Tag Archives: NIDA

Gambling on Madame Melville

MAGIC MADAME Stephen James King and Susie Lindeman in the Australian premiere of Madame Melville.
MAGIC MADAME Stephen James King and Susie Lindeman in the Australian premiere of Madame Melville.

A Writer learns the cost of casting.

HAVING started out in the Australian theatre scene as a designer, and reinvented myself in England as just about everything else – director, writer, producer – I eventually re-trained as an actor on Sydney’s fringe, made a splash in a couple of college shows, and then spent a year totally unemployed in that field apart from a stint in a car commercial. Probably an average result, in hindsight.

My big question was always this: how did actors without agents even hear about roles that were going, let alone get cast in one?

When an independent theatre company was producing the Australian premiere of Richard Nelson’s beautiful play Madame Melville at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney, I found some answers.

A friend in the cast loaned me a copy of the script. Nelson’s sentimental study of his sexual awakening at the hands of a Parisian teacher in the 1960s is so evocatively written I could envisage it on the stage after just one read. There was also a part in the play I thought I had half a chance of getting cast in.

It’s impossible to explain this role without providing the worst spoilers for anyone who has not seen a production of Madame Melville. Suffice to say the character is the very rarest of roles in the modern theatre – a short, devastating attack on the protagonist, bringing the play to a swift, bittersweet conclusion.

So I pushed, a little, and put myself forward.

The offer of an audition hung in the air while the production company deliberated over theatre dates. Eventually, my friend called and said the show probably wouldn’t go ahead – there was a hole in the budget, and the highly experienced director would not work for free.

Disappointed, and experienced in putting budgets together, I asked, “How big is the hole?” I was in an excellent position to ask – I’d just sold my house, and was about to buy again in a cheaper market. I could afford to invest in my career a little.

My friend cried on the phone when I said I’d be happy to put up the money, which was nothing, really, just a fair fee for the director.

As a firm believer that everyone should get something from a professional collaboration, I understood his bottom line. I also understood mine – all I wanted in return was to remain an anonymous donor, and an audition for the role.

In due course, I got the call. The slightly scary part was having to front-up at NIDA, which was always imposing for this graduate. I’d left without really saying goodbye, my mind focussed on desperate family matters at home.

I’d been back for the place’s 40th birthday, and stood in a crowd watching a video clip on a huge screen celebrating student work across those four decades, and been part of the admiring-yet-envious silence, when Cate Blanchett’s picture flashed-up on the screen.

Because, like it or not, we who were watching comprised the 99 percent that NIDA’s dream factory told us would be unemployed for 99 percent of the time.

The director greeted me generously – we’d been NIDA students about the same time – and he took me upstairs to one of the familiar rehearsal rooms, explaining he was on a break from the annual NIDA applicant actors’ auditions.

That made me even more nervous – he’d been auditioned-for by even younger, hungrier, more hopeful actors than me all morning!

My first piece was a disaster. The other seemed to take him by surprise, and got a genuine laugh. He said that if he’d seen me do that in the morning, he’d have asked me back for the afternoon.

I took my leave and walked back past the young people posturing around the lunch room waiting for their afternoon call-back. I’d’ve been ‘asked back’ too, I muttered to them in my imagination.


Weeks later, I heard that Madame Melville was going ahead. We’d secured a slightly awkward slot, right off the back of New Years, which was only weeks away, meaning the production would open to little advance publicity.

But I decided to enjoy not having to worry about such matters, and just act.

The professional cast was welcoming and generous, and I embraced the chance to inhabit the half-light of theatre wings once again. Nelson’s script calls for offstage voices throughout, and I had fun with those, whiling-away the hour or so before my entrance.

A one-line role over an extended season was a bit like a marathon of self-amusement. I created my character’s back story, went through serious preparations while listening the others onstage over the tannoy, gossiped with the cast of the upstairs Belvoir show, and duly took my cue.

Entering through the audience, I regularly heard their gasps of surprise and shock as I did battle with the protagonist … it was a joy to be part of such dramatic impact.

My technique of getting an audition got me nowhere beyond this production, the curtain call sometimes seemed longer than my time on the stage, but we got good audiences and well reviewed as a creative team, and a modest profit-share cheque eventually arrived in the post.

Odds aside, it was life-enlarging to be back in the theatre as part of the one per cent for a Summer.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The truth about drama school

IN THE SPOTLIGHT Drama school can be an isolating, confusing experience.

Make a good first impression

The stakes are always very high at drama school. Don’t go into any project half cooked. Every meeting, audition, opportunity and job prospect across your career will see you judged and appraised in the first 10 seconds. Learn that at drama school and you won’t need to pick up any other skill.

There is no such thing as a learning process

You are on display all the time – rehearsing, work-shopping, preparing, performing – never assume you’ll be given a break because you’re a student. You’re an adult, so take it seriously. There is only success or failure. The audience either likes the show, or it doesn’t.

At one point, they’ll try to get rid of you

It might be a case of the kind of reverse psychology that went out of fashion in 1980, but if a drama school wants to make you work harder they’ll threaten you with expulsion. Get used to surviving such stratagems, they’re an integral part of the performing arts. If you feel you’re about to be expelled, go down fighting, otherwise years of processing ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ awaits you. There are plenty of successful people who were thrown out of drama school before graduating.

They’ll constantly tell you how precarious the industry is

It’s probably to cover themselves in case you try to sue them later, when you end-up one of the 99 per cent unemployed in the performing arts, but you’ll hear plenty of statistics about your chances. Don’t listen to them, because like all ‘odds’, there is no perfect tipster to predict what will happen in your career.

Someone you know will become famous

One or two might even become very, very famous. Plenty of others will give up the industry and you’ll never hear of them again. If you can maintain a career somewhere between these two extremes (with everyone else), you’ll be a resounding success in the performing arts.

You won’t learn everything at any one drama school

Despite what many schools offer, not one of them can teach you everything you need. The rest you must pick up along the way.

Once the show starts, it can’t be stopped

The greatest gift to the drama school student is that all performances are in the hands of the artist, not the teacher. Go for it, it’s your time to fearlessly shine.

Don’t fool yourself about your education

You could do honours, masters, bachelors and graduate diplomas, but as soon as you enter the industry, you’ll still have to make the coffee. Hint: don’t wave your certificates around, no-one cares.

Some people never go to drama school at all

They just get a job in the industry in their teens and work their way up.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. 

Drama School Dream Factory – Act 3

LESS IS MORE Jennifer Kent in Lindy Davies’ production of ‘Miss Sarah Sampson’ (Photograph by Marco Bok).

A Writer’s first lesson in the odds.

Theory was left swiftly behind during my third year at NIDA, and we were on show in a series of productions, the budgets for which were so high I have never worked on any theatre so richly supported since.

I got to work with a great director – Lindy Davies – on a production of Gotthold Lessing’s Miss Sara Sampson, a story akin to Dangerous Liaisons, and set in the same period.

Lindy encouraged me in a ‘less is more’ approach, and we co-created a very simple design which evoked the period through costume, but didn’t belt the audience over the head in terms of the set.

This was mainly achieved through the use of fabric, rope, and shadows, sketching a sense of the beams and walls of an English coastal town in the late 18th Century.

I will forever remember Lindy fondly for being the first person to break through my reserve, by demanding, assertively, yet with respect, that I not shut-down and internalise my thought process when we encountered an issue during the technical rehearsal.

It was a refreshing shock, prefacing the kind of collaborator I would eventually become. In some ways it was the greatest lesson I got at NIDA, and it took about 30 seconds to impart.

I was then designated the set design for Stephen Sondheim’s rarely-staged Merrily We Roll Along, with the late Tom Lingwood mentoring me through what was a massive undertaking.

Tom was originally from Britain, designer of the first production at the Sydney Opera House. One of the first things I ever learnt about him was how he survived the bombing of his home during The Blitz. When describing the worst moment of fear he’d ever experienced, Tom recalled having to leap an entire flight of steps in one go, bursting with adrenalin.

Not surprisingly, there was something very grounded about Tom. He championed my ideas, helped get my head around a massive list of scenes, and guided me in taking a positive approach to mopping up the mess made of our work after the director put his stamp on the show’s design.

Tom also responded when my mother started chemotherapy in the midst of that production, not with commiserations, but with action. He covered for me when I needed to get on the train and go home, by painting the entire theatre floor with a detailed texture for me, and saying I’d done it!

MORE IS MORE Poster from the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s complex musical.

In the end I didn’t hit the mark with this show, as a ‘less is more’ designer. I was criticised because the expected level of detail was not there. I suppose it takes passion to reach that level. It also takes emotional involvement, and probably a greater sense of security than I had at the time.

I caused frustration, because I was not open to creative whims at the ‘right’ time, or in the ‘right’ way. I just wanted to cover all the bases. If they wanted icing on the cake, they needed to look elsewhere.

But Tom was always an ally – he’d been in the trenches with me, after all.

My last NIDA production saw me tackling the design of costumes for Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind, a truly wonderful play which I should have paid more attention to at the time, since it spoke of the kind of experiences I was going through in my life.

By that time I just hid myself away in the wardrobe department and just put it all together as best I could, counting down the days until I could leave and see to my family.

I also had my eyes on another option. I think working with Lindy was the catalyst – surely there was a way to be creative like her, but perhaps not in Australia? I was about to graduate as a designer, and that was all that was expected of me. The NIDA ‘brand’ was fairly limiting in that regard. Being only 21 I wanted to explore more options, so I looked to England, found a course at a place called ARTTS International, and applied for a scholarship to get myself over there.

Thinking about it now, I can’t believe I had my head together to make such a big plan at that time. Mum was getting sicker, and yet none of us were really talking about it. There may be a kind of ‘future instinct’ when the death of a loved-one is imminent, where you leap-frog, in your imagination, past the death and start creating a new life.

I was successful in getting into ARTTS, and secured a scholarship to get me there. I finished my NIDA course by working in the art department of a feature film as my secondment, and then went home. What I found was about as real as it gets.

NIDA graduate Jeremy Sims once described the Australian Theatre as a ‘cottage industry’, which I thought was very apt. It doesn’t disparage us, but it puts our industriousness into the correct commercial context.

At the time I was at NIDA, we must have been amongst the most funded students in the country, yet we graduated into a world in which the scope did not match the numbers of qualified workers, not by a very, very long shot.

Yes, they tell you that 99% of you will be out of work 99% of the time. Where, in a dream factory like NIDA, did they think they were going to find anyone to listen to odds like that?

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.