Wednesday, 5 December 2012

On Pro-Am Theatre

There's some bitter chatter going on in Canberra's amateur theatre community about Free-Rain Theatre's decision to import professional leads for its upcoming production of "Phantom of the Opera".

Umbrage has been taken that the decision implies that the production team believes there is noone amongst Canberra's performers who can do justice to the lead parts of the Phantom and Christine. There is also the perceived injustice of unpaid performers sharing the stage with paid professionals.

This is a conversation which could turn quite ugly, if it hasn't done already, and I thought I'd take the time to lay out the pros and cons and give you my take on the situation.

The Pro-Am approach to mounting theatrical productions can have a number of justifications. The most obvious is pulling a crowd. If you import a "name" to lead the company of a show it can draw a wider audience than you might otherwise, making the whole enterprise more financially viable. Paying the leads must be factored into the budget, but the results have, in the past, justified the decision. Some of the older hands around town will vividly remember productions at the Canberra Theatre involving all manner of Australian celebrities and seasoned professionals in the lead roles. It can't be denied that those names drew crowds.

That's not what we're looking at here, though. Your average Canberran is highly unlikely to have heard of the performers being imported in this case.

Another reason for getting professionals in is, as has been assumed by some in the case of "Phantom", a judgement by the production team that local performers are not capable of delivering the standard of performance desired. Admittedly, this can be perceived as an insult by members of the local performing community, and whether it's true or not is a subjective matter. In my opinion the amateur theatre scene in Canberra is of a very high calibre, consistently delivering productions of a professional standard within an amateur framework.

Considering "Phantom" specifically, this is a show which makes significant demands on its leads and, due to the magic of Cameron Mackintosh and the many, many performances of the show which the public at large has been exposed to, there are specific expectations about how the lead parts are played.

On the other hand, a skilled director should be able to draw the required performance from a sufficiently talented cast. Furthermore, my observation about performances in mega-shows applies equally to "Les Miserables", which has been produced locally, repeatedly and successfully, using local talent in the lead roles. It's difficult to distinguish that experience from the prospect of producing "Phantom" when it comes to casting.

The flip-side to this argument is the pay-off that a professional can deliver in terms of a "guarantee of quality". A company wishing to ensure the leads are well experienced and capable of delivering what is required can secure that outcome by hiring professionals. That seems to be, at least in part, what's going on here. In terms of technical production, "Phantom" is a big risk for a local theatre company. Reducing that risk through casting professional leads is not unreasonable.

A side-effect of importing professional leads (famous or otherwise) is the opportunity it presents for local performers to work with professionals and learn from them, up close and personal. The networking opportunities that come from being involved with professionals are also not to be underestimated. Everyone knows a story about someone whose "big break" came about because of a past association with someone who was able to short-circuit the system on their behalf. Even the merest possibility that that could happen through being in the "Phantom" cast should be a strong motivation to audition.

If Free-Rain is at least partly motivated to import professional leads as a development opportunity for local cast members, its initiative is to be commended. I am certain that every member of that cast will look back on "Phantom" as a highlight of their performance experience, regardless of whether it's the last show they do or if it's a step on the ladder to bigger and better things. The quality of that experience can only be enhanced by having people in the lead roles who know exactly what they're doing, having done it hundreds of times before.

I don't know what Free-Rain's production team is thinking, and I haven't asked them. I don't, however, think they deserve the scorn that has been cast their way.

Quite a bit has been made over establishing a precedent for paying only parts of a cast. But there is already precedent. This has been done before. It went out of vogue for quite a few years, but its return should not be very surprising. There will continue to be plenty of opportunities for great performers around Canberra to get into top-notch roles in big shows without fretting about being denied this one. But I'd have thought the pros of being in this show would outweigh any perceived cons.

If you're hung up on not being paid while someone else is, I think you've got the wrong extra-curricular pursuit. Amateurs accept performing for nothing because the returns can't be valued in dollars. Furthermore, when you perform on the Canberra Theatre stage in an amateur production, you're probably already the only one not being paid. The musicians are. The mechanists and front of house staff are. You might be there because you want to be paid for doing it one day, remembering that everyone starts out not being paid, and you're just not there yet.

But if you're preoccupied about the perceived industrial injustice of being part of a cast in which some are paid and some aren't, you need to remember that industrial justice in the theatre world needs to live side by side with the financial risk and reality of producing musical theatre and the goal of delivering the highest quality performances possible. It would be foolish to allow any one of those factors to decide matters independently of the others. In this context I think Free-Rain's approach to casting "Phantom" is sound, and comes with the added bonus of offering Canberra's performance community a unique opportunity to get involved in something very memorable.

I wish Free-Rain and everyone talented enough to be cast in "Phantom" every success.


  1. Thats really interesting because ex-Canberran Performer Pat Oxley just got the role of the Phantom (Alternate) for an amateur production in Queensland

  2. Thanks, Anonymous, good to hear that Pat's still out there singing!


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