Director Richard Carroll talks Calamity Jane and telling tall tales

Legendary frontierswoman; notorious daredevil; profane storyteller; unwomanly radical – CALAMITY JANE is one of the most immediately recognizable figures of the old American West. And now, after a sell-out performance in August last year as part of Neglected Musicals, The Hayes Theatre is bringing the Wild West back in a  “stripped-back, rough-and-ready reimagining” of the classic musical.

We caught up with Director Richard Carroll during rehearsals to chat about his new approach and this iconic lady who loved nothing more than a “wild” story.

The interesting thing about Calamity Jane is of course Jane was a real person but so little is known of her actual life, and what we do know some might have been fabricated. But in the musical it’s an entirely fabricated story. How does have a mix of truth and fiction impact on the direction?

I always figure that it’s a great opportunity because the more versions there are of a story the more opportunity it gives you to pick and choose what you want rather than just having the text to work with. Even while Calamity was alive she very much self-mythologised and was known as someone who told tall tales. Certainly after Bill Hickok died she created this idea that she and he had been this great double act and in love. There are even stories she told that she had a child by him. Most of which is entirely untrue and she herself was inconsistent in telling them. So we just embrace the idea of all these different narratives and never really know what the truth is.

I think you just have to take it in that kind of spirit, and that is one of the themes of the show- there is even a song called “Careless With The Truth”.

What do you think it is that makes “Calamity” so iconic?

It’s funny how it happens with these kinds of icons- even more recent icons like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, it’s almost like the truth is not as important to people as what they represent. People have in their heads their own narrative of what these people lives were and whether they were tragic figures or heroes, and I think that’s certainly the case with Calamity Jane. Everyone’s heard of her or have an idea of what Calamity Jane is, and I think that is fundamentally a strong, independent tough woman who did things her own way. I think whatever the truth was about the facts of her life and her relationships, that much is certainly true. She was an extraordinary woman who lived a very unique life at a time when womens roles were generally restricted.

The musical itself is a story about someone who is very childlike at the beginning and as she grows up she’s struggling in finding her identity. She wants to be thought of as this strong masculine person who is as good as all of the guys, but she also wants to be desired, and those ideas really clash with each other.

This latest production is described as being “stripped back and rough-and-ready”, can you tell us a little about these changes?

We haven’t changed the text or the music at all, but we’re taking a different approach to it. It was written in the 50s on the assumption that it would be performed in a big arts theatre with a large ensemble, and things like big scene change music for when you bring the curtain down! We’ve rethought the way we use the material.

Obviously The Hayes is a very small intimate space anyway, but we’re going even further in that we are going to make it as immersive as possible. We have table seating on the stage and the audience are all going to be customers at the Golden Garter Saloon in the Wild West. So this show will be very much happening around the audience, and will involve the audience to a certain extent, and I think that’s what’s going to give this production its uniqueness.

By “rough and ready” what we mean is that it will be different every night because there will be audience interaction. I deliberately put together this fantastic cast of really strong comedians and improvisers. Obviously with a musical you still have to be very well prepared and rehearsed, but there is still room for stuff where you will never quite know what it will be like. So audiences should really come along being ready to be part of the show, in the best possible way!

This new production was inspired by the sold-out presentation of Calamity Jane as a “Neglected Musical” last year in August. How has the production developed since then?

Neglected Musicals take a show that is not usually professionally performed in Australia and we do a one day rehearsal and then we basically present it. That’s what I did with Calamity Jane last year, which was really the kicking off point for this. But obviously this time it is the full production so there are a lot of new cast members and it will be much more rehearsed. We say this is “rough and ready” but that’s really just the style of the musical, whereas last year I was really just flying by the seat of my pants!

Do you have a favourite moment of the musical?

I’ve got lots of stuff coming to mind, but I love the opening number and Calamity’s first entrance when she bursts onto the stage. But you also can’t go past “Secret Love” which is the moment where, you know you have all this great comedy throughout the show, but now she and Bill finally get together and sing “Secret Love”. It’s where Calamity realises she has the potential to connect with another person, and it’s a really beautiful moment.

And finally, on a more personal note- you’ve just started a new podcast called “Every Musical Ever”. Can you tell us a little bit about it and what your hopes are for it moving forward?

I already host the Hayes Theatre Podcast, and I’ve wanted to do my own podcast for a while about musicals. Essentially I’d like to make it as simple as possible so that we can have as much variation within it. So we take a different musical every episode and I have on guests who are big fans of that musical and we just essentially talk through that musical, our experiences on it, thoughts on the show itself, previous productions, fantasy productions, all that kind of stuff.

We did the first episode with David Campbell and Lisa Campbell on Les Miserables, which is up now! And Virgina Gay is the guest on the next episode talking about Funny Girl, which will be up later this month.

Calamity Jane will be barrellin’ into The Hayes from the 8th March. For more information and to book visit www.hayestheatre.com.au

Listen to Every Musical Ever here.