Interview: Kieran Carroll (Dahlin! It's The Jeanne Little Show and Newk)
DAHLIN!: Written and directed by award-winning Melbourne playwright, Kieran Carroll, Dahlin! It’s The Jeanne Little Show is a wild and zany look back at the life one of Australia’s most loved entertainers - Jeanne Little.
After becoming the most popular woman on Australian television in the mid-70s, Jeanne’s talents and career blossomed in numerous ways from starring in the hit musical Jerry Girls, to singing for Princess Diana and Prince Charles at the Sydney Opera House, to worldwide touring shows playing Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe.
Performed with great aplomb by Melbourne actor-comedian Caroline Ferguson, this high energy and fantastically funny production shows how Jeanne Little found great success through hard work, perseverance and an irresistible love for life to take her honoured place in Australian entertainment history.
NEWK: Summer is the time for ice cream, complaining about the heat…and for tennis.
It’s 2014. Australian tennis legend John Newcombe is turning 70 and the greats of tennis are arriving at his place for a barbie – for once he doesn’t have to cook! Come join the party as we take a light-hearted look back at the glory days of Australian tennis through the life of this sporting icon.
To kick off, what show are you currently working on and what is your role in the production?
I have two productions currently on to start the year: Dahlin! It’s The Jeanne Little Show at The Butterfly Club in Melbourne and Newk (The John Newcombe Story) which is playing at the Frankston Arts Centre in Melbourne then the Glen Street Theatre in Belrose, Sydney. I have a triple role in both productions as writer, director and producer.
What drew you to this show and why do you think now is the right time to be bringing this story to the stage?
Both these shows are about 1970s Australian icons. I was drawn to them from childhood memories, because I enjoy researching biographical subjects and because both people had an enviable work ethic and determination to succeed. I do think both stories can liberate people again into the idea that big dreams are possible to achieve through hard work. The plays do have a wonderful sense of positivity.
What has the experience been like working on this show? What has been unique about this show and your process in comparison to other shows you have worked on?
Both shows are very concentrated rehearsal wise as I’m working with just one actor: Damian Callinan as Newk and Caroline Ferguson as Jeanne Little. For larger scale works involving more actors I always work with a director, but the one person show is a strong form of mine across the board. In that sense I feel confident to direct as well. The Newk play has been a very long process mainly because I wrote a much larger, two act play about him for multiple actors before starting again on a one-man version. In comparison, Dahlin! It’s The Jeanne Little Show was mounted quickly by my standards but it has had a lot of development and changes along the way. In this sense, it has grown up in public whereas Newk did all the work in the rehearsal room and hasn’t change too much.
What can audiences look forward to in this show or why do you feel it is a story that they need to hear?
Both plays use comedy and drama with the Jeanne Little Story having more comedy. I have always felt that preserving and developing Australian history on stage is important. There has never been a play before about Australian professional tennis and in this respect NEWK is important because it takes a most popular pastime and spectator strong sport and reimagines it theatrically. This is something I find American playwrights are good at but it isn’t attempted much in Australia. NEWK also examines how professional tennis got to the point it has today. Jeanne Little is a story with a ‘rags to riches’ element and I think it also has a message of telling people that they must not hide their personalities or bend to other people’s demands.
What has been the most rewarding part of this show to create for you?
The collaborations and the strong and positive audience reactions which seem to be growing with each performance.
Why is this a production that a 2020 audience cannot miss?
Both shows have wide ranging appeal for all ages, they take us back to a different, more relaxed Australia in some respects which is very entertaining and both shows are about very idiosyncratic, likeable and successful people that overcame many obstacles on their road to success.
When first beginning a new project, what is the first part of your process in approaching a new role?
The writing and research always take a long time. A lot of reading, note taking, checking dates etc. It can be daunting but then I often think of biographers who spend ten years writing 800 or 1000 page biographies and my perspective grows more positive again! It’s really a process of chipping away constantly and not have long gaps away from the writing process.
What is a common misconception that people have about your role in the production?
I’m not so sure. Possibly I take on too much!
What has the rehearsal process been like in bringing this story to life?
By the time audiences see this show on stage, what has gone into making it happen? Both shows had extensive rehearsal periods and lots of changes to the script with the actors involved. I am very open to this always. There has been a lot of emails about staging and planning. Both shows are also reasonably prop heavy and because both are set in the 70s a lot of time has been spent sourcing some fantastic things for the stage and some equally fantastic costumes.
Do you have any opening night rituals? If so, what are they?
Those last three or so hours before opening are always terrible I find as you don’t quite know what to do with yourself. The play has suddenly gone out of your hands and it’s up to the others and you can only hope that you have put everything in place and all will go smoothly. It’s also difficult to socialize. I tend to go for a walk to calm my nerves.
What is something that you take away from each show that you work on? Do you feel like you take a piece of the production with you each time?
Yes, each show is a constant learning curve and if I look back to my plays of ten years ago compared to now I do see a real rise in my craft and that is satisfying. I think early on I had language and ideas but I found it hard to make the work gallop along as I can now. I think the learning never really stops.
When was the turning point for you when you realised that theatre was not just a hobby but a passion? How did you go about making it your career and is there any one show that you can attribute this to?
I did a playwriting masters at QUT Brisbane from 2006-08. This really changed my work ethic and I came out of that course having spent time with some very good playwrights. It seemed then I had to really dig in and make things happen and I’ve had a very prolific period since. I think that course took me away from the hobbyist side. My show Sons of Sun has had four years of performances at the Sydney Opera House Studio and I think that was the first step to me thinking that this can be a career.
Across your work, is there one story, thought or theme that keeps you interested in continuing to create? What stories do you find yourself drawn to the most?
Well, I’m drawn to Australian subjects both peripheral and more mainstream. It would seem over the past five years that Australian historical subjects in either the sport or entertainment fields have taken precedence. I’ve just finished two other biographical plays beyond Newk and Jeanne. Both subjects of the new plays are men with successful public lives and tormented inner lives. I’m drawn to these extremes: people who put themselves on the line or are big risk takers.
What has been the highlight of your career so far and what is still on your performance bucket list?
As I mentioned Sons of Sun at the Opera House has been a thrill and these upcoming NEWK shows at Glen Street in Sydney have sold fantastically well. I’m expecting those shows to be a highlight.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given that you would like to pass on to aspiring theatre makers?
In regards to writing plays, the Australian actor Nick Tate once said to me, ‘Mate, there’s gotta be consequences.’ I didn’t quite understand that at the time as I was spending a lot of energy being absurdist and attempting to be clever with word play. Now, I understand it. I wrote Nick Tate’s quote on my peg board and didn’t forget it.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
What is your favourite production you have ever seen? Tricky question. There have been many. Some of Red Stitch Theatre in Melbourne has been etched in my memory particularly a production of an American play they did called Detroit.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world - where do you go?
Well, it’s probably a cliché, but to New York for the opening of my new play on Broadway.
What is your dream show to work on?
A show where I was just the writer and had a fantastic director and a number of equally great producers.
What is a hobby you have beyond the theatre?
I probably should have more! I like getting into the surf and going back sometimes to my large, rather obscure and youthful record collection.
What’s next for you after this show?
I’m working on a new play for the next few months about a penfriend relationship between an East German woman and a New Zealand woman set mainly in the 1980s.
Dahlin! opens at The Butterfly Club in Melbourne on January 27, 2020. You can get your tickets here.
Newk opens at Glen Street Theatre in Sydney on February 16, 2020. You can get your tickets here.