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  • Liane Morris

Female Empowerment {IN HEELS!} | Chookas Entertainment Presents Legally Blonde


L–R: Megan Connelly as Vivienne Kensington, Brynn Hulls as Elle Woods and Freddy Hellier as Warner Huntington III in Legally Blonde. Image Credit: Jo Roberts.

Jody Miller is a young woman on a mission. Armed with a Bachelor in Musical Theatre from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, a Diploma of Dance through Village Dance, a Masters of Teaching (Music) and a lifetime of experience working in theatrical productions in Sydney, this 27-year-old is bringing her talent and chutzpah to the Newcastle theatre scene with impressive results.


This May and June, see her production company, Chookas Entertainment, present two musical comedy greats with Legally Blonde the Musical at Civic Playhouse, 17 – 27 May and the Stephen Sondeheim classic Company at Newcastle Theatre Company, 14 – 24 June.

 

Jody grew up within the theatre industry. Her mother was a highly regarded member of the pro/am musical theatre company Packemin Productions operating out of Parramatta's Riverside Theatres and Chatswood's Concourse Theatre. She spent her childhood hanging around theatres and backstage areas, helping out when she was old enough. At the age of 17, when she was just in year 12, she set up Chookas Entertainment to provide herself with work in the industry. From humble beginnings hiring out for children's parties, then growing into the shopping centre entertainment space, public events and cabarets, this was her side hustle while she studied to be a teacher. Driven out of Sydney by expensive real estate, Jody moved to Newcastle in 2016 and saw a gap in the market that she felt driven to fill.


Jody Miller.

"Newcastle is a fascinating place," said Jody.


"We're spoiled for choice when it comes to shows for kids and the over 30s. With 44 theatre companies and training schools such as Hunter Drama, Young People's Theatre and Tantrum, a lot is going on, but there's almost nothing for artists in their 20s. The kids age out at 16, around the time they're doing the HSC. If they want to continue, there's not much available for them. I'm passionate about creating work and telling the stories of people in this age group. Providing opportunities for young adults with a different style of theatre."


Jody quickly became involved in the industry and has spent the past three years as vice president of the City of Newcastle Drama Association (CONDA). But it wasn't always smooth sailing.


"When I first moved here, I found it very difficult. No one would give me a chance, despite the fact that I'd just finished touring a professional production as an assistant stage manager. I offered my services, completely volunteer, to do just about anything, and no one was interested," said Jody.


"They literally said, 'No thanks – we have our people'. I would have been happy mopping a stage. It was this cliquey-ness that led me to create my own opportunities by producing our first show, 21 Chump Street, in 2020."


Jody also sees the local industry as heavily male-slanted, with fewer lead roles for women. She's been disappointed to hear young women disregarded due to a perceived lack of experience. There are very few female-run companies and not a lot of women to mentor those coming into the industry, with one notable exception, her own mentor Mercia Buck OAM.


"Mercia is phenomenal. She helped start Opera Hunter back in 1986 and was made a Freeman of the City of Lake Macquarie a couple of years ago. I have no idea how old Mercia is, but she's still going strong. She takes art very seriously, and I find her inspirational. I'm fortunate to have worked with her."


Jody now recognises that it's time to become more visible and not hide her success with Chookas Entertainment. It's important for other young women to see what can be done and follow the trail she is forging.


"I have felt very invisible, but at the same time, I'm super proud of what I've managed to achieve. I think that when I wasn't taken seriously by the male-dominated industry, I kind of put my head down with the idea that if I just did what I was good at, people would start to notice – because I knew my worth. And I guess people are noticing because our shows sell out four weeks in advance."


All of the theatre companies in Newcastle are pro/am or amateur. This means they can't afford to pay award rates to their performers, creatives and crew. Many people in the community are confused by what pro/am actually means. By definition, it's a theatre company that is part professional and part amateur. In some cases, professional performers or the creative team are paid, whilst the rest of the cast and crew are unpaid. Jody is proud that at Chookas Entertainment, everyone is paid a profit share, although it's nowhere near the industry award of approximately $1250 per week.


"It's really important to me that we show how much we value our team. Unfortunately, the costs to produce theatre prevent establishing a fully professional company here in Newcastle. I can't see it happening under these circumstances. Venue costs and availability are the biggest barriers. The struggle is real. From a $60 ticket price, we may only get $25, and the venue may cost us $30,000. And we're only now beginning to come out of the difficulties of covid and what that's meant for live entertainment," said Jody.


"Plus, we know from research undertaken by CONDA President Dr. Shane Bransdon that approximately only 5% of the Newcastle population actually attend live theatre. When I went to the Elton John concert, it made me think that if only every person there would go to one show a year, it would transform our local industry.


"One of the great things about Newcastle's pro/am theatre is that the talent pool is extraordinary. With so many training facilities here, the pro/am quality is exceptionally high. When we run auditions, we get up to 200 people auditioning; it's very competitive."


Jody says she's also very fortunate to be assisted by her husband Andrew Miller.


"Andrew is a builder, so he makes all the sets and assists with all productions. I couldn't achieve all of this without him by my side," says Jody.


Chookas Entertainments' previous theatre works include the recent sold-out production of Heathers the Musical (November 2022), Chicago the Musical (June 2022), The Things I Could Never Tell Steven (July 2022), 5 Lesbians Eating A Quiche (March 2022), Be More Chill the Musical (November 2021) and 21 Chump St: the Musical (March 2020). Jody's next production is Legally Blonde the Musical, which is well on the way to being a sell-out at the time of writing.


"We're excited to share this classic production with audiences in Newcastle, who have already shown so much enthusiasm for the show...whether they're die-hard fans of the movie or can't wait to relive the '90s through a smash hit soundtrack. We've been overwhelmed with positive responses and audiences wanting to know what fresh take this production will involve."


Rachael Sebastian as Pilar and Chelsea Willis as Margot in Legally Blonde. Image Credit: Jo Roberts.

A fabulously fun award-winning musical based on the adored movie, Legally Blonde the Musical follows the transformation of Elle Woods as she tackles stereotypes and scandal in pursuit of her dreams. Action-packed and exploding with dynamic dances and memorable songs that the audience will want to sing along to, this show will turn the city of Newcastle pink. Starring musical theatre artist Brynn Hulls (Chess, Starstruck, Jersey Boys) as the quintessential Elle Woods made famous by film actress Reese Witherspoon, directed by Danny Folpp (Beauty and the Beast, Chicago), musical direction by Alex Rigby (Young Frankenstein, Be More Chill, Chicago) and Maddie Watts (Chicago, Spongebob), with choreography by Jody Miller (Chicago, Be More Chill, Young Frankenstein) and lighting and sound by Jacob Harwood (Chicago, Oliver!, Shrek, Young Frankenstein) and the team at JH Productions.


Despite the fun, light-hearted comedic tone of this production, importantly, it has a message that Jody wants to deliver.


"This is a show with a message of female empowerment. It's about femininity, power, sexual harassment and a woman who won't accept the status quo – she'll fight back, and she'll do it in heels if she wants to. She's in charge of her life, making her own decisions and doing it on her own. I really relate to that, and I want to tell that story to other young women.


"It's also a show with never a dull moment. There are no tears to cry. It's light-hearted, fun and unapologetically upbeat. This is exactly what we try to do at Chookas. We want our art to be fun, uplift people, and have them walk out of the theatre still laughing."


Legally Blonde the Musical is the first show to run without the cloud of covid hanging over it for this fledgling production company that began its theatrical journey during the pandemic. Their first production, 21 Chump Street, was held at the Royal Exchange to at fifty per cent capacity audience due to covid restrictions; Be More Chill went on just two weeks outside of lockdown, and only seventy-five per cent capacity was allowed; Chicago and Heathers the Musical were risky due to performers coming down with covid. This time around, there is a full complement of understudies and less risk.


In June, this dynamic theatre company will be presenting Company at Newcastle Theatre Company. Company is a musical comedy which explores love, relationships and the struggle for intimacy – the original production was nominated for a record-setting 14 Tony Awards.


"Company is one of Sondheim's greatest works, and bringing it to the Newcastle stage is an honour. The cast and crew are working tirelessly to make this one of the best productions our city has seen. This dark humour comedy musical has stood the test of time and will have Newcastle audience's laughing until the very end. It's a character driven piece that we are modernising – giving it a fresh new look."


Marty Worrall as Robert and Rachelle Schmidt Adnum as Joanne in Company. Image Credit: Joerg Lehmann.

A local cast of Newcastle performers has been assembled, with musical theatre artist and Australian Idol Finalist Marty Worrall (Oliver, Chess, Rock of Ages) leading the show as the chronic bachelor Robert. In keeping with Jody's passion for telling the right stories and sharing opportunities, this production also features a strong female cast, who show the protagonist how women influence his life.


The creative team is once again headed up by co-director Danny Folpp (Beauty and the Beast, Chicago), with Jody Miller (Be More Chill, Chicago, Heathers) also co-directing. Musical Director is Mathew Gallimore (Merrily We Roll Along, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder), and Choreographer is Maddie Baillie (Chicago, Ideation, Trevor), with Jacob Harwood once again on lighting and sound design and tech being run by JH Productions.


"One of the great things about this show is that everyone can see themselves on stage. There is guaranteed to be a character that you resonate with, which will have you questioning your life choices. We've gathered up a fabulous cast that I'm so excited about. Working with Marty is a dream come true. I used to vote for him on Australian Idol when I was in primary school!"


There is no doubt that the future looks bright for Chookas Entertainment with Jody Miller at the helm and that the Newcastle theatre industry stands to reap the benefit of her energy, commitment to excellence and a keen desire to give back. Chookas is committed to producing an Australian written show every year, and she's looking forward to presenting Back to the 80s at Warners Bay Theatre in September. The extremely popular piece was written by Neil Gooding, who she has known since she was a child. The rest of the season will include Clue at the Civic Playhouse in November and Pippin at the Multi-Arts Pavilion, Speers Point, in December.


Jody has worked hard at CONDA to help set and achieve the organisation's strategic objectives, which are all about accessibility and resourcing – sharing knowledge and resources between operators and creatives and building up the industry. She's also passionate about helping youth who may not have access to performing arts and training and runs youth ambassadorships for both Chookas Entertainment and CONDA.


"I'm passionate about bringing the joy of theatre to as many people as possible. Theatre is a wonderful energy exchange between the audience and the performers. There is nothing else like it. If they're not used to attending theatre, I would encourage everyone to get out of their comfort zone and get along to support a local show. It doesn't have to be one I've produced; any local show deserves the support."


UPCOMING CHOOKAS SHOWS


Legally Blonde the Musical

Civic Playhouse, 17 – 27 May

For tickets and more info, visit: www.civictheatrenewcastle.com.au


Company

Newcastle Theatre Company, 14 – 24 June

For tickets and more info, visit: www.newcastletheatrecompany.com.au


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