Director’s Diary

13 December 2018

I’m exciting to be debuting What Ever Happened to Jeremy Baxter? for Midsumma 2019! But I can’t help take a moment to reflect on my playwriting/directing debut…

This time last year, Michael and Phillip Are Getting Married in the Morning had ended its premiere season run at Gasworks Arts Park as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival.

However, I was preparing another season of the show with producer Phillip Hunting by my side. People observing us would think we’re a married couple. Personally, I don’t see it, though there were a number of short-tempered moments between us—including a ‘domestic’ in his unairconditioned car on a scorching summer’s day—as we were about to make our Midsumma Festival debut.

‘Michael and Phillip Are Getting Married in the Morning’ marked FRED the ALIEN Productions’s Midsumma Festival debut.

The production process saw me mentally battered and bruised, having taken on more obligations than I thought I could handle. If I wasn’t in director mode with actors or in producer mode with third parties, I was the dramaturge without realising it, and presiding over a stalemate debate between Phillip and stage manager Fulya over what sort of cups our bar’s beverages should be served in.

I felt the pressure of ensuring that the show turn a profit; it was the least I could do for such a hardworking cast and crew. But there simply aren’t any guarantees.

I, of course, had no idea that the second season of Michael and Phillip Are Getting Married in the Morning would draw an impressive crowd over its five-night run and would be given a decent critical review.

This time last year, I wasn’t thinking beyond the show—it consumed every bit of me—and could not really fathom that I would put myself through it all again to tell another story.

But here we are.

So, what is it about putting on a stage show that has me, one year on, doing it all over again? Well, it isn’t the multiple and concurrent self-imposed, internal, and external pressures and stresses involved with the process. But there is something magical about telling a story that you feel strongly about.

What is also lovely (and I can’t think of a better word to describe it) is that there are a group of people who feel just as passionate as you do about what you want to say. For someone who has been told for a significant portion of their life—by a number of family, friends, colleagues, and strangers—that their voice is strange and is still (literally) the source of mockery, it is an extraordinary thing to have people who not only want you to speak, but encourage you to do so loudly.

Michael and Phillip Are Getting Married in the Morning had the pull of a coincidental civil rights movement occurring concurrently. The producers and I have come into this Midsumma knowing that we’re performing in a festival with a vast array of talented artists and there are only so many shows that people will want to see.

There is something lovely (there’s that word again) when a festival-goer elects to put your show on their must-see list. It was a feeling that overwhelmed me last year and, for all the hard work the team has already put in to bringing What Ever Happened to Jeremy Baxter? to the stage for the first time, I hope to be overwhelmed again.

That would be as lovely as it was this time last year. Perhaps even more.

23 December 2018

Ben K. Ronec enters the room and greets me with a firm handshake. The first thing you notice about the young actor is his wide, warm smile. Also, he never breaks eye contact with you. Ever.

I first met Ben over a year ago when I audition him for a role in my first play. He wasn’t quite right for it, but his audition was memorable. Actors were asked to deliver a monologue that was either dramatic or funny. A piece from a play is usually delivered—they are auditioning for a theatre show, after all—but unlike most of his peers, Ben had memorised a monologue from a television series. Breaking Bad.

Let’s first forward when I have an idea for a new play. Often, when I write, I think of actors who would suit certain roles, even if I know they will never play the part for any given reason. Actors are wonderful sources of creative inspirations and help put a face to the character that’s in your head as they develop over brainstorming exercises and multiple rewrites.

Ben K. Ronec in a promotional shot as the title character in ‘What Ever Happened to Jeremy Baxter?’ (Image: Fulya Kantarmaci / FRED the ALIEN Productions.)

When I come up with the character of Jeremy Baxter, I’m not thinking of Ben. I’m thinking of someone else’s face. However, Ben comes to mind as I get to know Jeremy better and his position in the play becomes clearer throughout the writing process.

Of course, I do not know Ben very well during this time, but his extensive social media presence provides some incredible things to draw from. And when I get to writing Jeremy’s epic monologue towards the end of the play, yes, I’m thinking of Ben. I can see how he, as Jeremy Baxter, would deliver it… and—for lack of a better word—it’s beautiful.

So when the producers send out audition notifications to actors from our talent database, I’m not only pleased when Ben says he is interested in the show, but says he feels connected to the character of Jeremy Baxter.

I’m chuffed.

And when Ben auditions for me, I let those present from FRED the ALIEN Productions know that I remember Ben because of his last audition and that he delivered a monologue remarkably different from others.

Ben smiles and confesses that he’s about to perform the same monologue, and I’m wondering if it is the only one he knows. But I don’t care. He does a stunning job once again and his cold read of Jeremy’s dialogue is not only on point, but his occasional ad-libs are also suited to the character. He notably makes me laugh more than an auditionee should. But maybe this is because his confidence with the role—and himself, no doubt—is where it should be.

When he leaves, my FRED colleagues tell me that Ben is Jeremy Baxter. But, of course, I knew this before he walked in the room. He leaves an impression.

And I know that he’ll do the same in What Ever Happened to Jeremy Baxter?

Physically and mentally demanding, Jeremy is full of complexities. He is powerful, vulnerable, temperamental, tender, spoilt, cunning, loving, impatient, sexy, strong, resentful… And Ben spends most of his time portraying all of these qualities while handcuffed to a chair.

Yes, it’s a tough role, but I know Ben will deliver it with energy and enthusiasm come showtime. The work he’s put in so far tells me so.

I’m excited to introduce our audience to Ben K. Ronec. After all, he leaves quite an impression.

3 January 2019

I can’t remember the last time I made a New Year’s resolution. Tellingly, I can’t remember if I ever kept one! A friend and colleague once told me that she didn’t believe in them anyway. Why wait for a specific date to make a significant change or promise to yourself?

If I put all of my creative eggs in the New Year’s resolution basket, I don’t think I would get anything done. This is because a project only feels right when it feels right. It cannot be forced and nor can it be rushed.

As of this writing, I am penning a play, have written the outline for another, and only yesterday wrote the lyrics for a stage production that began life as a novel. None of these shows may ever see the light of day, but there is a satisfaction about getting ideas out of your head and on to paper.

There is, however, a greater reward in the creative process: producing a show! There is nothing like seeing your story performed on stage, hearing an audience laugh at a gag or gasp at a dramatic twist. And when the performance is over, you’re overcome with a sense of pride as the cast stand in line and take their bows.

Do not be mistaken—a writer always feels like a play is one edit away from perfection, a director always contemplates how the show could come together differently, and a producer is always thinking how they could have used their time, connections, and resources better.

But there are certainties that put your mind to rest, combat self-doubt, and even make the work fun: the team.

Actors Bayne Bradshaw, Ryan Stewart, Jeffrey Bryant Jones, and Ben K. Ronec during their first workshop in the FRED Shed.

I am lucky to have such a hard-working cohort. Most of us have worked together before—and they’re crazy enough to put on their theatre blacks for me once again. It’s important to have some fresh faces too and I think we’ve have the mixture just right. (Well, you can only know that come showtime.)

It is a remarkable thing to watch actors pull your story apart, analyse it, and put it back together again to see how their respective characters fit in their world. And I don’t take for granted their enthusiasm during rehearsals, as I have worked with people in the past whose negativity is nothing short of toxic to the creative process.

But working with Ryan Stewart, Bayne Bradshaw, and Jeffrey Bryant Jones again reminds me of why I love collaborating with them; the rehearsal space—affectionately referred to as the FRED Shed—is filled with positive energy and dedication. I wondered how quickly someone new to this dynamic would fit in, but Ben K. Ronec did it with enviable ease.

Producer and stage manager Fulya Kantarmaci is the glue that keeps us all together. She is more adored than any stage manager should be, but I suspect that most people in her role don’t have the same charming smile and work ethic that she does. She also steps up to the plate whenever needed; helping with marketing, acting as a warm body when a performer is absent, collecting props with minimal notice… She’s also leading the team of producers. Phillip Hunting—always my right-hand man—and Kirsten Shannahan, are doing phenomenal work behind the scenes, most of which will never get acknowledged. But that’s what producers do. They make things happen.

With the world premiere of What Ever Happened to Jeremy Baxter? only twenty days away, we’re sprinting towards opening night. We have the momentum behind us to get there. As a team.

23 January 2019

It’s four thirty-one p.m. What Ever Happened to Jeremy Baxter? opens in less than two and a half hours. I’m not as nervous as I should be.

Mind you, if I think back to the opening night of the first play I ever directed, I was nauseated all day and a nervous wreck. Trembled all day. Literally. The opening of that play—Michael and Phillip Are Getting Married in the Morning in 2017—was both surreal and spectacular. The audience embraced every moment of the unfolding drama and got carried away with the gags.

Bayne Bradshaw, Ben K. Ronec, and Ryan Stewart bring Marty, Jeremy, and Luke to life.

I suppose the nerves come from letting your baby to fend for itself. Months and months following conception and nurturing can only do so much. You cannot produce a play without the help of a creative village; some of whom are with you for most of the development and others who join you a day or two before opening night to ensure that your baby is well-lit and a lovely audio track or two.

With every person who came on board to see What Ever Happened to Jeremy Baxter? make it to the stage, the play became less and less mine, and more of a collaborative effort. And that’s a beautiful thing to experience.

As a writer, you have a strong idea of the characters, their backstories, and where they fit in the world you’ve created. But actors are wonderful beings. When a role is cast, the best actors will politely interrogate you about the character they are playing. With me, at least, no question is off limits and no suggestion is immediately dismissed. I always trust that my cast will know their characters better than I do. And the men of What Ever Happened to Jeremy Baxter? most certainly do.

I’m proud of all their hard work and have seen them make leaps and bounds from our first script reading together. I’m hoping that it all comes together tonight so that our audience can see the result of their hard work too.

So, okay, maybe I’m a lot more nervous than I’d like to admit. But nerves are good, I often tell my team, because it shows that you care. And that’s what it’s all about, really. Telling a story you care about.

I hope our audience cares about it too.


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