Feature article: John Sheedy

 Ingredients for success by Rachael Hains-Wesson

 edited by Pier Leach

Image of John SheedyJohn Sheedy has recently stepped into the Barking Gecko’s Artistic Director’s position in Western Australia and is literally clearing the gecko slate clean. Presently, he is reviewing the company’s previous works, envisaging a new theatrical style and leading the company into new directions. In Sheedy’s opinion, Barking Gecko will once again become an exceptional theatre company for young people and not just locally but nationally and internationally, producing high-quality theatre experiences. Sheedy points out, “Twenty-one years is a long history and we need to step up and claim that” and “with that kind of title – Barking Gecko needs to be a leader in this country in terms of quality, production values and reinventing the approach to Theatre for Young Audiences.”

Sheedy is an excellent role model for young people and especially for those who intuitively understand at a young age what they want to do with their lives. Sheedy grew up in the coast town of Torque, Melbourne and received very little opportunity at school to pursue his passion for the creative arts. As a teenager he studied art and learnt quickly to cope socially and creatively by gravitating towards friends who were interested in fashion design and writing. For any young person who is artistically motivated, growing up in an industrial town and desiring a career in the arts is often difficult because few opportunities tend to be available. Fortunately for Sheedy, he was able to confide in and be nurtured by an English teacher, “My English teacher Lynette Peterson was such an influence on me and she identified pretty quickly what my interests were. She would print out maps and send me to Melbourne to go and see Art House films and I’d have to write an essay on it. One of the first films I saw was John Waters’ Hair Spray and I just thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. A beaut domestic musical on film.”

To follow your dreams, advocates Sheedy, is about having “a sense of bravery and to take risks”. His advice to young people is to be “honest with your self” and to realise “that you don’t have to be a part of a common crowd” because “if the opportunity isn’t available to you then go and find where it is available.”

One particular door that opened for Sheedy was when he moved to Melbourne, which he did as soon as he was old enough. He applied to the National Theatre for Drama in St. Kilda. However, it was never easy, “I applied and they weren’t going to let me in because I was too young. I waited out the front. Joan Harris closed the door and I stood there for an hour and I talked my way in. It was persistence and determination that got me in. Knowing my mother came to Australia not knowing the language and having to adapt quickly to a new culture and being a female drummer in a band. She never let that stop her and I saw that. Persistence, determination and courage are what you need.”

After drama school, Sheedy’s determined spirit directed him towards working for television in series such as Blue Heelers and Stingers, which he did for seven years, as well as performing in various films and theatre productions, “I grew and learnt so much. Television is different to the stage and I had various mentors. I did a lot of theatre as well. It was so interesting to watch how different directors approached a scene.”

Sheedy applied to complete the directors’ course at NIDA in 2002. John Clarke interviewed him in Melbourne and there were 15 other applicants. They each had to “pitch a show” regarding its concept and design. However, for Sheedy it was a strange afternoon. He only received 15 minutes to pitch his show Death of Salesman before John Clarke stopped asking him questions and requested him to be directed by the other applicants, "I spent the whole afternoon acting. When I got home and my house-mate asked me how I went, I said ‘I have no idea’ because I spent the whole afternoon performing. I got a call two weeks later saying that I was accepted."

There were nine people in Sheedy’s NIDA cohort and it was extremely competitive. At the end of the course Sheedy was the only one who’d found an agent. Sheedy explains, “I think the fact that I fought so hard to get out of Geelong kept me going forward. I don’t want to be that person who is just a ruthless guy but I know that my ambition has made me push past other people. Unfortunately, you can’t avoid that in this industry.”

Today, Sheedy has an honest approach when asked how to define Theatre for Young Audiences in Australia, “I don’t put the word ‘young people’ in front of theatre” comments Sheedy. He went onto clarify that theatre is an experience first and essentially about creating stories, "Barking Gecko is a youth theatre company, but I’m not approaching the work for just young people because I think you can fall into the trap of just doing stories that are full of colour and movement. There is no reason why you shouldn’t place the same production quality and value that you put in for adult theatre. Of course, I’m not going to program a Sarah Kane or a Patrick Marber but having said that - this year is a real transition for Barking Gecko - part of that is to stretch the age range from five to 25.”

Sheedy also hopes to focus on young people and their career prospects within the arts industry, "that means inspiring young people to become art practitioners and to want a career in the arts. Barking Gecko desires to have a lot more young people at an early age subscribing to theatre experiences so that when they want to decide between film, theatre, or a rock concert that theatre is a part of that decision process. That’s where BG is going.”

However, Sheedy’s passion and vision for a new Barking Gecko has the local talent slightly concerned about their employment prospects. He understands the dichotomy between nurturing local talent and pushing them artistically, “it is my priority here to nurture local talent and I think Perth has enormous talent. The majority of artists, writers, designers that I have worked with in the east have actually come from Perth.” Nevertheless, he’s no softie either, “for those who want to stay in Perth and hone in on their talent, I think there is a bit of a danger to think that they can sit back and relax.” His words are relevant because the talent pool in Perth is not massive, and there is always the easy thought that one can get work in Perth’s theatre scene more confidently than if they were in the eastern states. Sheedy suggests otherwise, “I think that is dangerous because you therefore aren’t challenged and that competitive nature and edge isn’t there to actually recreate to actually be better and it’s going to be really interesting for me to observe that and see how that works.”

In order for Australia’s Theatre for Young Audiences to be acknowledge alongside adult theatre while competing both artistically, nationally and internationally then Sheedy’s uncompromising view is valid, “I won’t compromise and why would you want to? I’m all for nurturing young artists. I’m always looking at local scripts and I think it is really important to acknowledge the state you’re in and to be able to give to the folk and to give the time and to give opportunities to the local artists, but also to actually push them to.”