"IF I were you, I wouldn't be casting me. I'm a total flight risk”. It's a bizarre and rare moment when a performer begs a director not to cast them. Especially when the role is a lead in a production among the highest grossing in musical history, seen by millions worldwide.
In a move she describes as purely selfish, Amanda Hock simply wanted to sing Wicked's defining song, Defying Gravity, on the stage where she experienced so many magical moments as a performer. She'd done the sums; the role would be almost impossible just months after giving birth.
It wasn't until husband and wife directing and choreography duo Wayne and Katie Kermond sat her down to discuss the possibility of juggling a newborn and the demanding lead that Amanda even began to consider the role. Even then, she took some convincing.
"I didn't understand why,” Amanda said. "I wasn't expecting them to cast me at all. There was a million what-ifs, so I told him (Wayne) 'don't even think about it, don't even consider it. I just want to sing the song'. They were so incredibly supportive of our situation and really wanted to be able to make it work.”
When you hear how Amanda met now-husband Travis, it seems fitting their first child would be baptised into the world of musicals in her first few months of life. Their relationship blossomed out of lead roles in Rockhampton Regional Council's 2009 production, Cabaret.
"It was, I suppose, an acting exercise more than anything at the beginning,” Amanda said. Both living in Yeppoon, the practicalities of carpooling allowed their friendship and admiration for each other as performers to grow. "That just turned into something more, which is really nice, to have a partner that shares the same passions as you, particularly passions that take up so much of your time and your life.”
The scheduling of shows is second nature to the pair now, with Wicked marking their eighth consecutive council musical. Each year they block out the time for rehearsals and production hoping they'll both be part of the team making magic on stage. When Amanda fell pregnant, and even as she was auditioning, there was no intention of being cast.
"To stand on the Pilbeam stage and ... to be able to sing Defying Gravity was something I didn't want to be able to miss the opportunity to be able to do,” Amanda explained. "I've got a very special relationship with the Pilbeam stage and to just have that opportunity was all I was really after.”
When Amanda decided to take the role of Elphaba, the green girl who will become the Wicked Witch of West in this prequel to the Wizard of Oz, Travis was going to look after their daughter. But his talents too proved irresistible for the Kermonds. They cast him as Doctor Dillamond; a smaller role, but one which still proved a challenge for new parents. Without strong family support, there's no way Amanda believes either of them could have considered joining the cast.
Formal rehearsals were slated for the end of January and little Lucy arrived a month premature on November 11. "She's patient and the little ray of sunshine in our lives that it's really fantastic to have,” Amanda said. "Both Trav and I really love being parents. It's something you never know if you're going to be good at or not until you're doing it and then you just do the best you can do, but I hope she'll keep us.”
Having overcome the challenges of childbirth, the new mum's focus turned to the character she affectionately calls Elphie. Amanda believes every performer brings a different level of personal preparation to a lead, but for her it's trying to get the script to stick. Repetition, recording and blocking scenes with others are tried and true methods for Amanda. The same applies in a sense for the music; Amanda spends months listening to a show's soundtrack, absorbing every note and inflection.
Despite her years of experience, becoming Elphie was a new challenge for Amanda. It was a role she never imagined having the opportunity to perform in Rockhampton, let alone just months after giving birth. "The fact that I got it at all, I really wanted to do it as much justice as I possible could,” Amanda said. "I really wanted to get to know her well, the character I mean, and just play her the best I could possibly play her at this moment in time. A bit more prep with Ephie, a bit more getting to know her and really nutting out her journey because she's got quite a long journey over a long time in the show. A lot of things happen to her and she needs to develop looks-wise and the way she moves and the way she talks.”
Looks-wise, the transformation into the green girl was also dramatic. Amanda would be at the theatre from 3.30pm each day throughout technical and production weeks, with two hours spent on make-up alone. Daily run-throughs with flying equipment were also necessary, to create the magic of the show-stopping Defying Gravity. But those hours before beginners take the stage? They're gone in a flash and, for Amanda, that's when the magic happens.
She describes a special power which possesses her on the Pilbeam stage; carrying her through the toughest of performances. "That space looks after me when I'm out there and sometimes it's not something that even happens in rehearsals,” Amanda explained. "It's not something that happens until you're there and it's happening and all the ingredients are there with the audience and the lights and the orchestra and you have these very magical moments that can't be re-created which I think is what I love the most out of the entire experience of performing and is why I continue to do it.”
"I think my most favourite thing about this show was being (Elphaba),”Amanda said, reflecting on the show. "She is so strong and vulnerable at the same time. I think that's a trait more of us have then we realise.” Wicked has a strong focus on personal development, as Elphaba faces the many personal challenges which come with being so obviously and outlandishly different. It gave Amanda plenty to reflect on as she prepared for the role.
"I personally was lucky enough not to be bullied at school,” she said. "I was just this random, mediocre, fly-under-the-radar kids that didn't really fit into any particular category. I see it every day as a teacher, people being picked on or people being excluded or people that are bullies. I see that a lot and I deal with that a lot from an adult to a child perspective, but I really needed to think about what it would be like if you were actually green. That's just an insane thought. To be that different is just so very, very hard to comprehend. For anyone who has experience any type of exclusion or any type of fear based on their appearance it would have been so, so very important to see.”
Although Defying Gravity is the money number, Amanda's prefers the more subtle The Wizard and I. In it, Elphaba reveals her hope for the future, for a life in which her skin colour is irrelevant. This yearning for something better is something Amanda hopes audiences reflect on. "When we stop thinking that way, when we stop hoping for the dream, what is there to do?” she said. "Just regular hum-drum life every day? That's when people get really sad in their life. I hope everyone has a wizard of some kind because it continues to make you hopeful and continue to keep striving for something, to not settle.”
While the show's timing may have been less than idea, Amanda said Lucy would have been introduced to the theatre from an early age regardless. In becoming parents, Amanda and Travis were determined to continue pursuing their passions. It's a value they believe will stand Lucy in good stead as she grows. "It might be a little less or it might be a little different, but we didn't want to change anything about ourselves,” Amanda said. "If anything we wanted Lucy to enhance our lives. I think it's important for her to understand passion and I ... and the beauty of art and the beauty of being creative. I think those types of things can be taken to any occupation or any love in someone's life. I they're really important foundations to have growing up.”
Having now had a few months to recover from the role and adjust to life as a new mum, Amanda believe her life is "in a pretty rad place right now”. "I feel incredibly lucky,” she said. "If we didn't live where we lived, in such a fabulous area, with such fantastic talent, with such a beautiful theatre, with such a great producer at the theatre to bring these professionals to the region to work and put on such great shows it just wouldn't be possible. Being able to do that role, to be a mum, to be a wife, to be all of these great roles not on the stage as well, it's pretty cool.”