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Artist profile duo: Carolyn Burns and Simon Phillips

Carolyn Burns and Simon Phillips

Artist profile duo: Carolyn Burns and Simon Phillips

Written by: 
Fiona Gruber

What rhymes with Fidel Castro? Carolyn Burns says she’s not allowed to say too much about her current project, a musical she’s been tinkering with for several years based on Cuba’s turbulent post-war history. 

As for its chances of getting up, she says, as a TV and stage writer with several decades in show business, she’d describe herself as a ‘pessimistic optimist’.

Her partner, theatre, opera and musical director Simon Phillips is much more upfront about his latest gig, the theatrical version of the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love.

The Melbourne Theatre Company production opens mid July and Phillips laughs as he describes rehearsals as mayhem. ‘It’s the first time the play’s been done with a cast of fourteen, which is half the London cast,’ he explains.

He loves the fact that the play has the verve of a musical but he is realistic about the smaller cast.

‘However successful as a straight play [can be], it can’t make the money of a musical,’ he says.

They’re both animated about the recent trend for adapting film to stage.

They’ve collaborated on several, including the musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert – ­he directed, she worked as dramaturg – and the stage version of Hitchcock’s espionage thriller, North by Northwest, which Burns adapted.

‘Shifting film into theatre is a fascinating exercise,’ says Phillips. On stage, he continues, ‘everything’s in wide shot…Caroline’s answer is to develop a character slightly more, to make sure there’s enough meat on the bones to develop a 'close-up'. 

As a theatrical couple with several decades in the business, Burns and Phillips can answer each other’s questions and frequently finish each other sentences.

The native New Zealanders met in Auckland in the late 1970s where Burns was a TV political journalist who went on to cause controversy as a playwright with a courtroom play Objection Overruled, a feminist look at male behaviour that she said was meant to be a joke but caused ructions. “I got a bit burnt by that,” she confesses.

Phillips’ theatre career has taken him from artistic director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia to AD of the MTC and beyond. Throughout his career working for many different companies, nationally and internationally, he’s mixed straight theatre with directing musicals and opera.

In 2015, he and Burns teamed up with New Zealand singer songwriter Tim Finn to create the 2015 musical Ladies in Black, which has since had the opposite and more old-fashioned trajectory of theatre into film.

Burns wrote the book and Phillips directed the play for the Queensland Theatre Company. Burns says their lives and the upbringing of their three children have always been dependent on Phillips’ latest gig.

‘Our lives are a circus’, she explains, ‘it’s about going where the work is. Our kids went to ten different schools, but they’re all fine.

Last year found them in Tokyo for a production of Love Never Dies and Berlin, where Phillips had a fellowship with the Robert Bosch Academy ‘basically just to think’. It was a great experience, he says, not just because of Germany’s investment in the arts but also because it gave him a chance to reflect on the role of the individual within society, not just theatre.

‘You’re duty bound to create something’, he says, ‘that you give back to the community.’