25 Jul 2017

Helpmann Awards 2017: Better, brighter, happier

Julius Grafton and his research assistant rubbed shoulders.

After a neat 100 years of existence, Live Performance Australia turned up the volume to deliver a large, sparkling and utterly professional awards ceremony for the performing arts industry on Monday July 24.

Sitting on the set of the musical Kinky Boots at Stephen Found’s Capitol Theatre, the show started on time at 7pm and wrapped three hours later without missing a beat. Or a cue. (With one tiny exception, when the envelope for the second last award was muddled up, but presenter Deborah Hutton spotted the problem before an Oscars moment happened!)


How on earth do they stage this show, containing performances from many musicals, with so many people, on top of what is an already full backstage for Kinky Boots? Just rehearsing each of the nine segments is a potentially a nightmare – for the 21 piece orchestra, conducted by the impossibly young Vanessa Scammell, and for the technical crew.

I found out later than rehearsals started at 9.30am on show day, with about 40 minutes for each performance – during which they have to be spaced, lit and run for cameras. There is time allocated for a hosts’ rehearsal and an orchestra rehearsal.

Lighting Designer Gavan Swift adapted the Kinky Boots rig, augmented with more gear from awards sponsor Chameleon Touring Systems. As the awards are televised on Foxtel, he had the tricky task for working for the two masters – an audience in the theatre, and an audience watching screens. It looked superb.

Later, Gav told me he added about 30 lights for the audience, then used the Kinky Boots rig as it was – since it was already pointing at the stage! “Stuart Anderson was the lighting director looking after Foxtel’s interests and liaising between the OB truck and myself. Pat Smithers was the programmer. As a point of interest, the only guys on the lighting team were myself, Stuart and Pat. The majority of the team were the fabulous lighting ladies from Kinky Boots. Kathy Pineo was the head electrician and Sarah Kenyon-Williams was the followspot caller.”

Sound Designer Shelley Lee also adapted the Kinky Boots system, supplied by System Sound, and added on a lot of everything to cater to the diverse performances. How diverse? Traditional musical from the cast of My Fair Lady, through to the rocked up number by the cast of Green Day’s American Idiot.

I’d like to commend the audio execution – getting everything on and captured without missing a beat is a major accomplishment for a ‘one off’ televised live show of enormous complexity. Getting it all done while maintaining sonic consistency is a high art form. Hats off!

Opening with a Kinky Boots segment, the performances then veered off into the crazy with Book of Mormon, the glitzy with a big cast number from Aladdin, the Green Day segment, and a slightly out of place piece of dance theatre called ‘construct’ by the Australian Dance Theatre. T’was strange yet compelling.

Next came the Sydney Children’s Choir singing ‘Lux Aeterna’ for an ‘in Memoriam’ slideshow of industry people who have died over the last year. Sadly this segment seemed to go a long time.

Without an interval, the show kicked on with three or four award categories between each performance. Each award had four or sometimes five nominees, the various presenters would announce the category and a voice over would name the nominees. The envelope is opened, the winner walks up, and has 30 seconds to say – something. At the 30 second mark, Vanessa Scammell would fire up the orchestra and play them off and out. Somewhat sweetly, she could be seen mouthing ‘sorry’, to them!

Dami Im and Esther Hannaford sung a medly from the forthcoming ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, then Reg Livermore led the cast of My Fair Lady in a rousing ‘Get me to the church on time’.

After the final slew of awards, Marcia Hines and the cast of Velvet closed the show with ‘Turn the beat around’ and ‘No more tears (enough is enough). It was a very suitable closer, leaving everyone happy.

There were a lot of highlights – Jan van de Stool was an utterly hilarious host; and Rob Brookman was a totally deserving recipient of the Sue Nattrass award. Some of the acceptance speeches were priceless: Mark Coles-Smith was named ‘Best Male Actor in a Play’ for his role in The Drovers Wife. ‘What a trophy’, he started, holding up his award. “And what a performance! To my fellow nominees, I’m not like you any more….’

Leah Purcell accepted the Best Play award for the same show – The Drover’s Wife (which also won ‘Best Direction of a Play’). She somehow just owned the moment – ‘I was a grade C student at school, never destined to amount to anything. Well, let me tell YOU….’ Wow, she just nailed it.

Technical awards went to Joachim Klein for Best Lighting Design on Saul, and Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, for Best Sound Design on The Encounter. Anna Cordingley took the Best Scenic Design award for Jasper Jones.

We filed out of the theatre, and those of us blessed with a Gold Pass boarded ten busses to join the glittering After Party.



CX loves a party. If you’re going to do it, do it properly! We were excited to walk up to the brand new Hyatt Regency Ballroom at Darling Harbour, opened earlier this year and utterly beautiful with a centerpiece of mirrorballs.

Staging Connections did a neat job lighting the room for a very critical audience. I did hear a very camp voice complaining, however, that the cluster of a dozen mirrorballs, ranging from small to huge, were all rotating “IN THE SAME DIRECTION!”

“I mean, you need SOME OF THEM going the other way! Look at THEM, they’re all twirling COUNTER CLOCKWISE! Oh my GOD!”

Food stations were plonked in the middle of the room, with white coated chefs battling to keep up with the hoard of revelers who looked like they hadn’t eaten for a week. The cheese and anti-pasto table near us was plucked clean. Crumbs remained, until the sweating Hyatt staff reloaded it on the fly.

Trays of drinks were swooped on at the entry, one of which went West. I don’t mind being splashed with bubbles, so long as they were French bubbles!

A bloke impersonating a DJ stood on a podium looking bored with a Macbook and a pair of designer headphones. Whatever he was playing was drowned out by the delirious babble of exhausted industry folk. There was glamour. There was beauty. And we were there too, amongst the benefactors, producers, and anonymous Government wannabes attached to whatever funding was dripping through to some parts of the industry, somewhere.


Ross Cunningham, Chair of the Helpmann Awards; and Jon Nicholls both stood down this year after many years service to the Helpmanns. LPA Chief Executive Evelyn Richardson, and President Andrew Kay do a phenomenal job pulling the awards together on a shoestring. The 40 sponsors deserve all the recognition they get, and can be certain they are noticed supporting the industry.

(Photos: Lindsay Kearney Lightbox Photography)


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