Sue-Ellen Shook is an Australian actress, dancer, and choreographer. She is a seasoned performer with some of her credits including the Moulin Rouge! film, Menopause The Musical, So You Think You Can Dance, Boy from Oz, and more. Sue-Ellen is currently starring as Moth in the production of Tinkerbell and the Dream Fairies at Ripponlea House and Gardens in Elsternwick, Victoria. I recently had the chance to chat with her about the show and what it is like performing again since the COVID pandemic began.
In the show Tinkerbell and the Dream Fairies, Tinkerbell meets up with the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, how well have you found these two different story worlds have been able to combine?
SUE-ELLEN: It’s pretty cool actually. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has an earthy look to it that really matches the Dreamland landscape of the show. Part of Dreamland is Fairyland [from A Midsummer Night’s Dream] and another part is Tink’s Pixie Hollow [from the Tinkerbell films], so it’s almost like the meeting of two different countries of the Fairy Kingdom. If you have seen the Tinkerbell movies you’ll know that it has a lot of different fairies with their own talents, with Tinkerbell being the tinker fairy who fixes things. In the songs and the script we talk a lot about the jobs and strengths everyone has within the Fairy Kingdom. Going back to the country metaphor, when you go to a different country, even though things are different and the language is different, there is still a community of people who each have their own roles and who use those roles to work together. Similar to that experience, by combining the two fairy worlds you realise that everyone has a lot more in common than you first thought. So in the end, the fact that both worlds had pre-established backgrounds worked really well for us.
That sounds like a really positive and strong message for your younger audience. The show is actually tailored to be a very interactive experience for your audience, with everyone being invited to dress up and join in on the fun. Do you have any memorable experiences with the audience?
SUE-ELLEN: I have a lot! It’s quite beautiful seeing all the children and I’m constantly amazed by how many fairy dresses there are because I never see the same one twice. We also interact with the kids the whole time whether it’s by getting them to make sounds or getting them to stand up and dance. There is a part of the show where we all travel to Bubble Land together where we have bubble machines and bubble wands and we get to play with the kids for a while, it’s really fun. Also in Bubble Land, we get to create fairy magic with the kids by getting them to use their arms as fairy wands and then we get to run around together searching for Tinkerbell’s wings. It really lets the kids feel like they are coming on the adventure with us. One of my favourite parts of the show is when we say to the kids lets fly over to the wing handover ceremony and it becomes a stampede of tiny children running for their blankets. It’s all quite beautiful.
Another memorable moment happened today, I had a little girl ask me how I put the sparkles, from my makeup, on my face and I told her they came from the sparkles made on the ocean when the sun hits the water. It’s really lovely when the kids ask questions like that and we always have our magical stories we tell them in response, but I do imagine her poor mother dealing with the fact that she can’t pick the sparkles out of the ocean.
What do you think the kids in the audience gain from having it be an interactive experience rather than just simply sitting and watching?
SUE-ELLEN: The main impact is letting them feel like they are a part of the story. Also, after this year I think it’s really important for them to see and hear people in real life and in front of them rather than just on a screen. Being outside and in the gardens is great as well. We even have a family of ducks that visit us during the show and it’s just a lovely thing for the kids to experience instead of being at home. To be honest I think the ducks have figured out that when they hear the music start that means that the families with picnics have arrived. What’s really lovely too is that after the show we see the kids running around with their wings and playing in the garden. They get really excited and it’s nice to see them playing outside.
As you briefly touched on, this year has been a hard one due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This show is amongst some of the first live performances to be on since the pandemic started, how has the audience been reacting to it?
SUE-ELLEN: We get lovely feedback from the audience, I think they really appreciate it. We usually get good feedback from the audience, but I think this time is particularly quite special since we have not been able to be in contact with groups of people for a while. There are of course protocols at the gates, and we have slightly changed some of our interactions with the kids in order to be COVID safe. For example, instead of everyone holding hands and doing a big worm line we will just get the kids to do wiggly worm actions themselves. Little things like that have been changed to make sure everyone is safe, but just giving everyone permission to get out and interact with others in a safe way I think has been a really nice experience.
You mentioned there have been some changes made to the show due to COVID-19 restrictions. The show itself has been in production since 2015, have there been any other changes made to the show over the years?
SUE-ELLEN: It has changed quite a lot. We started off with eight fairies but now we have made the show a lot more compact and slicker just focusing on the named fairies from a Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tinkerbell. We have also adjusted the show to make sure it is constantly moving. We figured out that to keep the kids in focus we needed to keep the energy up the entire time, so we choreographed it in our own organic way to be an ever-melting picture in front of the kids. When we first began the show, we had moments when we would bring the kids out of their seats to us and it dropped the energy quite a lot, so now we get them to stand in their seats and to constantly dance and make sounds with us. They are quite active from the get-go and they get really into it.
You choreographed the show yourself, didn’t you?
SUE-ELLEN: I did! So I can’t ever complain about the non-stop movement because it was my decision!
Is there anything specific you tend to keep in mind when choreographing and dancing for kids as opposed to a primarily adult audience?
SUE-ELLEN: It is interesting because the music is not the type of music that is typically aimed towards children. It is beautiful though, and the children love it, so what I try to do is have a signature move for each song that the kids can learn and copy. We also have a lot of acrobatics as well, but I mainly focused on having a different style of dance for each number. For example, we have a song called ‘Boom Backer’ which has a lot of nonsense words in it that we make up with the kids, and I choreographed that as a typical musical theatre number. There is another song that has a more reggae, funky style of dance, and another that is more flowy and contemporary, and so on. First and foremost, I try to make the choreography look like what the music sounds like. It works well when kids hear a sound and then see a movement that emulates that sound. For example, sharp movements work well with percussion sounds and flowy actions work better with smoother sounds.
[At this moment Sue-Ellen’s children, Cameron Shook and Cierra shook, who share the role of Cobweb in the show, popped on the line to say a quick hello.]
What do you enjoy most about being able to share your work with your family in such a unique way?
SUE-ELLEN: It can be challenging at times, but I feel very privileged to be able to be outside dancing and singing with my kids, especially since I am a lot older than people who would typically get to do this are. My son was also in a previous production of the show, and the whole family has been able to tour together which has been great. The girls and I went to London together to perform the show when they were twelve and eight and it was one of the most special experiences of my career. Even the rest of the cast has become like a family, and even though some have left we all stay in touch. It has really been a lovely family experience for all of us.
I would like to thank Sue-Ellen Shook for taking the time out to talk to us.