From the 6th to the 9th of September, Sydney University’s Musical Theatre Ensemble (MUSE) presented City of Angels at the Seymour Centre.

The plot is staggeringly complex and the show is technically demanding – both for the actors and the crew. Each detail is meticulously designed and each step is rehearsed until it is second-nature. From the black and white design concept to the 1940s Hollywood-inspired hair and makeup – nothing is accidental. And these girls managed to pull it off. And they managed to pull it off with an entirely female production team #girlpower

So ENID caught up with a few of these inspiring ladies to hear how it all went down.

Introducing….

  • Aparna Balakumar, the 21 year old Media & Communications student from the University of Sydney who produced the show following a stint at The Korea Herald in Seoul,
  • Rielly Dickson, the 23 year Communications student from UTS and director extraordinaire who has been both in and behind more shows than we can count, and,
  • Sasha Meaney, a 20 year old USYD student, treading the boards as the fierce ‘Mallory Kingsley’ and budding actress ‘Avril’ in the show.
City of Angels

Sasha, Aparna and Reilly

Can you tell ENID a little bit about your prior experience and involvement in theatre productions and what led you to join MUSE?

Aparna Balakumar: I had no experience behind-the scenes or producing shows before City of Angels. In high school I performed in a bunch of musicals and did a couple of shows with Sydney Youth Musical Theatre Society.

When I first came to university I thought, “Oh, I should really get involved,” but I ended up keeping to myself and only really came in for classes. A lot of my school friends went to different universities, and I really retreated into my shell instead of getting involved in extracurriculars.

I always looked at how much fun people in productions seemed to be having. I really wanted to get involved but it seemed so intimidating. Eventually I worked up the courage to audition for the 2015 MUSE production of Legally Blonde. I worked so hard on my audition piece and was so nervous. It was the first time I was putting myself out there in a university context. I did the audition and when I got into the cast, I was over the moon.

Rielly Dickson: I’ve been in a few UTS and Sydney Uni productions and I’ve also directed a couple of REVUEs and musicals at USYD.

For a while, I thought I wanted to pursue musical theatre [as a performer] professionally. Unfortunately, I injured my back a few years ago, which kind of ruled that out. Directing wasn’t necessarily something I planned to do, but I was asked by some friends to give it a try and it totally worked out.

Sasha Meaney: I got involved in City of Angels through doing REVUES and MUSE.

Can you tell us about your experience with this show specifically? What has it been like being involved in City of Angels?

Aparna Balakumar:  It’s been wonderful and really opened my eyes. Being on a production team is always a little bit thankless because there’s so much that goes into a show behind the scenes that the audience never knows about. Working on this show has definitely given me a new appreciation for all the little pieces that go into a seamless final product. I think now that I have worked on the logistics of aspects like designing a program or building a set, with any show I go to I’ll be thinking about all the hours the production team have spent discussing every minute detail and executing it too. Though I suppose the magic of theatre, and the hallmark of a strong producer, mean everything from the advertising to the ticket sales to the start and finish time is so on point that the audience doesn’t have to stop to think about anything but the quality of what’s happening on stage.

Rielly Dickson: My favourite part has been working with people who have never been in a show before, or who are just starting out and hoping to pursue a career in the arts when they finish their degree. It’s so important to learn how to work with people from different backgrounds with different experience levels.

Sasha Meaney: Being in the performing arts community at uni makes the tough times manageable. I have become involved in such a great community of like-minded individuals who are trying to juggle their studies to do shows that they love and are passionate about. It takes a lot of time management to make it work. Many people in the cast (including myself) are part time workers, full time students and are doing these shows on top of all that. But we’re all in it together!

This is the first time City of Angels has been produced by an entirely female production team, what has that experience been like? Had any of you worked in an entirely female production team before?

Aparna Balakumar: I think in any musical I’ve ever been in, there is usually a male director or males on the production team. That is not in itself a negative thing, but hopefully by putting on a show with so many awesome women it can help normalise female leadership positions in the arts. I hope it encourages girls who are interested in the arts to feel comfortable pursuing those typically male-dominated roles. Girls can be great producers, directors, choreographers, sound designers – whatever they want to get involved in!

We’ve worked well together and we’ve pulled off a great production, so I think it’s great for all of the naysayers – if there are any– as well.

Rielly Dickson: I have, actually. I produced MUSE’s equivalent show last year with a female team. I love working with women. And women bring a different perspective and understanding to characters, which is important. I know with this show particularly; the two lead roles are both male – it’s quite a masculine show. But I saw that as a challenge. As women, we were able to bring different insights and emphasis than if it were produced as written. So that’s exciting – to be offering a new perspective on a play that was written almost thirty years ago

Sasha Meaney: No, I had never worked with an all-female production team, before. But to be honest, I don’t think anyone in the cast noticed! Everyone was just there to do their job, so while being female might have given us a distinct perspective, it doesn’t really change what we’re doing. Though, reflecting on it, it probably means that the women’s storylines were given equal attention to the men’s storylines.

Click above to watch the City of Angels promo video.

What has been your favourite part of the show?

Aparna Balakumar: My favourite bit has been getting to work with all these incredibly talented people and watch it unfold from the audition stage to sold-out nights. I’ve also learnt so much about project managing and the importance of believing in myself enough to take on tasks outside of my comfort zone.

Sasha Meaney: My favourite moment in any show is opening night because up until then, you ultimately have no idea if it is going to work or not. Hearing the first laugh or the first applause floods you with relief. And the nerves and adrenaline give you such a high, I feel like most performers are a bit addicted to it.

Okay – let’s talk “employable skills”. Does working on a show like this do wonders for your CV?

Aparna Balakumar: Extracurriculars are character-building, confidence-building and great for your resume and skills development. You learn so much working on a show like this. Having that many cast members message you with questions, calling up businesses asking for sponsorships, drawing up invoices, booking spaces, liaising with graphic designers – the list goes on. I’ve found in a lot of ways it has been more challenging than many things I’ve done in the corporate world.

In my experience, you learn the most in smaller places and smaller productions. Here, you’re given a lot of daunting responsibility but that’s awesome because if you pull it off, you gain so much confidence.

Rielly Dickson: A lot of people I’ve spoken to who have produced and directed university theatre have found applying for graduate jobs easier because of it. They’ve got jobs in graduate programs or the public service because they could show that through their experience they have developed so many useful skills.

Aparna Balakumar: And having something creative on your CV makes you stand out, which is really important when you consider that everyone has quite similar resumes in competitive industries. It can be a really great icebreaker in job interviews as well – talking to them about something you’re passionate about. It shows you’re human and that you have interests outside of wor’. People want to know what you do after 5pm to nurture your creative side.

Any final words of advice for girls who might be reading this and toying with the idea of auditioning?

Aparna Balakumar: Do it! Even doing one kind of creative pursuit while you’re at uni really helps take the edge off the seriousness of your studies. You’re going to be around very cool, collaborative people at uni, so if you’ve ever thought about doing something like this – now’s your chance!

Rielly Dickson: A lot of people are always saying “it’s too much of a commitment” or “it’s too complicated”. I think you’ve got to look for the solutions, instead of the problems. Look for the opportunity, instead of the excuse. I think that’s something that women particularly are very good at.

Okay – we’re sold! Now how do we get involved?

For our step by step guide to getting involved on campus – click here