WHEN Karen Milkins Hendry took her proposal for the cult classic Little Shop of Horrors to the Wonthaggi Theatre Group in 2006, few punters would have backed her chances. At the time, the risks to this cash-strapped organisation seemed enormous. There wasn’t a recent history of large-scale musicals in the arts centre, nor of big attendances. “It got up by one vote,” says Karen.
Since then, the WTG trajectory has been upward and out: a major musical every year; sell-out audiences, prestigious theatrical awards, training of every kind, investment in youth and now, amazingly, an all-purpose home of their own.
“Home” these days is a very new, very big tin shed at the State Coal Mine Historic Reserve. “Humble on the outside and incredibly resourced on the inside,” says Karen. “It has an art deco foyer attached, with a performance/rehearsal space that allows us to replicate the performance space at the Arts Centre.”
Proudly Wonthaggi, “the shed” blends in with the mine landscape and its doors replicate those of the old Union Theatre. The space is shared with the Bass Coast Ballet. It’s a performing arts hub that functions happily among mine tours, gardening maintenance and community group meetings – a community asset managed by the mine.
It’s been a long and winding road to this exciting high point. From the bitter loss by fire of its own Union Theatre, the decades of scrimping and saving, the proud purchase of the Green Room in Baillieu Street, the costly move to the leased shed in Cyclone Street (but also the chance to grow artistically) to this new WTG engine room.
“To be able to perform in our own space is an achievement to celebrate. It’s an example of what volunteers and community can do,” says Karen.
And what more logical way to celebrate than to revisit the production that kick-started the growth, the sci-fi horror musical with a 1960s pop/rock score: Little Shop of Horrors.
Revisit but not repeat. Repetition’s not big in this group’s repertoire. Growth is the key.
“Our original production took everyone who auditioned; it had a great spirit of excitement about it, a real buzz,” says Karen. Today, Little Shop is being performed as it was written, with a small ensemble. “This time our buzz is about what’s new: performing in our own space and taking a different approach to the puppets. Last time we hired them; this time we’ve built them ourselves and manipulate them visibly. The puppeteering is all on the outside.”
Of course! They’ve never done it before. No-one knew how. So why not?
It was a huge project. When Karen invited Cape Paterson resident Nancy Vaughan to be part of the puppet design and creation team, the writer and researcher thought it sounded like a challenge. “In reality, it was beyond daunting,” she confesses. “It’s the scale of it. The puppets are really big. I’m no engineer. Structurally it was really difficult.”
So many problems to be solved along the way: the choice of structural materials (bamboo canes), the skin (nylon mesh), the means of attaching the skin to the frames (meticulous stitching by hand). Funded by Regional Arts Victoria and working with consultant Jenny Ellis, they ploughed on. “A thousand hours,” hazards team member Wayne Moloney, shaking his head.
The result: a sparkling production and a sensual feast of colour and sound. Another impressive and proud Wonthaggi Theatre Group achievement. They spoil us.
Ten years ago, set designer, Tad Hendry built the Little Shop of Horrors set in holiday house carports down at Cape Paterson. This time the space, and the future, is all theirs.