The Scouts’ annual Gang Show gives kids more than a moment in the spotlight.
IT was 44 years ago, but Rob Motton vividly remembers his first Gang Show. Then just 11, he was known in his Brunswick Scout troop for singing a lot and “just generally making a lot of noise”.
His Scout leader encouraged him to audition for Gang Show – the annual musical performed and produced by Scouts and Guides from all over Melbourne – as a way to burn off excess energy. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I just remember being blown away,” recalls Motton, now production director of this year’s Melbourne Gang Show. “Here we were at the Palais, playing to audiences of 3000 people. It was just sensational. I see it in the first year kids now: you rehearse it and rehearse it, there is no question that it is going to work, but there is a sudden reality that there is a bloody audience out there.
“The first time the big wave of applause comes over you, you go, ‘Bloody hell, what is going on here?’ I remember as a kid being quite fired up; the build-up is enormous.”
The Queen isn’t the only one celebrating her diamond jubilee — 2012 also marks the 60th anniversary of Melbourne Gang Show. Motton, who is just as fired up about the production as he was four decades ago, says the reason it has flourished all these years is because it keeps changing with the times.
The idea for a local version of the London Gang Show started with a performance of Ralph Reader’s musical comedy, We’ll Live Forever, by the 9th Brunswick Scout Group in 1951. After a year’s break, troop leader John Wass helped establish the first Melbourne Gang Show in 1953, a direct reproduction of the London prototype, right down to the political jokes, street names and references to current affairs. It wasn’t until 1963, under Ken Bayly’s reign as director, that the production evolved into a revue-style show with an Australian flavour.
When Motton took over in 1992, he transformed the format into two halves, featuring original music. “The first half is usually more grandiose and theatrical, and the second one is more a pantomime, so everyone has a good time,” he explains.
“It’s not a show about Scouts, per se. It’s a show that is put on by lots of people who know what they are talking about when it comes to theatre, that happens to have Scouts in it.”
And a big show it is. This year’s production has a cast of 140 Scouts and Guides aged from 11 to 26, and just as many Scout, Guide and parent volunteers working behind the scenes, doing everything from writing scripts and songs to operating the lights and making costumes.
Previously the show has raised the curtain at Cathedral Hall Fitzroy, the Palais and the National Theatre in St Kilda, and the Princess Theatre. This year’s nine-show season will be staged at Burwood’s Besen Centre, to audiences of up to 1000 people.
Motton leads a production team made up of people with with full-time day jobs who volunteer after hours, and liaises with producer Jon Willis and technical and administration teams.
Theatrical experience is not all the kids gain from being involved. A retired performing arts teacher, Motton says it’s the education and development opportunities that really excite him. About 85 per cent of participants come back time and again – often followed by their children and grandchildren – so Gang Show must be doing something right. “It gives them a sense of belonging, purpose, a demand for excellence, a whole lot of theatrical training and a sense of wanting to be involved,” Motton says.
“I don’t care if you take kids hiking or canoeing or abseiling, it’s the same game, and the show is simply the vehicle to produce what we want to do with kids. The reality is that Gang Show keeps kids off the streets.”
With Scouts and Guides coming from all corners of Melbourne to take part, they also gain a wider view of the world. Sometimes the friendships that are formed lead to something more – there have been many Gang Show marriages and babies over the years.
Many Gang Show alumni have gone on to professional careers, particularly in backstage disciplines such as sound and lighting, although the honour roll also includes actor Shane Jacobson and comedian Dave O’Neill.
Most of Melbourne’s big lighting and sound companies are full of former Gang Show techs who learnt their trade through the show, says Motton. “And lots of television shows use lighting people that are ex-Gang Show because there is nowhere else where people get on-the-job training with these monstrous systems.”
Motton says he’s always staggered by the tonnes of lighting equipment used each year. “When we turn on all the lights in the theatre, Burwood goes dim. It is ridiculous!”
Professional singer Mandy Brook credits her 16 years in Gang Show for giving her the foundation for a successful career. Still involved with Scouting and the show as a member of the Flinders Petrie Rover Crew in Eaglemont, Brook, 26, made her Gang Show debut as a dancing corncob, never imagining it would lead to a career.
Buoyed by the experience, confidence and encouragement she gained each year, Brook studied music at Monash University and landed two lead opera roles in her first year.
She also works as a vocal coach with all 140 Gang Show cast members, with a focus on the principal soloists. She says the best part of her role is watching her young charges develop and grow. “It’s great that I can give back to something that has given me so much over the years,” she says. “All of a sudden I can see what I know and what I am teaching these children is making a difference … it has come full circle.”
The diamond jubilee show will be Brook’s last as a cast member but she is keen to stay involved. “It’s bittersweet because it’s really nice to be on stage and working with the kids in that capacity, so I think it will be a bit sad when I finish. But in another way it will be fabulous because there are so many more options that I have to work with them because I’m not rehearsing as well.’’
Mitchell Groves is one performer Brook has watched grow up within Gang Show. From “a little boy soprano” to a seasoned performer who loves musical theatre, Brook has inspired Groves to follow his dream. An electrician by trade, it wasn’t until Groves, 22, went to see one of Brook’s live performances that he started to think about musical theatre as a career. “She said, ‘You can do that too. You have the skills. You just have to go out and get more training’,” he recalls. “That night I went online looking at all the professional courses and the next day I was at an audition.”
Groves says he was “blown off my feet” to be accepted into an advanced course at the APO Arts Academy in South Melbourne. He has deferred to January next year to allow him to fulfil his Gang Show commitments.
“I just love performing and now it’s inspired me to do what I am going to be doing in the future,” he says. “There are so many things I get out of it: the kids’ smiles, the applause and being able to give back to the community. It’s a big thing.”
As a member of the production team, Groves is involved year-round on writing scripts, songs and music, starting work on a new show two weeks after the curtains close on the previous season.
Groves, who joined the Bayswater Joeys Cub group when he was five, is also Gang Show’s highest ticket seller, persuading 150 family members and strangers at his local shopping centre to come along – even if not everyone is exactly sure what Gang Show is.
Some people think it’s a show about gangs, others confuse it with a game show, but Motton sums it up best: “Essentially it’s a lovely community activity which does great things for kids, and the reason it keeps going is that it has managed to reinvent itself enough times so it’s still relevant.”
The 60th Diamond Jubilee Gang Show runs from June 22 to 30 at the Besen Centre, 87-89 Station Street, Burwood. Details: visit gangshow.org