Armidale resident, George Torbay, became a household name in 2008 after appearing as host judge on Australia’s reality music show, Battle Of the Choirs. He drops us a line to tell us about his latest project, The Hatpin.
How long have you lived in Armidale?
I grew up in Armidale. After I finished school, I left to take up a scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. After my degree was over, I stayed in the States for a short time and began performing in musical theatre. After many years working in Sydney, I returned to live in Armidale in 2007.
You’re well known as a conductor and music director. How and why did you become a director?
I love theatre of all kinds. I can get as excited about a play as I can about a musical. I have worked as a musical director on many shows, and I love doing that, but I love the process of creating an entire show more.
I love reading a script and seeing it play out in my mind. The theatre in my mind has no limits or restrictions. When I first think of how to stage a show, I allow any idea to grow and develop – however crazy! I try to squeeze out every ounce of honesty from a script. I try not to think about budgets, casting, if the theatre can cope with these ideas, or whether an audience will come. I just like ideas to flow. The ‘how’ comes much later.
Years ago when I was directing the musical Chess in Sydney, I told the designer and the producer that I wanted the opening number to be a life sized chess game with the entire cast dressed as exotic ancient Persian chess pieces fighting a battle to the death. I was initially told it was too difficult and that I might need some medication to calm down. On opening night, when the lights slowly came up and the human chess pieces began to battle each other, the audience exploded into cheers and applause. I live for those moments.
I work best in an environment where no idea is rubbish and where everyone is working together to make something of nothing.
How long have you been a member of the Armidale Drama and Musical Society (ADMS)?
I joined ADMS in 2007, shortly after arriving back in town. A few months later, I proposed the musical Titanic. This was a huge show with a big cast, gorgeous costumes, sensational music and a delicious set created by Pat Bradley. Titanic had the largest audience numbers ADMS has ever seen.
The following year I directed Blood Brothers – The Play, and in 2010 it was Urinetown – a ridiculously hilarious show complete with dancing policemen, torch choreography and tumbleweed! So much fun.
Tell us about the brand new musical you are directing?
This year I am directing The Hatpin, a new Australian musical. This is an incredibly sophisticated and fascinating work.
The Hatpin is the true story of a single mother, Amber Murray, who in 1892 advertised her baby son in a newspaper trading column for a family to care for him while she tried to find work in Sydney … and ended up embroiled in the Makin family murders. It’s one of the most captivating, moving and exciting criminal trials in Australia’s early history.
Set during a time when women had few rights, this is essentially the story of one young woman’s struggle to be heard against a mountain of criticism and resistance. It is also important to know that the Makin trial was pivotal in creating precedence in law and for generating awareness of early childhood issues and care.
Who wrote The Hatpin, and how accurate is the historical information portrayed in the musical?
James Millar wrote the book and lyrics, and Peter Rutherford wrote the music. They are two young Sydney based writers. I believe that they are serious new voices in Australian musical theatre, and I am incredibly excited to present their first effort as a writing team.
The musical is all based on actual events, people and places. The writers used court transcripts, police records, historical accounts and newspaper articles to form the story.
Curiously, I found while I was doing research that some of the murders took place at 109 George Street in Redfern. I lived in the same street at 183 for a period of time, and on my way home I would walk past each little terrace, including 109, every day.
This was actually one of the ideas that James Millar wanted to convey. If you could peel back the facade of any home, there would be a story to tell. It just happens that 109 George Street had a painful and horrific past.
You’ve directed many musicals. Why are you so excited about this one?
It is essential for us as a community – as Australians – to tell our own stories. Good, bad, shocking, shameful … we must tell our stories to grow and learn and discover more about who we are.
I recently had the chance to talk with Carol Herben, who is a descendant of the Makin family. I asked her what she felt, knowing that this awful chapter in Australian history was part of her family. She told me that once she began to investigate her ancestors, she found that she was from pure convict stock on both sides of the family. There were convicted criminals and murders, through to regular folk.
“It is what it is,” she said. “I can’t change the past. It doesn’t change who I am, but it is part of me, it connects me and gosh – it’s fascinating.”
I am excited to peel back the facade of this story and tell a tale that not many people know. It is part of our history.
I urge everyone to go and see some theatre this year – find a show, listen to the stories. You will see that we are all connected.