Tim O’Connor (Interview 20)

30 May, 2011 by No Comments

Tim O’Connor is Brisbane-born and bred. It’s clear when you hear him talk that he loves this city. He tells me it’s the place he always wanted to be and to remain. When he was growing up he went to see shows at QPAC, La Boite, QTC and Harvest Rain where, in time, he would go to Saturday afternoon drama workshops at their Sydney Street Theatre premises in New Farm.

After school and done with study, he became Harvest Rain’s volunteer dogsbody, the box-office boy who ‘ … hung around until they gave me a job. I was an 18 year old bum who got work experience, bided my time and found myself in the right place at the right time.’ Eventually, he became Harvest Rain’s Artistic Director at the age of 22; it is the position he now holds.

During the first few years of the 2000s, Harvest Rain was in a period of transition. The Parkin Brothers had taken over the theatre arm from the church who owned it at the time. ‘It was one thing for them to run a church and another to run a complete separate business which had become bigger than the church itself. I don’t think they realised what they had taken on. They had to give up their ownership and I took over. I was the last man standing.’

I ask him what a very young, fledgling Artistic Director thought he could do with that particular company at the time. It turns out his ambitions for Harvest Rain then are pretty much a continuation of what they are for the present-day company: to continue the development which they have largely realised over the past 10 years – to make it a pro-am and eventually fully-professional company.

At the core we believe in doing theatre that is attractive to family and to creating theatre that anyone can come and enjoy – theatre for the masses if you like.

‘I came in and enhanced what was already there,’ but Tim wanted to expand from the old programming model of 3-4 shows a year. He began directing the company towards musical theatre because ‘… that is my clear, passionate love. I had a vision that the company could be big. I wanted to do lots of shows, to tour, to develop a training program and maybe even develop outside Brisbane. In the last 10 years I have taken the company that way.’

Why musical theatre?  Of course, there is no doubt that it is hugely popular genre amongst theatre lovers. Was this just opportunism, business savvy, seeing the chance to fill a niche in a city that loves its musicals?  ’Well, it offers so much variety for a start –  the synergy of book, music and lyrics works for me.’ Tim goes on, ‘What I have learned over time as a director is that music is the greatest and most emotive tool that we have to express a feeling to an audience. I can tell a story in words but, if I have music, I can speak on an entirely different level – not that musicals are better than plays,’ he hastens to add, ’but music has the ability to connect to your soul in a way that is direct; it is universal and you don’t need words. By the way, I don’t love every musical that’s ever been written!’

Harvest Rain does the big, popular shows – they are bringing back Jesus Christ Superstar next month, and they’ve just come off Grease. They also venture into smaller ‘chamber’ musical theatre pieces like Jason Robert Brown‘s Songs For a New World or experimental, new pieces like Dani Girl. These smaller shows play in more intimate venues in Brisbane like their Mina Parade premises or at JWCoCA in the Valley.

So, I wonder, what musical shows would he would never want to produce?  ‘Over angst-y stuff like some of the work which has come out on Broadway in the last few years. He cites Next To Normal. ‘Whilst they are wonderful musicals in their own right I find them depressing. The stuff that attracts me is hopeful material, material that is larger than life, even fantasy.’ He also tells me he’s tired of carbon-copy shows like Wicked.

‘I much prefer shows that are not ‘franchised’ and where every detail is the same as the Broadway original production.  He mentions recent Australian productions like Avenue Q and Hairspray which were not Broadway copies. ‘They were certainly reminiscent of the original productions but, because they were created here, had far more heart and authenticity. In this country we have incredible designers, directors, performers, and I only wish we did more of our own thing.’ For their next production Harvest Rain have brought back one of their 2010 blockbusters to QPAC. JC Superstar will open next month at The Playhouse on Southbank nearly a year on. I’m keen to hear a bit more about why a return season and why this one.

Tim tells me that Jesus Christ Superstar is his favourite musical, and the first big show he had ever directed – back in 2002. ‘Whilst I don’t like to repeat my work, I hated that production so I was determined to have another crack at it.’ Last year’s production is, he thinks, the best work he has done. ‘I don’t know how I got it to where it ended up, but I was so pleased with the way it connected with audiences and how it rattled people; the audience feedback was so positive.’ The 2010 season was only 2 weeks long and the company wanted a way to give it a longer run. ‘Our plans were to bring back the same cast in February this year with no changes. However, the floods came along and put paid to that. However, we were fortunate to get later dates,’ he says.

I ask Tim what will be different about HR’s JC Superstar 2.0. ‘Tod Strike (Judas) isn’t available as he’s involved with Love Never Dies right now. However, we have 15 new ensemble members, so invariably things will be different – no great changes but there will be a different flavour.’ He muses, ‘When you have done something so popular and successful it can be your worst enemy – wanting it to be as good, to capture the magic – that’s the challenge. When something works, I don’t think you always know why whilst, if it’s a disaster, it’s much easier to see what went wrong,’ he laughs. ‘It’s great to be back and we’re confident. We’re finding our way through this truly great musical, tightening and tweaking the production.’

I ask what’s ahead for HR and for him personally and professionally. He tells me he’s preparing to become a father, so his professional life is going to be ‘a bit quieter’ for the next 6 months. And long term for Harvest Rain? ‘Well, I don’t have any plans to disappear; I see my future linked to HR. My plans are to continue to grow and expand the company; geographically becoming a company that has a national presence, and I want to strengthen that over time. It is in a place that I am happy about.’

And the plans to become a fully professional company with all that entails? ‘It is a big dream and always in my mind, but the financial realities are very difficult. We are taking steps but, in the interim, what we want to do is to keep creating fantastic theatre experiences for people who don’t normally go to the theatre. We want theatre going to be accessible and affordable for the general public and to provide excellent family entertainment.’

HR have started focussing very heavily on musical theatre training because, as Tim puts it, ‘we need people trained here to be in those shows. I also think that, as a Brisbane resident, you should be able to stay at home and do your training. Whilst one part of our business lies in producing the shows, the other part focusses on building up the next generation and giving them performance opportunities. I’d like to think Harvest Rain is a one stop shop for musical training.’

I ask Tim about where he sees the difference between what HR offers and the newly formed Music Theatre course at Queensland’s Conservatorium of Music. He tells me he’s delighted to hear that the Con are doing what they’re doing – providing training that is University accredited and with a degree as its outcome. He notes, ‘Our internship is connected with a working theatre company and it has clear performance outcomes, so you have a chance to put your training into practice.’

HR interns get the opportunities to work on stage at QPAC and beside experienced performers. He goes on, ‘The major difference is that HR’s training is industry and experience focussed.’ I note in passing that it is not dissimilar to his own on-the-job training and he agrees that, in fact, he did model the HR internship on his own process. ‘I tell interns that they will be working, there are no exams or assignments, that we offer training experiences and the chance to throw themselves into the deep end and work hard.’ He goes on,’Often an intern will come to HR and discover that they are a fantastic SM or a talent in another branch of performance, and they then go off to to study formally elsewhere.’

As we chat on, I suggest to Tim that HR gets more than its fair share of criticism around the theatre community. Of course, he is aware of the rumblings and the antipathy – about their QPAC ‘connection’ for example, or HR’s brisk, self-confident marketing that some might call hype or chutzpah. Then there is the way HR remunerates their employees – that all-important part of the ‘professional’ label. I ask him to respond and he is both candid and calm.

‘Sure, people get up in arms about the company, but I don’t know what it is that causes the ‘How dare you!’ attitude from some. I get the impression that any animosity is born out of jealousy or lost opportunity. I want to be able to say to all of those murmurings of negativity that we all work very hard to get what we have. As far as QPAC is concerned, it was because of the product we created that we ‘earned the right’ to be there.

People are quick in jumping to label us undeserving of what it we have, but we run ourselves ragged to produce what we do and to keep up our standards.

We talk at some length about the QPAC connection. ‘We had expressed an interest to QPAC in 2005 but, for whatever reason, that didn’t come off. We knew we’d have to find other premises because the Sydney Street tenure was coming to an end and, at the end of 2008, the company would be homeless. Out of the blue John Kotzas QPAC’s Artistic Director called a meeting with us and said he believed in our product and its quality and indicated that there should be a place there for us. QPAC wanted to attract an audience for musicals in the Playhouse in addition to the Lyric which is where musicals normally go on. We paid our way; we pay the rent and there is nothing underhand. We got nothing for free – unfortunately,’ he adds with a laugh.

And what about remuneration, another often contentious issue. I ask him outright, not knowing whether he will tell me to mind my own business or claim ‘commercial in confidence.’ After all, this is another one of those topics that generates some heat around the town. Again, he is candid about HR’s business model.

‘Every production is different and remuneration depends on the show: the cast size, the production’s scope and popularity in terms of box-office appeal.’ For example, in the production of Aladdin this year all actors were paid Equity rates. ‘We could afford to pay them professional, industrial rates because it was a small cast. On a show like Grease, we had some professionals working with experienced community players who were paid a stipend, while the ensemble were remunerated via a co-operative agreement. It’s a financial decision; we want to make sure all our performers are remunerated to the best of our ability.’ Like a few other independent companies in the city, HR gets no government funding.  ‘Every show is a risk for us,’ Tim adds. ‘Ticket sales and fees from our training programs provide our only income.’ He tells me that it takes $2 million a year to keep things turning over at HR.

Harvest Rain has a full-time staff  of 7, many of whom work in the internship training program. They also handle accounts, admin, publicity and after-school training at the Mina Parade premises. ‘Of course, we all wear about 25 different hats,’ Tim laughs.  ‘It’s the training side of things that ground us and which are keeping the company afloat right now. Whilst you can make a little money sometimes, it’s a fickle situation. Training is bankable, but the shows are designed to break even – and that’s it – for now.’

Feeding the Inner Artist

What are you reading right now?
Lots of fatherhood books. I either read biography autobiography – my shelf is stacked. I’ve just finished one on film-maker Peter Jackson but also love fantasy – the Narnia series or Harry Potter books. I read as an escape.

What kind of music do you enjoy?
Tragic pop  music – ABBA and Spice Girls – anything with a dance beat. I like to listen to is stuff that keeps me up and happy. I can’t stand sad stuff – Coldplay drives me mental.

What are you listening to right now?
Lady Ga Ga – just recently. She is fascinating – not that I like her but I got sucked in. I tend to listen to musical theatre stuff – it’s in the background all the time.

What kind of art attracts you?
I don’t go the art galleries – but I am inspired by film –  great film-makers. I collect films. My DVD collection is out of control at over 1 000. When I want to relax it’s with a movie. I don’t want to make a film but I want to make theatre that attracts people the way cinema attracts masses. I think I produce shows in a filmic way.

If you could be anywhere?
I would be in my hammock on the deck of my home; I love my home and I think I could easily be a hermit. I live in the bush so when I lie in my hammock it’s utterly peaceful.