The voices ring loud…
Jesus Christ… Superstar… Do you think you’re what they say you are? And the heart of Dutch-born director Jacobus Johannes Geelen, simply known as JJ, fills with pride as he watches his performers rehearse.
He turns to the band behind the stage and those working the lights and sound – even the kind soul whose job it is to set up the coffee cups and make sure there are enough biscuits on opening night – and breathes the air of confidence that all will go well.
Okay, slightly over-dramatised here, but when you’re in a hall of thespians everybody wants to somehow get into the act.
But not for one minute does this director believe it’s his show. When some also ask ‘do you think you’re what they say you are?’ his bristly face turns cold. For a self-made director who learnt this incredibly judgemental game from reading a book An Idiot’s Guide to Directing a Musical (seriously), he’s certainly not one for the limelight.
It’s always about the team, but not always about the play. JJ sees the theatre as not only something for the community, but a marvellous opportunity for young people to gain valuable life experiences that may help them in life and the workforce. For those much older, it’s working in a generation gap and realising there are some fabulous young people out there who don’t just skateboard.
Importantly, at the end of the play there won’t be the customary presentation of gifts to the director and crew. “A play is a collective,” JJ said. “You might have a stand-out performer, but that person would be nothing without the lighting guy or the person making his or her costume. I am really trying to push that.”
And with this simple team approach, it is easy to understand why his performers have listened to his every word the past four months preparing for Jesus Christ Superstar.
JJ’s journey has had more twists than Oliver.
He came to Australia in 1976 aged 13, was a leading seaman cook with the Royal Australian Navy for 11 years from 1981, learned much about Aboriginal culture teaching in the Pinjarra Lands, and 2003 when he taught in Minlaton, Yorke Peninsula he surprised himself by landing a leading stage role in South Pacific.
However, it was JJ’s move to Victor Harbor High School – he is currently acting business manager – that led to a far more serious approach to theatre with the South Coast Choral & Arts Society, including supporting and leading roles in plays like The Boyfriend, and a dabble with directing in Wild Goose Chase.
“I decided to have a go at directing a musical Oliver in 2009,” JJ said. And with continued support from brilliant musical director Brenton Osborne, then came Sound of Music (2011), Wizard of Oz (2013) and now Jesus Christ Superstar.
JJ concedes being a director of a play can be stressful, but he never loses sight of the fact people are giving up their own time. “What helped me was being on stage and helping back stage,” he said.
“I have not had any formal training so I wing it; go by my gut, but like good caravaners I always have a check list. Buying my idiot’s guide book was the best thing ever because it told me about budgeting, the need for a stage manager, business manager, costuming and so on.
“To be a good director you have to stick to what you believe in, because what you find is that lots of people say ‘why don’t you do this’ or ‘wouldn’t it be better if you did that’. I take it all in, but stick to my clear vision.
“It’s hard keeping people motivated. It’s a long period of people’s lives – sometimes three or four months. For me, this play has been 12 months of planning. The principals of the play work really hard, but it’s the minor roles, the chorus people, that presents a challenge of keeping them occupied.
“I know I can be really pedantic. I stick to my guns. Sometimes I push a bit harder and push people away because they are missing the point, but then I see it as me not communicating properly, not getting the vision across.
“At the end of the day, and it was in my book and it is so true, when everything is great and the end result is fantastic, everybody gets a pat on the back which is wonderful. It’s how it should be, but when things go wrong it is the director’s fault.
“I know whether I have done a good job or a bad job. What I need is for the performers, the costume people, those who do the lights and other background work, to get a pat on the back. That is my absolute reward; it is not about me.
“When you direct it is important to remember it can be like an artist. You can paint what you like, but if you don’t sell any paintings you are poor forever. I can direct what I like, and I can put on these dramatic plays or Shakespeare, but no one might attend in Victor Harbor. You have to listen to your community to a certain degree because you are performing for them. I look at stuff that is current.
“With Jesus Christ Superstar they have changed the music and keys in some instances, which hopefully means the whole community can relate to it.”
However, not everyone has accepted this play with some challenging the accuracy of the story based on the last seven days in the life of Jesus Christ.
JJ was so concerned that he met leaders of the 12 churches in the area and explained he wasn’t doing a Bible story, but a play – something with great new music and overall positive for the whole community.
“I told them I wanted to attract Christians and non-Christians, and in the end you will probably find it will help you because people might ask questions like they did in the 70s,” JJ said.
Regrettably, JJ has also copped local cries of blasphemy because a girl, Penny Smith, will play the role of Judas Iscariot, which also raised concerns from Origin Theatrical, the agent for the owners of the play in Australia. Once the agent understood Victor Harbor was no different to other regional centres in Australia in that it lacked male performers they accepted the change, but as part of the normal strict licence conditions insisted Penny sung the same keys as a man.
“It has been a tough journey, no doubt, but oh Penny has been amazing,” JJ said. “Robert Bell has also been brilliant as Jesus, as has Zoe Tammita as Mary. They are all good; the entire cast and crew.
“I feel so proud of every performer. They will be nervous on opening night and I will be really excited for them. All I ask of them is to stay in character; no matter what goes wrong. If Mary trips over, who would pick her up; what would Jesus do? This is staying in character.
“I say to them, go out there and have fun. Be the best you can be and shine.”
We do think JJ is what we say he is – brilliant.