Brent Downes chats to Harvest Rain Artistic Director and CEO Tim O'Connor.
When I was sixteen, my drama teacher took me to see "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" by Bertolt Brecht which was staged by a theatre company with the most unusual name of Harvest Rain. I thought they must be hippies! I remember being absolutely blown away by that show and now it's over ten years later and they have blown me away many, many times in their tireless devotion to theatrical brilliance and also to encouraging a vibrant, sustainable and most importantly LOCAL theatre community in Brisbane.
I caught up with their artistic director Tim O'Connor in their headquarters of The Warehouse in Mina Parade at Alderly. The first thing I notice…. is it is a giant tin shed! Well, that's Queensland for you … I can probably assure you that theatrical pretense and self-indulgent mimicry of other states theatrical scenes will never be on the agenda at Harvest Rain. Tim says "No theatre scene in the world is looking over its shoulder to see what others are doing and worrying about it. Audiences, particularly audiences in Queensland seem to be automatically aware of when you are pandering to them and doing things that don't relate to them… and they don't like it".
One of the things that also struck me early in our conversation was that, at Harvest Rain, they didn't seem to feel like they were in any kind of negative competition with the other theatre companies in Brisbane, in fact, on their counter you can find pamphlets for pretty much every other game in town and Tim was very enthusiastic in hearing about my points of view of other shows by other companies so he could plan his calendar accordingly. "People go to what they like to go to, we have our audience and it's growing, it's always steadily growing every year, we get people who trust us, who trust our brand and they keep coming back. We've found that the subscription model doesn't always work these days, especially with the new generation of audience, instead you have to build that trust, you have to deliver quality material that they want to see and then they will get to trust your brand and they'll come back. Theatre can be the cruelest artform, people go to the cinema and if the movies bad they probably won't hate all cinema for all time, but if you put on a bad play then you might ruin someones experience of theatre and they may never go back again. It's not easy, but you have to stick with it" Tim said.
Some months before I met Tim I had gone to see one of their 2011 season showpieces "Jesus Christ Superstar" and was blown away, foremostly by how YOUNG the cast was and that this play had received a huge injection of youth and and enthusiasm, suddenly one of the broadway classics took on this whole other dimension of meaning to today's Brisbane audience … these young Brisbane voices singing and telling this story that explores mateship, sacrifice, destiny, power, love, life, death and God. Suddenly it was both classic … and relevant! Not to mention physically powerful and youthfully vibrant!
If you thought they were busy enough just making really, really good theatre, Harvest Rain also prides itself on being a first-rate industry trainer as Tim puts it "We have a few different arms here, we have the arm that makes the theatre, the arm that is getting people excited to come and see our shows and the arm that, if people are interested in getting involved and having a go, there's a way for them to do that, actually, we have a few ways for them to do that." Asking around the scene I discovered that any Harvest Rain affiliation comes with a huge amount of professional credence and as Tim told me, there are a few different ways of going about it depending on your interest and ability level. There is a way for people with a casual interest to get into it, to more formal training programs for those seeking to turn professional. The Harvest Rain Musical Theatre Internship Program is just one such example http://www.harvestrain.com.au/01_cms/details.asp?ID=1022
Harvest Rain is yet to announce what its plans are for 2012 but I feel they definitely warrant national exposure and attention as they are living proof of a sustained and continued theatrical brilliance that has multiple dimensions and parts to it and is as multi-faceted and complex as the 21st century community of which it is an important part and like all great theatre companies it is constantly changing and updating itself to move with the trends and the times and remain viable and successful long into the future.
I asked Tim O'Connor some Questions about theatre, Harvest Rain and the industry in QLD … here are his answers…. I think the theatre going public and theatre makers alike will find this very interesting.
1. Tell me about the history of "Harvest Rain", where does that interesting name come from? Where do you come from as a theatre company?
Harvest Rain is proof that from little things, big things grow. We started out in 1985 as a little drama group being run out of a church in New Farm, and little by little the group developed into a company. By the mid 90’s, we had our own theatre (the Sydney Street Theatre) in New Farm and were producing high quality amateur musicals and plays featuring actors from all over the place, some amateurs and some professionals. Jump forward 10 years and we had become one of the major producers of musical theatre in Queensland, and we were busting out of our tiny 300 seat theatre. By 2009, we made the move to a larger premises (the Mina Parade Warehouse) that could house our musical theatre training programs (we run a full time course and lots of after school training for young people who love musical theatre) and we started producing our major shows at QPAC. We now do a mix of professional and pro-am shows – sometimes it’s a fully professional cast, sometimes (usually on our big musicals) it’s professional leads working with amateur ensemble. We also have a small performance space in our warehouse where we stage smaller shows and independent works. We’re always busy!
The name is a funny one. Nobody really remembers where exactly it came from or what exactly it means. I’ve heard lots of theories and lots of people have looked into it over the years and found deep meaning in it. I wish I had a more interesting story to tell you about it!
2. What makes "Harvest Rain" different from other theatre companies in Australia right now?
That’s probably a hard question for me to answer personally. I am so busy working for this company, I don’t often get the chance to work for other companies so I can compare. All I can go by is what people say who come to work for us. What I hear most often from people who come in to work with us is “There’s something really different about this place, I don’t know what it is!”.
I know for one thing that while we are committed to working really hard to bring forward a product that is extremely high quality, we also really value our people, and consider everyone who works with us to be part of our family, and we place a great deal of importance on our process. Our process has to be as good as our product. No point having a great show if everyone working on the show hates each other. We are a really big community of like-minded people who love musical theatre and are passionate about seeing as much of it as possible being produced in Queensland.
We also really value our audience, and know that the majority of our audience is families who want to see good, clean, non-confronting, general appeal entertainment. We tend to steer clear of “art for arts sake” theatre – this is theatre for the people, and it’s our audience who decides what we produce, not the arts community. There’s nothing wanky about Harvest Rain – we try to be as accessible as possible to the general public and to our audience by making show choices that will connect with your average Queenslander.
We also have a very strong focus on training. As far as I am aware, we are the only major theatre company in the country who also has a large training arm attached to it. We source many of our performers these days from our Full-time Musical Theatre Internship Program, and many of the people who do that program have already trained with us in our after-school classes. We really believe that the way to have great musical theatre in Queensland is to provide great training in singing, acting and dancing, and then channel the students we train into great onstage experiences in our major shows at QPAC. So Harvest Rain is kind of a one-stop shop – you can get trained and get performance experience and exposure all in the one place.
3. So, you're a Queensland theatre company, what is it like, from your point of view, making theatre in Queensland? Is it different from other states do you think? What's the QLD audience like from your point of view?
Queensland is an outdoors kind of place. It’s hot most of the year, so people don’t tend to want to spend their time indoors. Getting bums on seats can be tricky for that reason. I often think that in Melbourne, people go to the theatre not only for the promise of a great show but also for the promise of central heating. Here we don’t have that problem so much (although it was 4 degrees here in Brisbane the other day, I might say!). We don’t have such a strong theatre-going culture as you might find in Sydney or Melbourne (although that is changing!), so you have to be smart and choose shows that are really going to appeal to people if you want to have an audience. The great thing is that the stats show that Queenslanders love a good musical, so we never tend to have any trouble packing out the QPAC Playhouse for our major musicals. Smaller lesser known shows can be difficult, but it’s all about training your audience to trust your brand and by ensuring that everything we do is entertaining and high quality, we have managed to gather a loyal audience who we can trust to come and see pretty much whatever we do. We’ve got over 15,000 on our mailing lists now, and our patrons are really loyal, so that’s a great audience base to start with when marketing what we’re doing!
4. You have enjoyed immense success in the last few years, has there been a gameplan? A recipe? A formula? What's making you make such successful theatre works?
I’d love to say that there was a really strategic plan that has brought us to this place. In reality, I’m just a dreamer, and I have lots of big ideas and big visions for what’s possible for this company. I tend to ignore when people say “you can’t do that” or “that’s going to be so difficult” and I just plough forward until we achieve what we set out to do. People used to say that there was no work for professional musical theatre performers in Queensland. People used to say it wasn’t possible to make musical theatre viable in Queensland. People used to say it wouldn’t be possible to sustain a full time musical theatre course in Queensland. They don’t say it anymore, because we proved them wrong.
I love Queensland – it’s where I live and have grown up, and I have no intention of ever moving. I also love musical theatre, and want to see it flourish in this place that I love. Simon Gallaher is one of my mentors and he said to me a few years back “You can have everything you want, you just have to go get it”. That’s kind of my mantra now, and it’s how I run this company. If we want it, we can go get it. I want to produce high quality musical theatre in Queensland, and give Queensland musical theatre performers work and exposure and connection to the musical theatre industry in the rest of the county and the world. And that’s what we’re doing.
I think part of our success also comes from our commitment to our audiences. We don’t do theatre just for ourselves and for the sake of our own art. It’s all about the audience, and giving them what they want to see. That’s how we can afford to operate without government funding – we can rely on our audiences buying tickets and that’s what makes our business sustainable.
5. What do you think the shape of Queensland's creative scene is at the moment and how do you fill your particular niche? What's your part in the bigger picture?
Queensland, and specifically Brisbane, is really blossoming artistically and creatively at the moment. Even in the last 10 years, the amount of theatre being produced and the quality of the work being presented has soared. There’s a lot going on, to the point where we’re almost out of theatre spaces to contain it all! Our niche is definitely musical theatre, and mainstream musical theatre. We handle the big blockbuster musicals in Queensland. At QPAC, we often find that a major production like WICKED is running in the Lyric Theatre, while just next door in the Playhouse is our home-grown version of some big Broadway musical, and our aim is that audiences shouldn’t be able to tell the difference quality wise. The only difference really is that what’s on in the Lyric is an “imported” production featuring performers from other cities, and our production features an all-Queensland cast. We’re all about offering opportunity and exposure to Queensland performers – we want to be a launching pad for Queensland performers, and that’s what we’ve really become known as in the last few years.
6. What's "Harvest Rain" up to now? And what's in the future?
Harvest Rain is always up to something. At the moment, we’re gearing our for our Musical Theatre Interns’ mid-year musicals at the Mina Parade Warehouse. They’re staging THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE and HONK. Then in September we’ll work on their showcase and in November we’ll present their end of year musical, SWEET CHARITY, at the Brisbane Powerhouse. In between all that, we’re running a series of musical theatre holiday workshops, our usual after school classes (Triple Theatre Training we call it), and gearing up for 2012 (we launch our season in November). There’s never a dull moment at Harvest Rain. It’s a hive of activity every day – and that’s just the way I like it.
And that's where we left it, pretty much. From my point of view, there never should be a dull moment at a theatre company, particularly in Queensland and particularly in the 21st century. In a culture where we constantly compete against other forms of art and entertainment and in a climate such as Queensland's which is famously hostile and difficult for the arts, theatre companies can't afford to take it easy and even successful ones can't afford to take their success for granted and that's certainly not the case at Harvest Rain, where persistence and planting seeds in local talent and local audiences has seen and can only expect to see more fine years of reaping a great harvest for us all to enjoy
For more information about Harvest Rain… Visit http://www.harvestrain.com.au