Money. Drugs. Ego. Bullying.
Not the first words that usually pop into your head when you think about children’s entertainment.
Mary Rachel Brown’s new play Permission to Spin could change all that.
Drawing its audience into the world of an award-winning children’s music star named Miss Polkadot, Permission to Spin draws the backstage curtain aside to reveal the murky dressing room machinations that keep a squeaky-clean, child-friendly persona in the public eye and the merchandise stand tills ringing.
We meet Miss Polkadot – aka Cristobel – on the eve of a music industry awards ceremony. From here, the sky’s the limit. Having conquered the Australian market, it’s time to go international.
“She could be the next Wiggles,” says Brown.
But Cristobel (played here by Anna Houston) has other ideas. “She wants to take a very big turn in her career and go back to being an indie pop artist,” Brown explains.
Her agent and her producer? Not happy. Not happy at all.
Permission to Spin is a play with long roots. Brown’s first draft dates back to 2007, and was, she says, partly informed by the ways in which art can be misused, or even weaponised.
“I remember at the height of the conflict in Iraq and the War on Terror there were stories about music being used in the pursuit of victory,” Brown says. “And more recently, there was the Trump campaign using Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. I’m interested in the ways art can be turned into ‘product’ and that tension between what is art and what is marketing.”
The play – which Brown describes as a “freight train black comedy” – also has a lot to say about the culture of bullying in the entertainment industry. “Obviously, that’s something on everyone’s mind now with the #MeToo movement and the way celebrity intersects with power and a sense of entitlement.”
Then there are the drugs.
“There’s a lot of cocaine in the play,” Brown laughs. “Everything moves very quickly and because it’s coke, everything seems to have 100 per cent importance.”
Brown is best known for her comedies Silent Night (Eternity Theatre, 2017) and the critically-acclaimed The Dapto Chaser, which premiered in Wollongong in 2011 and was revived at the Stables Theatre in Kings Cross in 2015.
Permission to Spin is smaller, shorter and faster, she says, ideal for the Old Fitzroy Theatre.
“This theatre is a hub for the arts community and it’s pretty exciting to be able to bring a work that speaks to so many of the problems of entitlement and the abuse of power in the entertainment industry we’re facing at the moment.”
Brown has also co-directed the play, with Apocalypse Theatre Company’s Dino Dimitriadis. It’s been an eye-opener, she says, “in a good way”.
“Usually, it’s just me with my dog at my feet alone in my little studio,” Brown says. “Writing is a lonely profession and I like that but it’s lovely when your work gets company and I’ve enjoyed watching parts of the play stretch further than I thought they could.
“But it’s been a challenge, too, I’ve really had to turn that writer switch off in the rehearsal room and focus on how the text works as a living, breathing piece of theatre. When you are directing, you have to be on the actors’ side.”
Working with actors as experienced as Houston, Yure Covich and Arky Michael has made the job easier, Brown says.
“Arky is my favourite kind of actor to work with because his choices are really big and bold but they’re anchored in truth and I find that combination of largesse and honesty really exciting to watch on stage. And Yure is perfect for a Jekyll and Hyde character who’s very wound-up and manipulative. He can move from charming to savage in a heartbeat.”
Houston, meanwhile, is revelling in a character as contradictory as Cristobel.
“One of the things I like about Cristobel is that she’s so morally ambiguous and a total individual,” Houston says. “I really like that as the one woman in the show, I have as much room to strategise and manipulate as the men. I really enjoy that.”
Just 70 minutes long, Permission to Spin is an intense ride for an actor, Houston adds.
“The comedy is big and loud but it turns in an instant and becomes very dark and provocative. And there is so much detail packed into the story. It feels like a bigger play than it is.
“We also have to be careful keeping count of how many lines of coke and drinks we imbibe,” Houston adds. “Because there is a lot … really, a lot.”