If you caught Kurt Phelan’s cabaret show at Riverway Sessions a couple of weeks ago, you’ll know the man is an open book. But even knowing this, when I sat down with him this morning, I didn’t realise how open he would be. With his annual Phelan’It for Movember showcase taking over Townsville this Friday night for the first time since its inception three years ago, we spoke about everything from mental health and growing up in Townsville, to becoming the next Hugh Jackman.
When did you start planning this Friday’s Movember show?
A week ago! I started doing a Movember benefit show three years ago when I was doing Dirty Dancing. It was an open mic night with the cast and we all just sang and had a great time, then donated the money. From there, Movember approached me to become an ambassador last year, and I was stoked by that. I was actually meant to be in New York for it this year, so planned to do it at Club Cumming which is Alan Cumming’s bar and a place that lots of my friends and my partner work at. But then I had to race back to Australia suddenly for one big bloody callback, and it’s been a hard month. Which is strange, because it’s Movember and the arm of Movember that I really get behind is men’s mental health. I’d come home to wait for this callback and was waiting by the phone as actors do, and it was getting to me. I ended up going and having coffee with Sandy Neal, who is a long-time friend of mine, and she asked me why I wasn’t doing the gig here if I wasn’t in New York for it. I asked her if I could produce a show in a week, and she was silent which got me questioning if she thought I could do it, so then I was like ‘I can, leave it with me.’ Phelan’It for Movember all started last Wednesday over that cup of coffee! And why not? I had the idea already, but had kind of just got a little inside of my own head with my own troubles and had forgotten that there’s this beautiful charity that I support, and there’s all these signs pointing towards ‘why not!’
What is it about Movember that means the most to you – why men’s mental health?
Growing up here for me was … horrible at the best of times. I have always worn my heart on my sleeve, and then I sang and danced and went to a certain high school, so it was the perfect storm for being beaten up daily. Which is fine, I don’t hold a grudge on that at all. There’s a lot of things I gained growing up in this area that I’m so thankful for. When I became a ‘man,’ in inverted commas, I started to … I don’t know. You get to 18 or 19 and actually start to work out what you think is right in life and your own value system starts to creep in. I started to realise I wasn’t dealing with my problems. I was doing the ‘manly’ thing of keeping feelings hidden and pushed down, and not crying. It got to the stage where I hit rock bottom really badly and couldn’t explain it or understand what was going on. My sister, who is a psychologist, said to me, ‘You’re having massive panic attacks,’ and suggested maybe I should talk to someone. I went to seek help for the first time, and asking for help felt like this huge point of weakness. I didn’t tell anyone, so tried dealing with it all myself but it wasn’t until I went to friends, family and work colleagues and told them ‘I’m having trouble which I don’t think is life threatening, but don’t know what to do anymore’ – that’s when it started to get better.
From then on, I started to really understand that the stigma around mental health – and especially men’s mental health – is so huge, and there’s so many men that are pretending they’re fine, because you have to be a strong man. And that’s the most problematic thing: how many times were you told as a kid ‘Don’t cry, be a man!’ Well what is a man? If I wear a pink shirt, does that mean I’m not a man? If I dance or want to be a florist, does that mean I’m not a man? You’re a man if you identify as a man, that’s as simple as it is. It was really an eye-opening thing for me.
The six months before I started Dirty Dancing, I had three friends take their own life. With all three of them, there was no sign at all. It was just one day, you get the phone call to say they were gone. It was really difficult, and it really hit home and was quite strange to see the fallout within our group of friends as to how they all dealt with it. Some were angry, some denied it, some had sympathy – which all feeds into the fact that we don’t talk about the problem when it’s on the Earth in front of us.
When I started Dirty Dancing, our publicist asked if we had a charity we support, which I didn’t at the time. Then one night at stage door I met this awesome 10-year-old boy called Caleb who said, ‘I love dancing, it’s so great to see a man up there doing it!’ His mum wrote to me on Instagram later thanking me for talking to him, because he was having such a hard time at school and it was great for him to see that if he wanted to do it, he could. That really made me feel that I am in a position where I can make a difference, and I wanted to do anything I could to make that difference.
Do you see this morning’s announcement – Australia viting yes for Equality – as paving the way towards more acceptance across the board?
I hope so – I mean, I’m wearing an equality T-shirt and haven’t been spat on yet!
Would that have happened before you moved away from Townsville?
Absolutely, I have no doubt. Honestly, if you wore a pink shirt you were just gay straight away. It’s a colour! It’s always interested me because sexuality’s never been a thing for me – I don’t care for it, but everyone around you wants to know. It’s weird. My niece is 12, and all of her friends have been questioning why such a big deal is being made about this thing that isn’t anyone’s business. They understand that it shouldn’t matter and these people should be able to get married, and that’s grade sixers having a chat over lunch in Hermit Park solving more things than the people we put into parliament. When they’re in charge of the world, I’m so excited to see what happens.
Speaking of excited to see what happens, you have a really exciting lineup this Friday! How did that all piece together?
It’s gotten to the stage where there’s a new generation of performers that I don’t know all that well – so I kind of turned it over to my past singing teachers and local friends to help me. I heard about Miss Billie Beau, whose burlesque is just stunning – and who is from Home Hill! I’m an Ayr boy, so it was a bit like, how have I not heard about you before?! She told me about her friend Cara who was not only a great belly dancer, but is part of Scimitar Moon, so she’s on board as well. Through this amazing Townsville community, it was like Jenga – one piece knocks all the rest into place.
There’s also a lineup of some really incredible singers including Nina [Lippmann] who just played Elphaba in Wicked – we’ve got a rehearsal tonight and I kind of want to just make her do ‘Defying Gravity’ because I didn’t get to see the show and it’s a bit selfish, I just want to hear that!
After your hiatus here, are there plans to make a leap from stage to TV?
I’ve always done both, but the Australian culture of the arts industry is if they think you do one thing, that’s all you’ll do. I was doing lots of film and TV before I got Dirty Dancing but as soon as I was cast in that, a lot of agents said ‘Oh, you just do musicals now.’ You get pigeon-holed a lot, whereas in America they don’t care. If you look right and you’re talented, you’re hired.
I would like to be the next Hugh Jackman. I think he’s almost old enough for someone new to come in and for it to not be competition. I’m going to meet Hugh one day and ask him if that’s cool. It’s like wanting to marry someone – you ask the dad for permission. So I’m going to go to Hugh and ask his permission to be the next Hugh, and then it’s all good! It’s easy from then on, apart from the fact they’ve killed Wolverine! It kind of sucks, I don’t know what other superhero I’d be.
Do you think Hugh started changing that mindset of the Australian arts industry when suddenly he was on stage as well as on screens?
Absolutely! This is the thing, when we talk about young people starting out having trouble, there’s people like Hugh Jackman who – you just don’t get a bigger, beefier, more Aussie bloke – and yet he also sings and dances! No one knew it, he didn’t tell anyone for years! And then all of a sudden he was like ‘Oh by the way, I’m going to play Peter Allen.’ He went to LA, started doing films but didn’t sing or dance at all, then he really became ‘Hugh Jackman’ and hosted the Tony Awards and sang and danced and people’s minds exploded. It’s weird that that is the way it has to be approached, but it totally changed things: once you’ve got an idol, he’s suddenly the pinnacle of what you can become. You can say whatever you want about Hugh – I certainly have a few jokes in my cabaret show about him – but that’s just because it’s fun and easy. I’m a huge fan of his and just think he’s paved the way for a lot of non-binary behaviour. It’s great.
Was it hard going from Townsville to down South to New York?
Not at all! The hardest thing is your own mind. If you’ve got a deposit for a bond and a suitcase, what are you worried about? You have nothing to lose. New York is actually a little easier than Sydney. It’s cheaper, believe it or not, but is harder because we can’t work until we have Visas. People say all the time they really want to go down and try it out but don’t know about it – well what is there not to know about? Go down, give it a go, and if it doesn’t work out then come home. People’s fear about it is far worse than the reality. Theatre is supportive no matter where you go. The second I went to New York and met people, they all started introducing me – everyone’s willing to help, you just have to be open to it! You need to give it time, and of course you will spend that time thinking you’re a failure. But if you persist and keep working hard, then it will happen.
And finally … what’s coming in 2018 for you?
I have a really exciting job next year with Queensland Theatre Company who are doing Twelfth Night directed by Sam Strong. Tim Finn is absolutely incredible, and is writing all the music for it! I’m playing Antonio in that and they’ve got me learning the euphonium for it too – so it’s going to be excellent. I did a workshop about a month ago sitting in a room with Tim Finn, and for him to hand you a piece of his new music is just unbelievable. The Last Five Years is also looking at touring which is great, because that was a huge success at Brisbane’s Powerhouse, and then this other show that I’m waiting to hear about – which could be bloody good, but haven’t heard back about it yet! Mum’s going to want to see it, but I think there’s a family ban on them seeing me do what I would be doing if I’m cast in it!
Catch Kurt Phelan along with special guests Nina Lippmann, Miss Billie Beau, Cara from Scimitar Moon, Sharon Randsom, Morgan Eldridge, Brett Northeast, Matt Derlagen and Simon Self for Phelan’It for Movember at the Townsville Choral Society Hall this Friday night from 7pm. Click here for tickets.