor is killed or do you keep singing? Issues of authenticity are brought up: “Boys, just be gun savvy,” Young cautions. “Make sure the barrel is not pointing at your foot or each other … there are lots of things you learn in the country about handling guns. It just becomes automatic.”
Guns, it turns out, have already caused a spot of bother for this fledgling production: red faces abounded at a media shoot in Melbourne recently when an alarmed passer-by called the police after spotting Gardner and his gang posing with their prop rifles. “Then, do you remember the day in rehearsal when Connor (Crawford, another cast member) broke his gun?” Young calls out before muttering, with a sly smile, that “it’s all about the guns” as Gardner takes moody pot shots at invisible targets.
A graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts, Gardner, 27, a former singing student of Lyon who will take on his first lead role in this production after roles in Chess and The Producers, isn’t wearing his specially built, 40kg armour today.
Who makes armour these days? A craftsman in central Victoria, reveals Anne Henshall, marketing manager of Capital Venues and Events, a unit of Bendigo Council. The genial Henshall is here to watch the crafting of Ned, which will open in Bendigo’s $26 million, 1000-seat Ulumbarra Theatre this month. Commissioned by the council and written by local boy Lyon, who starred as Carl Denham in the stage musical King Kong, the show, with 10 Bendigo actors among the 26-strong cast, will run for six performances at the theatre, which opened to much fanfare last month on the site of the historic Sandhurst Gaol.
A lot is at stake: Bendigo Council, in its first attempt at producing a musical, has invested $400,000 in this venture. Ned and Ulumbarra are key planks in the council’s push to get Bendigo on the map as a performing arts player: if Lyon’s outlaw musical works, there are ambitious plans to make this 115,000-strong city — already on the radar as a lively cultural hub and home to one of regional Australia’s most inno- vative art galleries — the new centre for out-oftown tryouts of musicals and other Australian work. If all goes well, the enterprising Lyon, 33, has a second musical ready to go.
As she watches rehearsals, Henshall says candidly there are nerves aplenty. “But while we know we could lose money, we won’t lose the house,” she says: tickets are selling well on the back of surging local pride in the homegrown Ned (a tie-in exhibition, Imagining Ned, at the Bendigo Art Gallery has attracted 25,000 visitors since it opened in March). It also has snared the attention of many outside Bendigo: “We had a woman from Queensland ring up and say they were so excited to come see it; she said her husband had written a musical with 32 songs in it, and they couldn’t believe someone had gotten behind a local musical.” She smiles. “You hear stories like that, and it’s so wonderful.”
Over lunch at a nearby cafe, Lyon, a bear of a man with a beautiful lilt to his baritone (he completed a bachelor of music, opera, at VCA), is equal parts enthusiasm and sweaty trepidation as he recounts his four-year journey to get Ned to the stage. Born and reared in a working-class neighbourhood in Bendigo by his opera-loving grandmother (he jokingly describes himself as a “bogan” with only one fancy suit to his name), he joined the VCA at the relatively advanced age of 27 to study opera. In late 2010, tinkering with some music, he had an idea for a song of an Irish father singing to his son. This sowed the seeds for a bigger idea: writing a “big, epic” musical based on Ned Kelly and his family.
Lyon composed more songs while his wife Anna, a Bendigo paediatrician, began work on the book with writer Marc McIntyre. But then King Kong came along and the project went into hiatus. Post- King Kong, Lyon revived it with an eye to launching it in conjunction with the opening of Ulumbarra Theatre. He approached Bendigo Council’s David Lloyd, manager of Capital Venues and Events, and “voiced the idea of making Bendigo an incubation hub for new Australian works and David said he’d been thinking the same thing. It was a disgustingly easy sell. I went to a whole bunch of meetings in my fancy suit, my only suit, which Gerry Ryan [chairman of Global Creatures] bought for me for King Kong’s opening”.
For the neophyte Lyon, the whole process of staging a musical — from casting to negotiating contracts — has been “exciting but insanely challenging”. Fiercely loyal to his own workingclass roots, he believes the story of Kelly, the quintessential outsider, retains a grip on contemporary Australia’s imagination because it speaks of old values that seem almost anachronistic today: mateship, pride in your battler roots, tribal solidarity. His score — lush, orchestral, inflected with Irish rhythms but with a discernibly Australian sound — reflects a big, fullblooded staging focusing on the women and complex family dynamics in Kelly’s life.
Gardner, for his part, says he has enjoyed exploring the moral ambiguities of Kelly’s story — “the villain in the hero, the hero in the villain”— while Anna Lyon says she has filtered Kelly’s story through the prism of child psychology, drawing on her experiences in her Bendigo medical practice. There, she sees many “little Ned Kellys”: children of deprivation and broken homes who, like Kelly, will most likely grow up to make the wrong choices and suffer the consequences. For Karen Quinlan, director of Bendigo Art Gallery, there are sombre resonances aplenty in light of the recent executions of Bali Nine ringleaders Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan; viewing a death mask made of Kelly on show as part of the Imagining Ned exhibition, she says that, like the doomed pair, Kelly, who was hanged at 25, “was way too young to die”.
As he watches his work being built, Adam Lyon pays tribute to Bendigo Council for its faith and open wallets in backing that most perilous venture, a new Australian musical. Flops rather than triumphs have been the rule in this sphere, from Jon English’s Paris to Reg
Livermore’s own Ned Kelly, which debuted in Adelaide in 1978: “It’s an expensive and complex business writing a musical ... to have a cast of 26 and 20 instruments is unheard of,” Lyon says. Veteran director Gary Young ( Sideshow Alley) says he isn’t daunted by the risks because “what
Ned brings is a theatre that it can go into. And to have that kind of grunt behind it is a rare thing. This is an opportunity to try to do something substantial with this piece and give it a springboard to the world eventually, and certainly to the rest of Australia.
“Where it goes from there, who knows? But what it has provided us is a place where we can close our eyes and take a big long run along the diving board and take the plunge. Let’s see if we can come up for air. It’s a bit of a unique situation because rarely do you get that kind of support. Commercial producers are businessmen, they look to overseas products.” In Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre, a 90-minute drive from Melbourne, Lloyd admits to sleepless nights as he contemplates the council’s hefty investment in Ned. “It’s incredibly courageous for a regional city to mount a major Australian musical,” he says but, to him, the opportunity to showcase local talent and tell an Australian story that has roots in this region was too good to pass up. If Ned works, he believes others will come: “It’s big, it’s risky and it’s keeping me awake at night. But one thing that [I’ve said in the past] is that to have performing arts in Bendigo put on the map nationally, you do that by creating something here in Bendigo, and exporting it to the rest of Australia.”
It has been a big time for the central Victorian town with the opening of the theatre last month (Ulumbarra means “meeting place” in the local Dja Dja Wurrung dialect). Built as part of a redevelopment of heritage-listed Sandhurst Gaol, which opened in 1863, Lloyd says it has already attracted 20,000 visitors and 170 bookings for the year. When Review visits, the theatre, a sculptural edifice of glass and exposed brick rising out of the old granite bones of the former jail, is packed with tour groups and schoolchildren from the adjoining 1800-strong Bendigo Senior Secondary College. Lloyd says the city now has the facilities to host big live acts that previously bypassed the town. As for trialling new shows, “people are already talking to us … there’s a lot of interest in this model because the economics of doing something in a regional context is much easier than in Melbourne or Sydney.” A musical theatre observer notes that Bendigo’s burghers may be on to something: Cameron Mackintosh reportedly said last year he was hampered by a lack of 1000-seat theatres outside the country’s capital cities.
Over lunch in the city’s compact arts precinct centred along View Street, a pleasant thoroughfare lined with plane trees and fluttering red banners for Ned, Stan Liacos, director of City Futures for the City of Greater Bendigo, says Ned and Ulumbarra are a vital part of the next chapter in the story of Bendigo’s transformation from sleepy former goldmining town to one of regional Australia’s liveliest cultural hubs. In recent years, the town’s cultural ecology has thrived hand in hand with a growing white-collar jobs base. Under the savvy Quinlan, Bendigo Art Gallery visitor figures have soared from 17,000 to more than 200,000 annually, built on the back of international blockbuster shows such as 2012’s Grace Kelly: A Style
Icon exhibition. (Last year, the gallery expanded its capacity with a $8.4m renovation.) The Bendigo Writers Festival is in its fourth year, while the founder of the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, composer David Chisholm, has plans to establish a local ensemble and potentially tour internationally.
Now, says Liacos, Ned, Ulumbarra and a “great thirst for the arts” in the region (participants in major events in Bendigo in 2013-14 pro- vided an economic injection of almost $19m, according to City of Greater Bendigo data) will allow the council to push forward with plans potentially to produce and export homegrown work, become a performing arts education hub for students across the region, and lure bluechip shows to town. “For 20 years this city has been dreaming about building a 1000-seat theatre and we’ve finally done it,” Liacos says. “The scale of what we can do now lifts the bar for regional Australia. For a city of 115,000, it’s an amazing achievement.”
As for Ned, he is bullish. “It takes courage to doing something like this — and if it doesn’t work, that’s OK, we can back it up with other things. But the signals are very positive.” It prompts a smile from a gratified Lloyd, who says: “The city has allowed us to have that courage.” Liacos grins: “But ask him what will happen if Ned doesn’t work. See where those gallows used to be over there?” — he points to a wrought-iron gantry over Ulumbarra’s box office, used to hang three prisoners before 1897. “There might be a couple more.”
As for Lyon, he has his fingers crossed. His dream? To create more musicals, providing work — and hope — for local actors, directors and producers.
“I tend to dream quite large,” he says. “That’s what I do.”
IT’S INCREDIBLY COURAGEOUS FOR A REGIONAL CITY TO MOUNT A MAJOR AUSTRALIAN MUSICAL
Ned opens at Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre on Friday. Sharon Verghis travelled to Victoria as a guest of the City of Greater Bendigo.
Nelson Gardner, far left, who stars as the legendary bushranger in Ned; composer Adam Lyon, left, in the old jail, now home to Bendigo’s new 1000-seat Ulumbarra Theatre, above