BUMP IN TIME! Kurt Phelan shares tips to survive production week in the theatre!

The nerves are setting in and the eyelashes are vanishing off shelves- it’s almost bump in week for the Mackay Musical Comedy Player’s production of Wicked and as always, tensions are high and hopes and stresses are higher! There is so much that can go wrong in ‘tech’ week, especially in community theatre, which is very dependent on close to one hundred people giving every ounce of time, focus, money (they need a frequent shopper card for gloss stockings!) and energy that they have in the desire to make what happens on Broadway- with a budget of hundreds of thousands if not millions- happen in the space of a week with a bunch of people that are already exhausted enough to drop.

People can get sick, people can overdose on McDonalds (they knew what they were doing when they built it close to the theatre here!) people can forget moves, people can get on each other’s nerves, and then on the other hand, people can make friendships and memories that last forever, which is why we do it in the first place, isn’t it?

But how do you make sure that you get the best of it all, without ending up an irritable, germ-ophobic, rundown wreck? Especially when you’re volunteering, and trying to balance kids, a job, your bank balance and your health?

Personally, I have a few little tricks up my sleeve to see me through. I brew a special tea that pretty much includes every natural anti-flu ingredient there is, from apple cider vinegar to licorice root leaves to pure honey, and I keep it in a thermos so I can offer it to everybody. I also make sure that I take a pair of comfy slippers with me because it can get cold backstage, especially during tech week when you’re sitting or standing around a lot. As for luck/tradition, I’ve made it a point since I started cheerleading to spritz on one of my (many) Britney Spears perfumes for star quality (It’s Sammy, bitch) and I used to have an awesome post-show ritual with a friend in cheerleading, where we would race one another to get changed afterwards, and the first one that was ready to go party would get to pop the Ricadonna. We’re funny little creatures of habit, humans, and Thespian and Athletes tend to have more productive ‘tics’ than anyone, but what really works?

This week I had the amazing opportunity to hang out with Kurt Phelan, who played the iconic Johnny Castle of Australia’s tour of Dirty Dancing, and because he always looks 100% together, I decided to pick his brain for tips on how to survive production week, and was curious to see how professional shows differ from community-based ones.

Of course Kurt has developed his many skills on a rich diet of both, so take his advice, fellow Thespians, and leap and whirl with it!

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Photo, contributed by Kurt Phelan.

S.K:
What are some huge differences between moving into the theatre before a community show, and a major production?

Kurt:
Mostly time. The first time you mount a large production you have at least a week, and the crew and technicians have a week or two before you get there to sort things out on their end so there’s a lot less standing around because the technical stuff is mostly ready to go by the time you arrive. There’s a lot more to be done in community but that’s part of the charm of it. When I went back to Townsville for Rent, I found it hard to get out of the ‘pro’ focus headspace and remember that it was supposed to be fun. In the bigger shows, you shut up and go.

S.K:
Is there anything in particular that you like to have in your dressing room to make you feel at home?

Kurt:
I like to have music if I’m in a room by myself. I listen until half hour call so I don’t end up all neurotic. Theatre’s also have a very specific smell, so I like to have a scented candle or something familiar going to make it feel like home.

S.K:
What kind of examples could you give for what you consider to be correct dressing room etiquette?

Kurt:
I hate it when people aren’t observant of other people’s needs, especially when you’re sharing a dressing room. Try not to make a lot of noise and fuss if you’re with people that require quiet and focus, and don’t bring in something to eat with a really strong smell, like butter chicken. Once I’m at the half hour call, I turn off music, and only start conversations if other people initiate them, just in case. It’s different for different shows though. Sometimes you need to be pumped up but if it’s Shakespeare, I like to focus in order to disappear into his world, and to get into the zone.
S.K:
What kind of meals do you have while you’re in a performance season?
Kurt:
A lot of vegetables, I eat really clean because I tend to get reflux, and that can often mean that I’ll lose my voice. I avoid the saucy stuff and go for simple, clean things like chicken and broccoli and savory mince. I’m not really into pastas either, but that’s because I end up with my shirt off a lot! On that note, Protein shakes are great too.

S.K:
How do you make sure that you don’t end up feeling run down, especially during the cooler seasons?

Kurt:
I’ve found that I’m always really hot and sweaty after I’ve finished a show, no matter what the weather, and everything outside of the theatre always feels cooler so I always have a jacket handy so I don’t catch a cold the old-fashioned way. It’s easy to do that too, because when you’re in a theatre you’re breathing everyone else’s air. It’s so easy to eat crap too, so I take in a lot of vegetables and vitamins.

S.K:
Coffee, Red-Bull, Gatorade, Water or all of the above?

Kurt:
Coffee always before a show!

S.K:
If you had a theatre survival kit, what would be in it?

Kurt:
(Quickly) Jameson Irish Whiskey. (Laughs) Nurofen. Moisturizer. Oh, and Difflam throat spray. I think it’s awesome but singing teachers don’t. It’s good to have honey and lemon nearby too- the real stuff.

S.K:
Do you have any pre-show or after show traditions that you like to observe for luck or just for the sake of tradition?

Kurt:
I used to do five push-ups before the finale, and it was cute, because the crew used to do it with me too. I also like to give each of my roles a particular smell by theming a cologne with it. I wore old spice for the whole tour of Dirty Dancing because I figured that back then, that’s what Johnny would have worn. Kirby would say ‘Oh, I just smell you again!’
And ever since forever, I used to spit on the soles of my soles – especially my tap shoes. It helps for slipping and makes me feel more confident. Just a little spit though (laughs) I’m not hocking up a big… anything.

S.K:
We are so dependent on our costume, stage and sound crews during a production in community theatre, and it’s not unusual for those in the cast to be asked or required to land a hand. Can you remember a time when a techie/crew member saved your ass from a backstage emergency?
Kurt:
When I was singing on the cruise ship, the lift didn’t come up the whole way. I stepped as I always did, fell and knocked out my front tooth! But a crew member looked for it until he found it and I thought that was cool. Another time, when I was an understudy, for Felicia in Priscilla, the lead hurt himself in the first ten minutes. I’d never done his role before, but the resident director and the stage managers had my script and costumes ready and followed me around for the whole thing, feeding me lines and entrances and exits.

S.K:
Wow! What’s the biggest tech-week disaster you ever experienced?
Kurt:
The first Priscilla show I did went for three and a half hours because the bus kept stopping! It was charity so everyone took it well, thank goodness. Oh and another time when I was playing Felicia I got off the shoe too early and ended up stuck and suspended over the audience!

S.K:
What’s the worst mistake that you’ve ever made?
Kurt:
(Groans) Okay, look- I fell asleep. (Laughs) It was my first musical, Singing In The Rain. We had an hour off between act one and two, and a lot of the older and cheekier cast members saw that I’d dozed up and said it would be funny if they left me there. I’m sure someone meant to tell me to get up eventually, but I woke up suddenly when I heard : ‘Gotta dance….!’ Which was, of course, what I was supposed to be singing! I ran out there, but by the time I made it to stage, the number was just ending. It was hilarious, in hindsight, but I was in tears.

S.K:
Can you remember another stressed out actor treating someone appallingly during a diva moment?
Kurt:
Not really. I have seen some tantrums, but Divas don’t last long in this business. However, I have been trying to work on how I treat people when I’m stressed out or in a rush because sometimes, when I’m having a crisis I forget my manners. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and go: ‘Shoes! Shoes!’ during a quick change, but I’m working on it.

S.K:
If a friend or a fan wanted to give you a performance gift, what would you prefer over the standard chocolates and flowers?

Kurt:
Something cute that is linked to that particular show. Like if I was doing the Book of Mormon, It’s be funny to have a God-themed present. I’m allergic to some pollens though, so if I get Lillies, I can’t even be in the room as them, so people give me wine a lot.

S.K:
What kind of wine would you like?

Kurt:
Anything from bubbles a nice bottle of red that I can keep for sentimental value, then look back at it and go: ‘Ahhh, I got this, for that show!’

S.K:
Have you ever had a ‘show-mance,’?
Kurt:
Yeah… but I’m not one of those people who seek it out, and once this someone and I kept it really quiet so people were stunned when they found out. ‘Don’t Screw The Crew,’ is a good expression, I think.

S.K:
How many long-term friends have you made during a production?

Kurt:
I find that you tend to keep two or three ones out of every production, but you almost always get along with everyone. Funnily enough, a lot of my closest friends are part of the crew- so I have a lot of muso mates.

S.K:
If you could do any show from your whole career again, what would it be?
Kurt:
Witches Of Eastwick, if it was a musical, or Tender Napalm. That was a performance art piece I did once and it was just amazing.

 

I would like to thank Kurt so much for making himself so available to the performers of Mackay, and to Joel Bow for organizing so many fantastic workshops. If you’d like to keep on track with what this shooting star is up to next, make sure you jump on and ‘like’ his Facebook page!

https://www.facebook.com/KurtPhelanAus/

And a big, fat CHOOKAS to the cast of MMCP’s Wicked! Going live next week! Only a few tickets left so get into people!

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