I was never suited to be a starving actor, so if I was to pursue anything of a theatrical nature it would be in Adelaide’s local theatre scene. Back in those days, there was no WAAPA, BAPA, VCA let alone performing arts in schools – so I had one avenue. I had grown up watching some of the Australia's best – Nancye Hayes, Jill Perryman, Toni Lamond and listening to Broadway scores.
I began by working backstage. My first gig was as a dresser for some grande dames of the Adelaide theatre and this was followed by props. This was a really good grounding as I saw how imperative it was for actors and crew to work as one. Historically there has unfortunately been a “them and us” mentality. You know that favourite interview question … “can you work in a team?” Try theatre.
The amateur scene has changed considerably since I started. When I began performing there were no mikes. You had to hit the back of the theatre and sing over an orchestra. Unlike now where you have the luxury of radio mikes with sound desks in the back row taking up 6 seats. Choices of shows were nowhere as ambitious as these days. There also seemed to be so many skilled people working tirelessly behind the scenes – costumes, scenery, construction, scenic artists (a dying breed), props, and sets … and all working for the common goal and delivering on time. You may not have a finished set, and could still be painting on the opening night, but it was basically built and you had it there to rehearse with and get used to. I worked on a show where we didn’t have the stairs finished until the opening night – this was not only horrifying but an occupational health and safety nightmare waiting to happen. These days the excuse is “we've run out of time," and "this is only amateur theatre and you can't expect everything to be done." This may sound harsh, but I don’t accept that. Nowadays there is a production manager to keep things rolling, because often the person entrusted with the task doesn’t deliver the goods.
There are also theatre basics if you want to work in the biz. Men need a white shirt and a pair of lace up black shoes with a leather sole. Girls need chorus shoes. Please don’t arrive at rehearsal in trainers. You wear your shoes during rehearsal to get used to them, as they change your bearing, movement and posture. As a choreographer I asked a chorus girl where her chorus shoes were – only to hear one of the best excuses in the business – “I put them on the top of the car and a bird shat in them, so I had to wash them and they are at home drying!” That trumps the dog ate my homework.
How many people remember let alone used grease paint? Guys wore back eyeliner with the obligatory red dot in the corner of the eye to "sparkle." Some still do …
Having been in this business for 25 years and paying my dues with over 50 shows under my belt, I gingerly made my directorial debut last year! That was one roller coaster ride!
What I’ve found is everyone’s an expert and not willing to observe the recommendations or “tips of the trade” from people who know their craft.
I’ve noticed the commitment isn’t there. Absenteeism is rife – particularly with musicals and I pity the director and their rehearsal schedule. People audition all over town and take the best offer. It is rare to start on time – with people coming in eating their tea, sending a text or having a chat. When I was in the chorus you didn’t talk, your mobile was off (or we didn't have them) and the reason you were there was to rehearse not only fill in time before you go to the pub.
So many directors want to be your friend and the differentiation between director and cast isn’t there so much. “Oh they are such a lovely person.” Great! But can they direct? A director is much more than someone who moves you around the stage or blocks and should be respected. They need to give you characterisation and have the skill to draw the performance out of you, understand your personality, and learn how you tick.
Gone are the days of auditioning for one show. Now would-be auditionees tryout for 3 musicals and sees which company gives them the better deal. Adelaide is a very small town and all directors, MDs and choreographers know who is auditioning for what shows. Talk about stress. This is supposed to be fun.
Another thing has changed. Reviewing. All theatre critics used to be trained journalists, columnists, learned much and wrote with knowledge and experience. Now it appears anyone can step out from the chorus and set up as a reviewer. They use extravagant adjectives and such phrases as “should be professional,” should be on Broadway” – which is all very good for someone’s ego but not true.
Having said all that – most of my closest and dearest friends I met in theatre. Many I am proud to say have gone on to work professionally. I’ve had incredible highs and lows. I’ve learned a great deal. I love show business. It’s in my blood. There’s nothing like being backstage, hearing the buzz of the crowd in the auditorium and then the thrill of the overture. “This is your five minute call.” Welcome to the theatre.
So you think you can dance, sing or act? Be a triple threat and on your way up – or you may prefer behind the scenes. Listen to the experienced company personnel. Watch. Soak it up like a sponge. Find time to run lines and dance combinations away from rehearsal. As Nancye Hayes famously tells, "you never stop learning". Pay your dues, remember it’s not where you start. Respect the experience of others, look and learn, show your enthusiasm, have commitment and above all have fun and don’t be afraid of auditions.
Born into a theatrical family, at the age of 3 Mel put on her first pair of ballet shoes and hasn’t stopped dancing. Growing up listening to musicals, (knowing the lyrics to "An English Teacher" and worshipping Chita Rivera), at the tender age of 8 – she was destined to tread the boards.
As a child she would sit in the wings and watch her dad direct and perform with some of the best in SA.
Starting as a dresser, props, follow spot, FOH with a background in dance and performance, she proved a triple threat and is the recipient of several awards – Advertiser Oscart for Best Newcomer, Best Choreography, Best Actress and for her directorial debut of Curtains last year, the coveted Adelaide Critic Circle Award.
Mel has performed in numerous shows including drama and music theatre; and featured in children’s television. She has also carved a successful career as a choreographer.
When she's not on the boards or behind the scenes, Mel can be found performing across the Adelaide metropolitan area with The Good Time Entertainers, on radio and as a volunteer at the Animal Welfare League.
Film work includes an extra on The Boys are Back with Clive Owen; Like Minds with Toni Collette and choreography for Vicki Sugars Award winning short film Moustache.