Sitting in the audience of StageArt’s Hair in 2013, I immediately knew that the company would grow to be one of my all-time favourite production groups. From the atmosphere on stage at Chapel off Chapel to the way the social media team handled audience feedback, I felt that I was watching a show from a company that would ultimately make the Melbourne theatre landscape a better place. Three years later, I’m proud to say that my instincts were right.
Over the past few years, StageArt have cemented themselves into the theatre scene of Melbourne, producing difficult crowd favourites that might otherwise have no place to be seen in Australia. Below, Robbie Carmellotti (director of StageArt’s current offering, The Color Purple, and executive producer of the company) speaks to me about the show and why it fits so perfectly into the artistic vision of StageArt’s owners.
Why did StageArt choose to bring The Color Purple to Melbourne?
StageArt was offered the rights to premiere The Color Purple due to our fearless approach to producing culturally diverse shows. We jumped at the chance and locked it down immediately.
Why is this a show that audiences need to see in 2016?
This is a chance to experience a production which may never make its way back to Australia. [The show is] an epic musical, with lyrical genius inspired by arguably one of the best books of an era…
The Color Purple is the essence of an era which allows us to reflect and learn, it congratulates us on our growth as a species while at the same time slapping us in the face for our stupidity. It’s an honest look into a mirror of society.
Do the themes within the show have any relevance to current struggles/triumphs?
This is a powerful show for women’s equality, with the key focus being Celie’s [experiences] of being raped as a child, married off to a man who abuses her and detests her. Along the way she falls in love with a woman and ultimately triumphs in accepting who she is, the past she has and the future she wants. As well as this, we meet the character of Nettie who is a missionary in Africa, but fast becomes a refugee as war breaks out and she needs to seek a route back to America. Another constant presence through the show is #BlackLivesMatter style sub plot as we meet these characters soon after slavery has been abolished and we are watching as white people struggle with the integration of African American people into their society.
Why does StageArt believe that it is important to provide Melbourne audiences with shows that are culturally diverse?
We want to stage shows which are powerful and unique to Australia. The fact that this show requires a non-Caucasian cast isn’t the driving force, as we run a colour blind audition process on all of our shows. We encourage artists from all cultural backgrounds to audition for us and we never look at race first when casting a role. Australia (Melbourne specifically) has such a beautiful array of cultures and we love finding new talent amongst them and providing a platform for everyone to perform.
Your cast announcement press release stressed that the cast of Color Purple is entirely Australian – why is this of importance for StageArt?
We are proud to give opportunities to Australian artists, especially as the trend continues to grow with mainstream productions bringing international performers to Australia to fill roles. We have so much talent, and we want to expose that.
What do you want audiences to take away from the show? Is there one lesson that you hope this text teaches?
More than anything I want the audience to get swept up in the story of Celie, I want them to get lost in her world and engrossed in her life, so that for two hours they can switch off from their own lives and enjoy the wonderful story created by Alice Walker. There are many lessons within the show, and what people take away from it should be individual to them.
Has your direction of the show taken any inspiration from the current Broadway revival?
[The Broadway revival] certainly has inspired me in many ways, as has the original Broadway production. Both versions to me are spectacular, but my key inspiration throughout this journey has been the original book by Alice Walker. […] I see the book as the musical’s bible, and whenever I have had to seek inspiration, that is where I have turned. I care not to copy someone else’s work, but I care deeply about being true to text and original intentions.
LaChanze and Cynthia Erivo have both taken home Tonys for their portrayal of Celie. Is it becoming a Mama Rose role? Why do audiences and critics fall in love with the character?
I think it has always been a ‘Mama Rose’ role, but both LaChanze and Cynthia Erivo are extraordinary performers who managed to completely capture the essence of the role. Their success should be representative of the hard work they put into the role, not necessarily just the role itself.
Everyone can connect with Celie, she is the underdog, and deep down we all want to see the underdog win.
What is your next project? Are you the type of person that collapses for a while when a show ends, or do you move straight on?
We will announce StageArt’s 2017 season in November this year, so stay tuned. Both Katherine (StageArt’s other executive producer) and I rarely stop working. We force ourselves to take a few weeks off through the year, but we love what we do so much that it never really feels like work, so we never want to stop.
The Color Purple began previews in Melbourne last night, with the season scheduled to finish 6 November. Tickets can be booked at this link, and a video preview of the cast performing from the show can be viewed below. Check back on AussieTheatre.com in November to find out which shows StageArt will be producing in 2017!