IT’S a complex mix, this buzz in the audience before the curtain goes up. They’re there to see Anything Goes, Wonthaggi Theatrical Group’s latest musical, and they know what to expect.
Most people in the sellout crowd know somebody in the show ─ unsurprisingly, since the cast and crew totals over 100. But it’s more than just anticipation and excitement; there’s confidence. They know it’ll be good.
They mightn’t know the specifics of the budget ($80,000 for this latest show) but this audience expects to feel astonishment and pride at the level of skill and commitment. There’s a shared belief that Wonthaggi is a town capable of this huge annual effort; there’s a sense of ownership ─ this is our theatre group. As the house light dim, they sit back and say: “Now, impress us!”
Seven productions over seven years: Little Shop of Horrors, West Side Story, Singin’ in the Rain, Les Mis, Oliver, Cabaret and, this year, Anything Goes. Six of them directed by one woman – Karen Milkins Hendry – and all blessed by success.
Seven shows: hundreds of musicians, actors, singers, designers and supporters coming together in common purpose. And but for one vote, one nod that tipped the scales, all of it might never have happened.
As head of drama at Newhaven College, Karen’s focus had been elsewhere. But in 2006 she was to take long service leave, her daughter Jaz would be seven years old and she was looking for a challenge. She approached the Wonthaggi Theatrical Group with the offer to direct Little Shop of Horrors, her first major musical.
“Lyric Theatre had done it, I’d been involved, I knew it well” Karen says. “It was well written, funny; the music was great. It wasn’t a huge musical. I just saw it as something I really wanted to do.” She had some credibility – she had already directed some plays for WTG – but the offer was met with deep anxiety.
Karen understands the committee’s reaction. The risks seemed enormous. There wasn’t a recent history of large-scale musicals in the arts centre, nor of big attendances. With a bank balance of $13,000 as capital, they were scrupulous about covering their costs. The concern was that they risked losing the lot, having to kick start a big musical. There was huge debate.
“I spoke to a couple of Lyric people about budgeting,” says Karen, “and then presented my budget for the show to the committee. It was $25,000. We’d need to sell 1500 seats to break even.”
It got up by one vote. “Suddenly I was so nervous.” She laughs, “terrified that I’d bring the group to bankruptcy. But after the first couple of performances the show just crept up on people. In the end we made over $22,000 profit. We’d cut corners everywhere.”
Karen didn’t have a classic apprenticeship in theatre studies. In grade 6, she and two girlfriends put on their own plays for the class. In the same year, she played Scarecrow in Lyn Counsel‘s production of The Wizard of Oz.
Then, with no drama department at Wonthaggi High School, there was nothing all through secondary school. She had no sense of missing out on anything. Life was good. She loved high school. It was much the same at university. She did a science degree, and never thought about the theatre.
The focus didn’t shift until she was appointed to her second school, Newhaven College, and given a junior drama class. Working within the orbit of Newhaven’s first drama teacher, the charismatic Anne Holt, caused a slow-burning epiphany. “She was this amazing English woman, a single mother who’d created this wonderfully eclectic, creative culture at the school. She was the centre of an amazing broad-ranging group of people.”
Anne moved on two years later but not before she told the principal that Karen should be head of drama. It was a daunting prospect. “Teaching year 7 and 8 students is about helping them explore dramatic possibilities and gaining confidence. Suddenly I’m taking year 12 theatre studies!” It was fast-track learning. After four years, she felt as though she’d done a degree in drama.
She was lucky. She had long-distance advice from Anne and built into the culture she inherited were structures that supported the annual musical. “All the people who supported Anne supported me.” Tad Hendry, whose brilliant set designs have since been integral to her own achievements, was already on board (They married in 1994, four years after Karen arrived at Newhaven).
But she stamped her own personality on the department as well. “I wrote the shows; my brother wrote the music.”
By 2006, with a year’s leave yawning ahead of her, she was ready to make the leap to The Little Shop of Horrors and beyond. She believed in her skills. She knew she was well organised, she was good at working with people and she knew about the work factor ─ the importance of “knowing a show really well and communicating it to others”.
Her friend, actor Wayne Maloney, says that when she had that year off, she set up a kind of office in the arcade in McBride Street. “For six months that was her job. It was like she was never not there, working on the production, talking to the production team. She became all things to all people.”
Her solid understanding of the script helps her to be absolutely clear about timelines. “She tells you what she expects to achieve at each rehearsal and you work to make this happen,” Wayne says. “So rehearsals run smoothly.”
Karen admits she’s learnt a lot over the years. “I thought I was organised in 2006. I’m so much better now.” She’s more aware of the buttons that trigger tired, distracted, potentially volatile casts. “You have to put in the hard yards if you want to present a strong vision. The reality is that everyone’s there for their own reasons. At some stage, life gets in the way for most of the cast. How you manage that is the key to building relationships.”
What she can rely on is that everyone wants the show to be good. “That’s where their tolerance of each other comes from.”
With WTG’s biggest budget, a cast of 70 – 40 of them under 14 – hundreds of costumes, an enormous set and 150 people turning up for auditions, Oliver was a test.
“She was infinitely patient with the kids,” says Wayne. “She never raised her voice. When she’s really pushed to the limit she might call a break in rehearsals and perhaps go onto another scene. She works fantastically well with adolescents too. They just love her.”
On opening night, all 70 cast members received a personal thank you letter noting their particular contribution.
This ability to balance respect for people with a commitment to performance of the highest possible quality is the key to her success. “You have to value what people bring to your group,” she says, “not in a casting sense but at a production level.” (Casting, she admits, is the worst part. “It’s awful. People are so vulnerable.”)
So she will draw on gifted professionals such as musical director Kirk Skinner and fellow director Colin Mitchell who come back to the community (“You just keep learning from them”) and gather about her a very tight production team. At the same time, she says, if someone wants to be a part of that team you have to let them. “Celebrate what you’ve got. Don’t bemoan what you haven’t.”
She’s learned that success really does breed success. The defining moment for the group was Les Miserables. It ticked the boxes in all the production elements: the set, singing, costumes, the orchestra, under Kirk Skinner’s leadership.
“[Fellow director] Colin said that if you can get Les Mis right you’re ready to do anything,” she says. “It cemented our bonds with the community. Every night we had a standing ovation. People couldn’t believe they were seeing that in Wonthaggi.”
Karen Milkins Henry and Kirk SkinnerWhen people believe, so much becomes possible. She’s seen heart-stopping moments on stage unimaginable in earlier times.
One of those is in Les Mis when, seconds after the storming of the barricade, that gloriously theatrical moment of defiance and self-belief, the huge structure turned to reveal the bodies of the youthful idealists scattered inert on the other side. You could hear the audience’s intake of breath.
Another proud memory is of West Side Story. The score is one of the hardest to tackle. In a professional production, the Sharks and Jets would be played by slick 25-year-olds, professional dancers.
Karen’s young cast, few of whom had significant dancing or singing experience, brought a raw honesty to the show. It was their performance of Somewhere in six-part harmony after the curtain call that most moved Karen. “They sang with such emotion, with such awareness of how far they had come together; they knew they were doing something really good. They performed beyond themselves.”
It’s not surprising that it’s these moments that stand out for Karen. Their emotional power stems from the youth of the characters: their vitality, optimism and vulnerability. Channelling that is one of her gifts.
She’s proof of a paradox. In understanding the limits, you can make the dream real.