Simon Coleman is a set designer, director of theatre and musical theatre, producer… the list goes on. Renee Liang chats to Simon about directing Drowning in Veronica Lake, a new play by Flaxworks premiering at the NZ Fringe in Wellington this week before travelling on to Auckland and Dunedin Fringe.
How did you start in theatre?
After a couple of years of ballet and at the age of seven, I discovered my life-long passion - to be The Six Million Dollar Man. Mum said, “Don’t be silly, he’s just an actor”. SFX – Counter bell goes off in my head. Anyhow, I did anything I could to be in theatre all through my childhood and teenage years. Slowly I gravitated into direction and design partly because I saw more employment opportunities.
What haven’t you done in theatre (it might be easier to ask that than what you have done!)
Mmmmm, there is nothing I can think of. I have always had the gall to give anything a go. Jack of all trades master of… only one and maybe a half-ish?
Hands-on versus formal training in the arts – where’s the balance, having done both?
Training is good, experience is everything.
What draws you to musical theatre as a medium?
The Spectacle. 500 costumes, 350 lighting cues, tricky-dickey scene changes, the orchestra and triple threat performers. It’s a lot of fun playing with musical theatre toys.
You’ve done a lot of local and regional theatre as well as working for professional companies…
Regional theatre is my staple income. Throughout the country there are many amateur groups with fantastic facilities and talented people. They usually stage one large scale musical production a year where they will employ a director.
I feel privileged when I get to design sets for professional companies. I have worked for many talented directors and each time I feel as if I’m in a master classes topping up on different approaches to the craft.
How did you get involved in Drowning in Veronica Lake?
I worked with Phil Ormsby a few years ago in a musical production in Tauranga. Phil and Alex (Ellis) approached me over 12 months ago. I was delighted. I love working on new plays with the playwright.
How early in the development process do you think a director should be approached?
Every project is different but I reckon it’s a huge advantage to have many creative people contributing from the outset.
How closely do you collaborate with Phil and Alex?
Very close. I cajoled and bullied them into submission.
Do you have any useful 'ground rules' for collaborating?
Don’t take it personally and don’t get personal. Always greet an idea with “Yes! Lets give it a go!”
How has knowing that the piece will tour (everywhere from small to large venues) influenced your direction?
Very much. It’s part of the brief really. Limitations help with the process. I like to work with the limitations imposed. Creating art from these predetermined restrictions is what feeds the creativity. It helps focus what is important and what is not. I wanted to create a show for Phil and Alex that will look smart with minimal fuss.
You told me that “it’s the small stuff that gets you more than the big stuff” in theatre – what do you mean?
I am used to working on musical productions where during production week there can be well over 120 people on and off stage. Directing musicals is more about the organization of all the elements so they come together at the last minute. 90% administration, 10% artistic vision. At times, a bit like herding cats. There is a saying – A director co-ordinates a musical and directs a play. It’s so true. Choreographers and music directors eat up rehearsal time with singing and dancing.
Obviously with a play you don’t have any of that and you can really get stuck into the nitty-gritty. It’s even more rewarding working with just one actor. The time you can devote to detail is very fulfilling.
Each scale of project has its own rewards.
What are you working on next?
Directing My Fair Lady for Blenheim Musical Theatre, Chicago for ACG Senior College, The Wiz for Auckland Girls Grammar and JC Superstar for Alexandra Musical Theatre.
- Drowning in Veronica Lake – a new play by Phil Ormsby, performed by Alex Ellis, directed by Simon Coleman. Flaxworks Theatre.
Brilliant and beautiful, in 1942 Veronica Lake was the hottest discovery in Hollywood. Now, dead for forty years and trapped somewhere between Paramount and Purgatory, she wrestles with stardom, booze, the wrong men and her spectacular decline into obscurity.
Dunedin Fringe: March 25-27, The Globe Theatre