Hunter theatre enthusiasts commit to new company 

Chris Maxfield has long held the dream of establishing a theatre company that would bring together Hunter Valley and Central Coast communities. And he found, in those get-togethers that actors have during rehearsal breaks, that the dream was shared.
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So in May this year, after two years of discussions and planning, a team of people from throughout the region established The National Theatre Company with the aim of producing shows that would have people from towns as widespread as Gosford and Scone working together as actors and stage crews, and performing at several venues.

In the past week, The National Theatre Company has held auditions for its first production, the musical Godspell, and an information night for a second musical, 13, for which auditions will be held in December.

A reading of a new play by Newcastle actress Emma Wood, Mr Bennet’s Bride, will be held tomorrow, with feedback from experienced regional actors, writers and directors.

While Godspell is a frequently staged musical, The National Theatre Company has obtained the rights for the first Australian staging of a re-orchestrated and partly rewritten version of the 1971 original that only ended its Broadway run in June.

And 13 is a recent American musical about a boy who moves from New York to a regional town and tries to make friends. It had its first major Australian production at the Adelaide Fringe Festival this year.

Mr Bennet’s Bride looks at the backgrounds of the parents of five daughters in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. A play reading is usually the first step towards the production of a new work.

Godspell will open at the new 478-seat St Philip’s Theatre at Waratah in late February – the first commercial booking of that venue. The Newcastle season will be followed by performances at Singleton, Cessnock and Gosford.

13 will have seasons in Singleton and Newcastle in April and May.

The hopes of the new company’s executive team to attract people from the Hunter and beyond to be part of shows have been fulfilled.

Maxfield says he had been up until 2am many mornings responding to emails from would-be cast members since auditions for Godspell were announced in late October.

On the day that I visited his Newcastle home to talk with him about the company and its plans, Georgia Taylor, a 17-year-old year 11 student from Scone, arrived with her parents for a singing lesson and an audition.

Maxfield, the company’s artistic director, has been helped in spreading the word about the company by other members of the non-profit company’s executive.

The company secretary, for example, is Tony Fletcher, of Singleton. Marketing manager Nicholas Stabler designs and develops websites around the Hunter Region.

Maxfield himself works at the University of Newcastle as a project and business process improvement manager.

The regional spread of the executive has helped the company to gain sponsorships from businesses such as a Pokolbin winery.

It was their love of theatre that brought the team together.

Maxfield is a multi-CONDA nominee who won an award for his performance as Ko Ko in a 2006 Newcastle production of The Mikado. He is nominated again this year for his Fagin in Metropolitan Players’ Oliver! and has been cast as the Phantom in that company’s staging of The Phantom of the Opera at the Civic Theatre next August.

He met Tony Fletcher when he was co-directing the musical Blood Brothers and Fletcher won a role. They again worked together in Oliver! with Fletcher as the officious beadle, Mr Bumble.

The choice of the name The National Theatre Company does not indicate a long-term plan to take shows throughout Australia, although Maxfield is hopeful that within two years the group could win Sydney seasons for some of its shows.

Instead, it is intended to show that the company does not have its focus on one city or community but aims to stage shows that will have broad appeal and give theatrical opportunities to people in smaller towns.

While The National Theatre Company is a non-profit organisation, the executive is looking at putting profits into two inter-related strands – employing theatre professionals in fields such as musical direction and choreography to help develop high standards in performances, and providing scholarships for young people.

In 2009 Maxfield founded i-act, an indigenous children’s theatre providing free acting, voice, stagecraft and acting-for-camera tuition aimed at achieving more realistic representation of indigenous children in mainstream theatre, television, advertising and film.

He has also been increasingly involved in the dance world by providing drama tuition since 2010 for the Newcastle-based National College of Dance’s summer schools.

The dance group is closely involved with The National Theatre Company. Its Lambton studios will provide rehearsal spaces for the theatre company and the choreographers of the first two shows will come from its ranks: Isabelle Leonard (Godspell) and Callan Constable (13).

Maxfield is looking at further-developing the relationship by staging musicals such as West Side Story in which dance is a key element.

The choice of the first two shows certainly shows a keenness to involve as broad a range of people as possible. The cast of Godspell will be drawn from a wide age range, but performers in 13, in keeping with the teenage characters, will be aged 12 to 16.

The company will also be choosing two people for each role, with actors alternating in performances to give as many people as possible a chance to broaden their skills.

Maxfield had his first professional role at age seven, in Noel Coward’s Red Peppers.

He combined part-time acting with a career as a policeman in Sydney, with his day job later helping him in a continuing role as a cop in the television series Home and Away. He worked extensively in theatre, film and television before moving to Newcastle in 2000.

He has worked in the past two decades in human resources, with the skills coming in handy when he was told the rights to the new version of Godspell were not available.

After carefully navigating various parties, and having legal restrictions lifted, he eventually received a letter from Schwartz himself, decorated with an artist’s caricature of the composer, in which Schwartz wished the new company “All [for] the best” in staging the show – the wish, in that form, being the name of one of the Godspell songs.

PLAYERS: Tony Fletcher, Georgia Taylor and Chris Maxfield. PICTURE: JONATHAN CARROLL