A New Brain

Chris Hughes's picture

Theatre People sits down with A New Brain Director Allie Sutherland

TP: The staging for this show is very much open to interpretation. What tact have you taken?

Our production aims to allow the audience to follow Gordo’s journey in a naturalistic manner while giving them an insight into what is happening in his mind. The hallucinations and dreams all provide the audience with further understanding about Gordo’s past, his fears and his musical creativity. Our interpretation of the show follows four distinct stages of Gordo’s journey, not only from his own perspective, but from the perspective of the people around him such as his family and the hospital staff. We have begun with an attempt to understand the way he lived and why he got sick. We then moved into reflecting on how to cope with fears of the unknown. After he has the operation and fails to wake up, there is a series of vignettes showing how the different people in his life deal with death, whether it is the hospital staff “eating themselves up alive,” or his best friend Rhoda simply blurting out everything she feels she needs to confide in him before he dies. The fourth stage focuses on ‘spring,’ rejuvenation and the infinite possibilities available to Gordo. My interpretation does not really include a feeling of closure, but rather the feeling that opportunity is obtainable. But while there is nothing holding you back, there is also nothing to hold onto which is both an exciting but scary concept.

TP: What has been the greatest challenge working with the cast on this piece?

I must say that I have been truly honoured to work with such a talented and dedicated group of performers. I guess there were a few psychological barriers for me to overcome at the beginning of as I am a first time director and I am considerably younger and less experienced than a lot of my cast. However, the cast were really supportive and were able to use their experience to contribute to my overall interpretation and vision of the show, taking my sometimes abstract and ‘arts student-y’ ideas and applying them to their characterisation.

TP: What references have you drawn from?

I haven’t really based the show on any reference in particular. William Finn is an amazing composer and his orchestration and harmonisations all succeed in creating certain moods and feels and when blocking and designing I have tried to stay true to both the music and the script. For example Gordo’s Law of Genetics just sings ‘Stage Band’ to me. We went back and watched old videos of stage bands that we admired and really tried to get across the feeling of the conductor leading the band but really grooving along and living the music. Particularly in the hallucinations and dreams, the creative team really tried to brainstorm what we thought the music reminded us of, and what feeling it was trying to get and then we would research and find different media to assist us.

TP: What has been your creative process?

Even before we held auditions, Emily (Assistant Director) and Lauri (Choreographer) and I got together and tried to really disseminate what we wanted to achieve from the musical and what we wanted to express. One of the things that I think has been really important within the show is remaining true to the characters, so we spent the first couple of rehearsals with our thesaurus’ and analysed the intentions behind the lines, which I thought was really important to ensure that there was no ‘acting’ or false emotion, but a really honest portrayal. As creatives, we did have a clear understanding of what we wanted to achieve from each scene so that it would all contribute to the bigger picture, but one thing that we really tried to do was experiment in rehearsals, see what worked and what didn’t and then take the scene from there, trying to allow it to grow.

TP: What musicals have inspired you most?

A New Brain has been my favourite musical since I was 13 – it was the first cd I ever bought! But I love Les Mis, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, It’s Only Life and The Last Five Years. I guess in terms of inspiration, I had the most amazing director, Dave Harford, when I played Maria in West Side Story and I really tried to draw on what inspired me throughout that show and apply it to my own direction.

TP: What is your background?

I am a third year Bachelor of Arts student majoring in Middle Eastern History at Melbourne University. Performance wise, I did my first show when I was 10, in the local Ballarat Uniting Church’s production of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat. Since then, I have been in numerous productions in Melbourne and Ballarat. Not really sure what else to say but I like eating parmas with the creative team and I am really good at pouring beer.



TP: Where do you plan to take your directing talent in the future? What are you hoping to achieve?

I have never really had any desire to direct before I applied for this show. Even then, I was petrified at the thought, but I really, really love this show and I couldn’t decide who I wanted to play. I’ve had a little crush on Gordon since I was about 13, then found out a bit later that he was gay, apparently Roger wasn’t just a friend… Bit shattering really. But I just loved the show and I started to write down some ideas and concepts and suddenly I had a cast in front of me. I don’t really consider myself to be a director but more a performer. I don’t think I will direct again anytime soon unless I found another show that I connected to as much as I do to ‘A New Brain.’

TP: What's the most challenging aspect working on a small budget?

Well you certainly have to be creative! It is also hard because you can’t really pay the band which is obviously difficult in amateur theatre, and makes it hard to find players. Additionally, with the shutting down of the creative arts department at Melbourne University, we lost our traditional rehearsal space, meaning that we have held rehearsals in the most random of places across Melbourne such as libraries and churches. My particular favourite was Fitzroy Library which had a lovely pole in the middle of the room. We pushed through! But we have been really lucky to have been able get a lot of things donated to us. In particular, MTC lent us the hospital bed, and VCA was able to lend us microphones.

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About the Author

Chris is a founding partner of Theatre People. Over the the past thirteen years, he has made his mark on the theatre community as an actor, singer, dancer, producer and director appearing or directing over forty large scale productions. Chris made his professional theatre debut in as a principal performer in Follies In Concert at the Crown Showroom and went on to produce two professional productions. The many faces of Hughesy have been spotlit in lead and principal roles in Anything Goes, Sweet Charity, Oklahoma, Bye Bye Birdie,Chess, Hot Mikado, Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar, West Side Story and as Johnny O'Keefe in CLOC's Shout! Chris has earned multiple awards for his performances in various roles over the years, including 5 best leading male nominations and 2 best director nominations for Assassins and Phantom of the Opera.  Phantom was nominated for a total of 22 awards and took out Production of the Year.