NIDA graduates shine in musical comedy 'The Dismissal' premiering at Seymour Centre
The Dismissal, soon to premiere at the Seymour Centre in Sydney features an extraordinary cast of NIDA graduates both on stage and behind the scenes. Featuring seasoned performer Matthew Whittet (Acting,1997) — whose career spans both stage and screen — alongside Brittanie Shipway (Musical Theatre, 2016) and Lincoln Elliott (Musical Theatre, 2017) with Zoe Ioannou (Musical Theatre, 2016) as Assistant Director. This talented ensemble is complemented by rising stars Quinton Rich (Stage and Screen Performance, 2019) and Anusha Thomas (Musical Theatre, 2022), recent graduates from NIDA's musical theatre program. Together, they bring their passion, dedication and creative expertise to the musical comedy.
NIDA: The Dismissal is a musical comedy based on a tumultuous time in Australian political history. How did you feel when you first read the play?
Matt Whittet: I felt a lot of things when I first read The Dismissal. It’s a musical based on the events of Gough Whitlam’s dismissal as Prime-Minister in 1975, which in itself is a fabulously crazy proposition. But added to that, the story is told through the lens of fictional character Norman Gunston and I was being asked to step into Norman’s famous brown shoes. Big shoes to fill and slightly terrifying ones!
Gary McDonald struck creative gold when he brought Norman into existence in the early ‘70s. The character is a beloved national icon. One of the great comedic creations. I mean, he had his face on a stamp and was the only character to ever be awarded a Logie (Garry didn’t win it, Norman did). So, attempting to become Norman on stage was terrifying. What if I couldn’t pull it off? What if it was just plain wrong?
As an actor you have these “what if” doubts all the time. They’re the most natural thing in the world. But all these doubts do is stop you from being brave and just giving it a go. And if you don’t get out there and give it a red-hot go (with the obvious and constant threat of failure), then you wouldn’t have characters like Norman to start with. So, in the end I leaped in, feet first. It’s what Norman would have done.
Brittanie Shipway: I learned so much. It’s always wonderful to work on a new musical, but an Australian musical based on a portion of our own history is so rare. I’d love to hear more stories like this one. Jay James-Moody (Director and Co-Book Writer) and Blake Erickson (Co-Book Writer) have researched the events so thoroughly, so it’s a great canvas to jump in and have a play over the next few weeks of rehearsals.
Lincoln Elliott: It’s hilarious! Well, not what happened. No, that was extremely serious – to quote our charming and charismatic narrator (and Golden Logie Award winner) Norman Gunston. The story is told from Norman’s point of view which gives us a unique perspective on the events and allows for some spicy satire, campy characters, and poignant political commentary. Ooh, alliteration! Hopefully it inspires audiences to get involved in creating a better future for all Australians.
Quinton Rich: I couldn’t believe I’d never learnt about it in school, for a start. The next thing that struck me was just how epic this story and this production would be. It’s a truly Australian story and one I think audiences will really engage with. On top of that it’s an important piece of history.
Anusha Thomas: Before studying at NIDA, I was in the legal profession and really loved anything and everything about constitutional law. The Whitlam affair is such an insane part of our political and legal history, and the The Dismissal explains it for people who’ve never really heard about it and honours those who lived through it. The show itself is so clever, and funny and silly and irreverent and everything good about Australian theatre. I also felt pretty grateful to be part of something so good.
NIDA: How does your understanding of Australian theatre inform your understanding of the social and political landscapes of '70s Australia at the time of The Dismissal?
MW: Australian theatre was booming in the ‘70s. We were hearing Australian accents on stage for the first time, young writers were telling Australian stories and directors were trying to find a new language. It was robust and rough, with companies like Nimrod, The Pram Factory and The Old Tote taking risks and tearing through the old norms. It’s kind of no different from the landscape of politics at the time, with Gough pushing through change, whether people were ready for it or not. An exciting time.
BS: There’s a lyric Norman Gunstons character sings in the show; “why would you get into politics?” Sometimes I think that about theatre. But, after I’ve seen or been a part of a special show, I walk away rethinking the zeitgeist I’m a part of. That’s the power of theatre; a crowded room of people collectively watching a slice of history unfold over a couple of hours. The best shows make you ask questions. The Dismissal is certainly making me rethink my role in Australia as a constituent.
LE: We are so lucky to be working with the incredible Peter Carroll, who shared about this period during rehearsals – he spoke of the huge boom in support for the arts, increases in arts funding, free university. He even mentioned that the Whitlams used to see everything that was on at the old Nimrod theatre! There was a distinct artistic identity emerging in our theatre and film; the New Wave was a vibrant and optimistic time to be creating original work in Australia. With shows like Fangirls and The Dismissal seeing main-stage success, hopefully we’ll soon be riding a new, New Wave of new Aussie musicals.
QR: It’s a gateway into the public’s mind at the time. It really helps you understand the issues people were facing the things they were concerned with. A mirror to society as they say.
NIDA: Can you share any specific techniques or skills you learned at NIDA that were particularly helpful during the rehearsal and performance process and beyond?
MW: It’s been a while since I was at NIDA, but I’ve been putting certain things from my training in place ever since. Vocal training is such a core part of the training at NIDA. The basics of breath support, articulation and clarity. It’s one of those things when you start learning it as a student you wonder how much you will use it out in the real world, and after 27 years in the industry I can categorically say that it is one of the most important parts of the training. The question of how you adjust vocally to different theatres, how you deal with mics and how you manage to sustain your voice over a whole season of a show. I can’t stress enough how important this is – it’s the difference between having a career in theatre or not.
The other skill that I still carry with me since NIDA days was what I learned the movement classes. Learning how to be in my body as a performer. It goes hand in hand with voice, but it’s just as integral to building a career in performance. Because at the end of the day they’re your main tools as an actor – your body and your voice.
BS: I was a part of the musical theatre course, so every class at NIDA has translated to rehearsals! The best piece of advice a teacher gave me was “discipline is one good decision at a time.” (Thanks Troy Honeysett). I feel like you have to be incredibly disciplined for live performance, particularly understanding how to care for your body and voice as a singer.
LE: As a Swing understudy I’m spending most of my time observing the rehearsal room and taking a bunch of notes for each of the different tracks I cover, and then jumping in whenever I’m needed. It’s a lot to learn in a short amount of time so it can get a bit stressful, but there’s a huge team of people ready to support all of the covers and swings — special shout out to stage management! One of my favourite tricks that I learnt for picking up choreography quickly is to move to new positions in the room and face in different directions while going over the steps.
QR: NIDA certainly provided me with a toolbox to build my own process. Which I have found crucial in staying on top of new work such as The Dismissal.
AT: As a Swing on this show, I have to do a lot of watching and learning from other people working on the floor, which I did a lot of at NIDA. During [my study of] Diploma of Musical Theatre, we did a lot of collaborating and devising with the cabaret assessments which has also helped with helping put together this new Australian work.
NIDA: How did your experience at NIDA shape your understanding of collaboration and teamwork in the context of a large-scale production?
MW: Well at NIDA, just the same as in any other professional setting, you need to learn how to work in a group. Whether it’s a cast of 20 or a cast of two, you’re part of a team that has to build a show together. Even solo shows aren’t solo shows. You need to learn how to work with and respect the production team, the creatives, everyone! Making shows isn’t easy. The best way through the process is with an open mind and a smile on your face. “Yes and” rather than “no but” will always be the best attitude to take. I absolutely learned this while I was NIDA.
BS: The best thing about NIDA is being introduced to the next generation of theatre makers across every discipline you could think of. I’ve worked so often with my teachers, alumni and fellow students from Acting, Musical Theatre, Design, Directing, Writing – everything. I’ve carried those experiences with me on nearly every project since graduating, and it’s given me an appreciation of the amazing work people do in stage and off.
LE: My gorgeous cohort and I found ourselves working with the wonderful Kip Williams in a main-stage Sydney Theatre Company production in our very first semester, which was such an incredible opportunity. Kip trusted us with integral parts in a complex and detailed show across a full performance season which immediately taught us the importance of professionalism and teamwork. We continued to develop this understanding throughout our time at NIDA and were always encouraged to bring a generous and collaborative attitude to the work.
QR: Practice makes perfect, NIDA gave us a safe space to fail and thus learn how collaborate. To build and discover processes in which we could work, and as individuals to deliver a coherent story to the audience.
AT: I think I’ve learned how everyone must put aside their ego to truly be a part of team. When that happens, really good work is created.
NIDA: How did working together feel as fellow NIDA alumni?
BS: It’s always nice to be in a room with other NIDA grads and to see how much they’re smashing it. Everyone is so talented and energetic, it’s awesome.
LE: There’s so many of us. We’re having a blast – I’m such a big fan of everybody already.
QR: I mean, it’s lovely. Sharing stories of our time on campus, it’s so nice.
AT: I’ve loved it! Lincoln and Brittanie have been in the industry longer than me – so they’ve been so kind answering all my questions and giving me tips. Brit actually taught a masterclass while I was at NIDA, and I use a lot of the things she taught me in developing characters and telling the story through a song.
NIDA: What are you working on next?
MW: I’m working on a bunch of stuff. I write now as well as perform and was lucky to have NIDA students produce my show Kindness in the June production season this year. Such a treat to have this as the world premiere of the show – I couldn’t have been a happier writer. So yeah, I have a bunch of shows coming up, on screen and on stage, that I need to get cracking on as a writer. But as an actor, I’m just focusing on the mountain that is Norman Gunston at the moment, and what a fabulous mountain it is.
BS: I’ve just written and workshopped a new musical called Yellow Rock. It had a presentation reading at Bangarra recently, so now it’s about finding the right producers to take on this all-First Nations cast and story.
LE: I think I might stretch out my fingers and do a bit of writing. Ooh, exciting!
QR: I’m working towards putting on my own work now. In what capacity I’m not sure yet but whatever it is I’m sure I’ll have a blast.
AT: Nothing I can probably say just yet, but hopefully at least one more project before the end of 2023.
Congratulations to all NIDA graduates who are working in The Dismissal including:
- Charles Davis (Design, 2014) as Set and Costume Designer
- Lincoln Elliott (Diploma of Musical Theatre, 2017) as Swing Understudy
- Zoe Ioannou (Diploma of Musical Theatre, 2016) as Assistant Director
- Quinton Rich (Diploma of Stage and Screen Performance, 2019) as Ensemble
- Brittanie Shipway (Diploma of Musical Theatre, 2016) as Margaret Whitlam
- Anusha Thomas (Diploma of Musical Theatre, 2022) as Swing Understudy
- Emma White (Design for Performance, 2019) as Set and Costume Designer
- Matthew Whittet (BFA Acting, 1997) as Norman Gunston
The Dismissal premieres on 26 August at the Seymour Centre and runs until October. NIDA's Behind the Scenes program offers supporters the chance to attend exclusive events to engage with NIDA's activities, students and alumni, including the Dismissal. To find out more about joining our annual giving program, please see https://www.nida.edu.au/supporters/supporters-events/behind-the-scenes.
Check your inbox for invitation to the private event.