Learning from your mistakes is important, but it’s also essential to recognise when you feel like you’ve gone right. The sweet spot between the two is, for my money, where you learn; build on your successes and memorise your failures so as to avoid ever repeating them. It’s partly for this reason that, following on from a lengthy retrospective of Bitten By Productions’ first ten shows and one recapping our 2017 output, that I’m endeavouring to make it a yearly thing. It’s not so much something I’m doing for anyone else to read or enjoy, but more a way for me to candidly arrange my thoughts regarding our work and also go on the record about what I felt was or wasn’t successful. As in previous years, I’ll be honest but not specific – if you’re looking for particular names to be named then look elsewhere. This isn’t designed to speak for anyone except me; it’s squarely a personal reflection written in the interests of charting further advancement.
2017 was a big year for Bitten By. Springsteen and Dracula gave us our biggest ever audiences, and both were warmly received. Heroes struggled in the audience department, but went on to win multiple awards and, as of last December, is now my first published play. So that’s pretty vindicating. The Commune, which closed our 2017 season, was a show that I wish more people had seen; everyone did exemplary work and in terms of quality, ambition and realisation, it might have been our most consistently good show. But it provided a strong foundation for an even better 2018, especially coming into the opening of Moonlite, our first musical and first show as part of a festival. So, looking back a year later, how did that work out?
Full disclosure; Moonlite nearly broke me. I’m only now starting to be able to look at it with any clarity, after a gruelling rehearsal process and an equally rough run of performances. In some ways this was probably inevitable; apart from the live songs interspersed throughout Springsteen, we’d never done anything in the territory of a musical before and early discussions of getting on board a director experienced in that kind of thing swiftly dissipated as composer Dan Nixon and I made the, in hindsight arrogant, decision to direct it ourselves.
The cast we assembled were across the board brilliant; all professional actors trained in musical theatre, but the flip side to that was that their collective availability was all over the place. From day one, rehearsals were nearly impossible to schedule, and that was just for the acting side of things. Add to this the fact that our band were a group of professional working musicians and the prospect of trying to wrangle full rehearsals to work out the shape of the show became a pipe dream. The first full rehearsal with the complete band and cast didn’t happen until the week the show opened.
I did my best trying to keep a smooth ship running, but it was a case where my best just wasn’t enough. I didn’t know the first thing about directing a musical and all I could do was handle the material as I would a straight play and hope that everybody would do their jobs and put it all together into a coherent show when it counted.
This might have been less of an issue if it wasn’t for the venue. Let me clarify; I’m not badmouthing the Grace Darling here, as they fully supported the show from the start, but miscommunications with the staff and the fact that, simply put, the basement space where we performed was not equipped as a theatre meant that the process became pretty tense at times. We chose this venue due to its rumoured connection with the real Captain Moonlite, but the idealistic dream of its suitability quickly proved to be just that. Purely due to the nature of the space, performing in the Grace Darling actively harmed Moonlite; there was no way of facilitating the scripted lighting changes to cleanly delineate between past and present scenes (which confused several audience members) and the constant noise from upstairs meant that several of our most emotional, pivotal scenes were punctuated by loud laughter or music. Then there was the total lack of air conditioning; which, when you’re performing in a packed cellar in the middle of summer, is a bad, bad thing.
It's a testament to the work of everyone involved that Moonlite somehow managed to not be a total embarrassment. In fact, it might have sat somewhere in the territory of really good – honestly, in the wake of trying to make it happen it’s a tough one for me to gauge. What is indisputable is the following; we sold out every single show before we even opened, we got stellar reviews across the board, and large chunks of our audiences were openly wiping away tears by the end of the performance. The extra show we added halfway through the season also sold out within a couple of days. Moonlite was a hit, something that was consolidated down the line when it was chosen for the Grassroots Development Initiative and got some fantastic feedback from a panel of industry judges, who uniformly saw enormous potential for future productions.
On that, it’s not the end of Moonlite. We’re going to be recording a radio play version soon, incorporating some of the Grassroots feedback to make the show even stronger, then after that we’ll be investigating the potential of a tour. The story of Captain Moonlite is an incredible one and when all is said and done I remain thrilled to have been able to tell my own version of it to a seemingly appreciative audience. That, ultimately, is what matters to me when I think about the show. But it doesn’t change the fact that putting it together was a nightmare.
That, of course, is where the important lessons come in. I would handle any future run of Moonlite or potential other musical project vastly differently. Given the behind the scenes process, part of me feels like we were lucky that Moonlite managed to not crash and burn, but to suggest luck had anything to do with it would be to suggest that the show’s success was due to anything other than an immense amount of hard work against the odds. I just hope the team who made that show happen know how grateful I am for what they managed to pull off.
Dead Air had the unique distinction of being the first Bitten By show that I had nothing to do with. Even Dracula, which I didn’t write, I played a small part in that kept me around for most of the process. Dead Air, on the other hand, was something I watched unfold like a proud uncle; naturally invested in its success, but separate from it all the same. Which, after Moonlite, was something I needed.
While this might imply more of an ability to be objective, in some ways it’s the opposite when it’s still your company but not your work. The success or failure of your own work is something you personally have to come to terms with one way or another, which means you approach it with a level of analysis you simply can’t apply to something you weren’t involved with but still falls under the banner of the company you co-created.
So, speaking as somebody who saw almost every performance of Dead Air but wasn’t part of its development, I was thrilled with how it turned out. The performances were fantastic, the slow build of tension kept audiences on the edge of their seats and the use of sound and lighting represented a totally new step for us as a company.
I guess if I had one major reservation it would be that the venue didn’t exactly complement any of the above. The Bluestone Church in Footscray is a fantastic, versatile performance space but for my money Dead Air would have benefited from a tiny, claustrophobic theatre. As it stood, the high ceilings and clear sightlines around the curtains that boxed in the performance meant that any illusion of a small, contained space was quickly eliminated by lighting changes that illuminated the size of where we were. To me this mitigated the hard work the special effects were doing and occasionally sapped some of the tension. I don’t for a second think it killed the show, but it was a problem nonetheless. I would love to do more shows in the Bluestone Church, but I don’t think it was the right venue for this particular production.
We Can Work It Out
Of all the shows we’ve spoken about bringing back for a new run, We Can Work it Out was always the no-brainer. Its 2015 run was probably our first inarguable hit in terms of ticket sales and audience response, and after the success of pairing a known quantity with a festival in the case of Moonlite, we decided to try a similar thing by reviving We Can Work It Out for Fringe.
Except, in truth, calling it a revival feels disingenuous. While it had much of the same cast and the same script as the 2015 run, this We Can Work It Out was a very different beast to its predecessor. After delivering amazing performance after amazing performance in several Bitten By shows, Greg Caine put up his hand to direct and swiftly demonstrated a natural aptitude for it, to the point where I had to re-evaluate some of my fond memories of the 2015 WCWIO (which I directed) in light of the fact that Greg was doing it far, far better than I had. While I tried to play up the farce, Greg focused on emotion and character. I won’t lie; during the rehearsal process I was scared that he was losing some of the humour and fun of the show, but I needn’t have worried. The humour went nowhere; the only difference was that now it sat in a natural, believable place, rather than a heightened one. Which is much, much better.
We didn’t repeat the sell out success of Moonlite, but to be fair the Butterfly Club seats twice as many people as the Grace Darling cellar, so that was probably a given. We did, however, have healthy audiences across the whole run and both opened and closed with a rapturous full house.
We had long planned to follow it up with a regional tour, but this became less of a given when, a week and a half out from our first country performance, we discovered that Brett Wolfenden, who had been excellent as Ringo in both 2015 and 2018, wouldn’t be able to come on tour due to unforeseen (but positive) circumstances. With the shows booked and advertisements run cancelling wasn’t an option, but Justin Anderson, a co-founder of Bitten By fresh off his leading performance in Dead Air, stepped in and learned the role in ten days. Regional audiences didn’t know the difference; Justin killed it, got lots of laughs, and won over a raucous full house audience of over a hundred people in my hometown of Mansfield. The tour turned out to be an enormously fun capper to an enormously fun season. All things considered, this version of We Can Work It Out ran relatively smoothly and earned itself a whole new round of great reviews and highly entertained audiences. Having also been performed by a different company in Queensland, We Can Work It Out has proved more than almost any of our other shows how much life it has in it. Which is another way of saying a further revival is not unlikely.
Nobody likes to be seen as repeating themselves, but I feel that we’ve reached a point as a company where we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot to not give another run to some of our proven successes, providing good shows the chance to reach a whole new audience. We Can Work It Out 2.0 proved the worth of that.
There are three major things I want to replicate from our 2018 season; conveniently, one from each show. From Moonlite I saw the value of swinging for the fences, of being ambitious even when it scares or wears you down. Dead Air strengthened my commitment to supporting the work of new writers – I would love to reach a point where Bitten By Productions runs a whole season of scripts not written by me. And We Can Work It Out, simply put, demonstrated the value of the crowd pleaser and reinforced another lesson Moonlite taught us; that pairing an appealing show based around a known quantity with the exposure of a festival can yield major dividends.
That’s what we’re trying to repeat with our first show of 2018, The Trial of Dorian Gray. Like Moonlite, this production will be a part of the Midsumma Festival and so far that seems to be paying off; it’s not selling quite as well as the earlier show, but tickets are moving steadily and I’m confident that, given the subject matter, it will do well. Furthermore, The Trial of Dorian Gray is looking really promising; the cast and crew are across the board one of the best we’ve ever worked with, thanks to the involvement of respected director Peter Blackburn, who brought his own team together, all of whom are working professionals in their field, all of whom are doing amazing work. Had Dorian been directed by myself, it probably would have been a pretty basic, no frills two hander. Under Pete however, it’s become something far more ambitious, something that will fire on all cylinders from a production standpoint. Add to that the fact that James Biasetto and Ratidzo Mambo are a pair of incredible actors who bring so much depth, danger and pathos to their characters, and Dorian promises to be something pretty special.
Next up, the plan is for me to return to the director’s chair with The Wild Colonial Boys, a script I’m really proud of that works as a kind of subversion and deconstruction of the Ned Kelly legend. It’s pure fiction, a sort of ‘what if’ set during the Siege of Glenrowan that further examines the themes of myth-making that drove Moonlite, but I think it could be really good. I can certainly promise that it offers a take on a well-trodden story that you have never seen before.
After that, the idea is that we’ll return to Fringe for the first play by my friend, housemate and former Movie Maintenance co-host Kath Atkins, Three Cigarettes and a Hooker, which tells the story of a group of highly ‘woke’ twenty somethings who attempt to prove their virtue by inviting a sex worker to a dinner party. Naturally, in stumbling over each other to show off how progressive they are, buried hypocrisies and prejudices are swiftly exposed. Three Cigarettes is a hilarious script and a highly pointed satire; it will ruffle feathers and probably piss people off with how accurate it is on many things. I can’t wait.
So yeah; things are in a good place for the company. I’m proud of our 2018 run and grateful for the valuable lessons we came away with. Independent theatre can be trying, but when things go well it’s hard not to feel good about where you’re at. Some bumps in the road aside, 2018 was a year in which things went pretty well indeed.
Writing words about writing words.