James Smith and Elizabeth Hay chat GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY

In the depth of the Great Depression, a small guest house in Minnesota sees a slew of characters moving through. Underscored by the music of Bob Dylan, this is Girl From The North Country. 

A unique reimagining of the jukebox musical, the show actually draws on some of Dylan’s less popular songs, allowing his musicianship to shine alongside a beautiful book by Conor McPherson. The show has played critically acclaimed seasons on Broadway and the West End, and will be making its Australian premiere at Sydney’s recently reopened Theatre Royal in just a weeks’ time.

Real life couple James Smith and Elizabeth Hay are both starring in the show, as Gene and Katherine respectively, and are so excited to be premiering this fantastic show in Australia.

James and Elizabeth | Photo by Pierre Toussaint

Graduating from Flinders Drama Centre in 2013, James has been involved in various stage and screen productions. Credits include Neighbourhood Watch, Othello, This is Where We Live, Volpone, Gorgon, Vale, Jasper Jones, Euphoria and Hibernation (State Theatre Company South Australia), Emily Loves to Bounce (Patch Theatre Company), Grug (Windmill Theatre), The Young King (Slingsby Theatre Company), The Aspirations of Daise Morrow (Brink Productions), Lines, How Not to Make it in America (Theatre Republic), Deluge, As One (Tiny Bricks, 2016 Adelaide Festival). James was involved with the development and production of Stories in the Dark, a 2017 Fringe In Space award-winning show. James also appears in Shawn Seet’s 2019 film Storm Boy.

Elizabeth is a graduate of the Flinders Drama Centre, and lives and works as an actor on Kaurna land. Her theatre credits include Hibernation, The Gods of StrangersRed Cross LettersVolpone and Jesikah for the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Baba Yaga, Grug and Grug and the Rainbowfor Windmill Theatre Company, Yo Diddle Diddle and The Lighthouse for Patch Theatre Company, and the Helpmann Award winning Emil and the Detectives for Slingsby. Elizabeth joined the main cast of Danger 5 as ‘Holly’ for the series return on SBS, and has worked on other locally made television productions, commercials and short films. Most recently, she appeared in A Sunburnt Christmas on Stan.

What has been the most challenging part of working on the show?

James: The most challenging thing about the show has been the sheer size of it. Rehearsals have been packed with movement calls, music calls and scene work. Normally we would have time to digest the work and pace ourselves. GFTNC rehearsals have been huge, rich days. We’re giving it the time it deserves.

Lizzie: Learning how to feel confident singing on stage has been the most challenging part of working on this show for me, but it’s a challenge I am really grateful for. I have always enjoyed singing, but I’ve never really considered myself to be ‘A Singer’. I no longer get very nervous performing on stage, but singing for me feels a bit vulnerable. We are lucky to have the amazing Andrew Ross at the helm to guide us, and I’m gaining more confidence as we go! I am also touring with my one year old son, and it’s the first time I’ve toured a show since having him. His dad (my partner James) is also in the show, so we are negotiating childcare and our family rhythms alongside our work. So that’s all a new but welcome challenge!

And the most exciting?

James: The most exciting thing about GFTNC is the stellar cast and how they’ve applied themselves to the beautiful work.

Lizzie: The phenomenal cast and creative team! I looked around the room on day one, and it really was a pinch myself moment. The lineup is incredibly special, and the amazing cast are being guided by some brilliant minds in our creative leadership team, who know in their bones what the show demands.

The full company of Girl From The North Country | Photo by Pierre Toussaint

How is your character different to past roles you’ve played?

James: Gene is different from other characters I’ve played because he fails, constantly and wholly. But to be honest, other than that Gene is not too different from other roles I’ve played before. A self destructive, bad communicator with a surly, depressive attitude. He’s funny and single minded. He’s a highly creative but abrasive alcoholic. He’s also a lover, albeit buried beneath layers of repressed emotions.

Lizzie: While Kate is similar to other characters I’ve played, the way I’ve been directed to play her is quite different. I am loving the challenge of playing a character who is living in a really difficult time, who has struggled and who has found a way out. The people in the play are hardened, and just holding on for a lot of the time. We’ve been given licence to be mean to our fellow actors on stage – in character of course – which is surprisingly difficult when mostly you are directed to contact and connect with a scene partner.

What’s your favourite Bob Dylan song and why?

James: My favourite Bob Dylan song is Tight Connection to My Heart because of how it’s applied to the play. I’m hearing it in a completely different light.

Lizzie: I really like Forever Young. There’s something nostalgic and sad about it for me, a song I think I had around me when I was a kid. It’s like a blessing and a prayer, and the version we have in the show is so moving and beautiful, Lisa’s rendition is stunning. .

In your own words, what is the main message of the show?

James: The main message of the show is hope. Pushing on. Life is hard, devastating at times. The darkness will not subside. Death ever looms. But we will push on despite that. We will sing despite that. We will live.

Lizzie: I think the show is about resilience and hope. It’s a snapshot of a mishmash of people’s messy, strange lives. It’s how story echoes through time, how things are real and not real at the same time. How the human spirit endures.

Girl From The North Country opens as part of Sydney Festival on January 5th, before touring to Adelaide and Melbourne.

For tickets and more information, visit the Girl From The North Country website.

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator, and is the current Deputy Editor-in-Chief of AussieTheatre.com. 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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