On the weekend, I had the privilege of running some theatre workshops for the Brisbane Academy of Musical Theatre Open Day. I love days like that where I get to meet and work with talented young performers who are eager to pursue their dream and are hungry for their chance at success. I started my workshop by asking questions of each of the participants, just to get a sense of who they are and where they’re at in life. I was most interested to hear who inspires them, and the answers they all gave were really heartwarming. I heard so many stories about teachers and parents and grandparents and friends who had encouraged these young dreamers to follow their curiosity, and it started me thinking about how powerful someone else believing in you can be. It’s like that song the Muppets used to sing:
“If just one person believes in you,
Deep enough, and strong enough, believes in you...
Hard enough, and long enough,
It stands to reason, that someone else will think
If he can do it, I can do it."
Sometimes we can’t see our own potential. Sometimes we need someone else to see it first so they can point it out to us.
So I started thinking about my own journey and about the people in my life who have believed in me over the years. My Mum, my sisters, a few teachers, some loyal friends….I was always lucky to be surrounded by people who had faith in my ability and spurred me on with their encouragement – they gave me the boost I needed to start my journey towards a career in the theatre. But once I was on my journey, I discovered the theatre to be a place of deep insecurity, where the competitive nature of the business made me second guess myself and my worth on an almost daily basis. At the age of 23, I found myself at the helm of a small theatre company, producing pro-am productions in a little 300-seat theatre in Brisbane, trying to make a name for myself and for the company without any money, any clout or any idea what I was doing. I was the young guy with the big dream, but nobody in the industry took me seriously. I was not university trained, I didn’t have many friends or connections in the industry; I was very much on the outskirts of the theatre scene and had no real idea of how to make my mark. I was exhausted from constantly putting myself out there with little tangible result.
Then one day the office phone rang. In those days we were working out of a tiny little office, not much bigger than a broom cupboard, so when the receptionist took the call she was literally at the desk beside me. She whispered across to me:
“Marina Prior’s manager is on the phone for you”.
I laughed out loud. Why on earth would Marina Prior’s manager be calling me? I was nobody. It had to be a joke.
“Hang up,” I said. “It’s a prank call”.
“No, he’s for real and he says Marina wants to meet you tonight”.
I had tickets to attend a fundraiser dinner that evening that Marina was performing at. I had been excited enough to just be sitting in the audience to hear her sing, but now she wanted to meet me? It had to be a hoax. I put it out of my mind. I was certain it was someone playing a practical joke on me.
That night when I arrived at the fundraiser dinner, I bumped into a friend of mine who was helping to organize the event.
“Marina Prior was asking after you at sound check,” she said. “Apparently she really wants to meet you.”
I felt all the blood drain out of my head and rush down into my feet. I felt like I was being summoned to the principal’s office (only the principal was Australia’s leading lady of musical theatre). At the time, I had a fairly poor track record when it came to meeting famous people. I’d once lined up for hours to meet Sophie Monk in the Queen Street Mall and nearly vomited on her with nerves and excitement when she signed my poster and said I was cute. I’d had a similar encounter meeting Bert Newton at QPAC stage door years earlier, and then there was this other time when I worked at a call centre and I somehow ended up on the phone with Tom Cruise and I sort of screamed down the line at him, “Show me the money!” and then giggled like an idiot and accidentally hung up on him. (That’s a whole other story – tell you some other time). I just got really stupid around famous people, and so naturally when I knew for sure that Marina Prior wanted to meet me I did the only sensible thing I could think of.
I spent most of the evening sliding down in my chair and hiding behind my menu. I was being ridiculous, but at the same time I was also trying to spare Marina from my fame-induced Tourettes syndrome. I just didn’t want to make a fool of myself, and I also just couldn’t for the life of me figure out what on earth she wanted to talk to me about. Why should someone like her want to meet someone like me?
It was right at the end of the night that I felt a tap on my shoulder and I turned around and there she was, standing right beside me. Christine from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was tapping me on the shoulder!
“Hello, I’m Marina”, she said, as if I didn’t know.
I said something stupid. I can’t even remember what. I was just trying not to pass out. We chatted for a little while and eventually Marina told me that she was working with a bunch of actors down in Melbourne and they were looking to start a small theatre company, and she wanted to get my advice on how to go about it all.
Just to recap: One of the most famous and successful figures in the history of musical theatre in Australia wanted my advice on how to start a theatre company.
WHAT IN THE WORLD WAS GOING ON?
Surely she had Andrew Lloyd Webber on speed dial. No doubt she could have text Cameron Mackintosh for assistance. But no, she wanted MY advice.
I have no idea how I didn’t just wet my pants right then and there.
Three weeks later I was flown to Melbourne, welcomed into Marina’s home, taken into rehearsals with her theatre troupe and invited to critique their work. I’ll never forget the way Marina responded to my feedback and directorial advice. Here was a woman who had worked with Hal Prince and Trevor Nunn and some of the greatest directors in the history of modern theatre, and she was listening attentively and saying things like “That’s really profound” and “You’ve got such a good eye for this sort of thing”. I find it hard to believe I was being profound at all – I was mostly just focusing on not melting into a puddle on the floor. I was an absolute nobody who had at that time only directed a handful of low budget shows in that tiny little theatre in Brisbane, but for some reason she was treating me like I knew what I was talking about. I kept expecting her to suddenly realize that she’d made a mistake and brought the wrong person to Melbourne, but it never happened.
I went home from that experience feeling like I was ten feet tall and invincible. Something inside me had changed. From that day on, whenever I felt like I didn’t have the confidence to move forward in my career, I would think to myself, “Well, Marina Prior thinks you’re good. You must be doing something right,” and it would spur me on for a little longer. The experience didn’t change the way others looked at me, but it certainly changed the way I looked at myself. Because Marina believed in me, it helped me to believe in me, and once I believed in me it gave others the confidence to believe in me too.
Marina’s faith in my ability and her endorsement of my work started a chain reaction of events that led me to where I am today. Her words rung in my ears for years after that first meeting. They empowered me to be bold, to step out and be daring. I grew that tiny little theatre group into a major professional musical theatre company, and I can honestly say I did all of that on the back of Marina’s belief in me. Her endorsement was like my fuel, powering my journey forward, and because she had faith in me, I had faith in me. It was only last year that I finally got around to telling her how significant the impact she had on my life was – up until then I think she had no idea how much her belief in me had meant and how much it had helped me to achieve.
So I guess this blog is to say thank you Miss Marina – my success has been all your fault, and I’m ever so grateful, more than I can say. But it’s also to say that through someone like Marina believing in me, I have discovered the joy of sharing my own belief in other people. It’s amazing what people can achieve when they feel like someone else has faith in them. There is so much power in those four words – I BELIEVE IN YOU. It doesn’t cost anything to give them but their value is immense. It’s a privilege to be in a position today where I get to work with so many emerging artists who need someone to believe in them, just like I did years ago. Because someone believed in me, I can now believe in them….and so the cycle continues. It’s the best gift you can give a person – your faith, your support, your confidence, your certainty. Sometimes we can’t see our own potential without someone else seeing it first. I’m so grateful for the faith that was placed in me. I think I’ll spend the rest of my career passing it on. What a privilege.
PS: My dear friend Marina is in Brisbane this week performing her one woman cabaret show at the Brisbane Powerhouse. If you’re in town, you should get yourself a ticket. You should be so lucky to spend an evening in the presence of someone so generous, warm, charming and talented. You can grab tickets by clicking here.