Elizabeth Surbey had a  chance to speak with Michelle Carey, Director of Toy Symphony, and Gregory J Wilken, Executive Producer of Ad Astra Theatre company in their last rehearsal in Sydney before bringing two casts together in the week before the opening Show of Qtopia’s Loading Dock Theatre in Darlinghurst.

  • What drove you and the Producers to put on this revival of Toy Symphony?

Michelle Carey, Director of Toy Symphony – I have a passion for Australian stories and live theatre can bring stories to the public consciousness like nothing else. The opportunity to open up the world of Roland Henning to a wider audience was too good to pass up, and the excitement of bringing cast members from both Brisbane and Sydney together was just the icing on the cake! 

Gregory J Wilken, Executive Producer of Ad Astra Theatre company – Toy Symphony by Michael Gow was a huge success in our 2022 season. It is such a wonderful play that audiences love, no matter if you are a seasoned theatre goer or new.  Gow has a wonderful way of enveloping you into the world he creates, and the journey is always fast and exciting. We thought it would be a perfect fit for the opening of The Loading Dock Theatre, Qtopia Sydney.


  • For the production to be remounted, was it getting the space and its availability as key or something else driving you.

Gregory – I was talking to two Ad Astra alumni who are now living in Sydney and they said that it has just been so hard to even get an audition let alone be able to showcase what they are capable of.  It took me years to be able to have worked across many theatres in Sydney, so I know how hard it was to even get seen to show people what you were capable of. This drove me to want to do this production to help our Ad Astra creatives and some Sydney creatives to be seen on a professional stage. The venue is extremely important, and we are so excited to be the opening production for it. Toy Symphony is one of those rare productions in which the lead character is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, but the play is not necessarily driven by that agenda. The Loading Dock Theatre is part of Qtopia, Sydney which is dedicated to remembering those people who have contributed so much to the LGBTQIA+ community history, who fought for their rights and to those we lost in the AIDS pandemic, but it is also a celebration of joy. The team at Qtopia is amazing – Carly, Rosie and I have worked together before and I just love their enthusiasm, their joy at making theatre and their incredibly kind and generous nature – it already feels like home.

  • Were you surprised at the play’s success in Brisbane? I note that it was originally only going to be a Brisbane production.

Gregory – Yes, we were truly astounded by the reaction to the production in Brisbane.  The reviews were so wonderful, and we had standing ovations on many nights.  The dream cast and crew, superbly directed by the very talented Michelle Carey made this production a joy to watch and unfold.  We knew by the end of it that it needed to be done again and it seemed the perfect play to tell one small part of the many LGBTQIA+ stories in the first year at Qtopia, Sydney.

Michelle – We were completely blown away by the positive response to our Brisbane production, although working with a stellar cast and crew should have been a sign! But it made us all realise how hungry the community is for stories of transformation, and how live theatre has such power to provide this.

  • Will you be bringing the same cast and creative crew team to the Sydney production.

Gregory – This production is to help Ad Astra Theatre Company’s creatives who want to work in Sydney get seen, so first and foremost it was about giving them the opportunity to showcase their talent in their new home of Sydney.  There are some of the original cast in place but also, we have cast from other Ad Astra Productions and we are blessed with some incredible Sydney talent that I have worked with in the past.  Michelle Carey is directing again this time, and we are truly grateful that she is!

  • Why do you think that this play resonates so much even for today’s audiences?  Why this play and why now? What makes Michael Gow such a compelling playwright?

Michelle – All of us feel a connection to the characters and stories that Michael Gow has blessed our dramatic landscape with. Toy Symphony draws us in with these glorious, recognisable characters…the rough (but vulnerable) school bully; the nasty, inappropriate school headmaster; that one encouraging teacher who made us believe in ourselves. Somehow, we all make it through and go on to live our lives, but there is no doubt the impact that these ‘characters’ have on us during such formative years. Like Roland Henning, trauma can rear its ugly head in many forms later in life. It’s a story we can all relate to, and Gow tells it with a good dose of flashbacks, humour, realism, and the classic play-within-the-play.

Gregory – This is simply one story of many stories that will be told in the first year at The Loading Dock Theatre.  This one shows what it was like for Roland Henning to grow up in the 1950s to the 1990s at Como in the Sutherland Shire and what he was faced with, how it affected him and his relationships with others and the havoc it wreaked but it also shows redemption, understanding and forgiveness.  It just seemed fitting that this be part of the kaleidoscope of stories being told during The Loading Dock, Qtopia Sydney’s first year.

  •  You see this venture to serve the emerging and remerging artist?  Tell us your plan.

Gregory – We began our touring division with a production of Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs, directed by Jennifer Flowers, with a successful restaging in Byron Bay.  Sydney has been my home off and on since I was 26 and I have loved performing here.  I wanted to share my local knowledge and contacts with emerging and importantly reemerging artists to be able to give them assistance to get their careers kickstarted here. We are out there inviting as many industry people including reviewers, other theatre companies and the wider industry to get these creatives seen. We have plans in place to do the same in Los Angeles in the next year or so and then London.  In each of these places we will seek out Australian actors, whether they have worked with Ad Astra or not, who are trying to get seen in each location and offer them an audition.  We will then showcase Australian playwrights work in those places, performed by Australians.

  •  How has the dynamic been of working across two cities with two casts?

Gregory & Michelle – Hectic and costly!  However, it is absolutely worth it.  We know that we have an epic cast of incredibly talented creatives who are committed to the success of this show! The fact that some cast and crew will only be meeting each other for the first time a couple of weeks before we open creates this fantastic sense of anticipation. Everyone has gone over and above as this is a co-op production, so we have a common goal. Half the cast were in the 2022 production, so this makes it easier and the other half are just fabulous, generous actors.  Our crew have been logistical wizards!

  1. People often talk about how great the actors were in a production, but they don’t often refer to the work of the creative team involved.  How important do you think a good creative team is to a production.

Gregory – I think this is true about so many industries and enterprises, we don’t celebrate what we can’t see.  This production and any Ad Astra production would not be the success it is without our creative team.  Firstly, Michelle Carey our Director.  Not only is Michelle a visionary director but she is also a wonderful human who brings out the best in each person in the most fabulous way (which as we know is not always the case in our industry).  Michelle strives to keep the joy in the production process to get the very best from all.  Her vision for Toy Symphony is a magical journey with swift scene crossovers and limited set and props.  Our crew are all hands-on deck and do whatever is needed at the time. All of them are emerging creatives fresh from university and have shown a depth of talent, commitment and professionalism that is inspiring.  A good creative team is integral to any production.

Michelle – Guess what? It’s not all about the actors!!! I love to hear of productions referring to the team or the ensemble. Anyone who works in live theatre understands that it takes a village! Having worked for many years in schools, I understand how important it is to rally the troops because without that support, you could see how easy it was for burnout to set in. At Ad Astra, we are blessed with some amazing stage managers, designers, technical operators and marketing personnel…many of whom understand the way that co-ops work…We are all doing it for the experience and the love of theatre. For this production, we are incredibly lucky to be led by Gregory J Wilken, Executive Producer Extraordinaire! A good producer can make or break your show…and Gregory has an awesome mix of technical prowess and artistic intelligence. 

  •  Some of Australia’s finest playwrights are getting close to retirement age.  David Williamson is always saying that he has written his final play but… Louis Nowra isn’t as prolific at the moment.  Have you kept an eye out for the young playwrights coming through.  Any of these playwrights you could see Ad Astra supporting.

Emerging and reemerging artist for Ad Astra means all parts of the industry.  We have developed a team who will be learning the producer’s role and how to run a blackbox theatre. We have highly experienced Directors such as multi award-winning Jennifer Flowers, Michael Futcher and others sharing their knowledge, insight, and passion for incredible productions with a group of emerging directors and now we have Astra Nova starting up.  This will be a year-long workshop, headed by experienced writers, directors and teachers who will guide a few emerging playwrights to be able to get their play stage ready.  We will help them to craft their work so that it gets every chance of success in the future. Matilda award winning creative Pierce Gordon has written several new works for Ad Astra in the past including the Baedeker Mystery, Jingle Bells Sucks, Why Men Run at 2am and others which have been showcased on the Ad Astra stage and this has inspired us to formalise this process and work in a structured way to help emerging writers.  We need to hear more and more stories from all walks of Australian life.

  • What is it about a great actor that makes them so compelling?  What is it about them that you know when you see them you are going to get a great performance.

Gregory – Every part of them is engaged, you get lost in their performance.  Their eyes.  When you can see the sadness or the joy that comes from within through their eyes you are mesmerised.  You may not like the character, or you may love them but you feel yourself committed to where they are going and often you cheer them on and hope that they succeed.  Watching the battle they have to get what they want, seeing all their different attempts to get what they need whether they get it or not.  When you see the connection between them, a play is only as good as its entire ensemble no matter how big or small the role, it is watching them truly react to each other and this is the magic.

Michelle – There is a generosity, an openness…someone who is working really hard to bring me along on their character’s journey. But ‘working hard’ is a fine balance between bringing truth to a performance, and manipulating the craft…between vulnerability and careful, practiced risk-taking. An understanding of the craft certainly helps…vocal and physical control, and management of rhythm and pace can create compelling performance, but underneath it always is an incredibly generous spirit. When I feel that, I get comfy because I know it’s going to be a great performance.


Toy Symphony

By Michael Gow
Directed by Michelle Carey

The Loading Dock – Qtopia Sydney. 301 Forbes Street, Darlinghurst.

18 April – 27 April, 2024


Interview by Elizabeth Surbey