For the first time in a decade, the blockbuster Billy Elliot The Musical is touring Australia. Seen by a global audience of more than 12 million people and winner of 85 major international awards, the story of the young English boy, whose passion for dance is ignited, will play a 10-week run at the Sydney Lyric Theatre before taking the stage in Adelaide and Melbourne.

Associate Director Simon Pollard has worked on productions of Billy Elliot around the world. He was the Resident Director of the West End production for its final three years and then became Associate Director of the UK and Ireland Tour, as well as Associate Director of recent productions in Japan and South Korea.

Theatre People spoke to Pollard at a media call in Sydney earlier this month, where he shared with us how rehearsals were going.

“We started the boys 12 weeks ago – just the Billys,” Pollard says. “We had five weeks with the Billys on their own, and then we had the Michaels join, and then we had the ballet girls and Kelly come and join. We’ve had the adult cast members now for the past five weeks. We’re at the stage now where we’ve put the show together and … it’s full steam ahead.”

It’s an understatement to say that the process young performers cast as Billy go through, in preparing to play the role, involves hard work.

“I have thought about it long and hard, and I genuinely don’t think that there is a role in musical theatre that is as demanding of a performer as Billy, and the fact that that performer is 11 or 12-years-old is pretty incredible,” says Pollard.

“The amount of stuff they have to do is massive and the show is long – it’s three hours long including interval – and so, in those five weeks, in terms of what the acting department does, we go through the whole script, we talk about every single line, every single scene … At the same time, they’re obviously doing training in ballet and acro, and the dance team is beginning to take them through the choreography.

“The idea is that by the end of that five-week process, they know the show, to an extent, so it means that it’s their territory. It means that when other people join, they know what they’re doing, they feel an ownership of what they’ve been doing, and they set the standard when the adults come and join. Adults come to their first day of rehearsal and, suddenly, they see kids who already know the show, who are giving full performances, and I think it forces the adults to step up to that as well.”

Pollard adds, “The important thing is we’ve never had an issue with kids being on stage forgetting their lines or being nervous because what we aim to do through that long rehearsal process is just normalise everything for them. So, although the show does have incredible demands on them, it’s almost like by the time they go on stage, they’re not worried about that or they’re not thinking about that because it’s so normal for them.”

And, according to Pollard, the young actors cast as Billy aren’t treated like children.

“I treat them as I would any adult professional actor,” he says. “I think, often, audiences just expect kids to be cute when they go and see them in a show, but we demand the same standards of them, the same commitment, the same energy, the same focus as we would an adult performer.

“I think, also, that we now know what kids are capable of, having done this show around the world for the past however many years. So, we have very high standards, which the kids step up to.”

When it comes to finding young performers to play the role of Billy, Pollard says there’s no one-size-fits-all rule.

“When we audition the boys, yes, we’re looking for talent; they need to have some sort of talent, whether that’s ballet or acro or tap, we need to see that dance ability,” he says. “But also … I’m looking for personality, I’m looking for some sort of spark, I’m looking for some sort of fight, to see that that boy has an element of Billy within that personality. There are so many different ways that that can manifest itself.

“These four boys are so different from each other, in terms of their dancing styles, in terms of their attitudes, in terms of their personalities, and so we craft the show around them … What we say to them is, ‘We’re not interested in you pretending to be Billy. What we want to see is your version of Billy’. And that process allows their own personality to come through … I’m never at a point where I’m saying, ‘This is how you say the line, you stand here, you do this’. I’m in a process working with the boys to find their journey through the show, and that’s what keeps it fresh for me.”

The choreographer of Billy Elliot The Musical is Peter Darling, whose work on the show won the Olivier Award, the Tony Award and the Helpmann Award, among several others.

“I have to say Peter Darling … is an absolute genius, in terms of the story that he tells through the movement,” Pollard says. “Yes, the dance is tough … but the brilliant thing is that every single dance move has an intention behind it. Peter Darling is originally an actor, so it’s not just about showing off fancy steps. There’s a meaning and there’s a reason. Our associate choreographer, Tom [Hodgson], is absolutely fantastic in the way that he works with the ensemble and with the boys as well, in terms of every move has a meaning behind it … It’s not just about drilling the dance; it’s about telling the story through the dance.”

While the story on which the musical is based is set 35 years ago, there’s no doubt Billy Elliot The Musical has much to say to audiences across the world in 2019. Pollard describes it as being “our story”, referring to people who work in the arts.

“A lot of us know what it’s like to have that struggle, whether with dancers or actors or directors, that idea of perhaps having to explain to your family or prove to your family that, no, you don’t want a serious job. You want to do this,” he explains.

“But, larger than that, it’s a story about community … It’s about a community struggling, and that story’s being told across the world every day in different communities. So, there’s always some relevance. The story always speaks to people on different levels, I think, and that’s the wonderful thing about the story.”

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Photo credit: James D Morgan