One of Australia’s most versatile performers Bernadette Robinson, and producer Harley Medcalf, chat with Bethany Simons about their smash-hit play, Songs for Nobodies and its return Australian season.
If you haven’t yet heard of or seen Bernadette Robinson on stage, the simple fact is, you’re missing out. In the critically acclaimed one woman show, Songs for Nobodies, created for her by playwright Joanna Murray-Smith and directed by Simon Phillips, Robinson proves (to everybody lucky enough to secure a ticket) that she is, in fact, a fully-fledged ‘somebody’.
From her early days of imitating voices in the kitchen for her family, to training in classical voice at the Victorian College of the Arts, Robinson has spent many years successfully performing cabaret-style gigs on the international circuit that incorporate her incredible abilities as a singer and impersonator. But it was the dream of what would eventually become Songs for Nobodies that motivated her towards a brighter spotlight.
When I spoke with Robinson about her Songs for Nobodies journey, I was inspired to hear how she saw an opportunity, took action and literally made the show happen. It seems the necessary ingredients were a perfect combination of timing, bravery and a belief in her performance ability.
Robinson says, “Simon Phillips saw me singing at a corporate dinner where I showed off and did a whole range of funny impressions. I saw him in the audience and knew the show went really well that night, so I rang MTC (Melbourne Theatre Company) and asked to make an appointment. Wasn’t I brave? I was just saying to Simon the other day that I can’t believe I did that. Anyway, when I met with him he was keen to do something but didn’t quite know how to put what I could do into something more substantial.”
Having seen an excerpt on television of Bombshells, Murray-Smith’s one-woman show written for Caroline O’Connor, Robinson decided she would love to have a go at something similar.
“I don’t quite know why, but I felt I could do something like that. I’d been doing so much singing and creating bits and pieces that I thought it would be fantastic to have a whole dialogue and characters and then bring my singing into that.”
Previously, Robinson had worked with husband Paul Noonan to create shows that she admits were never a serious study of a single character, but rather a cabaret-style comedy showcasing her extraordinary ability to imitate famous singers.
Knowing her strengths and range, Robinson approached Murray-Smith, asking her to write a full-length piece that would allow her to showcase five legendary singers: Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas. Murray-Smith’s approach was ingenious. In addition to the five ‘somebodies’, she would also write five ‘nobodies’ – everyday characters that share stories of a brush with fame. This meant Robinson was in slightly unfamiliar territory.
No one could deny Robinson’s ability to impersonate each star, she already had a track record there, but her acting needed to match her singing in order for the project to go ahead. Robinson was required to prove herself during a nerve wracking private acting performance for Phillips and Murray-Smith at the MTC. For this, Murray-Smith wrote the monologue of Bea Appleton meeting Judy Garland in a ladies room – the very lines that would eventually be the knock-out opening to the show.
Of that first meeting Robinson says, “I was a nervous wreck! I remember I could barely walk afterwards – I was so shaky. Simon had never seen me act before and was really impressed. He got me to do a whole lot of things then and there to workshop it.”
[pull_right]We’re still talking to a couple of theatres (in New York) and I still have high hopes that it will come to fruition[/pull_right]
From there Songs for Nobodies was developed further and enjoyed an extended sold-out season with Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Studio in 2010. In 2011 it was picked up by commercial producer, Harley Medcalf of Duet Entertainment Group, who took it from a one-off hit season to a national touring hit show that continues to garner critical acclaim each time it plays.
Medcalf says, “I couldn’t get a ticket to the show (in Melbourne) and that really intrigued me. Afterwards, I got an archival video from the MTC and I absolutely fell in love with it. It was just a one camera locked-off shot, but it really captured the essence of what the show was all about.
“From there I met with Bernadette, Joanna and Simon, negotiated the rights and brought it to Sydney. It was a difficult process, but once we opened at the Playhouse (Sydney Opera House) it took off. I’ve never actually seen word of mouth like it. It went from selling very little, to selling out within a week and a half. It really captured the imagination of the public.
“Recently, we did three showcases in New York at New World Stages. The shows went really well. We’re still talking to a couple of theatres and I still have high hopes that it will come to fruition.”
Back in Melbourne after a five-month break from doing the show, Robinson shared that it has been heavenly to have director Simon Phillips back in the rehearsal room for the remount of the upcoming 2013 Australia tour, as he hasn’t always been available for previous seasons since it first opened with the MTC.
Robinson says, “Songs for Nobodies is such a fantastic and powerful piece in it’s own right. The show has been astonishing for me, and it’s directed so beautifully. Simon has created such a world for me. I went in and started rehearsing the other night and I’d forgotten just how much fun it is. It is a vehicle to show off all the things I can do and it’s also so beautifully written. It’s much more than just, ‘Oh, she can do this and this’…”
[pull_left]Fans of Songs for Nobodies will be delighted to hear that this ‘dream team’ plan to continue working together in future[/pull_left]
When you’re onto such a good thing, it seems crazy to stop at just one show. Fans of Songs for Nobodies will be delighted to hear that this ‘dream team’ plan to continue working together in future.
“We’re hoping to do a new piece, Jo, Simon and I. We do feel that this is the very best and how could we top that? But, who knows. I did say to Jo, ‘I’ve got the voices, you go and do the work!'”
Having seen Songs for Nobodies twice, I can certainly attest to the charmed collaboration between performer, writer and director for this show. But, on the stage, the success of the show really does rest on Robinson’s ability to deliver. So how does she keep things fresh, night after night?
“I’m terrified! It’s so scary each night. I think if I ever got too relaxed then maybe it wouldn’t stay so fresh, but I just find it exhilarating and terrifying all in one.”
Medcalf says, “It’s the complete package. What Bernadette does with the vehicle that Simon and Joanna have created for her is breathtaking. I’ve seen it 40 or 50 times and I’ll be in the audience again on Wednesday night in Melbourne. I’m kind of addicted to it!”
Catch it while you can. Songs for Nobodies really is a show for everybody!
Songs for Nobodies 2013 performance dates
Melbourne 2 – 13 January
Sydney 23 Jan – 3 February
Adelaide 14 – 24 February