By John Bailey

Throughout the auditions for King Kong, Adam Lyon thought he was aiming for an offstage cover role – a kind of understudy who steps into another actor’s shoes should any mishap occur. It partly explains his reaction when he was offered the role of one of the handful of principal characters who carry the show. It was the Executive Producer of Melbourne-based production company Global Creatures who told him the good news, and Lyon asked if the man was too rich for a hug. After the embrace, the 31-year-old performer bolted from the theatre.

“Which I think was understandable under the circumstances,” he says. The circumstances in this case are that Lyon’s first professional production since graduating from VCA’s Bachelor of Music (Performance) degree in 2011 sees him in a lead role in the largest, most expensive musical ever created in Australia, with some reports placing Kong as the second biggest musical ever produced anywhere.

From left VCA graduates Joshua Robson, Sam Hooper, Adam Lyon and Chris Ryan. Photo Ponch Hawkes.

It wasn’t the scale of the show itself which left Lyon cowed, but the suddenness of his appointment.
“Usually you pay your dues. You come up through the ranks, do some understudy work. That’s what I found daunting, jumping that queue. There’s a level of guilt mixed in with awe and gratefulness.”
Chris Ryan is another VCA graduate to step into a principal role in the production, though his dues are thoroughly acquitted already. He began his career in the Bell Shakespeare Company’s schools program and has worked for most major theatre companies in the country, including STC, MTC and Malthouse Theatre.

Ryan didn’t set out to become an actor per se – he first studied classical singing at VCA and after graduating applied to study music theatre at WAAPA. He didn’t get in but at the same time VCA offered him a place in its acting stream. That’s why one of the country’s most prolific stage actors hasn’t performed in a musical since a stint in Les Miserables at Altona Civic Theatre in 2001.

“The big thing I learned from VCA is that acting isn’t what I thought it was,” he says. “I had in my mind that it was some kind of formula. I soon realised I didn’t know anything at all.

“You can’t create a performance by making it up in your head. You’ve got to use everything that’s around you and whatever’s inspiring you at the time. Whatever you’re reading and watching and the people you see out in the streets. And it’s the people you’re working with as well. It’s not a formula. Anyone can come up with an Academy Award-winning performance in their bedroom but you get into the rehearsal room and it doesn’t work.”

Kong’s cast numbers more than 40 and the roster of creatives working on the show in total edges into triple figures. It takes 11 to animate the six-metre beast at the show’s centre, which makes the prospect of a mere human attempting to win an audience’s attention back from such a spectacle an intimidating one.

“When we saw Kong’s first entrance during rehearsals,” says Ryan, “it was so impressive that we just looked at each other and went: ‘Sheesh. People are going to hate us talking after that. They’re just going to want the ape back.’ But that actually feeds your performance. You have to step it up.”

Kong’s cast includes a host of other VCA alumni – Ross Hannaford, Sam Hooper, Leah Lim, Chris Ostrenski, Joshua Robson and Jacob Williams – and has the largest number of VCA Music Theatre graduates of any musical ever. Leah Lim was in the inaugural year of the Music Theatre course and describes the ensemble as “a big family”.
Lim says that the most useful thing her studies provided was connections with colleagues she would later end up working alongside. “The best thing that the course prepared me for came through the people I met, people I ended up performing with. The networking was just incredible, to observe professionals teaching us who we now get to work with. And it’s always nice to have a friendly face in auditions, too!”

This article was originally published in the 2013 edition of the Melbourne University Magazine.