Those in show business will tell you it is no place for the fainthearted. But when a Matthew Flinders student set his mind to building a life on it, Sunshine Coast theatre was set for quite a ride. As the curtain prepares to rise again on the nationally-acclaimed and controversial production Erotique at this month’s Noosa Longweekend Festival, creator Sam Coward rubs his hands with delight and shares the courage of a Coast industry long overlooked.
“There’s no business like show business”, so the song goes. To prove it, sharp-shooter Annie Oakley went on to get her gun, but on a fickle Sunshine Coast May afternoon, it’s the wit and fervour of Sunshine Coast producer, director, performer and businessman Sam Coward which is firing. For the past 17 years, Sam has dedicated the majority of his irrepressible energy to the stage. Much of that time the hysterically candid Sunshine Coast born and bred producer has been standing on it, demanding local audiences take a deeper look at the talent and brilliance on our doorstep.
At just 19 years of age, producer Sam played a hand in breaking Sunshine Coast attendance records for Andrew Lloyd Webber classic Jesus Christ Superstar performed in a Warana warehouse. Since then, Sam’s stage credits are a whirlwind of renowned comedies, musicals, dramas and tragedies in the roles of producer, director and performer. His credentials as a bold yet shrewd portrayer of stories and characters were cemented in 2008 with his daring restructure of Shout! The Legend of Johnny O’Keefe and again last year when he broke Noosa’s box office record with Influence.
The quality of the sell-out season was witnessed in the audience by playright David Williamson, who testified the production was a “bold and brilliant interpretation”.
But two years ago, Sam turned what the Coast thought was theatre on its head.
The then nightclub manager spied local business mogul Walter Iezzi enjoying a coffee at E1 Restaurant and convinced the prominent entrepreneur to turn a neighbouring empty old surf shop into a stage.
“We set up a makeshift 90-seat theatre, with curtains, atmosphere and proper stage lighting in this empty shop and it went like wildfire.
We put flyers about the show out to all the high-rise buildings and we sold out every performance,” Sam says proudly, his brown eyes twinkling.
“I was told from the restaurateur later on that for weeks and weeks everyone kept ringing wanting to see the show and wanting to check it out.”
The show was Erotique, a live, nude, theatrically sensual production which focuses on themes of homosexuality, rape and abuse as well as the raw emotions they invoke such as lust, love and rapture.
By pure coincidence, in the following 12 months Sunshine Coast audiences spent one million dollars on purchasing tickets to amateur theatre company productions. The search for a world outside tired nightclubs was building momentum
It’s a difficult life on the stage, explains Sam, who also traded in his clubbing days to build his own performing arts company, XS Entertainment, with wife Xanthe. But it remains an ongoing battle because of a “culturally inept” area whose status he blames on local government.
“I would say our local government has a fairly heavy hand in that. You look back in the ‘80s when places like the civic centres were built. There hasn’t really been any advancement in cultural infrastructure for a long time. There are a great number of artists in the area, but because we’ve always managed to survive there hasn’t been a need to support,” he explains.
Will the passion of our thespians then end in a catastrophic finale? “Unfortunately, I don’t think so. I say unfortunately because maybe if we did then people would get worried about it and want it back. It then becomes a koala. You need to preserve it.”
And there he is, back in ‘Coward’s perennial glory’ of pushing boundaries, unapologetically, just like in 2008. National headlines descended on Caloundra when he staged a lesbian kiss in a $200,000 council-commissioned production of acclaimed yet benign homegrown musical Shout.
The kiss was reluctantly cut on council direction and order was restored, though not without some cheeky Coward-ish embellishments. Sam and wife, renowned theatre critic Xanthe Coward, this year celebrate 10 years of marriage. They met, where else but on stage, at Buderim’s BATS Theatre in anti-fairytale production Into the Woods.
Sam is equally besotted by five-year-old daughter Poppy, whose candour already resembles that of her larger-than-life father. “Daddy [Sam] has put on 36 kilos in a relatively short time. So we’re out walking and Poppy says to me, ‘Daddy, why are you walking so fast?’ and I said, ‘Daddy is trying to lose weight.’ She’s thought about it for a moment and said, ‘Walk faster Daddy’.”
When Erotique returns to the Sunshine Coast stage later this month, it comes with the endorsement of key Australian industry stakeholders after conquering the Sydney Fringe Festival last year.
“It was the intention of the piece to create high level entertainment. Sensuality is exciting. Eroticism is exciting,” he says, matter-of-factly. “We’re stoked to be a part of the Noosa Longweekend, which is known among the industry as one of the grooviest, sexiest festivals to be a part of and there are people all over the country of every level of professionalism who are also pretty excited to be a part of the Longweekend.”
Sam becomes surprisingly tight-lipped about what lies ahead, but the return of that twinkle in his eye forewarns that not only is anything possible with Sam, but it is likely to already be in production.
“Being on the stage is not like an engineering industry where you get your degree, you work your way up and then you are a master. It doesn’t matter about your skill or qualifications. There’s a whole lot of luck involved in our industry. It’s like buying a Quick Pick every time you step on stage. It still doesn’t guarantee you’ll make it. It just means you’ve got a better chance.”
Erotique will be performed from June 21 to June 23 as part of the Noosa Longweekend festival. Tickets can be purchased at www.noosalongweekend.com or from The J box office by phoning 5455 4455.