If you’ve been a fan of musical theatre in Australia for some time, Shaun Rennie is a name with which you’re likely well acquainted. For well over a decade, the NIDA-trained performer has regularly appeared on our professional stages.
At just 18 years of age, Rennie created the role of Pepper in the original Australian cast of Mamma Mia! and has amassed a substantial number of performing credits since, including Fyedka in Fiddler on the roof, Bill in the Australian premiere of The Musical of Musicals – the Musical, and has toured Australia and Asia as Munkustrap in Cats. In Manila, he had the opportunity to perform alongside international icon Lea Salonga. More recently, at the end of 2016, Rennie appeared in Working Management’s production of Mack & Mabel at the Hayes Theatre.
But while his theatre CV is impressive enough based on his performing credits, Rennie has turned his attention in recent years to pursuing another passion – directing. In 2015, he was the director behind the highly-acclaimed Highway Run Productions staging of Rent at the Hayes, which ultimately earned him a Broadway World Award for Best Director of a Musical. Last year, he returned to the Hayes to direct You’re a good man, Charlie Brown, which also received considerable critical and audience acclaim and saw Rennie nominated for Best Director of a Musical at the 2016 Sydney Theatre Awards. Additionally, he’s directed Ben Gerrard in Doug Wright’s I am my own wife, which has now played several Australian cities. And on top of that, he was one of two winners last year of the Sandra Bates Director Award, a prize including mentoring and directing experience for emerging directors at Sydney’s prestigious Ensemble Theatre.
In May, Rennie returned to the Hayes – what has now become Sydney’s premier venue for independent musical theatre – as the director of Alex Harding’s musical, Only heaven knows, which tells the story of several gay men living in Australia in the 1940s and 50s. It’s garnered strong reviews from several Sydney critics and will play at the venue through to 1 July.
Theatre People had the opportunity of catching up with Rennie and asking how he’s enjoyed his transition from performer to director.
“I’ve loved it, it feels like I’ve found the thing that I love to do,” he says.
Rennie recalls the origins of his interest in directing.
“I guess the process began probably even before Rent or I am my own wife. It started back when I started directing and producing Light the night”, he says.
The Light the Night Benefit Concert was inspired by Rennie’s brother, Matthew, who passed away following a three-year battle with leukaemia. The annual event ran for 10 years at Sydney’s City Recital Hall and raised over $400,000 for leukaemia research and cancer patient resources.
“I guess it was through my 10 years of [directing and producing Light the night] that I started to really realise that I was developing people leadership skills and things that would, one day, work in my favour as a director.”
Rennie spent 18 months living and working in the UK, and it was during that time that the Hayes Theatre was established – a development he was keenly observing from the other side of the world.
“I knew then when I went back to Australia, I wanted to be a part of the [independent] sector because it’s the one with the most growth potential and opportunities for people who, like myself, are wanting to cut their teeth in something new,” he says.
Rennie considers himself to have been very fortunate to have had the experiences he’s chalked up as a director. He describes the Hayes as an “exciting” venue and talks about the transformative impact it’s having on the musical theatre landscape in Sydney.
“It’s definitely changing the way that people consume musical theatre,” Rennie says.
Talking from the perspective of those creating and performing in the space, he mentions the sense of ownership those involved are able to feel with respect to those works.
“Creatives are given a space to flex their muscles in a way that you would very rarely get to do on a commercial musical in Australia,” he explains. “[And] I think the intimacy of the venue forces musical theatre actors to be better actors because the audience is sitting a metre away … There’s no room for grand performances.”
He adds: “I think it’s an important venue and I think it has a lot of growth potential and … I’m very thrilled to have been able to have worked there so often, and hope to work there many more times in the future.”
As discussion moves to his current project, Rennie tells Theatre People that Only heaven knows is a show with which he’s been familiar for some time.
“My first knowledge of the piece came when I was a young musical theatre aficionado,” he says. “I had the album of the David Campbell, Garry Scale and Jason Langley production. I sang ‘Only heaven knows’ when I was a young performer.”
While living in London, Rennie even had the opportunity to participate in a table read for Only heaven knows.
“A producer over there was looking to potentially produce it. It never actually got off the ground, but was I involved in a table read, and at that point, I said, ‘This would be fantastic for the Hayes’.”
So, when Luckiest Productions producer Lisa Campbell asked Rennie if he would direct this production, he needed no convincing.
“She didn’t even finish the question, I screamed ‘Yes!’ on the phone,” he recalls.
Only heaven knows holds an important place in the memories of many theatregoers who had the opportunity to see it on stage in the late-1980s and mid-1990s.
“People remember it very fondly and very nostalgically, and so I feel the pressure, in terms of it’s a very important piece to a lot of people,” he says. “I need to make sure I honour their memory of this wonderful Australian [musical] … it’s rare to have an Australian musical, especially a queer Australian musical, that speaks to people so poignantly. I feel the pressure to get it right.”
Rennie talks about the significance of the show to today’s audiences.
“Act one takes place during World War II and despite the war, maybe because of the fact that bombs might have fallen out of the sky at any point, there was the beginnings of a queer community in Sydney in Kings Cross,” he says. “The queer community and women were getting the sense of the beginnings of a relaxation of social attitudes towards certain ‘vices’.
“Act two skips to the 1950s and … after communism, homosexuality was considered Australia’s second largest vice. So, men were forced back into the closet, women were forced back into the kitchen, there was a tightening of attitudes and a closing down of that optimistic feeling … With the right-wing conservative movement happening around the world right now, it can serve as a warning that just because we enjoy particular freedoms today doesn’t mean that they can’t be taken away from us. Politically, things can change very quickly … By reaching back and telling this story from the 1940s and 1950s, and honouring the time that the play was written – the 1980s – it can serve as a reminder to be conscious of how we are moving forward and to not give up the fight, because we’re not there yet in terms of equality, and our freedoms can potentially be taken away at any given moment with any given change of government.”
Rennie is hugely excited about the cast assembled for this production.
“When Lisa and I sat down and thought about our dream cast, everyone who is in our cast is at the very top of that list,” he says. “We’re very lucky … Everyone is at the top of their game.”
Rennie also mentions the current marriage equality debate.
“I think it is ridiculous we don’t have marriage equality in Australia. It is embarrassing and shameful, and this piece hopefully will be an energising force in terms of people seeing that by not embracing love, the other options are dangerous and, at times, fatal for people … Hopefully, people are energised in a way that their hearts open up a little bit.”
ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Season: Playing until 1 July 2017
Times: Mon 6:30pm*, Tue-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm
*No performance Mon 12 June
*Extra matinee Wed 14 June at 2pm
Price: $68 Mon-Thu, $74 Sat matinee, $78 Fri & Sat nights
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337