Adelaide comic Rohan Harry is explaining the origins of Centrelink the Musical, a show enjoying its third festival season, this time at Melbourne Fringe. Itâs sold out its first two seasons â both in Adelaide â and from the descriptions, it sounds foolish and clever and, most of all, funny.
If Iâm to be honest, thatâs also my impression of Rohan, who Iâve 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 âbench of shameâ in front of Melbourneâs Town Hall during the International Comedy Festival. But he was most unavoidable online, popping up in comment threads of mutual friendsâ MySpace blogs.
Youâd have just made an insightful killer comment on the blog post of some glamour youâd 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 elseâs witty rejoinder had blown you out of the water. More often than not, it was Rohanâs. And thereâd be a photo â an image of a swarthy lad with a touch of âTerry Gilliam animationâ 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 manâs comedy, even at this superficial level.
âI was studying industrial design at art school for about five or six years,â Rohan explains. âMy high school guidance counsellor suggested from the subjects that I studied that that would be the way forward for me.â Although he knew himself to be creative and talented, high academic achievement meant that tertiary education was the go. But thankfully, he realised he âdidnât want to design kettlesâ for a living, and so had started writing scripts and making short films on the side. âI also did some acting courses â got into that caper for a while. Did an opening for a student film and I sat down and thought, âThat was a bit of fun!ââ
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. âIt gave me confidence, it gave me courage. And it gave me stage time,â Rohan confirms. âIt 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.â
Cutting his chops on Adelaideâs local circuit, Rohan entered Raw Comedy and made it to the South Australian State Final. âThe positive thing about comedy competitions for people starting out is that anyone can do them, so youâre automatically guaranteed a sell-out night, and youâve got that stage time,â 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 â finding paid work is harder than finding punchlines that work. There was a point where Rohan found himself âin a really unhappy place with Adelaideâ and so had fled to Sydney where he âspent a couple of nights unaccommodated, wandering the streets with my pack,â trying to land gigs. And thatâs pretty much when the idea for Centrelink the Musical struck. âIâd been long-term unemployed for six or seven years and just based it on that one image in the movie The Full Monty â where the guys are having a bit of a jig in the dole queue. I thought, âletâs embrace that concept and go furtherâ. At the time it was trendy to do musicals â there was High School Musical and Hairspray the Musical.â
According to Rohan, the title âCentrelink The Musicalâ âtotally struck a chordâ with the people of Adelaide: tickets for that first season sold out before the show had been fully written. âA lot of the ticket sales went to Centrelink Offices and Job Network Providers,â he explains.
The beauty of Centrelink the Musical is its âraw simplicityâ, which keeps it true-to-life: âIâm just playing myself,â Rohan insists. âThereâs no acting involved whatsoever.â Thatâs not true of the rest of the cast, though â they all studied performing arts. âI got my friend Adam Willson to write the show around them,â Rohan says. While Rohan âcreatedâ the show and appears in it as âTimâ (who has been unemployed for âonly 23 monthsâ), writer Adam plays the character Gary who has been unemployed for nearly two decades.âThereâs another comic in there,â Rohan reports. Dale Elliott â a Raw Comedy contestant who made the National Final a few years ago, plays the âCentrelink Virginâ, Ed. In real life, Deal is a paraplegic who âdoes a lot of motivational speaking and stuffâ, and, like Rohan, his character in this production is very close to his own. âHeâs a guy who canât actually walk and has to justify that heâs a paraplegic to the system, having to look for work because theyâre claiming heâs not eligible for compensationâ¦â
Kate Jarvis, who âcomes from a music backgroundâ and âhas done a lot of school theatreâ 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, âsheâs done some film and TV stuffâ: since the first season of Centrelink the Musical she appeared in episodes of McCloudâs Daughters (credited as âAnna Cheneyâ).
The music was written by singer-songwriter Nathan Leigh Jones (or âNLJâ, as heâs also known). When Rohan Harry was wandering the streets of Sydney, having decided to flee Adelaide for the Harbour Cityâs stand-up scene, it was fellow Adelaide emigre Jonesâs floor upon which he ultimately sought to crash. âI proposed the idea of Centrelink the Musical to him,â Rohan recalls, âand he just died laughing. He said, âI want to do the music for thisâ.â
NLJ has solid âYouth Aliveâ Christian music behind him and had just returned from New York where heâd been hustling (so to speak!) for his record label, so was keen to just work on something fun. âHe 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 âlast few minutesââ¦â Apparently there was no âwanky audition processâ, merely the question âDo you want to be involved?â If you answered âyesâ, 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 hadnât danced since he wa s a kid. âItâs done in a way thatâs not taking away the humour, but itâs still got that element where weâre taking the piss,â he explains. âSame with our voices: weâre not all professional singers, but at the same time we bellow the tunes out for as long as itâs getting laughs. We stay in character. Thatâs why it works.â
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 âto bring you in the mood with a lot of dancingâ before revealing the reality of the situation: the five characters â the four unemployed and the public servant â 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. âThey break into dream-like sequences that constantly move into song-and-dance and then cut back to reality,â says Rohan. âThatâs where the main humour from the show comes from.â
Perhaps, if you were cynical, your first response to the concept of Centrelink the Musical would be to write it off â it is about the experience of trying to subsist on the governmentâs dole payment, after all. So, you might assume, youâd have to queue for four hours just to see it, and once in the theatre, youâd 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 beâ¦
âWe just went with the flow," Rohan insists. âInstead of it being an attack on the system, we made it more âokay, letâs have a bit of a laugh about the crazy people that come in, letâs see it from their point of view as well, and letâs entertain these people that represent Centrelink itselfâ.â
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 enoughâ¦ to no longer qualify for the dole. âI wasnât rich out of it,â 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 â 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. âThere is no real message in it whatsoever,â he says. âThereâs stuff you can take from it, but in the end, itâs just a bit of fun.âNice.
Preview show Tue Oct 6, playing Trades Hall New Ballroom until Sat Oct 10. Buy tickets.