Erin James on directing ECMT’s LES MISERABLES

The worldwide musical sensation Les Misérables has come to Adelaide once again, playing at the Scott Theatre from the 22nd to the 26th of June. This new production, directed by Erin James, features the incredible graduating cohort of the Elder Conservatorium of Music’s music theatre course.

Erin James

Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, the Broadway classic Les Misérables travels with ex-prisoner, Jean Valjean, as he runs from the ruthless Inspector Javert on a journey of redemption. Set against the backdrop of 19th century France, the famous characters are swept into the aftermath of the French Revolution. Amidst a battle in the streets of Paris, Valjean discovers the true meaning of love and salvation.

Born and bred in Newcastle, NSW, Erin James moved to Perth to study at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) and left with a Bachelor of Arts in 2005. Since graduating from drama school, Erin has worked in many facets of the Australian arts industry including musical theatre, film and cabaret. She has previously directed She Loves Me (Hayes Theatre, 2018), Mamma Mia! (TVPTC, 2019), Chess (TVPTC, 2021), Cabaret (ECMT, 2021), and will be the Resident Director for the upcoming Sydney/Melbourne seasons of The Phantom of The Opera (OA, 2022).

Les Mis has been a well loved musical for over 40 years. How are you making this production different?

Erin: Building a new production of Les Miserables is one of the most exciting things I’ve had the opportunity to do as a creative. It’s such a well known piece, and finding new ways to tell the story with my cast has been a joy. We don’t have the multi million dollar budget that large scale productions enjoy, so we have had to be creative about storytelling and staging. The cast and I spent a lot of time examining the source material (Victor Hugo’s epic novel) and drawing inspiration around the creation of the world from there. We made the choice to only use elements in the production if they appeared more than once and there are only a handful of carefully chosen items in the show which are not re-purposed multiple times. I also love my actors to take a huge amount of ownership in their character’s journey from page to stage. This process alone leads to new interpretations and new discoveries in the telling of the story.

What has been the most challenging process of directing the show?

Erin: The sheer size and scope of the narrative comes with its challenges, as does overcoming illness in the current climate. When approaching such an epic theatrical piece – an onstage story which spans 17 years and explores everything from social injustice, love and redemption to history, progress and revolution – in an educational context, I wanted to keep the thematic material as closely related to our young performers as possible, despite the historical distance. There has been a lot of emotion poured into this production. Love, grief, sadness, anger, pain, desperation, joy and most of all, hope. The students of the Elder Conservatorium Music Theatre course have brought this piece to life with heart, hope and imagination.

And the most exciting?

Erin: The move from rehearsal room into the theatre is always the most exciting (and the most daunting) part of the process for me. When we landed in the theatre and worked with our incredible set fir (designed by Adam Gardnir) for the first time, it was magical. I saw the production come to life with height, movement and space and our company embraced the speed at which we had to work in this environment with alacrity.

What do you think is the main moral of Les Miserables??

Erin: Every director building a “new Les Mis” will cite Hugo’s epigraph for the novel Les Miserables, penned in 1862: “as long as social suffocation is possible… as long as ignorance and misery exist in the world, books like the one you are about to read are, perhaps, not entirely useless.” And there is no wonder. We continue to tell this story because it is enduring and terrifyingly relevant, as our globalised news cycle reminds us daily. It explores issues like blind faith, oppression, justice, redemption and the many variations of love that are intrinsic to the human experience.

Elder Conservatorium Music Theatre’s production of Les Misérables is playing at the Scott Theatre, University of Adelaide until June 26.

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Photos by Greg Balcombe

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator, and is the current Deputy Editor-in-Chief of She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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