Pippin tells the story of an aimless young prince, fresh from university, who’s unimpressed with the ordinariness of life. He wants to find a cause, right wrongs, be extraordinary.
He’s asking the existential question: “Is that all there is?” and he’s not happy with the answer. The musical is the story of his quest to make a mark and what he learns along the way.
Director Karen Milkins Hendry says she initially struggled to find her own clear vision for the show. She was torn between the show’s possibilities as pure entertainment “whilst wanting to stay true to the dark and menacing side of the story”.
But a journey has also been taken by the Wonthaggi Theatre Group itself. Ten years ago it embarked on a quest to expand its vision and be the best it could be – with all the risks that entails. Homeless and poor, it took the plunge with a lesser known musical called Little Shop of Horrors and a budget of $25,000, built the set in the empty carports of Cape Paterson holiday homes and rehearsed with a clutch of young school leavers. The rest is history.
Ten musicals and 10 years later, production budgets are over $100,000. Pippin’s set was constructed in the almost completed WTG building at the State Coal Mine site. There’s a skilled cast of 30 people, 10 of them who have grown with the company from Oliver days.
Ten years ago, a handful of volunteers did nearly everything. Today over 30 people make up the Pippin production team. Newcomers have played key roles, adding their skills to the existing culture of excellence.
Last year WTG’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar won an unprecedented six Music Theatre Guild of Victoria awards from a field of 61 non-professional productions across Victoria.
But it’s fair to say Pippin is the best measure to date of how far the group has come.
The storyline goes like this.
Pippin gets caught up in a fantasy world controlled by a troupe of players who appear benign but have a darker purpose. They are masters at packaging a dream, and lure him into a series of increasingly alienating and self-destructive experiences. Finally he comes to understand that his life depends on finding enough inside to treasure. He chooses connection with others and walks out of the fantasy into ordinary life.
Pippin had the production elements the group was looking for, says Karen Milkins Hendry. “It had music/dance possibilities; it needed a lot of young people.” It gave them an opportunity to “have another go at projection”. And it had this dark element in the storyline which spiced up the challenge.
“Pippin’s players have been played as circus performers, gymnasts. You could do what you like with it. It was very liberating.” The Milkins Hendry vision is of puppet theatre.
The magic world in which Pippin finds himself – thanks in great part to the extraordinary projection work of Rex Kane Hart – is a Venus fly trap of colour, movement and sound. The players spill out onto the stage, a harlequin, jester, minstrels, dancers , dressed in shades of gold with touches of black and white ... mischievous, mesmerising, each curiously different but all held in a kind of unity. And at the helm is the master puppeteer, the Leading Player, the shape shifter in black.
The darker scenes are handled with the same stylistic control. The war scene is multi-layered: the killing takes place behind the dance sequence; behind that are the projected nightmarish images, grotesque faces, rivers of blood.
It’s a spellbinding, seductive world. When the Leading Player snaps his fingers to kill off all its shocking brilliance, and Pippin and Catherine walk into their grey ordinary lives, the loss is palpable.
Ten years of striving for excellence show in the even quality of the performances. This applies not just to the fabulous leads. Nine members of the dance ensemble have been with the company since Oliver. Leading player Will Hanley worked with newcomer Corey Green to achieve a remarkable evenness of performance. “The actors come in at a high level of skill and experience,” says Karen. “It was probably my most organic rehearsal process.”
She was sorely tested, though, the day of the first rehearsal in the theatre. In her vision of the production nothing was to distract from the action and projection. It was the players that were to be at the production’s heart, not the set. The cast had looked fine in the town hall, but when they moved into the theatre and she saw that big blank stage, her heart almost failed her.
“I doubted my judgement. It was terrifying ... I felt I’d made the cast so vulnerable. The hardest thing was keeping the faith that we could keep the space open for them.” She wanted them to feel how much ownership they had. She said to them: “It’s really hit home to me that this is all about you guys. It’s your space.”
Then suddenly, at the dress rehearsal, it was okay. “Hair, make-up, costume: all aligned.” The space was safe.
It was a validation of what Karen says is the greatest strength of the WTG: the culture established through the work, talent and persistence of previous casts and crews. This allowed new people like costume designer Khaseem Warren to bring her own ideas into an established culture with established protocols.
“I said to her: ‘I’m thinking Commedia Dell’Arte’,” says Karen. “She came back with this amazing colour palette and design elements.” Seven people in her team helped turn those designs into costumes.
Wonthaggi’s Pippin is an extraordinary achievement. But success itself can become a distraction. “You have to keep asking ‘Why are you doing this?’” says Karen.
“You can lose your way,” says Wayne Maloney, director of last year’s multi-award-winning production Jesus Christ Superstar. “Winning awards can put pressure on people to compete. It’s about working as part of a team, being role models, having oversight.
“You have to be clear about the values of the group, respecting structure and discipline. I told my cast last year: ‘The stage is a sacred place’.”
Similarly, when interviewed by the Post three years ago, Karen talked about the importance of being organised and building a strong relationship with the cast. “You have to put in the hard yards if you want to present a strong vision,” she said then.
In 2015 with culture and work ethic well established, her emphasis has shifted slightly. She’s increasingly mindful of the group’s dependence on a creative and effective production crew.
“As a director I don’t take my eye off my main task: trusting, valuing the work done by people in the production team. They have to be able to say ‘This is mine’. I must have my antenna really sharpened around that.” She says keeping so many balls in the air, having responsibility for communicating changes in one area of production to the rest, is scary. “You can damage relationships if you don’t keep in constant touch.”
It’s that respect for process and people, that generosity and striving for excellence, that is the group’s touchstone. It explains its success and its unusually diverse age group. It explains why so many people just seem to give of themselves so tirelessly, why it feels like family.
And if you were a punter you could bet London to a brick on this sure thing: the Wonthaggi Theatre Group won’t be going off the rails any time soon.
Gill Heal is writing a history of the Wonthaggi Theatrical Group.