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  • Writer's pictureTheatre Travels

Interview: Riley McCullagh (1984! The Musical!)

Tap-dancing in torture chambers, rats with razzle-dazzle, Big Brother with even bigger star power – 1984! The Musical! has it all! Join us on our dystopic romp: a light-hearted comedy about totalitarianism, thought-police, surveillance states, and sex.

Don’t miss the debut of this brand new Australian musical, which serves as a timely reminder that ignorance is strength, freedom is slavery, and (most importantly) comedy is tragedy. Will Winston start a revolution, or will he yield to his oppressors? Either way, he’ll sing while trying!

There’s never been a better time for an all-singing, all-dancing celebration of Orwell’s masterpiece, with today’s rise of populism, alternative facts, and Nineteen Eighty-Four now being in the public domain. Taking Orwell’s classic soul-crushing tale, and adding toe-tapping tunes, 1984! The Musical! is ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ like you’ve never seen it before! 

Riley McCullagh - Sound Designer and Composer


To kick off, what show are you currently working on and what is your role in the production?

I’m the composer and sound designer for 1984! The Musical!

What drew you to this show and why do you think now is the right time to be bringing this story to the stage?

People are increasingly receiving their news through comedy, probably as they feel increasingly overwhelmed by negative news. It’s only natural--people like to laugh more than they like being lectured at. Myself and the show’s writers are committed to persuading audiences of Orwell’s key messages (the triumph of individual thought over populism, and of love over hate). Presenting 1984 as a comedy musical allows people to engage with these messages without feeling beaten over the head and exhausted by them.

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?

I’ve mostly worked as an assistant on drama, and have been given little songs as well as bigger dance numbers here and there to work on. It’s been wonderful to spread out across a whole text, and stitch it together with music.

What can audiences look forward to in this show or why do you feel it is a story that they need to hear?

I think both the form and the content of the show will resonate with modern audiences. It seems we’re in a renaissance for original Australian musical theatre. It’s a privilege to be even a small part of that, especially in a space like the New Theatre, where it’s the third musical in a row in their program. Also, starting a new decade in the midst of a mounting climate crisis, with our phones watching us and collecting our data like Telescreens, and with a post-truth mass media that has normalised “alternative facts”, our reality has never felt more Orwellian.

What has been the most rewarding part of this show to create for you?

As a composer, it has been a real privilege to sink my teeth into a theatrical work whose driving force is music. In particular, I’ve relished the challenge of finding a balance between creating an ecclectic score where each song tells its own story and has its own source of humour, but also creating a cohesive body of work with its own voice.

Why is this a production that a 2020 audience cannot miss?

Now is the perfect time for 1984 like you’ve never seen it before! The threat of totalitarianism, tyranny, doublethink, and censorship loom ever larger. This production will make audiences confront each of these issues in an engaged, excited way; not by lecturing at the audience, but by making them laugh.


When first beginning a new project, what is the first part of your process in approaching a new role?

I usually get to sit back and think for a long while. There’s a mad rush when it all comes together, but it’s a lot easier to make a lot of decisions at once if you get time to ruminate.

What is a common misconception that people have about your role in the production?

People hear ‘sound designer’ and think that it is a purely technical role. Truth is, it is technical, but it’s also very creative.

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?

Many many late nights in front of a computer writing to deadline after deadline.

Do you have any opening night rituals? If so, what are they?

Freak out and have a beer.

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?

Every production is a learning experience, and I always walk away with a few reflections on what I’d do differently in the future.


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 was in Uni writing for short films and spending hours and hours alone in a dark room. I got to work on The Dog/The Cat at Belvoir Downstairs, and the feeling of sitting amongst an audience who were giving such immediate feedback was an absolute game changer.

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?

I’m interested most in the influence technology has on our lives. It shapes us in increasingly terrifying ways, and using art to make sense of it is as close we can get to any kind of resolution or catharsis.

What has been the highlight of your career so far and what is still on your performance bucket list?

A podcast I scored, Bowraville (The Australian), drew attention to the Bowraville murders and had real political impact in trying to get them before a court again.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given that you would like to pass on to aspiring theatre makers?

When you’re mingling, don’t talk about your department. They assume you are competent and you don’t have to prove yourself. Going into conversations with that in mind has helped me keep my social anxiety at bay, and you definitely learn more listening than speaking.


What is your favourite production you have ever seen?

The Government Inspector (Malthouse, Belvoir).

You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world - where do you go?

Somewhere cold – I’d love to go back to Iceland. Kooky bunch of people.

What is your dream show to work on?

I want to keep working on new Australian comedies, so it probably hasn’t been written yet!

What is a hobby you have beyond the theatre?

Tinkering with electronics – which comes in handy with low budget theatre!

What’s next for you after this show?

I have a few short films I’ve been putting off scoring, and I have drafts for a short opera.

1984! The Musical! is running until January 25 2020 at the New Theatre. You can get your tickets here.

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