Adelaide comic Rohan Harry is explaining the origins of Centrelink the Musical, a show enjoying its third festival season, this time at Melbourne Fringe. It’s sold out its first two seasons – both in Adelaide – and from the descriptions, it sounds foolish and clever and, most of all, funny.
If I’m to be honest, that’s also my impression of Rohan, who I’ve been aware of for a few years now, having first encountered him as part of that big comedian migration to MySpace in 2006. Perhaps I did meet him in real life first, around the streets of Adelaide during Fringe Festival, or hanging out at that ‘bench of shame’ in front of Melbourne’s Town Hall during the International Comedy Festival. But he was most unavoidable online, popping up in comment threads of mutual friends’ MySpace blogs.
You’d have just made an insightful killer comment on the blog post of some glamour you’d never even met in real life, hoping to create some kind of impression, refreshing your screen at regular intervals in anticipation of the LOL or ROFL surely to follow, only to discover that someone else’s witty rejoinder had blown you out of the water. More often than not, it was Rohan’s. And there’d be a photo – an image of a swarthy lad with a touch of ‘Terry Gilliam animation’ around the eyes, or a somewhat disturbing image of him camping it up as a boy scout. Invention, character, and a visual aspect, were all clearly evident in the man’s comedy, even at this superficial level.
“I was studying industrial design at art school for about five or six years,” Rohan explains. “My high school guidance counsellor suggested from the subjects that I studied that that would be the way forward for me.” Although he knew himself to be creative and talented, high academic achievement meant that tertiary education was the go. But thankfully, he realised he “didn’t want to design kettles” for a living, and so had started writing scripts and making short films on the side. “I also did some acting courses – got into that caper for a while. Did an opening for a student film and I sat down and thought, ‘That was a bit of fun!’”
An advertisement for a comedy course caught his eye. Opinions vary about the usefulness of comedy courses. Can you teach someone to be funny? Well you can teach someone to act, you can teach them to play an instrument. You can only assume that they have to have the spark in order for it to work, and then there has to be inherent talent in order for it to become a viable way of life. For many a funny person who has yet to take the stage, a comedy course provides the initial step. “It gave me confidence, it gave me courage. And it gave me stage time,” Rohan confirms. “It was a vehicle for me and it got the ball rolling. People have mixed opinions about that sort of thing, but at the end of the day, you go through the door that opens.”
Cutting his chops on Adelaide’s local circuit, Rohan entered Raw Comedy and made it to the South Australian State Final. “The positive thing about comedy competitions for people starting out is that anyone can do them, so you’re automatically guaranteed a sell-out night, and you’ve got that stage time,” he points out. By that stage, Rohan had developed a passion and just kept writing.
However, the life of a fledgling comic can be tough – finding paid work is harder than finding punchlines that work. There was a point where Rohan found himself “in a really unhappy place with Adelaide” and so had fled to Sydney where he “spent a couple of nights unaccommodated, wandering the streets with my pack,” trying to land gigs. And that’s pretty much when the idea for Centrelink the Musical struck. “I’d been long-term unemployed for six or seven years and just based it on that one image in the movie The Full Monty – where the guys are having a bit of a jig in the dole queue. I thought, ‘let’s embrace that concept and go further’. At the time it was trendy to do musicals – there was High School Musical and Hairspray the Musical.”
According to Rohan, the title ‘Centrelink The Musical’ “totally struck a chord” with the people of Adelaide: tickets for that first season sold out before the show had been fully written. “A lot of the ticket sales went to Centrelink Offices and Job Network Providers,” he explains.
The beauty of Centrelink the Musical is its “raw simplicity”, which keeps it true-to-life: “I’m just playing myself,” Rohan insists. “There’s no acting involved whatsoever.” That’s not true of the rest of the cast, though – they all studied performing arts. “I got my friend Adam Willson to write the show around them,” Rohan says. While Rohan ‘created’ the show and appears in it as “Tim” (who has been unemployed for “only 23 months”), writer Adam plays the character Gary who has been unemployed for nearly two decades.“There’s another comic in there,” Rohan reports. Dale Elliott – a Raw Comedy contestant who made the National Final a few years ago, plays the ‘Centrelink Virgin’, Ed. In real life, Deal is a paraplegic who “does a lot of motivational speaking and stuff”, and, like Rohan, his character in this production is very close to his own. “He’s a guy who can’t actually walk and has to justify that he’s a paraplegic to the system, having to look for work because they’re claiming he’s not eligible for compensation…”
Kate Jarvis, who “comes from a music background” and “has done a lot of school theatre” plays the single mum with a daughter and a bun in the oven.
Janine, the Centrelink Officer, is played by Anna Cheney Holmes, who also has a history of school theatre. And, says Rohan, “she’s done some film and TV stuff”: since the first season of Centrelink the Musical she appeared in episodes of McCloud’s Daughters (credited as ‘Anna Cheney’).
The music was written by singer-songwriter Nathan Leigh Jones (or “NLJ”, as he’s also known). When Rohan Harry was wandering the streets of Sydney, having decided to flee Adelaide for the Harbour City’s stand-up scene, it was fellow Adelaide emigre Jones’s floor upon which he ultimately sought to crash. “I proposed the idea of Centrelink the Musical to him,” Rohan recalls, “and he just died laughing. He said, ‘I want to do the music for this’.”
NLJ has solid ‘Youth Alive’ Christian music behind him and had just returned from New York where he’d been hustling (so to speak!) for his record label, so was keen to just work on something fun. “He wrote the music and I pretty much got a team of guys together who were willing to do a Fringe show. We pretty much pulled it out of our arse in the ‘last few minutes’…” Apparently there was no “wanky audition process”, merely the question “Do you want to be involved?” If you answered ‘yes’, you were in.Centrelink the Musical was choreographed by Julian Jaensch, another mate. Currently the artistic director of Triple A Theatre Company for Autism SA, he kept the dance moves simple enough for someone like Rohan, who hadn’t danced since he wa s a kid. “It’s done in a way that’s not taking away the humour, but it’s still got that element where we’re taking the piss,” he explains. “Same with our voices: we’re not all professional singers, but at the same time we bellow the tunes out for as long as it’s getting laughs. We stay in character. That’s why it works.”
The team is directed by Ross Vosvotekas, AKA Ross Voss, a veteran of Adelaide Fringe comedy shows and a recipiant of award nominations for them. The show opens in the dole queue with an up-beat opening number “to bring you in the mood with a lot of dancing” before revealing the reality of the situation: the five characters – the four unemployed and the public servant – are dissatisfied with where they are in their lives. As they interact, each one in turn gets to deliver a power ballad telling their side of the story. “They break into dream-like sequences that constantly move into song-and-dance and then cut back to reality,” says Rohan. “That’s where the main humour from the show comes from.”
Perhaps, if you were cynical, your first response to the concept of Centrelink the Musical would be to write it off – it is about the experience of trying to subsist on the government’s dole payment, after all. So, you might assume, you’d have to queue for four hours just to see it, and once in the theatre, you’d be surrounded by bogans in ugg boots and on crystal meth. And of course, the show would only be about half as long as you initially assumed it would be…
“We just went with the flow," Rohan insists. “Instead of it being an attack on the system, we made it more ‘okay, let’s have a bit of a laugh about the crazy people that come in, let’s see it from their point of view as well, and let’s entertain these people that represent Centrelink itself’.”
Truth is, in addition to selling out its first two seasons, Centrelink the Musical turned a healthy profit. Or would have, had the proceeds not been divided equally between all the participants. As it was, Rohan earned just enough… to no longer qualify for the dole. “I wasn’t rich out of it,” he insists.
Which is kind of unfair. If everyone on the dole had to produce a creative endeavour that turned a profit, the country as a whole would be doing so much better culturally and financially. They should have been rewarded with more money – in order to take their ideas further, and to come up with new ones. I almost think that should be the message of the show. But Rohan insists there is no message in Centrelink the Musical. “There is no real message in it whatsoever,” he says. “There’s stuff you can take from it, but in the end, it’s just a bit of fun.”Nice.
Preview show Tue Oct 6, playing Trades Hall New Ballroom until Sat Oct 10. Buy tickets.