Just when you’d thought there was nothing left to do during isolation, along comes the saving grace. An entire musical devoted to the life of the infamous Pauline Hanson: The Colour Orange. I was lucky enough to sit down with the musical’s composer, Oliver John Cameron, to discuss the recent release of the original cast recording.
Blakey Lovely: What drew you to creating an original musical about, of all people, Pauline Hanson?
Oliver Cameron: It started out as a bit of a joke with my co-writer, Sophia, posting a Facebook status at the end of 2016. I thought it was a funny idea and we met up to chat about it, and the more we researched her life and career, the more it lent itself to the farce of musical theatre. It also provided an interesting challenge of representing this quite infamous person in a way that wasn’t overly condescending or defamatory.
BL: Was it a difficult process for you to bring Pauline to life on stage, and what was the creative process like for you from the conception of the idea to the performance?
OC: We were definitely struck by a few roadblocks along the way regarding the ethics of portraying Pauline on stage, but the constant checking or our motivations, asking ‘why are we doing this?’ proved to be what made the show work. We would meet quite regularly after we’d committed to the fringe festival slot and share what we had researched in the prior week. There wasn’t one clear process, just the generation of lots and lots of ideas (good and bad) and often over a glass of wine. Then all of a sudden, we were five weeks out from opening and we had to make decisions and tie all of these loose ideas together. The original team of Zara Stanton, Gavin Brown, Liam Ferguson, Kirralee Hillier and Gabi Kelland were instrumental to making the material work and bringing the comedy to life.
BL: What is it about Pauline Hanson that compels audiences? Why is it that we love to hate her?
OC: She’s such a divisive figure, but that ‘love to hate’ mentality became one of the central interrogations within the show. At the end of the day, Pauline could be any number of ‘ordinary Australians’ who fit the bill for a populist politician. Australians are drawn to genuine people who say what they think, and I think that’s certainly where Pauline started. As time has gone on, her stance on issues has changed so frequently that it’s clearly more about attention and popularity these days. A click is a click, whether it’s good or bad in the eyes of her politics or the media.
BL: What was it like performing to sold out crowds during the shows run at the Sydney Fringe Festival in Alexandria?
OC: The last few weeks before we opened were so frantic to get the show ready that by the time an audience was in front of us we kept telling ourselves it was just a dress run! We weren’t quite sure what to expect and whether we had backed ourselves into a ‘too-niche’ corner, but we were so glad to have a warm audience response and laughter from the get-go. The show doesn’t start with Pauline, she actually doesn’t make an appearance until 15 minutes in, and I think that was a good call because it allowed the audience to warm up to the style of comedy and slightly absurd elements. We were asked back for an encore performance which was thrilling and encouraged us to schedule performances at Adelaide Fringe and Sydney Comedy Festival.
BL: What kind of a response have you been getting from the show? Is it what you expected or wanted?
OC: We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response from our audiences, and quite a few people who missed out asking when it will be on again! I think there’s something in there for everyone, with a mixture of political, music theatre and pop culture all wrapped up in an Australiana bow. I’ve also been glad to hear people humming the tunes after seeing the performances – it means a lot!
BL: Pauline has been a hugely controversial figure over the past few years, and somehow continues to garner power and control in the parliament despite her outlandish claims. How did you go about weaving Pauline’s outspoken nature into the musical?
OC: We were well aware of our position of privilege in making fun of someone like Pauline Hanson. Sophia and I wanted to avoid speaking on behalf of the groups who have been targeted by Pauline’s rhetoric, nor did we want to redo the damage of her stunts, racism and jingoism. We also didn’t want to laugh off the serious implications of her political ascension. By taking the words of the real-life Pauline and giving them to other characters or underscoring them with contrary music, we found ways to disempower the words by revealing their ludicrousness. A lot of the irony is communicated through the actors’ performance. Having multiple people play Pauline throughout her career was another way of curtailing her presence as an empathetic character. A lot of people commented that they had forgotten parts of her story, like the fact she went to prison or was on Dancing with the Stars. I also think that showing these events in one 75-minute show creates a greater impact. It helps reveal the devious side of her political climb, and the forces that helped make it possible.
BL: Many other Liberal political figures make an appearance in The Colour Orange. Why do you feel like so many people, especially young people, feel disenfranchised from the current government? How does The Colour Orange touch on this issue?
OC: One Nation wouldn’t have been so successful in the 1996 election without John Howard. His lack of a stance on the minor party as a racist enterprise set about a change for politics where nationalism and xenophobia once again became valid political fronts. This is part of the reason we called the production company ‘Flaming Howard’ as a softened version of ‘Blaming Howard’. The band is featured throughout the show and stays on stage after being introduced one by one as John Howard at the opening, with Aussie green and gold tracksuits to match their bushy stick-on eyebrows. I liked the idea of all the action happening right under John’s nose, and the indecisive multi-manned John Howard band leads to some great comic moments.
The show is set in the years leading up to 2016 with Pauline’s re-election, but we did draw on anachronistic and more recent references to politics, particularly regarding Tony Abbott’s infamous ‘speechless nodding’ incident. I agree that a lot of young people are disenfranchised by the state of politics around the world, but I also think we all have the potential to make an impact on policy making by remaining engaged, communicating with our MP and voting with purpose. I hope that a show like this works somewhat to encourage engagement with politics, as frustrating as it is. Within a democratic system we all have the capacity to make an impact. That’s probably the one good thing we can learn from Pauline.
BL: A longstanding social figure Pauline Pantsdown is notoriously known for impersonating Hanson. Did this inspire your own construction of The Colour Orange?
OC: Initially, I only had a vague knowledge of Pauline Pantsdown from when I was a lot younger, and it was only when I began researching that I knew the extent of their activism. We were conscious of not re-treading Simon Hunt’s comic stylings, although there is some element of drag in the exaggerated characterisations within the show that aren’t tied to a particular gender. We invited Simon to the Sydney Comedy Festival show and I got to meet him after which was lovely. He really enjoyed the show and gave it his tick of approval for historical accuracy, which was a big thumbs up for us!
The Colour Orange is written by Sophia Roberts and Oliver John Cameron with original music composed by Oliver John Cameron.
The Colour Orange is available on iTunes, Spotify and all streaming platforms.