A Conversation with Matt Ward

An interview with a Gold Coast Based Theatre Producer

Prior to Billy Elliot the Musical commencing its 6-week Gold Coast season at The Star Gold Coast, we got to sit down and chat with the producer of the musical, Matt Ward of Matt Ward Productions. Since before pandemic times, the company began offering major musicals exclusive to the Gold Coast, starting with Wicked in 2019, followed by Mamma Mia! in 2021, Priscilla Queen of the Desert in 2022 and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical earlier this year. Expanding their season to at least two productions each year, their longest season ever, of Billy Elliot the Musical is underway, featuring a hearty mix of local and Australian talent.

Scroll down to read my Q&A with Matt Ward, as we discuss Billy Elliot the Musical, the future direction of MWE, and more:

A Conversation with Matt Ward 1
Image Credit: The Otaku’s Study

First of all, what made you choose to produce Billy Elliot the Musical?

Billy Elliot has been a show that’s resonated with me for a long time. Being a performer and starting off as a young performer, I can relate to the struggles that Billy had to go through in his story and his journey of finding his place and being accepted to do what you wanted to do, your passion. And when the opportunity came about to be able to take up the license, the rights for it, I just jumped at it, because it’s such an iconic show. It’s heartfelt. There’s so many different emotional journeys that everyone goes on, and I think audiences can relate to it. And being based on a movie as well, at least there’s relevance and people know what they’re going to expect when they come to see the show as well.

As you mentioned you were a young performer, can you share a bit about your history in the performing arts industry?

My first taste of musical theatre was in high school, Grade Eight, doing Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I was one of the chorus boys, and from that point on, I was hooked. I finally found my home, being a performer up on stage. From there I got my first break in Les Mis as the youngest chorus boy in the ensemble. And then that sort of became my journey, and I was all hooked on, you know, I just wanted to perform. I did productions all around, then went into NIDA, and after graduating from NIDA, I went overseas to New York and London, where I was surrounded and immersed by this incredible art form.

And I think for me, I’ve always had a passion about mentoring and giving opportunities for up and coming artists as well. I was given a chance when I was younger, and I think coming home after so many years overseas, that there wasn’t that opportunity here on the Gold Coast, or in fact Queensland at the time, for local artists to stay on the Coast, be employed, and get education without having to go to Sydney or Melbourne. I had to go to Sydney for anything further that I wanted to do. So I saw an opportunity, and being based on the Gold Coast, I felt Gold Coast is in that perfect growth phase of tourism and people are moving here. There’s so much development. We’re just at the beginning of what Gold Coast is going to be and become a major city.

I remember first seeing you perform during The Arts Centre Gold Coast’s season of Miss Saigon back when I was a marketing intern there, and recall that even back then you already had a vocal studio there. How did you transition from a performer to Producer?

I’ve always done vocal coaching, so I love teaching. I love that side of development and education of people’s voices and their art form. But falling into producing came from the vocal studio, where I created the Green Room Project at the Arts Centre, which was connecting established industry figures with emerging artists. So that’s sort of how I started getting into producing, like creating small cabaret, kind of intimate program.

Then an opportunity came up through Rent at Brisbane Powerhouse, I think it was 2016 or 2017. They approached me to go, “Would you look at producing a musical for our MELT Festival?” And I did, and I had no idea. I didn’t know how to produce a musical, I didn’t know what I was doing. I just sort of said yes. I’m someone who says yes to every opportunity, and I’ll learn it along the way. And that sort of opened up the doorway for me to take on bigger shows and build the company and to get it to where we are today.

A Conversation with Matt Ward 2
Image Credit: The Otaku’s Study

And when it comes to choosing a show to produce, you’ve done quite a broad variety. You’ve done Rent, you did Wicked, you did Mamma Mia!, Priscilla, Beautiful and Billy Elliot. What do you look for when it comes to choosing a production?

I guess it’s something that I have to be passionate about at first. I’ve got to be able to resonate with the show. Secondly, I think what we’ve done over the years is trying to work out what the audiences want as well. So I think we’ve gone an eclectic mix to see, all right, what does work? What doesn’t work? What do our audiences expect or want? So I guess that’s been our learning, doing a lot of them, and for us it’s also about finding shows that may not have been here to Queensland or the Gold Coast as well. A lot of the time, some of those bigger shows were overlooked. And so my aim is to change that, and to be braver and bring some of the premieres here first, like Billy Elliot.

Having done most of your shows on the Gold Coast for a number of years now, what has the reception been like from the Gold Coast audiences so far?

They’ve been a hundred percent supportive. In this market, people are late buyers. We can’t rely on the early pre-sales that we used to do in pre COVID days, so that’s sort of changed. But audiences, they love to be entertained. They want to go out, they want to have fun, and I think that’s what we’re finding with Gold Coast audiences. We’re educating them as well, and with the influx of tourists and people moving here from Melbourne and Sydney, they’re expecting high-calibre culture and entertainment, and I believe that’s a gap we’re filling as well.

A Conversation with Matt Ward 3
Image Credit: The Otaku’s Study

How was the audition and rehearsal process for Billy Elliot the Musical?

We’ll start with the audition process. Putting on a big show like Billy Elliot, you realize that the key people in the show are these young boys. So we had to find three incredible, talented boys who can not only just sing and act, they’ve got to dance and do acrobatics and all those type of things. So I guess that was always going to be the hardest part. Will we find the Billies? We put out a nation call to find the Billies, and we were fortunate enough to find local boys, two from Brisbane and one local Gold Coast, to take on that iconic role.

So that audition process was challenging, but yes, also rewarding to see how much incredible talent we have here in Queensland. From our ballet girls to some of our leads, our ensemble members, the talent’s coming through here from the Conservatorium in Brisbane, fresh out of training in their own private lessons and soforth. The calibre here is incredible.

So those were auditions. Rehearsals, rehearsals are quick. They’ve literally, the boys have been only learning a couple of days a week for the last few months until full-time rehearsals, but basically the cast have only been rehearsing full-time for three weeks. So they’ve just learned all this choreography and the entire show in three weeks time. Putting it all together, we’ve had five days to put it all together in the theatre ahead of tonight’s previews. Yeah, it’s pretty insane. The turnaround was really quick.

Having watched many shows bump in over the years, it is amazing how you can go from a blank stage to something that can take you to a whole other world in a matter of days or even hours.

That’s it. I think it’s always my favourite part is when the cast come and see the stage for the first time. They’ve visualized what it could be like performing on in a rehearsal room, but when they come in here and see the grandeur and the size and the detail in it, it just adds to that next level of performance for them as well. And I think Madeline has done an incredible job on the design and taking us into that world of Billy Elliot.

What advice do you have for those who might be looking to follow in your footsteps and pursue a career in the performing arts?

Believe in yourself. Trust your instincts. Trust your gut.

I think it’s also to have an incredible team around you. I’m so fortunate over the years, we’ve just found these amazing creatives and arts workers to collaborate with. I’ve got a beautiful team around who are just so supportive, who have been involved with pretty much all my shows.

It’s having that team around to champion, support, and when things get tough, you’ve got that team around to champion you on and believe in you to keep going.

A Conversation with Matt Ward 4
Image Credit: The Otaku’s Study

I imagine there are things you can’t share yet, but what’s next for Matt Ward Entertainment?

Watch this space. My whole goal with the company is eventually we will create and produce a show on the Gold Coast that will then end up touring the country. So that’s ultimately what we would like to do, is that we’ll end up creating a homegrown musical here, and then being able to take it around on a touring circuit. That’s ultimately where we’ll head. We’re looking at potentially continuing doing two shows a year here on the Gold Coast, and then eventually expanding. So yeah, big things to come.

So in the future we could have Matt Ward Entertainment as the next big major musical producer?

Oh look, I would love that, but I have a lot to learn. It is our ambition, and our dream, so we’ll see where that ends.

Finally, are you excited about the coming weeks with Billy Elliot?

You know what? Now I am. I think for me after seeing the run through yesterday, our first dress run, I’m really excited. I can’t wait for everyone to come and see what we’ve created here, this homegrown, inspirational, heartfelt show. And I think people are going to be really surprised at what the Gold Coast has right here in front of them without having to go elsewhere to see a show of this calibre.

Thank you for your time, and good luck for the coming weeks.

A huge thanks to Matt Ward for their time to answer these questions a mere few hours before their first preview performance.

Tickets to see Billy Elliot the Musical are currently on-sale, with booking information available via the show’s website. Tickets are available from $75.00, with higher ticket prices for a performance typically indicating better seating reserve.

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