The Spectacle That is Harvest Rain

What’s it like to be part of a cast of 600? Drama teacher, director, theatre reviewer and proud grandmother Carol Wimmer explores what goes on behind the scenes of Harvest Rain Theatre’s arena productions - both The Wizard of Oz earlier this year, and early preparations for We Will Rock You in 2021-22.

After the brilliant success of its 2019-2020 arena production of The Wizard of Oz, Harvest Rain has decided to “keep moving forward”, and, despite the multiple problems and restriction that Covid-19 has enforced upon the Arts, it has begun to prepare hundreds of young performers for its 2021-2022 production – We Will Rock You, the Arena Spectacular.

Early this year, Australia wide auditions gave hundreds of young singers and dancers the chance to strut their stuff to the production team, who watched, evaluated … and selected. Then the virus struck!

Undaunted, director/choreographer Callum Mansfield and his team pushed on! Successful performers were contacted and consoled with the news that they would persevere in the hope that, by the end of 2021, when the production was due to open, things might be back to normal.  And so, the remarkable organisation that is Harvest Rain began the task of finding a way around closures and restrictions.

So You Want to be a Star is the title of the handbook designed for the performers of the Touring Production of We Will Rock You, the Arena Spectacular. It’s already in the hands of young performers and its premise of developing Excellence, Integrity and Influence is at the centre of all workshops, rehearsals and performances. In it, Mansfield follows the effective approach that makes kids come back to Harvest Rain again and again. It’s positive, punchy, full of sound developmental advice that is followed up in workshops and boot camps – whether at venues all around the country, or online, as the first workshops have been held this year. They’ve been lively, inter-active, fun, but carefully planned and controlled. And the whole family can listen in if they so wish!

Excellence, Integrity and Influence are used as a mantra by Mansfield to guide aspiring ‘stars’ carefully in the “journey towards excellence” in the performing arts, both in this booklet and that provided to all cast members in The Performing Artist’s Yellow Brick Road to Excellence as they began their journey in Harvest Rain’s 2019-2020 arena performance of The Wizard of Oz.

Mansfield sees these booklets and the ‘lessons’ therein as “a map to the mind, heart and soul of what it means to be a performing artist” – and he uses them to guide (and charm) the hundreds of aspiring young artists who sign up to be part of the mass ensemble for  Harvest Rain’s school holiday spectaculars.

Having seen their production of “The Wizard of Oz” at Sydney’s Qudos Arena on 25th January 2020, I was impressed by the whole spectacle, which was a remarkable credit to director Tim O’Connor, Mansfield and their talented team of Mass Captains. Incredible LED scenes took Dorothy and her friends from stormy Kansas to the land of Oz, and through brightly lit cornfields, dark forests and witch-inspired maelstroms to the Emerald City.

But it was the 600 young people, aged 10 to 17, who sang and danced in perfect, choreographed formation as Munchkins, Poppies, Winkies, Jitterbugs and flag-bearing Emerald City citizens that impressed most!

Accomplishing such impressively co-ordinated performances from such a host of committed young performers, from such diverse places and experience, is not easy. As a drama teacher, director and theatre reviewer, I was intrigued to know more about the structure and co-ordination that achieved it.

Because I am close to young performers, Alex (14) and Xavier (9), and their mother, Meredith, I was able to ask some questions about their ‘journey to Oz’ – and their desire to be part of the next big arena event. I wanted to know just what it takes to be part of the massed chorus of a Harvest Rain arena production. How much does it cost in dollars, time, commitment and energy? Why do young people sign up to do it again … and again? Is it just the love of their art – or is there something more?

Meredith’s first suggestion was to read the booklets, because she felt they gave an overview of why she liked Harvest Rain’s approach – and why the boys were so keen to sign up for their next production.

The booklets are encouraging, ‘up front’ guides for young artists. Without being didactic, they take the young people through a clear and sensitively worded explanation of what it takes to be a performer – and to be part of a production. They explain what is meant by professionalism, focus, being creative, building a character and being passionate about their art. They warn gently about ego and bitterness and stress the importance of respect and responsibility. They could be handbooks for any aspiring performer.

With all of the above in mind, questions came easily …

Carol: How did you hear about Harvest Rain and the production of “The Wizard of Oz”?

Meredith: I first heard about it on a Facebook feed in late 1918. Because of Alex’s interest and involvement in dance and drama, we sought more information and decided to sign up for the Skills Assessment workshop in early 2019.

Carol: Tell me about that workshop.

Alex: I felt a bit uncomfortable at first, but there were lots of kids in the same boat. We did some ‘getting to know you’ drama games and some singing and dancing and that made me feel more confident. There was a little bit of choreography too, but it was easy to follow.

C: What came next?

M: Once Alex was accepted, we received the invoice and information about forth coming Boot Camps – and we signed up for the long haul.

C: The long haul?

M. Well, the show wouldn’t go on until January 2020, and it seemed strange to be paying up front that far in advance. But in retrospect, Harvest Rain kept in constant email contact and we felt very informed and confident about their organisation.

C: And the cost?

M: To some it may seem a lot at the time, especially as it’s a one-ff payment, but it ends up being good value compared with the cost of other arts courses – and other school holiday activities. When you consider the number of and length of rehearsals, the costumes, the training and the experience and the kudos of being part of such a big production. It gives the kids exposure to the production process, a window into the world of theatre.

C: Tell me about the Boot Camps Alex.

A: There were two Boot Camps. The first one was at Chatswood. It was fun. I was still a bit nervous at first, but the teachers made it fun and the singing and dancing was like ordinary dance classes except there were lots of kids. Some didn’t have very much dance experience, but everyone had fun.

M: Alex couldn’t go to the second Boot Camp because it was in the middle of the year and he had rehearsals for both his school production and his dance studio production that weekend. But they were very understanding and accommodating. He was able to do the Boot Camp online.

C: How did that work?

A: It was based on the booklet. We had to read through the booklet and answer the questions, like “What things are you afraid of when you are performing?’ or “What should you do if the director is talking to someone else in the room?”

M: It was good for me because I actually read along with Alex whereas if he’d been at the workshop I may just have skimmed the booklet. This way I was impressed with the wording and how they approached difficult issues, like explaining about ego. They used the heading “Beware of getting a big head”, but explained the problems associated with ‘ego’ and how to deal with them gently but firmly. An interesting approach.

C: What was the next step?

M: We had sent measurements for costumes and later in the year received emails with the rehearsal schedule and costumes pick up details. Suddenly it was all happening!

C: Tell me about rehearsals.

A. They started in the second week of January – at the basketball stadium at Bankstown. I didn’t even really know where Bankstown was!

C: How did you get there?

A. Dad or my grandfather drove me there and back. A couple of times they shared driving with the mother of a girl I knew from my old dance studio. Some kids came by bus.

C: Tell me about the rehearsals.

A: I wasn’t really nervous once I got there. We learnt all the choreography and practised it over and over. Sometimes it was a bit boring because we were there all day, from 8.15 in the morning until 3.30pm. But it was fun as well.

C: What made it fun?

A. That’s easy! Callum and Tim. I don’t think I’ve ever met nicer people. They were always happy. They never frowned and never raised their voices. Callum always smiled and never really got cross. Even when he had to “tap people out”. It was the same with the Mass Captains. They were all so nice and so talented.

It was much more exciting when we got to the Qudos Arena,

C: Why was that?

A. Well, it wasn’t just a big basketball court! There were proper ‘voms’ (vomitoriums) and a big stage. Suddenly we all knew where were coming in from and could get an idea of where the audience would be and what it would look like to the audience. It was all real!

C: How did you feel about the performances?

A:  It was exciting! And everything worked.

C: Would you do it again?

A: Definitely. It was fun meeting so many people, learning all the dance routines, being part of something so big.

C: What about your feelings Meredith?

M: At that first Assessment I met some parents whose children had been involved in Grease (Harvest Rain’s previous production) and they were very positive, so I was comfortable about Alex being involved. I had the same feeling at the induction, after Callum spoke to us about the process and how they would look after the kids. That was important for me because they seemed to be good role models for kids who want to go into the arts.

C: And would you sign up for Alex to do it again?

M: We’re in the process of doing that at the moment! The next production is We Will Rock You in 2022 and applications are open now. Alex enjoyed it so much that our younger son wants to do it next time as well!

So, there was the answer to my original question! And the reasons why both Alex and Xavier signed up and spent a whole weekend singing and dancing in front of the TV for the first online Boot Camp for We Will Rock You. **

Through people Callum Mansfield and Tim O’Connor, Harvest Rain is encouraging hundreds of kids to follow their dreams in the arts – and in the process educating them about commitment, collaboration, rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing! It’s giving them the thrill of performing to a vast audience and the excitement of working with professional creatives and performers.

It seems that We Will Rock You is just what Harvest Rain does – and will do again in 2022!

Despite the obvious restrictions that have hit the arts, the dedicated team behind this ‘spectacular’ organisation is encouraging and teaching its large, eager and ambitious young cast ready to “take on the world” and wave Queen and Harvest Rain’s “banner all over the place”.

Wizard of Oz photography by Glenn Pokorny.