I caught up with Tim Maddren and Christie Whelan Browne – Australia’s new Brad and Janet – during their road trip to promote the 40th Anniversary tour of The Rocky Horror Show, which will enjoy its premiere season in Brisbane from January 10 2014.
We meet at Lot 104 on The Esplanade, Mooloolaba, right after school, over sparkling mineral waters and iced tea, as you do after a steady stream of Veuve during Melbourne Cup week!
These two have enjoyed varied and quite illustrious careers already, Christie in a spate of musical theatre hits, and Tim best known as a member of the second generation of Hi-5. Both started in community theatres and have since worked with some of the best in the biz. They are both relaxed and chatty, completely engaging, and enjoying the time to share their stories and tricks of the trade. I warn them that many of our readers are industry peeps so the tricks of the trade are precisely what we want!
Christie tells me about her first ever callback. You know, the totally unexpected one, in which you feel like a freak, the odd one out. She says, “I had no guidance. I went to a callback (for The Producers). It was the final call back. Mel Brooks was there. I was in jeans and runners.” Christie told the woman at the door that nobody had told her what to wear – the other girls were in leotards and stockings – and the woman looked her up and down and told her, “You’ll be right!” Christie was doing a Barbie gig in a shopping centre when her agent gave her the news that she’d won the role. “I learned as I went,” she says. “I picked up tips as I went along.”
“You need good representation.”
Community theatre helped show Christie how hard you have to work to get a show on. “Get the experience that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Tim started out treading community theatre boards in New Zealand (“It gave me the bug!”), and a friend suggested he audition for WAAPA. “I started singing and I could tell they were interested.” Tim did the naïve/uber confident dance call thing too, turning up to the callback barefoot, wearing a rugby shirt. (“What the hell is dance gear?!”) He explains, “In New Zealand I grew up in a rural area and learnt by doing in an amateur theatre group.” He adds, “WAAPA was a really confusing time,” and it was during productions that he was able to put all the pieces together.
Tim played Fyedka in Tim Lawson’s Fiddler on the Roof, and says the cast, which included Topol, Anne Phelan, Octavia Barron Martin, Jennifer White and Sheridan Harbridge (I forget to mention that I’m looking forward to seeing Sheridan in The Beast at MTC on Friday night!), and they taught him so much during the run of the show. “Barry Crocker would give me vocal advice every show.” He would tell Tim, “Bring it up here!” Tim gestures with both hands at the level of his top lip to demonstrate. “They took me under their wing.”
Christie has the same fond memories of working with seasoned performers in Grease. She says, “You’d watch these people – Nat (Bassingthwaite) especially – and Kellie (Abby) was very hard on me. She disciplined me.” Christie confirms, “If you’re surrounded by great people you’re going to learn twice as much.”
“Never stop working. We’ve all got more to learn.”
Tim agrees and says James Millar told him a top tip from Kellie Abby; that was to do something every day that will improve your profession.
“It’s a lifetime career. You can always improve.”
“It’s not talent. It’s hard work.” (Well, Tim, we know that SOME of it’s talent!)
I always wonder about everybody’s keep fit tips and Tim says his fitness is largely dependent on eating well. “If you’re not eating well you’re pushing uphill.” Also, Tim tries to do something completely opposite to what he is involved in doing during a show. “So during The Addams Family I surfed.” While on tour with The Rocky Horror Show Tim plans to race competitively his brand new remote control yacht! He’s looking forward to meeting the competitors in every city and doing something different with his time off stage. He notes, “It gives context to what you’re doing.”
Christie agrees. “You don’t want to be in the bubble. I’ve always been very aware of holding onto reality.” What we do as artists in showbiz, she says, is not reality.
There must be a certain amount of pressure that comes with an iconic show, with a cult following, and I wonder what sort of impact the expectations of audiences has on these two seemingly fearless performers.
“There is a pressure that comes with the expectations” (of a known show with a cult following), observes Christie. And there’s another thing too.
“I’m not gonna’ lie,” Christie smiles, “I’m a little nervous about stripping down to my bra and undies.”
(I know. I hear you. If Christie-Legs-Whelan Browne is worried about how she looks in her underwear what hope do the rest of us have?!)
But seriously, we have to stop and consider for a moment the usefulness of these feelings in terms of creating a character. It was the same consideration when Christie created (with Dean Bryant) Britney Spears: The Cabaret. “It’s a vulnerability thing that you need.” She reminds me that it’s Janet, not Christie, in her bra and undies.
Tim wonders what effect a relatively unknown ballad might have on audiences. “I’ve got a ballad that no one knows. It’s called Once in a While.” He sings us a couple of lines, much to the amusement of the businessmen trying to stitch up a deal at a nearby table. I ask about that creating-a-role gambit, you know, the tricks of making an iconic character all your own. Tim says, “You pay homage to the original. As an actor, you try to marry up the expectation (of the audience) and the role.”
We joke that the audience will be more dressed than the performers, and they’ll be singing along. Tim says of the audience, “They’re like another character.” Christie says, genuinely delighted, “They’re coming with that…energy!”
“It’s exciting. It’s fun. We’re interacting with cast members on a very intimate level. It’s a very hard place not to have fun.”
It’s a comparatively brief tour, just six months, but still, I’m always interested to know how other performers stay connected and committed to their roles. Tim tells us about working with Topol and watching him play Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof night after night; “After 40-something years, every night he cried, and it was real,” Tim says. “Every night they’re paying the same amount of money so you do the same performance. You want t go home with your head held high, know that you did a really good job.” Christie says her trick is to focus on the audience.
“It’s a pride thing as well. It’s about keeping yourself in check.”
And what happens when you screw up? “It’s part of live theatre,” admits Christie. Tim says you apologise “and make sure it doesn’t happen again!”
Both Christie and Tim have partners in the industry, and eyes shine when they speak of the other half. “Sometimes it works really, really well,” says Tim, “…and sometimes really, really not well.” Communication is key, and “giving energy… Saying at the end of the day, this is what I went through today.” Christie says, “It’s really, really hard and you have to work double – triple – hard! I would be equally as devastated if his (Rohan’s) dreams weren’t coming true as well.” Both Christie and Tim understand the value of Skype, and phone calls and texts. They stay in touch. “We’re both newlyweds so we get it.”
Tim asks me, “Who will you dress up as?” Clearly, the cast have expectations of their own! So brush up on the lyrics, dress up as your favourite Rocky Horror character, and get to QPAC from January 10 2014 to see Tim Maddren and Christie Whelan Browne as Brad and Janet in (the world’s favourite Rock ‘n’ Roll musical!), Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show.