In Conversation: Ken Mackenzie-Forbes AM

In Conversation: Ken Mackenzie-Forbes AM

On Jesus Christ Superstar, the four-week rehearsal period and being an arts facilitator.

Ken Mackenzie-Forbes AM
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Ken Mackenzie-Forbes AM

On Jesus Christ Superstar, the four-week rehearsal period and being an arts facilitator.

You are currently the Artistic Director of The Production Company, but before you came into this role you worked in a variety of artistic leadership positions: as an executive producer, a general manager and a director. Can you tell me about the start of your musical journey and how you came to find your place as an artistic leader?

I trained as a musician and studied music as part of my degree at Queensland University, and I realised at that time that I didn't have enough talent to make it as a professional musician, so I came around to the thought that I would like to be in a situation where I could facilitate or administer the creation of music and opera, at that stage. I was also in the Commonwealth Government, working in the Department of Trade at the time, and in the late 1960's they established the Australia Council, so at the beginning of 1970, they created a position for a Senior Music Officer, which was the first position for a music officer ever created. I was appointed to that position in 1970. From that point on I was working in the music industry, and I had a great time there looking after companies from the Australian Opera through to community-based groups. We had funding for chamber music and Australian music as well as specific funds for the development of the state opera companies: there was a lot going on across a broad spectrum. I was there for four years and enjoyed it enormously, but I decided that after that I wanted to work in the field, so I left the Council to become the administrator for what was then the Elizabethan Trust Orchestra. I was there for a few years before spending a brief time in London. When I got back the Arts Centre Melbourne was being built and the state opera company was being developed alongside it, so I moved to the then Victorian State Opera to run the company for 19 years. Then I did some work at IMG as a producer of events and did some work on my own before Jeanne Pratt told me she wanted to start The Production Company. I helped her do that and it transpired that I came on board full time to work in management as well, and I've been here ever since! That's the trajectory. 

What a trajectory! Through all of those different organisations, you must have seen the development of many careers - of course, the careers of performers, but also the pathways of other artistic leaders and administrators. Can you tell me what you think it takes to create a sustainable career offstage in the arts?

Well, I think you have to know an awful lot about financial management. To me, arts administration crosses a bridge between the creative and the practical and your time is spent working out how to make the creative ideas practical. And on top of that, you must be able to make those ideas work within the resources that you've got. So to me, that is the real skill of arts administration. In terms of producing art, you have to be able to make the creative work with the money and resources that are available and often times it's actually the resources that make or break the project. 

How do you stay inspired when you have to work within those boundaries?

By always thinking in the future. I spend a lot of time thinking about what's coming rather than what has happened. You can learn a lot from what you've done, but the creativity is about dreaming up what comes next. 

So when you're creating a show, what does that timeline look like? How far into the future are we talking? 

I'm always listening to music and thinking about it and envisioning how we could stage a musical. I will study the musicals I'm interested in and think "do we have the skills required to get this onto a stage, given the resources that we have?" Sometimes the answer is no and you have to put that aside, but as I said you should always be thinking ahead, and if you feel really strongly about putting on a project, then you're planning how it'll fit together. A lot goes into that initial artistic planning. Timeframe wise, next year's musicals have been on my mind for up to three years already! 

The Production Company creates incredible performances on really short rehearsal timeframes - from nothing to everything in a matter of weeks! How does it happen so fast and so effectively? 

You know, that is never an obstacle. I credit the artists: you put out the challenge and they can meet it. They're aware of the timeframe, so the artist would never come to that first rehearsal with no idea of what's about to happen: they get sent all their music and parts before they start, and while it's only two weeks in the rehearsal room and one week in the theatre, if you use that time very sensibly, it works. We have, I think, developed a good technique for that timeframe wherein we're not wasting anyone's time and the work gets made quite clearly and efficiently. Some of the works we've created have been really major musicals, which is a testament to all the professionals. Today you have to be very good to make it to the top and the people we're working with are very well-trained and disciplined. It's very tricky to be at the top of the profession - the musicals being written now have a much greater emphasis on dance, for instance. In the 70s and 80s, the big musicals didn't have the dance content that musicals had in the 50s and 60s, and I think we're seeing that it's back again. 

I think now there is pressure on all artists - musicians, opera singers, musical theatre performers - to have skills outside the traditional training: why do you think this is and what do young people need to know about the industry?  

It's happening because the business is getting more competitive and people are becoming more brilliant! And there is much better training than there has ever been. The most important thing for young people to have is a real commitment to the industry. They really have to love it to make it worthwhile and I think it's also important for young people who want to pursue an artistic career to do so without an expectation of being a superstar or making a fortune: you do it because this is what you want to spend your life doing. Then again, not every first-rate person can make it, so I think it's important to know that there are all sorts of other areas within the industry that you can find a job if you're not on the stage. You've got to be realistic: I think I was very lucky that I figured out I wasn't going to have a career as a professional musician at around the age of 22, no matter how hard I worked, so I was able to readjust my sights and carry on. That's what you've got to do. 

For young people who are interested in getting into the production side of the industry, how do you recommend approaching it? 

Well as I say so often: knowledge is no burden. The more you know, the better equipped you are. Also, there are all sorts of other areas you can explore - you may have trained as a performer, so you could be great at stage management or you could try production. There are lots of career paths you can follow and try. I think my musical training gave me a very real appreciation of the kinds of commitments artists make and from an administrator's point of view it's very important to understand that so you can best support the artists in what they're doing. 

You're about to start the rehearsal period for Jesus Christ Superstar, The Production Company's second show for 2017. What do these initial rehearsals look like? 

There are two rehearsal spaces that we're working in and rehearsals go from 10am-6pm, 6 days a week, and each couple of days the schedule is set based on how well the last rehearsals have gone. This means the things that need to be rehearsed get rehearsed and we're not stuck on a weekly schedule that can't be moved. What we try and do is run act one at the end of the first week, then run act two at the end of the second. They're long hours but when you do your musical theatre training, this is what you're training for. It takes stamina, but by the time you make it onto the professional stage, it's in your genes! 

The Production Company's Jesus Christ Superstar opens on the 29th July and runs until the 13th August. Tickets are available now. Cast photograph by Colin Page.