We chat with Neil Gooding about directing digitally and Who’s Your Baghdaddy

With just one sleep left, we are patiently counting down to Australia’s first ever live-streamed musical hitting our screens.

Who’s Your Baghdaddy: Or How I Started The Iraq War tells the story of a group of people who all believe their actions triggered the start of the Iraq War. The satirical comedy musical debuted Off-Off Broadway in 2005, and is now journeying down under for its Australian premiere.

Neil Gooding

At the helm of this project is acclaimed director Neil Gooding. An accomplished director, producer, and writer, Neil was the originating Chairman and one of the founding members of Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney, is the head of New Musicals Australia, and owner of Neil Gooding Productions

He has received praise and countless nominations for his direction work of shows including Gutenberg! The Musical, Dogfight, and Paris. As producer, he has worked both in Australia and internationally on projects such as Back To The Future (Manchester Opera House), The 39 Steps (NYC), Alan Cumming’s Macbeth (Broadway), 33 Variations, and High Fidelity. Now, he takes on the new challenge of directing via Zoom while he is on lockdown in New York, staying up until the early hours each day to help piece together the complex jigsaw that is Who’s Your Baghdaddy? with the team in Australia.

What interested you about Who’s Your Baghdaddy?

It was an Off-Broadway show about four years ago, but it’s just a great show in its own right. When Keith and the boys first came to me, I thought they wanted me to direct a stage show via Zoom and film it somewhere like the Hayes and put that recording out which, honestly, I didn’t think was a very good idea. You know, there’s so much content going out. But very quickly the conversation turned because the idea they had is actually really clever. The show is about the eight people who contributed to the start of the Iraq war, they passed on various levels of information which all turned out to be false. And the stage show is structured like an AA meeting or a therapy session, where you see the people in a theatre under naturalistic working lights, and as the show goes on the lights shift and it becomes much more über theatrical. So their concept was that we could take the show, without changing a word of it, and just treated the framing device as them going to their therapy session in the era of COVID, where everyone is dialling in on Zoom, then suddenly we can reframe the whole musical to make sense in a digital medium, which I think is much more clever than just filming a stage show and putting it out. That really appealed to me, as did the whole concept of the technology required to do this.

Director Neil Gooding video calling into rehearsals | Photo by David Hooley

So the show will be happening in real time?

Everything is being done completely live with eight actors in a room. But we have a software where we can take the live theme and change the colour, shape, have them all flying around the screen… I’ve kind of had to storyboard the whole show like it’s a film shoot! Not only choose which camera, but what are we doing on screen with colour, and size, spacing, where does it fly in and out, is there one person in the middle with seven others circling around? It’s been really creatively fantastic so far.

This sounds like an insane technical feat for the whole team!

It’s confusing people. I’m getting a lot of phone calls [chuckles]. Some people think it’s a Zoom reading. I think what’ll surprise people is how integrated it will feel. When people ask what else we could use this approach with, well, there aren’t really that many shows that I can think of that would allow us to have the same sort of framing device. And that’s why I jumped at it initially. If we want to do a follow up… I can’t think of a show that would work. A play like The Laramie Project, like verbatim theatre could. But I can’t think of many musicals that would work. At the end of the day, most people are going to think we used Zoom, which we clearly not possible to do, with the lag… this show opens up an amazing world where some chunks will look like a Zoom call, and then like in a theatre show, we go into flashback theatrical mode and we can start playing with devices of theatre, and playing with what we can do on screen to manipulate this ‘Zoom call’ into something more filmic using software.

Doug Hansell in rehearsal | Photo by David Hooley

What is the most challenging part of creating theatre online?

The biggest issue we have is getting the rights holders to approve it. Once a production has been staged by a particular company, say STC for example, it’s very unlikely that they’re going to do the play for eight to ten years. So from their point of view, why not put that production online as another source of income? A way to let your work be seen? I guess from a right holders point of view, it impacts if the play is being staged around the world. There’s a constant discussion of whether filmed recordings of shows stop sales of tickets, since people have already seen it. I think there’s enough evidence with Musical Theatre in particular, with stuff like the MTV Legally Blonde recording that it actually boosted the numbers. When they released The Phantom of the Opera as a film it boosted interest. It seems anecdotal, that it helps to have people see and like the show, that it encourages them to want to see it in the theatre.

Do you think that this live-streaming (or even just filming productions) is going to cause a paradigm shift in the theatre industry as we know it?

I think that’s the thing coming out of this. I do think there will be a whole shift in the way that shows are licensed. I think a lot of companies will re-evaluate why they don’t film every show that they’re putting on stage, so that at some point down the track, they can have a digital library of all of their shows that could be a pay-per-view service. People want their shows online like this, writers and creative teams will need to write with the medium in mind for the start. It’s not the same as writing a theatre show. They’d need to write knowing why exactly it sat online from the start. It’s taken a long time, obviously the Starkid phenomenon, should have been an indication to produce online a long time ago. We’ve seen the effect of the internet with shows like Be More Chill and Six, but it hasn’t really… lead to any sort of filmed productions. But I think there’ll be a shift at some level, especially in countries like Australia, where it’s definitely easier for companies like the Sydney Theatre Company to film their productions.

Who’s Your Baghdaddy? is streaming from June 24th to 28th for 5 shows only.

Tickets and more information can be found at www.baghdaddymusical.com.au.

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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