After a nearly two-year hiatus, Sydney’s Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre returns with Herringbone, a one-man musical starring the company’s artistic director, Jay James-Moody.
Written by Tom Cone, Skip Kennon and Ellen Fitzhugh, Herringbone is a vaudevillian ghost story. Described as a darkly comic and hilariously disturbing southern gothic tale, the show tasks one actor with playing 11 larger-than-life characters.
James-Moody tells Theatre People how he became familiar with Herringbone, listening to a 2014 CD recording of a performance by multi-award-winning American actor BD Wong.
“I found it really fascinating,” James-Moody says. “His take on it was extraordinary. And I thought what an incredible challenge in both unusual storytelling, from a directorial point of view, and then also from an acting point of view … [playing] 11 characters in conversation with each other for 90 minutes.”
Not only is James-Moody Herringbone’s sole performer, but also its co-director. Asked to single out the greatest challenge in working to bring this piece to the stage, James-Moody cites the importance of ensuring the clarity of the storytelling.
“A lot of one-person shows tend to be monologue-based, and you get monologue after monologue from different voices, whereas this is written like a normal 11-actor play,” he says. “There are two or more characters constantly in conversation and it’s being narrated by an additional character as well. Just making sure the audience can follow what is going on – because the story itself is rather unusual and takes a few twists and turns – [is] the primary focus and one of the main reasons why I really wanted a co-director on this show, who could sit outside of it and make sure that that storytelling was clear.”
James-Moody’s co-director on Herringbone is Green Room Award-winning choreographer Michael Ralph.
“I worked with him a couple of years ago on a show that I directed for WAAPA,” James-Moody says. “We clicked right away … and I’ve been itching to work with him again.
“He’s expanding his skills, so he’s started directing shows as well as choreographing.”
James-Moody further explains the crucial function of his co-director on Herringbone.
“I’ve had the show in the back of my head for a number of years now, and so I’m quite intimate with it. We’ve decided that he’s going to back off doing too much prep work on the text, so that he has quite fresh eyes. So, when I get up and do a scene with five characters speaking to each other, he can very quickly let me know whether what I’m doing is making any sense.”
While Squabbalogic typically mounts its productions at the Seymour Centre, Herringbone is playing across the city at Kings Cross Theatre (KXT). James-Moody explains why the venue was chosen for this show.
“The Seymour Centre is and always will be our home,” he says. “It’s the place where we’ve done the majority of our work and the spaces there have been appropriate for the shows that we’ve put on.
“I knew Herringbone was going to need a particular type of space to assist in the storytelling. I did investigate whether we could make the show work in the Reginald or even in the Sound Lounge at the Seymour Centre.”
Someone then mentioned KXT. James-Moody reached out to Suzanne Millar (artistic director of the resident bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company) and told her he thought the proper home for Herringbone was KXT.
“Thankfully, the team over there felt likewise,” James-Moody says. “The show is very vaudevillian and the idea of a somewhat immersive experience, this traverse layout of the seating … I think it’s really going to enhance what is already a pretty unique and unusual show.
“On top of that, having never worked in that format before, it was a challenge that I wanted to undertake for myself, personally.”
After Herringbone concludes its season, James-Moody and Squabbalogic have a busy year ahead. It includes working on The Dismissal, a brand new Australian musical delving into the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Government.
“We’ve got quite a lengthy development for The Dismissal, which I’m writing with Blake Erickson and Laura Murphy,” he says.
“Musicals in this country lack the ability to develop to full maturity the way that they’re able to do so in America, with things like out-of-town tryouts. So, with the two shows I’ve got in development, I’m happy to take them slowly and put them on display every now and again to see how they’re coming along, and that was really successful with Good Omens, with the reading that we did. We had some excellent feedback and we’ve substantially re-written the show based upon how we felt that that reading went.”
James-Moody says The Dismissal will go through a similar development process to Good Omens.
“We’ll have this writing workshop and then we’ll start to bring actors and musicians and designers in, and we will work for a couple of weeks, and then we’re going to put on five or six performances,” he says. “We’re calling it a ‘pre-world premiere’.”
That process is about ascertaining whether the show has legs.
“It’s kind of a proof of concept presentation,” he says. “Hopefully, that will encourage other companies or producers to get behind the further development of the show. It’s kind of an experimental way to develop a show that is inclusive of an audience … The audience is your major stakeholder as a theatre company, and so I want to include them in the process, not necessarily making democratic decisions based on what the audience thinks, but just hearing the response to what you think might work is so beneficial, and we’re so accustomed to keeping everything that we’re working on creatively under lock and key until an opening night.”
Following on from the 2017 reading at the Seymour Centre, Good Omens will also take its next steps. A further presentation of Good Omens will be staged in May, in association with Merrigong Theatre Company.
“That [presentation] will be more staged than the last one, which was just a reading,” James-Moody says. “We’ve got a couple of weeks’ development with actors and the show’s being orchestrated, so people will be able to come along and see a semi-staged version of the show with full orchestra and full company.”
HERRINGBONE – SEASON DETAILS
When: Playing now until 2 February 2019
Times: Tuesday – Saturday at 7:30pm; Saturdays at 2pm; Sundays at 5pm.
Tickets: Full $49 | $20 for Under 30s (Thursday events) *Door sales attract a $5 premium.
Location: Kings Cross Theatre (KXT) – Level 2, Kings Cross Hotel, Kings Cross