Ask Julie O’Brien if she thought she’d ever perform in a totally non-scripted, unrehearsed show where the audience dictates the storyline and the answer would be a definite “never”.
Most recently seen as Donna in Wellington Musical Theatre’s 2014 production ofMamma Mia, Julie’s career spans over thirty years. She is totally at home on the stage, but improvisation is a very different experience.
“Improv has definitely taken me out of my comfort zone”, she says, “I’ve always worked with a script and a director and had weeks of rehearsal, but I’m absolutely loving this new challenge.”
Born and bred in Wellington, O’Brien has worked in New York, Britain, New Zealand and Australia appearing in shows as diverse as Chess, Evita, The New Rocky Horror Show, Grease, Hairspray, Anything Goes, The Pirates of Penzance and Oliver. Julie was an original Australian cast member of ‘The Witches of Eastwick’, and received personal praise from Cameron Mackintosh when she played several performances in the role of Felicia, for which she was first understudy.
Before returning to NZ in 2005, Julie played the role of Rosie Greenwich in Leader Of The Pack, at Crown Casino, Melbourne.
In 2006, she took up the position of Course Coordinator of Musical Theatre for the Two Year Diploma course at The Wellington Performing Arts Centre (now Whitireia Performance Centre).
In Wellington, Julie has played the roles of Little Becky Two Shoes in the Downstage production of Urinetown, Mari Hoff in Stagecraft Theatre’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, and Velma von Tussle in Hairspray for Wellington Musical Theatre.
In 2012, she became a member of The Improvisors when they were contracted to undertake two of the largest training programmes ever to be run in New Zealand. “We rolled out the re-branding of Z energy to all employees in every Shell Service station throughout the country.” A year later, due to the overwhelming success of the Z Energy project, The Improvisors were asked to develop an HR programme for The Warehouse. ‘Love Your Customer’ was a half-day programme for 15 – 20 participants hosted by a team of three Improvisors. It was run nationwide in 18 centres delivering to 5000 team members over ten weeks. “It was very intense but a great experience”, she says.
It wasn’t until earlier this year that O’Brien finally plucked up the courage to do Theatresports. “It’s a challenge and you definitely have to have your wits about you. The audience is primarily in charge of what we perform. We don’t know what the audience is going to throw at us, so it certainly keeps us on our toes.”
Downton Aldib is different again from the format of Theatresports. Described as long form, a new episode is created at every performance. And with one show down and eight more to go, O’Brien is looking forward to seeing how it develops. “Each night, we supply the characters, the audience supplies the key plot ingredients and the result is costume drama as you’ve never seen it before and will never see again,” she says. “The feedback from Sunday night’s audience was amazing. They were really engaged and after the show, people were already talking about coming back.”
DOWNTON AdLib is on now at Circa Theatre, every Sunday night at 7pm until 27 September. Book online at www.circa.co.nz or by phone 04 801-7992.