It’s been almost two decades since the story of 'Billy Elliot' was written, and while it’s set in the 1980s, it's surprising how relevant the storyline is to society today.
'Billy Elliot The Musical' Resident Director Jacinta John says it takes a village for every aspect of this very special show to come together.
Jacinta John certainly has an illustrious theatre career which has tripped the light fantastic. It’s one that started from her hometown of Perth to traverse all the way to London, New York, and across Asia and Australia. Since seeing her first musical 'Les Misérables' at His Majesty’s Theatre, musical theatre has managed to capture her heart.
“'Billy Elliot' is very much about one person trying to find where they belong. And that of course is a universal story; we’re all trying to find where we fit in,” Jacinta reflects. “And certainly, the writer Lee Hall wrote the story because he grew up in the part of England in which the story is set. As a writer in a mining town in the '80s, he didn’t know where he fit in. And so that was the inspiration for the story.
“But then, it’s set in a very political climate, where there’s a small community raging against a power determining their futures. They’re all struggling to find their place and find community. And so for Billy, his community becomes one of dance. But then his family – his dad, big brother and everyone he knows – are struggling to hold on to the only community they’ve ever known. It’s something we understand here in Australia with mines in Perth and Queensland. We have communities that are born out of this work environment. Because without it, they’re lost. So it’s a very current story on all fronts.”
Image © James D Morgan
With a career that includes co-directing the world premiere of Air Supply musical 'All Out Of Love' in Manila and touring Australia as the Resident Director for 'MAMMA MIA! The Musical', Jacinta certainly has an arsenal of musicals notched up on her Director belt. While she is trained in acting with a slew of degrees in film and the arts, it’s been in the role of Director where her skills have come under the spotlight.
“You need to have a love for language and the ability to communicate what you want to see on stage with your cast and crew. You need to have a vision of what it is you want to see on stage and bring that to life. You need to have great empathy with the people you’re working with, for the characters and stories you’re telling, and the sensitivity for what it takes for everyone to give their all to tell those stories. It takes a lot. We invest so emotionally in this kind of work, that it can leave you vulnerable and raw. So there’s a real need to leave judgement at the door.”
And while all the action happens on stage, it is what happens behind the scenes where all the magic is produced. “It takes a village backstage,” Jacinta comments. “And one thing that binds us all together there in that microcosmic world is a sense of community and spirit, because we’re all working together backstage. This story is something we all believe in and believe should be told. So the community spirit you see is born out of that, and within the cast and crew who work together in very tight quarters for many hours a day for many days a week. There’s a lot going on there.
“We all see as an audience what’s happening. But crew are moving set pieces around, Billy is running off one way and re-entering another. The show doesn’t stop per se just on stage: It continues with a whole journey backstage as well.”
Image © James D Morgan
Indeed, Ian MacNeil’s sets contribute greatly towards the flow of the 'Billy Elliot' magic.
“It was really important that the set could evolve to accommodate the touring production of the show,” Jacinta comments. “In its previous visit to Australia ten years ago, part of the set came out of the floor, so the show was only seen in two cities. Whereas now it’s been adapted to a place on and off stage, left and right, making it possible to move theatres. It’s a huge engineering feat. It can be a dangerous workplace so everyone has to be on game all the time because you’ve got things coming in left and right and flying in from up above. The set is not just the moving piece, but it creates the place the world is set in.
“There are layers to this musical. 'Billy Elliot' is quite brilliant in that it’s not just set. It’s moulded around the people who are involved in the show and lives and breathes as their skill sets develop.”
And how does she manage such a huge cast and crew? “With not too much sleep and a lot of dedicated hours,” Jacinta replies. “Because it is such a great show, it feels like time well spent. Everyone’s invested their time in it. It’s really great fun. They say 'don’t work with kids and animals', but I say 'definitely do'.”
“What’s so incredible about 'Billy Elliot',” Jacinta claims, “is at its heart it’s such great writing; it’s funny, relevant, moving and poignant, and is still a family-friendly night out at the theatre. Our understanding of musical theatre has evolved and our appetite for it is hungrier than ever.”
'Billy Elliot The Musical' Tour Dates
Until 15 December – Sydney Lyric Theatre29 December-8 February – Adelaide Festival Theatre20 February-19 April – Regent Theatre (Melbourne)