Elise McCann is fast becoming one of the Australian theatre industry’s most sought after commodities. As a producer, performer and creator, the self-confessed “control freak” is in high demand and – wouldn’t you know it – spectacularly good at getting things done.
After producing several successful tours, creating (and producing) her own magical symphony concert show and starring in countless Australian musicals (notably the original Australian cast of Matilda, which earned her a Helpmann Award for her portrayal of Miss Honey) McCann is about to open a show at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre in a role that is dear to her heart.
Jason Robert Brown’s The Last 5 Years is a ‘dream show’ for many women in the industry and few have had the opportunity to perform the entire piece in Australia.
We caught up with Elise McCann ahead of the show’s opening on March 29 to talk about life after Matilda and The Last 5 Years.
What have you been up to post Matilda?
Oh my goodness – Matilda feels like a lifetime ago! I have been busy.
Professionally, I have done a few shows for the Production Company in Melbourne, filmed a TV pilot, created, produced and performed in a concert show called Dahlesque at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I also released an album of Dahlesque with ABC music. I did a tour of a UK show called Beyond the Barricade and spent a bunch of time in New York auditioning and doing class and working on projects. I have produced two seasons of a new show called Carmen, Live or Dead starring Natalie Gamsu as well as a return QLD tour of I Am My Own Wife, starring Ben Gerrard and been working on a bunch of other projects yet to be unveiled!
Personally, I moved to Melbourne, moved in with my love, changed bank institutions, cut and re-grew my hair, started reading 4 new books but not managed to finish a single one of them, taken up yoga obsessively and recently started playing tennis!
WOW! Well, all of that sounds absolutely crazy! Tell us more about your time in NYC?
The US has been thrilling, exciting and inspiring whilst simultaneously lonely, challenging and humbling. I have been building a base there and had the great fortune of being able to audition and get close for a few big roles and opportunities. It’s a really challenging place as no one knows me there and so I am rebuilding a career and a network and a community. That takes a lot of energy and tenacity and bravery and some days it has been incredibly fulfilling and other days, really hard.
I am going to be spending most of the second half of the year there in 2019 to further explore some of those opportunities and have that life adventure!
You have clearly been doing a lot of producing, some shows with you onstage and some off. How have you found that side of the industry?
I love producing. My brain likes to be working on multiple things. I love organizing, coordinating, collaborating and when I hear of an idea or project my default is to instantly brainstorm all the potential possibilities for growing it, for touring it, for expanding. I love being a part of making things. And because I am an ambitious control freak I love being across everything! However, producing is exhausting. It is so much work and, particularly in the independent theatre sector, it is often difficult to monetize in accordance with the amount of work you put in. I have learnt a huge amount about the enormity of our industry and my respect for anyone creating work (and producers in general) has grown tenfold.
Ultimately what I have learnt most are two things:
1) There are so many generous people in this industry that are willing to and want to help. There are great mentors, collaborators, and just genuinely supportive and inspiring creators that are willing to offer advice, a hand, resources, time, or just bounce around ideas.
2) There is nothing to lose from trying! If you have an idea or a want then you should pursue it, give it a go! People want to work with others who are making things. Looking for content, looking for projects that stimulate them personally and professionally. You have to try – whatever it is you want – because the worst that can happen is that someone will say no, and then you are no worse off than if you didn’t ask in the first place! So ultimately, take a chance and go after the work you want!
What is next for you in the performing and producing world?
Both actually! My very next project after The Last 5 Years is Dahlesque again which I have produced, and which I am the performer in. I am doing Dahlesque in Auckland with the Auckland Philarmonic Orchestra in mid-May, and then again at the end of May in Brisbane with QPAC and the Camerata Orchestra.
And in life?
I am going to try and improve my tennis because I really love it but am rubbish!
I am going back to NYC in June and working hard to save to buy a proper house! (Although those two things are NOT really complementary ?)
The Last 5 Years had a huge following within the industry when it first came out. Do you have memories of it being a part of your life?
Absolutely! My friend Amy Robinson (now Payten) burnt me a copy of the original cast album in 2003 and I played it obsessively in my car until the CD died!! I then got to see a concert version of it with Jason Robert Brown and Lauren Kennedy at the 2003 Adelaide Cabaret Festival and it made me even more obsessed. I have been dying to play Cathy ever since and was so stoked when Ensemble offered me the opportunity. It’s a literal dream from my 18-year-old self come true!!
We meet Cathy at the end of her journey and her story progresses backwards through time throughout the show. How did you and the team approach rehearsing this?
It was a big discussion prior to rehearsals actually! We sat down on the first day and worked through a complete and detailed timeline of the show chronologically for both characters, including placing all text that appears within and between songs into order. We then actually did a full run through of the show as if it were chronological. This uncovered some really awesome discoveries and layers of how events triggered and generated subsequent reactions and further choices of both characters. We then staged the first chronological number for each character, as well as the final number for each character so we could together gage the full journey of both characters. And then we just continued to work our way through the material, always referring back to the chronological timeline to identify what and why choices and actions were made. It was a really great way to work through the piece and I found it super helpful for me personally, as it is Cathy who moves in opposition to real time.
Did the timeline create any other challenges in rehearsals?
Nothing particular. One thing I always find interesting is how every person in a room has a different perspective on why and how things happen in a show. Because this show has two journeys moving in opposition there are even more grey areas in relation to why and when things happen. There were originally a lot of holes in the timeline of these characters’ life together and that was most highlighted when we put all the material into order. What was super interesting was to see how we all had different ideas of what filled those holes and how grey those areas were. However amazingly, we were able to fill almost every one of them, by some small clue or phrase somewhere in the script and a collection of mutually agreed upon choices that weren’t.
Part of the narrative of the show is of artists wrestling with the importance of career over relationships. Do you have any advice on that front?
This is a theme that we talked a lot about.
Whether to be a ‘creative’ is to inherently be selfish? How creative fields often lack linear trajectories and success isn’t built solely on how hard you work – there is a major component of luck and being granted an opportunity. Questions of how two creative individuals deal with comparison within their relationship.
This show is as much about what it is to be a creative person as it is to be in a relationship. And particularly the struggle of being a young artist. With youth, there is an even greater challenge of figuring out how to balance that which your career demands of you and what your relationships demand of you.
This is something I have definitely struggled with over the years. I love my job, but sometimes it is all consuming. Sometimes I have to make the choice to literally not talk to my loved ones because I need to vocal rest. I can’t always commit to events because I can’t guarantee my schedule. I am constantly uprooting, traveling, making choices to be away from my loved ones. I will not go to things or see someone if they have been sick as I can’t risk catching a cold. I don’t have a fixed or secure income. The list goes on.
But Its important to remember that I am not a victim to these sacrifices, the other choice is to not do this job. I have actively chosen to prioritize my career over relationships at various points in my life because these sacrifices were outweighed by the fact I got to do something that I truly love for my job. That is a rare thing. These days I wouldn’t say I prioritize my career over my relationship, but the sacrifices to me and us, are still outweighed by the joy this job gives me. I wouldn’t be the best version of myself if I wasn’t able to pursue my dreams and doing this job is a dream I am lucky to have the opportunity to do, one that makes me truly happy. And being the best version of myself is one of the things that makes me a better partner. Making these choices does make me selfish, because those choices benefit me and there are so many elements of this job that do not benefit my partner and our relationship. But right now I believe that the good outweighs the bad. I feel strongly that all you can do is be honest with yourself and your loved ones, about the choices you are making. Continue to analyze the why of which you make them. And take responsibility for the way your choices affect those you love. As long as I am being honest and empathetic for how my actions impact others, that is all I can do.
The Last 5 Years is playing at The Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli, Sydney from the 29 March to the 27 April.
Elise stars along side Christian Charisiou (Cry Baby, Rake) and the production is directed by Elsie Edgerton-Till and musically directed by Daryl Wallis.
More information and tickets are available at: Ensemble.com.au