Townsville productions are massive undertakings. The hours put in by the cast and crew in every performance are incredible. But when it comes time for curtain call on opening night, not everyone receives the applause to recognise those hours; when it comes time for awards, there’s a long list to recognise those on stage, but only one or two to be split between everyone behind the scenes.
Damien Jackson and Chris Ahern, who jokingly call themselves ‘The Un-Nominated Guys’ when refering to the Townsville Theatre Awards, have been the props and set designers for the majority of NQOMT’s recent shows, including their upcoming October production, Little Shop of Horrors.
Little Shop of Horrors is a sci-fi pop/rock musical following the story of Seymour, an assistant in a flower shop, who discovers a new plant and names it after his crush, Audrey. It’s no ordinary plant, though – so requires a talented team behind the scenes to make all four plant puppets of varying sizes look perfect.
“This is one of the few shows that is more prop-heavy than any other show I’ve done – simply because the main character is made up of four puppets over the course of the show,” Damien said.
“Little Shop really brings props from behind the scenes to centre stage; which makes it a much bigger challenge and has a lot more focus on my role. Normally I just contribute to something much larger. Now, my role is massive and acting is only the second most important thing – not that we tell the actors.”
Chris said Little Shop of Horrors involved a lot more collaboration between his sets and Damien’s props than any show they had worked on previously.
“Normally costumes, sets and props are all really independent of each other – we get a colour scheme and are told what to paint. But with this one, we’ve had to do it together because I build
a skeleton, which then goes to costumes to have a jacket added, before it’s handed to Damien who makes the outside skin look right and gives it the finishing touches. It’s a really unique and challenging thing,” Chris said.
“We have a lot of Little Shop productions from around the world to base our puppets off, but they’re all just photos of the finished product – there’s no template out there of how to actually build them.
“There’s designs out there full of wood and steel and everything in between, but I’ve known Jeremiah [Pau] since grade eight, and he’ll be the one who has to wear whatever we do create – so I really don’t want him to dice his back because of something I’ve made.”
As well as creating pieces that will be safe for the cast to wear and use, Damien said they always ensure their designs are in keeping with the era of the musical.
“I had my entire back deck covered in hand-painted crockery for Titanic: The Musical – which all matched the colour of crockery discovered on the ship. It’s the same with Little Shop: I research the time period and design everything to fit in with that, from the magazines and posters, to labels on bottles and the design of cups and cutlery,” said Damien.
“If we break a wooden spoon, we can go and get another one. But if we break a puppet, with the amount of time, energy and money that has gone into making a single one of each size, we can’t just whip another one up in the shed for the next night.
“If no one notices the props, then my job is done – the props are really there to complement the show and assist actors to get their message across and enhance scenes.”
“People notice the sets though,” said Chris, “especially when you fly in a 15-metre pyramid with 110 metres of LED lights on it [as we did in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat]. When you see that fly down, of course you’re going to be like, ‘hell yeah!’
“Building stuff with my hands is what I enjoy, so building sets is probably the best way for me to help, be creative and make something cool. I got involved because my wife Rachel has been involved in almost every NQOMT production since The Full Monty (2005).
“I don’t want something that has my wife’s name on it to be limited by something that I could have helped with – especially when I get my judgy pants on and tell people if things look shithouse.
“Rachel’s the same too though, because she directs and choreographs – so I feel sorry for the people sitting next to us at shows, because I’ll be saying ‘What have they done to their sets!’ and Rachel will be saying ‘She missed a kick-turn there!’ – and we’re not being mean, it’s just ingrained now!”
Family plays a role in both men’s theatre contribution.
“As great as performing in shows is, I get just as much enjoyment out of making the shows look great, and working on props fits in a lot better with my home life now – I can spend time with my family until they go to sleep, then sneak downstairs and work on props underneath the house for as long as I want,” said Damien.
“You’ll be at home working until 3am some nights because you’re on a roll or you finally got the shape right for the puppet and want to try something else. Then the next thing you know, you’ve done 40 hours there, 40 hours at work, and squeezed family time in the mix too.
“You don’t clock in or out, there’s no major recognition, but there’s a team of people that do it in every production.”
And while many things may look simple and seamless from the audience, a lot more goes into them than meets the eye.
“There was this beautiful big grand staircase in the second act of Hello Dolly (2014) – and it was actually all one single staircase that folded in half to roll under the gantry in the theatre. Nobody saw all the time and effort that went into it, because one minute it wasn’t there, and then it was,” Chris said.
“We had to put it up quietly because it was mid-act – so had to slide it under the gantry, flip it up, lock it in place, put supports underneath it so it didn’t kill anyone, hang everything along the top and sides of it, and put the handrails in, all while the performance was still going on the other side of the curtain. The only people who knew what went into that were the six people involved in setting it up.
“Everyone else celebrated because it looked great, but I was kicking myself because it was 5mm out when it folded down – which didn’t affect the staircase and which the audience would never see.”
From extendable staircases to human-swallowing plants, the time and effort put in by crews behind the scenes is admirable, and matches – if not exceeds – that of the cast.
“Most of the time we’re silent warriors – which I don’t have a problem with, because I’d work for beer any day of the week! It’s a volunteer job so the day it isn’t fun anymore, we can easily walk away,”said Damien.
“But we’re both still here and keep coming back, because it’s enjoyable and challenging and we love it. We’re not-for-profit and no one’s getting paid, but that’s unimportant because we’re here to put on a show the best we can, and NQOMT always achieves that time and time again.”
Catch NQOMT’s Little Shop of Horrors at the Civic Theatre from 11-14 October. Tickets are now available from TicketShop.