2 Minutes with: Rachel Cairns

Rachel Cairns not only conducts Townsville's Choral Society Choir, but is set to take to the stage with Strictly Ballroom and Morning Melodies this October. IMAGE: Sonia Warrell

She has done it all. From playing Mary Poppins to conducting Townsville’s first ever championship-winning choir in the North Queensland Eisteddfod, Rachel Cairns is an icon on local stages. We caught up with Rachel to find out what’s keeping her so busy at the moment.

How did you get involved in performing?
I first became involved in musical theatre when I went to St Margaret Mary’s College – they’ve done a combined production for many years now, I’m not sure exactly how many – and I auditioned to be in Godspell when I was in grade 9 or 10. I was very surprised that I not only got in, but I actually got to sing a song called Day by Day.

After high school, I didn’t really know what the Choral Society did. My friend Chanel Lucas who is one half of Women in Docs said to me ‘we’re going to audition for The King and I, come along.’ I went with her to an open audition and got in! I did The King and I with them in 1993, and then straight after we auditioned for Les Mis. I got the role of Fantine and from there, I’ve never looked back. And it’s quite true, I’ve been involved ever since!

What made you want to audition for Strictly Ballroom?
For many years I played the romantic soprano floating about the stage and was never really cast as a funny person. The first role I ever did like that was Mama Rose in Gypsy. That was great fun, and I see Shirley Hastings as the Australian version of Mama Rose because they’re both stage mums! They’re completely driven through their children to fulfil something they never had, but they’re hilarious! Shirley Hastings is funny; she’s not a mean character. She’s driven and pretty cutting at times, but at the same time has a big heart that just wants everyone to do the right thing. So when Scott (Sam Stewart) doesn’t do the right thing, she’s trying so hard to fix it and think of her reputation while at the same time having this husband that doesn’t engage – she’s great fun, and I’m looking forward to being a bit bogan! I’ve never played an Australian on stage, and I’m looking forward to all the sequins and colour. If our photoshoot was anything to go by, my face is going to be glowing with pink, sequins and sparkles. And I guess I wanted to do something I didn’t already know. This is Australian and new and very different to anything I’ve ever done before, it’s going to be a hoot!

I guess that would be a challenge, coming from choirs where you train your singers to be as un-bogan as possible!
I’m going to have to have some serious lessons to sing like an Australian, and map out the vowel sounds – because she is Australian and a very iconic character, so I need to be careful because I want to portray her in the right way: still bringing my own take to it, but that still has elements of what Pat Thomson brought to the character in the movie, and what others in musical versions have done with it. But there isn’t a whole lot to look at, because it’s had so many reinventions of itself. I think the current version is great, and pretty true to the movie. The characters are all clearly still iconic, and elements of the movie people which I think is essentially what people will want to see when they come and see the show. They’ll remember what they know from the movie.

How did you come to conduct the choir?
I ‘inherited’ the conductor role when I was 23, in a very roundabout sort of way. They were already in rehearsal to go to an Eisteddfod in Mackay, and asked me to step in. As a bright I-can-do-anything 23 year old I said ‘Sure, I can do that!’ We went to Mackay and we actually did win a few things which was nice. Then I think because I was so young, I didn’t stick with it because I had so many other things happening and you know, when you volunteer to do something you still have a real job taking up your time and other things you want to be doing, so I did it for a couple of years and then stepped away from it, went to the UK for a year, and I studied a lot of conducting – I did workshops in Portugal, the UK, and came back with a new excitement but not with the expectation I’d walk in to conduct the choir again. Cheryl, who was taking them at the time, emailed me and said she needed a break – so it was like the planets aligned at the right time. Community choirs work best with a combined offering of different ages because together they produce the most magnificent sound which we heard this year at Eisteddfod. It’s lovely because our older members adore the younger folk coming in, it’s like a breath of fresh air. That’s why the choir has become a really important part of the Choral Society rather than just an offbranch that does their thing – the Eisteddfod is essentially a third production that we do every Easter.

Have you seen the members’ skills grow in your time conducting them?
I’ve absolutely seen our choristers evolve over the years, and seen them become leaders in their sections: so when they started out they were mentored by some of our older members who have either moved on from the choir or who have become more colleagues than mentors now. It’s been lovely seeing them assert their own authority, having new people gravitate to them and have them take them under their wing. It is a big, crazy, choral family all working towards one thing, and community spirit at its finest: it’s a great leveller. No one has to be the best because if you’re the best, you stand out which isn’t what you want in choral singing. Everybody has to work together to get that sound and feeling; it’s very much a team effort.

You’ll have your fingers in a lot of pies this October, with a Morning Melodies performance days after Strictly Ballroom. How did you become involved in that?
Last year was my first year involved with Morning Melodies – Katie Boyd asked how I’d feel about being a local performer, because they often bring in people that do the circuit – performing in Morning Melodies all over the place – but Katie was looking to inject a bit more Townsville talent into ours, which I thought was wonderful. I kicked it off for them last year, looking back at my 25 years of involvement in musical theatre which was so much fun. I think it was fun not only because I enjoy singing those songs, but for me to look back at all the shows I’ve been in and pick a few of my favourite things. It was great revisiting all of those shows so I put up a few photos and told a few stories, and a few people commented that they didn’t know I was funny! But I guess some of the stories were funny, like when Bernie Lanigan and I came onstage way too early for our scene in Beauty and the Beast and it would have been fine and we could have blended into the background … except he was a giant clock and I was a giant teapot! It was really fun and great to put together a collection of songs. It was a really positive experience, so much so that they asked me to come back – but I obviously can’t do 25 years again!

This one we’ve called Act Two and I’m excited about it because I’ll perform songs I really love and perhaps haven’t had the opportunity to sing before. There’s a section where I sing songs from characters I’ve always wanted to play but never have. It’s a bit indulgent in that way, but still with a lot of that older musical theatre which is so beautiful, all the Cole Porters, Rogers & Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin … they all wrote such beautiful music and it’s still completely beautiful and lovely to revisit these days. I’ll tell a few stories about my experience in musical theatre and definitely about Strictly Ballroom, which we would have just finished. I’m looking forward to singing a few songs and having a chat.

Conducting the Townsville Choral Society Choir: Every Tuesday, 7-9:30pm at the Brian and Daphne Pease Hall (Sturt St).
Strictly Ballroom: 11-20 October at the Civic Theatre.
Morning Melodies: 24 October at the Civic Theatre.

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