‘A love story told through song and hallucinations’ – this phrase from Michael Lindner, producer for The Popular Mechanicals, perfectly describes their upcoming show, A New Brain.
The show had its genesis when composer William Finn suffered an arteriovenous malformation on his brain stem in 1992. His successful surgery and subsequent experiences during his recovery provided him with the inspiration to write the piece. What he created is a draw card to performers, presenting them with both challenges and satisfaction. Zule Khan, who plays Lisa (a homeless lady), was attracted to the show through its songs.
“The music is very intricate and difficult’, says Khan, “so multitasking physical work on top of singing and producing a clear sound is hard. This show is very demanding on you physically, so that is something that needs a lot of attention”.
Alongside of producing the show, Lindner is also portraying the role of Richard (a kind and compassionate nurse), and like Khan, he is feeling the challenges of the work. “The character I am playing is a mix of things for me. He is an enigma. Some days I feel like I’ve nailed it and some days I think…’what the hell am I doing?’ But I think that is right [to feel] in the rehearsal stage. I am now starting to get a grip on this person!”
The Popular Mechanicals is a relatively new company , “a one-stop-shop for clever, well crafted and commercially viable products performed by some of Melbourne’s most exciting new and established talent”. With such a mix of experience, there’s always someone to talk to when the challenges pile up. For Lindner, “[It’s] sometimes the director, sometimes the musical director, sometimes Zule (because she has seen me in my undies in Avenue Q and I can be very open and honest with her) and the other cast members… they are a font of knowledge and all creative sparks”.
Jake Fehily, who plays The Minister, has also enjoyed the company of his fellow cast members. “It’s been such a really crazy and hilarious experience working with the other cast members”, says Fehily. “The material is just so out there that you can’t help but have so much fun playing. Everyone in the cast is so supportive of one another. Whether it’s a hilarious moment or a very solemn, serious part of the show. Everyone has treated each other with so much respect”.
For some Theatre People readers, A New Brain may be a well-known and well-loved show, yet for others it may be an unknown. No matter which camp you sit in, you will certainly see familiar characters on stage. Khan can see similarities to other roles in the music theatre canon. “One cannot help but draw comparisons of Lisa the homeless lady to the homeless lady from Rent. I also know a few people who have mental illness but are also the most intelligent and profound people I know”, reflects Khan. “I draw inspiration from them as well as many different places, the buskers outside Chapel St, for example. You can’t get into Chapel St Coles without seeing those guys. I also delved into the experience of what it is like to be homeless, I believe the best characters always originate from a place of truth and respecting their truth”.
Involvement in A New Brain is quite a departure from Khan’s previous show. She penned, performed and toured her own one-woman show, TRIAGE! A Nursing Cabaret – an autobiographical show about her experience as a triage nurse in charge of an emergency department. “Touring solo is also very lonely so [with A New Brain] I love that I have a cast to learn from and play with”, comments Khan. “Doing musical theatre productions keeps my standard high as an entertainer, so I love the challenge and it is nothing like my solo show! It is a different kind of challenge but equally demanding I think!”.
With Finn’s musical being centred around the protagonist’s medical emergency and recovery, Khan can also readily relate to the scenario, but also to the character of the homeless lady, Lisa. “Obviously being a medical professional myself I identify with a lot of the medical aspects of the show. With the role of Lisa, I often feel like I can forsee other’s futures but no-one ever wants to hear something they don’t want to hear from a stranger, so in that sense I understand Lisa’s soul”.
The story of the show travels through so many emotions for both players an audience alike, from joy to grief to love, as well as anger. Such a broad range means there are so many highlights which would be favourited. For Fehily, that moment is the number ‘Gordo’s Law Of Genetics’. “The song is a celebration of bad genetics and is very much in the spirit of William Finn’s work”, says Fehily. “It is so self-deprecating, but finds a joy in all the misery. It’s a really enjoyable moment”.
A New Brain is playing for a limited season at the Middleton Theatre, Camberwell Grammar School from January 19-21. Tickets are available through https://chook.as/cgtc/a-new-brain