“There’s a blurred line between amateurs and professionals locally: our amateurs are as good as the pros, and it’s thanks to some really talented local directors who are able to get things out of these performers that makes them comparable to the best you’ve seen.”
The Townsville Choral and Orchestral Society will stage its hundredth production this January and February, and it’s fair to say the organisation has seen many changes since it originally formed as The Townsville Musical Union in 1906. The Society became renowned for its several choir concerts performed each year, but it was the addition of musical theatre in 1953 that made the group a steadily rising star on the regional Arts scene.
An organisation with both “Choral” and “Orchestral” in its title seems an unlikely candidate to stage Queensland’s first amateur production of a show featuring some of the most iconic rock songs of all time, but the Townsville Choral and Orchestral Society isn’t much for rules.
In celebration of its hundredth musical, the society is gearing up to mount its biggest show ever: We Will Rock You, a jukebox musical written by Ben Elton and Queen, to be staged as an arena spectacular at the Townsville Entertainment and Convention Centre.
President of the Society, Rod Wilson and Life Member, Julie Dell said We Will Rock You would set a new benchmark for musical theatre across the country.
“There’s so many firsts for We Will Rock You: we’re the first amateur company in Queensland, and very likely Australia-wide, to do this production; it’s also the first time a local – or possibly any! – musical has been performed at the Entertainment Centre,” Rod said.
“Because the Townsville Civic Theatre is closed for renovations for the next six months, our options were either to find a new venue, or hold a smaller-scale show in our Hall – which I was not excited about at all. It would be our hundredth show, but we’d be stuck in a tiny venue performing for a handful of people! If that was the case, we probably would have done something under-the-radar and then claimed our August production Les Miserables as the big 100 – but luckily things panned out the way they have, and we’ll be going bigger and better than ever before.”
With 99 productions under their belt, the Townsville Choral Society is well-rehearsed in staging knock-out shows – but not all of them have been as successful at the box office as recent offerings.
“West Side Story has probably been our worst to date,” said Rod. “We were completely booked, but then a cyclone hit, the theatre flooded, and we had to give everyone their money back. The big issue was we’d already performed a couple of shows, so we still had to pay for the rights to it.”
“Another flunk was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” said Julie. “It’s a brilliant and hilarious musical, and the local cast was amazing, but everyone thought it was a business seminar so steered clear! We’ve had everything from cancelled shows to power outages – like in The Sound of Music, we had two power outages in one show! The theatre opened up the bar and it was free drinks all round, then I think we finished the performance at about 1 in the morning.”
For all the Society’s ups and downs, they remain true to their ethos of supporting the community.
“We’re not just a theatre company; we’re one of the oldest community Arts organisations and community choirs in Townsville. If people want something done for the community in terms of music, ring us first and we’ll do it if we can. I don’t know if everyone else in the organisation agrees with me, but I’m the president now and that’s the tact I take!”
Julie said it was about giving locals a place to come together and collaborate on their shared passions.
“The thing with local amateur productions is every single member of the cast is involved because they love it, it’s what they want to spend their spare time doing. I’ve seen professional shows where the cast just seems tired and it’s their day job, whereas amateurs do it because they love it. I think the audience catches that too – they get roped in to that passion and I think there’s a lot to be said for amateur productions in that regards,” said Julie.
“To people who aren’t sure whether they can perform or sing … I have to say some people can’t – and shouldn’t! But everyone has something they can give. We have one beautiful lady who just comes in to iron costumes after shows; there’s a group of retired chaps who build our sets; other young ones who help paint them; people who do the ushering, or selling of programs … you just don’t know what you can or can’t do until you try.
“Over the course of the Choral Society’s 100 productions, we’ve seen a lot of people come through the ranks and go on to great things: people like Greta Sherriff who has now performed with the Australian Opera and done many professional musicals; Shannon Foley who has also spent time with the Australian Opera; Neil Gooding who now has his own production company in Sydney; Madeline and Harriet Dyer who have both gone on to great things in the industry; and Sandy Neal, who was the only amateur director invited to a professional directors course at Juilliard in the US and who still works and performs with us today.”
It’s no wonder so many locals have been successful: despite being ‘amateur’, the standard is nigh on professional.
“I don’t know how many times people have stopped me outside the theatre to confirm if our shows are professional – I can remember the first time we did Les Mis, buses of people came from Cairns, Mackay and everywhere else to see it,” said Rod. “It was hard for people to understand that it wasn’t a professional touring show; it wasn’t imported; none of us were getting paid and we’d all go back to our normal jobs the next morning.”
Catch the Townsville Choral Society’s production of We Will Rock You at the Townsville Entertainment and Convention Centre from 31 January – 10 February. For more information about getting involved in the choir, visit tcs.org.au