Uncovering 'Crocodile Creek'

BY JEANNETTE DELAMOIR

Baz Luhrmann and Felix Meagher. Photograph courtesy Opera Australia

Baz Luhrmann grew up in Herons Creek, a village near Port Macquarie, where his mother taught ballroom dancing.

But in the well-known story of how the boy from Heron Creek became one of Australia’s most successful film directors, there is one step that is generally overlooked: Crocodile Creek, a 1986 community musical staged in Rockhampton, Queensland.

 

 

On Friday August 15 at the NFSA Theatrette, my illustrated lecture will spotlight that forgotten production. The presentation also features Crocodile Creek composer Felix Meagher performing excerpts from the score – music that hasn’t been publicly performed since 1986 when, after its four-night season, Crocodile Creek faded from sight. This oblivion is undeserved. Over the past year, interviews conducted with many participants have convinced me that fate brought together a fortuitous combination of personnel who created something special.

Certainly the production made a long-lasting impact on those involved – and that includes Luhrmann, its professional director.

Only 23 at the time, he had just graduated from NIDA. Young Baz had to fit the Rockhampton job around other commitments, such as a group trip to present their student play at a drama festival in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. This early version of Strictly Ballroom, mounted on a budget of $50, won first prize at the festival, and Luhrmann himself was proclaimed best director.

When asked why he went to regional Queensland immediately after those triumphs, Luhrmann says that he was attracted by ‘the sheer adventure of going to an unknown place with unknown people to try and create a piece of theatre’. He had been recommended for the job by Jim Sharman, who was his mentor at NIDA.

On arriving in Rockhampton, he met for the first time Felix Meagher, the production’s composer. Meagher, a classical composition graduate from University of Melbourne, had discovered a talent for musically sophisticated projects in far-flung communities. In Rockhampton, he chose a script by local writer Barbara Birchall. The story drew on a ‘disturbance’ in 1867, when racist violence targeted Chinese miners at the Crocodile Creek goldfield.

Birchall used these events as a backdrop for a romance between two teenagers, Irish Molly and Chinese Mickee. Their relationship is bitterly opposed by Molly’s father, Black Ned, the leader of the riot.

Meagher’s songs bring to life the lead characters, as well as colourful goldfield inhabitants like Ma Tucker, who runs a rowdy dining room.

Through the growing pressure of auditions and rehearsals, Luhrmann and Meagher developed a working partnership based on their shared love of theatre and music.

Eventually 120 local people became involved. The cast had 40 members, the orchestra 23 musicians. Fifty volunteers worked through the night making costumes and building sets – then went to work the next day.

Older than Luhrmann by several years, Meagher was surprised at the director’s acumen regarding music, stagecraft and storytelling.

‘As a 23-year-old, he had a complete mastery of all those things, as well as the presence of mind and the personality’, says Meagher.

Many performers found working with professionals like Luhrmann and Meagher life-changing.

Christopher Saunders, for example, was only 14 years old, but had taken singing lessons for seven years. He was cast in the chorus and also played digger Alfie.

Remembering the rehearsal process he says, ‘We all enjoyed it so very much that we put our heart and soul into it. We would have done anything for Baz and Felix. They were so committed and driven that we were all swept up.’

Today Saunders is an international singer who performs tenor roles with companies like Pinchgut Opera and the English National Opera.

Another participant who built an impressive career is Craig Ilott, who at 17 years old played the lead role of Mickee. Now an award-winning actor, director and creator of shows like the Famous Spiegeltent’s Smoke and Mirrors, he reflects: ‘Baz stayed a wonderful mentor for a number of years after that. I can’t imagine what I’m doing now without having had that experience.’

The hired professionals also took much from the Crocodile Creek experience. Composer Meagher calls it ‘a near perfect experience’, adding ‘I could have gone on making Crocodile Creeks for the rest of my life.’

His historical musical production set around the hanging of Ned Kelly, Barry Versus Kelly, opens at Old Melbourne Gaol on 8 August 2014.

Even the most prominent of all Crocodile Creek participants – the former boy from Heron Creek – was affected by the production.

Luhrmann formed enduring working relationships with colleagues including Meagher (who in 2008 contributed to Australia) and, in addition, says his Rockhampton experience was ‘one of the most spiritually enriching experiences of my life’.

Felix Meagher in Rockhampton’s Morning Bulletin on 11 August 1986. From the Central Queensland Collection, Rockhampton Regional Council

Annette Poole, cast member of Crocodile Creek, in the Morning Bulletin on 8 August 1986. From the Central Queensland Collection, Rockhampton Regional Council