Townsville’s professional theatre company, Theatre iNQ is celebrating it’s 10th year in 2020.
The Company, led by Terri Brabon and Brendan O’Connor, has had a bright first decade: staging innovative adaptations like Frankenstein in an empty school building, Australian plays like Cosi and X-Stacy, and their annual Shakespeare Under the Stars.
However, even as they celebrate a milestone achievement, Terri and Brendan are acutely aware of those who forged the path before them and those who follow.
THE PAST: LOVE AND LEGACY
While Theatre iNQ was officially established in 2010, its early rumblings began in 2008 when the passing of visionary director Jean-Pierre Voos saw his company, Tropic Sun Theatre, branch in two directions.
“For a couple of years, we’d come back from Melbourne and kept Shakespeare Under the Stars moving on,” said Terri. “Then the decision was made that Shakespeare Under the Stars was no longer going to be presented and we had the choice to either let the tradition die or front up the money and energy and produce it ourselves.”
The tradition held a special place in both Terri and Brendan’s hearts. It had given each of them their very first forays into full-length Shakespeare – Brendan in the 1992 production of Twelfth Night and Terri in 1995’s The Tempest – and had led them to Melbourne where they were working for the Australian Shakespeare Company.
“The idea that there possibly wouldn’t be a Shakespeare Under the Stars in Townsville for a Little-Brendan or a Little-Terri to see and fall in love with was terrible,” Terri said.
“We felt like we owed it to Jean-Pierre and to ourselves to keep that going and we had a lot of support really early on from the people who would eventually become the Executive Committee: Lorna Hempstead, Bernie Lanigan, Ray Dickson, Kelly Esling, Katie Boyd, Emily Molloy and George Lummis. They spearheaded Theatre iNQ and gave us the confidence that it was a) wanted – because we didn’t want to come in and step on anyone’s toes, and b) that we could do it.
“We also had a lot of support from businesses who gave us grand donations and sponsorship deals, so we really felt an out-pouring of support for that and for us to be here.”
Theatre iNQ was officially established in 2010 and their first Shakespeare Under the Stars, Richard III, brought many actors out of the woodwork who would become mainstays of Theatre iNQ’s ensemble.
“They were people like Bernie Lanigan who had done lead roles every year – he was Townsville’s original Jean Valjean in Townsville – and he’s a bit of a big deal, but he was still coming to us and trying to be the best that he can be and he still does; I find him really inspiring. Also people like John Goodson, Kelly Esling and Ron Pulman – these great people who wanted to be pushed a little more and I love pushing!” laughed Terri.
Brendan cautions that it was a perfect storm comprising specific conditions that needed to align for Theatre iNQ to take off and withstand the test of time. It wasn’t just about having the backing of the Arts and business community, but the time, the finances and the undercurrent of talent as well.
“Like anything, it all sounds very fairytale, but unless there’s money to make it happen then you simply can’t do it.,” said Brendan.
“Terri and I were both making a lot of money in advertising and you didn’t have to work very hard; I mean I was making a wage from 16 days’ work a year, and we had a permanent job with the Australian Shakespeare Company that was at least three-and-a-half months’ work each year as well.
“In a way, we were earning well enough money and had enough left over for us to be able to risk it on something we felt was important.
“Townsville is special too because it had a drama school here for a long time and it produced a lot of really good actors, plus a professional theatre company here for nearly 35 years before us, whether it was New Moon or Matchbox, Theatre Up North, Tropic Line or Tropic Sun,” Brendan said.
“Even though Townsville is often seen as a footy town, it’s also bizarrely the centre of performing arts. It’s not until you leave it and you go somewhere else that you realise how bizarre Townsville is. We can get a bigger percentage of our population attending the theatre here than in Brisbane.”
Brendan said all of Townsville’s theatre companies had contributed to that groundswell of support through their consistent commitment to making better theatre.
“Every now and then individuals turn up who demand more from the companies that are here and those companies will tend to rise to the challenge. They’ll get better and their competition will want to compete, so they’ll get better and they’ll both get better and better and better all the time.”
That was part of the legacy that Jean-Pierre had left.
“He was a total force of nature,” said Brendan. “The kinds of shows we were doing in the 80s with Tropic Line were shows that were being done in Europe and in the United States 25 years before, but we were doing Australian premieres of them!
“They were wild, wild, wild shows! You wouldn’t put them on anymore, people are too pure these days. But people came to see them and they’d never seen anything like it before in their lives. He was like an absolute tornado when he came here.”
They are big footsteps to follow, but Terri and Brendan said they’ve never tried to fill Jean-Pierre’s shoes. Instead, they’ve honoured his mentorship in everything that they do, while remaining true to their own authentic vision and voice.
“If Jean-Pierre was alive today, he would love the Company and probably hate most of my shows!” Terri said.
“We had a different view of lots of things: I think it’s just a generation gap and the fact that we lived very different lives. But he’s very much a part of this Company. As we go on through the years, we’re finding more young people who didn’t know him or his influence and we feel it’s our responsibility to make sure that they do know his name. We have the Jean-Pierre Awards; he’s on the wall in the office and the Bridge kids (Theatre iNQ’s Actor Training Programme) all have to know him and read books about him to understand where we’re coming from and also to understand that we’re not these geniuses, but we were taught by one.”
Brendan added that everything he and Terri do is a result of Jean-Pierre’s teachings.
“The way I think about theatre is a result of him. The way I view the theatre is a result of him. The fact that we keep so much junk! The fact that when we think of building a set we go to the dump! The fact that having the means to make theatre is our whole point, is all because of him,” said Brendan.
“That was the fundamental principal of what he taught: If all you can do is make [theatre] in a cardboard box on the side of the road, then that’s where you have to go and do it.”
THE PRESENT: WARS OF THE ROSES
Finding inspiration for the perfect way to celebrate Theatre iNQ turning the big 1-0 was also a matter of looking back.
Terri and Brendan considered staging five unrelated plays throughout their 2020 season, but ultimately decided to commit to Terri’s own adaptation of Shakespeare’s eight ‘Wars of the Roses’ plays into a trilogy. The three plays will be staged at three different venues across Townsville throughout the year.
Terri said she’d written the trilogy so that all three could be seen chronologically, or in isolation.
“If you can’t see all three and you just want to come to Shakespeare in the Park that’s still viable – each show stands on its own,” Terri said.
“But there will be something magical about having seen the whole thing, everything will click into place and make it very rewarding.”
Terri has been working on the adaptation since before Theatre iNQ’s inception.
“I started trying to do this edit when I first moved to Melbourne and was unemployed for a long time,” she said. “I never sit idle and there was a library on the corner of our street, and we had no money and no books, so I would be at the library everyday researching this and getting hellishly involved in it all. I didn’t even have a computer at the time, so I wrote it all out by hand and I still have all my notes.”
Remarkably, many of those original handwritten notes have made the final cut.
“I was obviously very obsessed with it at the time, so I made some really good choices,” Terri said.
“I had really, really, really wanted to do it before Theatre iNQ did any of Shakespeare’s history plays but it wasn’t finished when we did Henry V in 2009 and the following year we did Richard III. I couldn’t do it because we’d just done two huge parts of the eight plays, probably the two most famous plays with the eight, so I had to just sit on it.
“Looking back, I’m pleased I’ve done that work because I’m much more aware of the characters and the themes that run through both of them and how those two can connect.”
The Wars of the Roses Trilogy will cover 100 years of the rise and fall of England, and Brendan said the three performance venues would add to the sense of decay audiences should feel.
“The story itself begins with England being very opulent,” said Brendan. “It’s a very successful country after Edward III and everything’s looking pretty tickety-boo. Then slowly people start doing things that are, for that time, immoral and unethical and anti-God and anti-religion. Slowly but surely the entire realm just collapses in on itself because of selfish people with too much power. By the time you get to Richard III, from Shakespeare’s perspective, the realm was taken over by total evil and it requires a hero to become a wealthy, powerful nation again.
“We think the three performance venues will reflect that. Starting in a purpose-built theatre, then going to an indoor venue which isn’t a purpose-built theatre, and finally to an outdoor venue that slow degeneration of the realm and the family.
“In terms of set design, we want it also to follow that – if someone comes and sees the first show and then the last show, we want similar things to be present within the design, just slowly decaying.”
THE FUTURE: PASSING THE BATON
Like any milestone achievement, Theatre iNQ’s 10th birthday isn’t just about looking back, but also ahead to ensure that Townsville’s long line of professional theatre companies perseveres.
“I’m always thinking about the future of Theatre iNQ,” said Terri.
“This year will be a celebration of what we have been and beyond that it starts to be, for me personally, about finding someone to replace me.
“That’s ultimately what the Bridge Project is about: trying to instil the same kind of ideals for a theatre company that would be based in this community in young people, because ultimately they’re the ones who have to either carry on the legacy or start their own.
“Brendan and I have different beliefs about whether buildings should stand or new blood should just change them, but the future is always about the next generation and there’ll be a lot more commitment to that.”
“It’s about allowing the next generation to find their voice and where that comes from, which I think is what Jean-Pierre did for me and for Brendan.”
Don’t miss the first instalment of Theatre iNQ’s The Wars of the Roses, The Blood of Kings, from 26 February to 7 March 2020.