Writing, Motherhood and the Complicated Life - Amity Dry on her original Australian musical
There are certain things in life that people tend to sugar coat; their diets, their relationships, how long they browse on facebook before bed. In the age of sharing our life on social media, we’ve all become savvy publicists for ourselves, showing only the most flattering angles and the images that make us look like our life is the most exciting and most enviable in all of facebook-land. Out of all the important things we want to tell the world we are getting right, it’s only natural that people tend to sugar-coat that wonderful experience, motherhood. We’ve all seen the warm, hazy pictures of new mothers, smelling their babies heads and smiling serenely. This projected image of calm and beauty can set benchmarks that are impossible to meet. We all know deep down that the true realities of parenthood are messy, filled with emotional ups and downs and are never perfect. We just never want to admit it.
Amity Dry is an exception to that rule. In her new show Mother, Wife and the Complicated Life, Amity proves that she’s not intending to sugarcoat a thing. She writes honestly about motherhood, and speaks to us honestly about the experience of creating a new Australian musical – both experiences occurring almost simultaneously in her life, which is something that would deter most people. “I was so naive about the challenges of launching a new musical,” she says, “which was good because if I’d known how hard it was I probably would never have done it.”
Amity had always felt the call to create music. “I’ve been writing songs since I was 12 and released my first album of original songs in 2003, with ‘The Lighthouse’. I had a big radio hit and top ten album with that song, but was always a frustrated pop writer because I wanted to tell stories with my songs and felt like it was the least important thing in pop music.”
It wasn’t until 2006 that she returned to her home-town Adelaide with her newborn baby in her arms that she started to venture away from the world of pop-music. “(I) went to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival for the first time. I absolutely fell in love with the art form and realised there was an audience who wanted to be moved and hear stories and this was how I could do it. So I went home and started writing my first show that night.”
That’s how Mother, Wife and the Complicated Life was born. “I originally wrote it as a cabaret show and it was totally based on my experience,” Amity says. “It was the first cabaret show I’d ever written and with a toddler at home motherhood was the predominant experience of my life, so it made sense to write about that.”
When the material was ready, Amity took her first step in showing it to the world. This can be a difficult step to take, not just because it’s nerve-racking to share your project with people, but because it can be so hard to find a platform here in Australia to debut new work. However, Amity was able to take it back to the festival that inspired it’s creation in the first place. “I did three shows in the Adelaide Fringe Festival and was absolutely terrified beforehand. It was the most honest and vulnerable I had ever been on stage and I didn’t know how the audience would respond to it, but I was blown away by the response. Women came up to me with tears in their eyes and thanked me for telling it like it really is, because it made them feel better about not loving it every minute. It was then I realised how much women’s stories are lacking on the stage, particularly mothers. We see a Hollywood/Huggies commercial picture of motherhood where everything is perfect, which makes us all feel bad about our lives where we’re just struggling to stay afloat half the time.”
At this point, Amity made the commitment to turn her cabaret into a full length musical with a cast of four. Each of the characters would be experiencing a different stage of motherhood and marriage, and the audience would get to go on their journey with them.
“I had never written a musical before but I was doing it for myself more than anything and as there were no expectations of me I had nothing to lose! By now I was pregnant with my second child, so I wrote throughout the pregnancy and when she was a newborn, so I was well and truly immersed in the motherhood experience. Which is why I think it feels so authentic. You do sugar coat the experience after the fact but because I wrote most of it while being up with her in the middle of the night there was no sugar coating! I registered the musical for the 2011 Adelaide Fringe, cast three local Adelaide actresses and we debuted the show when my daughter was eight months old. And what has happened with the show since then has exceeded my wildest dreams!”
Mother, Wife and the Complicated Life has, since those early days, toured Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, performed at the UN, been a part of a concert at prestigious New York venue 54 Below and has, most recently, headed to Europe for a Norwegian production translated to Der Perfekte Liv. One of the biggest developmental stages the show saw was the New York Music Theatre Festival.
“That festival was an amazing, challenging and life changing experience that requires a long story (and a few wines) to really cover, but the wrap up is that I learnt a lot. I registered the show for the 2012 Festival and it didn’t make it, but they contacted me to say it came close, so to try again next year. Which I did and it was selected as an invited show. By then we were embarking on a tour of Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne, so the show had developed a lot and was very polished. I was absolutely thrilled when it was accepted, only to be told we couldn’t perform our version because we weren’t Actors Equity members. So they recommended work-shopping a new version, with New York actresses and a creative team.”
Amity wasn’t too disheartened though, knowing that any chance to work on your show is an opportunity to learn new things about it. “As hard as it was not to take our version when we would have loved to perform in the Festival, I took their advice and saw it as a good development process for the show. So I went from producing and acting in a polished show to watching a new team start from scratch, with only four weeks to get it on stage. To say that was challenging is a massive understatement! I knew what worked, so wanted to show them certain comic beats to hit etc, but the director wanted them to find it for themselves.”
More than just the challenge of redrafting and workshopping a musical, Amity had to face the many differences between the New York industry and the Australian. “Their humour is quite different, so some of the more dry and sarcastic moments got a bit lost in translation and I missed our Australian sense of humour and relaxed attitude immensely. So their version was quite different and I still liked ours better, but it was very good for the show to see which moments are uniquely Australian and which moments were universal. To go from an audience full of Australian mums to a NYC theatre audience meant different things resonated, but ultimately the show worked and was better for it. But the best thing was when someone from the United Nations saw the show and told me we should perform it at the Commission for the Status of Women Conference at the UN. So we followed up that opportunity and when, astoundingly, it actually happened we brought the Australian cast over and performed our version. And that was amazing!”
Amity’s experience of creating and workshopping her musical is an inspiring one for writers here in Australia. It can be so difficult to get your work out there, supported and put up for a full season, so seeing Amity’s success with Mother, Wife and the Complicated Life could be a beacon of hope for many young writers. However, Amity is honest about the challenges she has faced.
“It is harder than I thought in so many ways. Especially because its success has all been this wonderful accident, so I’ve had to learn how to do everything. When I first realised the potential of the show I approached a few producers to see if they wanted to take it on, but none were interested. So I learnt how to produce it myself.
“The biggest challenge is always the lack of funding. At first everyone just pitched in to make it happen, but once the show got to a professional standard it requires a lot of money to keep it going. I have applied for a few grants before but have always been unsuccessful as I get the distinct impression this show is too commercial for the arts funding mould. I also think the funding process is so flawed; you can’t apply for development money when it’s in its infancy, because you don’t have enough to show them, so you go and develop it yourself and then you can’t apply for development because it’s too developed! There is also not a specific government grant for new musicals, so you’re up against other art-forms as well as the big theatre companies, when you don’t stand a chance. It’s frustrating when you are selling out shows, getting great reviews and seeing audiences love it, but you can’t get any support to keep it going.
“So I started my own production company and my husband and I have put our own money into it. We’ve lost way more than we’ve made but if we hadn’t done that the show would have died and I believe in it way too much to let that happen. I am also very proud that we are currently taking ten artists and crew on an eleven week tour and paying them equity rates, despite not getting any funding.”
Despite these frustrations, Amity can see a brighter future if only a few things could change. “In an ideal world theatres would offer discounted hire rates for independent companies and there would be more avenues to get advice and experience on how to launch new musicals. It would be great if producers also supported more Australian shows instead of rehashing all the American shows, because we have so much talent here! The biggest difference I found doing the show in the US and Norway was that people took the show seriously based on its credentials, whereas here there tends to me a cultural cringe about our own work, which is such a shame. Finally, theatre fans need to go and support these new works by buying tickets and seeing them, because that’s where it all starts and ends.
Still writing and now working on her second musical, Amity says that even she, with her success behind her, is daunted by the idea of doing it all again. “I need to go back to being naive and just write it for the love, but that’s easier said than done!”
As someone who has always found the process of songwriting to be spontaneous and driven by inspiration rather than deadline, Amity says she’s also facing the challenges of writing with more little ones running around the house. “I have always kind of let songs come to me rather than forcing them. I find if I sit down with the intention to write a song it’s rarely a good one, but when I get the creative feeling and have the opportunity to let it flow and capture it, that’s when the great ones happen. However, this is a lot harder to do now I have kids! That feeling often comes at the most inopportune time and I have many new song recordings that have kids interrupting me or yelling at me to stop singing because they can’t hear the TV! We’re currently building a new house and I will have a music room away from everyone, so I’m very excited about that. I usually write the melody and lyrics at the same time, they flow out together. I really do feel like the special songs choose me and I just have to be ready to catch them. I see them as little gifts!”
Despite the obstacles, Amity is setting her sights high and working towards even greater successes. “I have my eyes set on the West End. I don’t know how I will make that happen, but that’s never stopped me before so I will learn as I go. But first, I need a holiday!”
Mother, Wife and Complicated Life offers an honest portrait of motherhood, capturing all its highs and lows. Amity Dry seems not to shy away from these hard truths, not only in her writing but in her approach to our industry and the struggles that musical theatre writers have to go through in this country. If we can take heart from her successes, then we can take heart from her honesty about how difficult it all can be, knowing that she is helping create a truthful discussion about what we’re facing. With her help and with other writers opening up, we can know that unless we stop sugar coating what these experiences are like we will never be able to see them through and share in their ups, their downs and, hopefully, their successes.