With bold plans to push the creative boundaries of Phantom Director/Designer Chris Hughes is taking a fresh look at a timeless classic.
TP: What was the last show you directed, and how have you approached Phantom in comparison?
CH: The last show I directed was Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins with Williamstown Theatre Company. Assassins is a smaller, ensemble piece with a cast of just 16 and it’s only one act, the set is static and each character has only one costume. Phantom on the other hand has a cast of 35+, it demands a multitude of different sets and special effects including pyrotechnics and each character has up to nine different costumes (around 200 in total). It’s an epic piece and as such, the pre production period is much longer, more collaborative process. I’ve had to work closely with our technical experts to develop the finer details that Phantom requires. For example, specialists from around the world have made many of our items, including our incredible chandelier. However, other than the obvious technical differences between the shows, I’ve approached the development of the performances in exactly the same way. I really try focus on the physicality of performing. One of the most frustrating things I’ve experienced in the theatre is having to have a performance “explained” to me by the actor or director afterwards. In my view, you have the time you have on stage to define your character and get your message across and that’s it. If you can’t do that, then you’ve missed the point.
TP: So why direct Phantom?
CH: Phantom is an incredibly challenging show to direct on the non-professional stage. The director needs to coordinate a plethora of highly complex technical challenges on a budget that’s just a fraction of the professional production (the original budget on the West End was around £9,000,000, I believe – and that was back in the 80's). These obvious budgetary constraints force you to think creatively and devise clever solutions that avoid making the piece look flawed, or cheap. I’m also acutely aware that audiences LOVE Phantom. Many people have seen it more than once in a professional setting (and now potentially once in an amateur setting), and as such, they will come to the show with certain expectations. Some are more technical – the lavish costumes, the ornate sets etc, but their expectations also expend to performances. Many people will be comparing our Phantom and Christine to household names like Sarah Brightman and Anthony Warlow, as well as the recent production from CLOC, which received rave reviews. With this in mind, I’ve deliberately approached this production with fresh eyes and can guarantee that you will see a few things that have never been tried in Phantom before. Some of these are aesthetic – the use of multimedia (don’t worry… it’s not excessive!) and the set design and costume designs are unique, for example, but the acting style is more modern than audiences are used to. We’ve remained true to the score and the text, but the performances are more the kind of thing you might see at the MTC. I hate to use the word, but it’s a little “edgy” without being pretentious (yes, I’m aware that that statement itself sounds pretentious!). Phantom is also a fundamentally beautiful, well-balanced show with a fantastic score and an excellent script, so there’s lots of meat on the bones to get stuck into.
TP: Was it hard to cast?
CH: Yes and no. Casting this production took over six months and we scoured Victoria for the perfect Phantom and Christine. No role was pre cast, but I spent six months calling the people I knew and respected to gauge their interest. Windmill Theatre Company is not as well known as some of the other companies out there, so I knew I needed to bring some fresh faces to the company, which we’ve done. We also had a good turn out at the open calls and there were lots of talented people, who normally only play leads, happily joined our ensemble in a variety of bit roles. Needless to say that I was incredibly pleased with the casting process and I think audiences will be blown away by the incredible standard of talent in this production. Many of our leading cast are current or ex professionals who have taken to this production because they believe it’s going to be something truly magical and a once in a lifetime experience.
TP: How do you inspire your actors to get inside their characters?
CH: Performing is all about creating layers and as such, the process is much like following a recipe. Start with the basics – walking, talking (accents), basic movement (blocking), then choreographed movement etc and then we move onto the serious character development – motivation, emotional and physical portrayal. It’s an intense process, but for a dramatic piece like Phantom, it’s essential. As a director, it’s my role to point them down the right path and offer guidance along the way, but it’s up to the individual actor to define their character and draw out the essence of the piece based on the clues contained within the script and score. The entire cast have been incredibly disciplined and have been open to developing their individual performances and I've been incredibly impressed with how far they've come.
TP: What part of the show do you see as exciting audiences the most?
CH: First and foremost, the performances of our cast will be the highlights of this production. When I heard our Phantom (Richard Thomas) and Christine (Kate Amos) sing their audition songs, I cast them (in my mind) there and then. There’s no doubt that these two incredible talents were born to play these roles and I’m confident audiences will be raving about them for years to come. Their voices are truly world class and their character interpretations have incredible depth and subtlety. For those of you who know Chris Buchanan – You need to see this show. He's giving a performance of a lifetime and is just a joy to watch.
Our sets and costumes are also going to be highlights – John Azzopardi, who’s now working professionally in the UK, is our Costume Designer and he’s created a beautiful collection of lusciously lavish costumes which are sure to dazzle and delight. I’ve been working closely with Alberto Salvato on a set design that is just spectacular. We’ve made an incredible amount ourselves, but we’ve also sourced some speciality pieces, including the rooftop used in Baz Lurman’s La Boheme (Australian Opera), which are absolutely stunning and give the show the richness it deserves.
Then, there are the traditional “hero” moments that people have come to expect; the beautiful chandelier, which we’ve had custom made overseas, and of course, there’s the boat, complete with over 30 Kgs of dry ice per performance! (That’s a lot apparently). This is all lit with over 4 tons of lights (I'm also told that's a lot) which go every which way, but will set the dark mood of this piece well and add some much needed scariness!
TP: Tell us about the production team you have put together for this show…
CH: I’ve worked with our Musical Director, Julia Buchanan once before on Shout! (The legend of the Wild One), as well as a few concerts here than there and we’ve been close friends for years. I like her attention to detail, her militant OCD nature and her ability to bring together amazing musicians. We are also very much in sync where interpretation is concerned. We have the same musical tastes and as such, we instinctively agree on just about everything, which is rare amongst production teams. Perhaps that’s why I cherish our working relationship all the more. We also have Robbie Mulholland in for chore and I couldn't be happier with what he's done. Thankfully his expertise starts where mine ends, so I'm grateful to be surrounded by someone so capable with all things dance. Designing our set has been a long, but incredibly rewarding task, made all the easier by my co-designer Alberto Salvato. We've gone to incredible lengths to make this set as ornate and original as possible. To do this, we've pushed each other creatively to such extreme lengths, I'm actually quite surprised we've not gotten into a fist fight, but I guess we both agree that the finish product will be worth it, so we've forged ahead in spite of all obstacles.
TP: The show is cast and rehearsals are well underway – how is it shaping up?
CH: This show is building at just the right pace. I’m conscious not to push to develop performances too hard or too fast, or the show can peak too early and ends up looking tired before it hits opens. We have a seasoned cast of highly experienced performers who have all dedicated themselves to crafting performances that really draw out the drama of the piece. We’ve been in the fortunate position of having ample rehearsal time, so we’ve just been polishing for the past month and with just a week to go before we hit the theatre, we are in a good place!
TP: What do you hope audiences will walk away from this show talking about?
CH: Audiences have an expectation of what they think Phantom should look and sound like, so first and foremost, I hope we can deliver a show that lives up to their expectations. I’d like them to walk away satisfied that we’ve respected the piece and stayed true to the story and score, whilst also adding a new, modern twist. I think many people will not notice a great difference between their vision of what the show “should” be versus our interpretation, but for those theatre people who know the show well, I hope they enjoy a fresh approach to a classic piece of theatre.
Phantom of the Opera opens June 21 – CLICK HERE TO BOOK