Behind the scenes with Production Manager of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Steve Lloyd


Steve Lloyd, Production Manager, Priscilla 
Photo credit: Dom Prestidge

A Divalicious Musical Comedy, Priscilla Queen of the Desert is an uplifting story, based on the 1994 Oscar-winning hit movie, of three Sydney drag artists who hop aboard a battered old bus named Priscilla, on a journey of self-discovery which takes them on a road trip to the heartland of Australia searching for love, friendship and family.

We sat down with Johnson Corner member Steve Lloyd, who was the production manager for the risque musical, Priscilla, that took the region by storm. Steve is giving us the ‘behind the scene’ experience. 

Steve, let’s begin with your role. What were you involved in and what were your daily responsibilities?

My role in Priscilla Queen of the Desert was that of Production Manager. In essence, I am the project manager responsible for acquiring and connecting all the various elements needed to deliver this show into New Plymouth. These elements include owning the budget, working with the director to determine if we can deliver his vision and level of creativity for the budget we had.

This is followed by assigning heads of Department Roles. In this show, I had a Musical Director, Stage Manager, Technical Manager, Wig Master, Wardrobe, Lighting, Sound, Makeup, Sales and Marketing, Programmes, Flying, and Catering. Then it’s pulling in the lighting, sound, video suppliers and getting the Sales and Marketing rolling. 

What made your team decide to bring this event to New Plymouth? 

New Plymouth Operatic Society plans their shows years in advance to allow for coordination of rights from the rights holders. We traditionally partner through a consortium approach, shared cost model, on the bigger show costs such as set and costumes. This allows for a mini-tour but with local cast and crew at each location. Christchurch ShowBiz actually really wanted to do this show and in conjunction with Dunedin we joined in to be the only North Island stop for “The Bus”. It was a brave move as Taranaki audiences are known to be relatively conservative. How wrong was this consideration! Taranaki absolutely lapped this show-up. 

How many people were involved in the show?

We put on 17 public performances with a cast of twenty and a group of 10 backing vocalists to support the onstage singing. Backstage we had a total of 225 crew, all of whom were locals and many performing crew roles that aren’t anything associated with their day jobs. As an example, we have an ex Bank CEO running a crew on one side of the stage responsible for all the bus movements, we had a utility CFO ensuring all cast related props are where they should be, when they should be there.

Is it true that for every one performer, there were 4 support volunteers backstage?

Yes, essentially each performer had two dressers, a makeup specialist and a wig specialist (Wiggy). The pace of the show and the complexity of some of the costumes meant that all costume stages were performed on the side of the stage rather than down in the dressing rooms under the stage.

Some of the changes for the twenty cast were sub thirty seconds. This pace means the audience feel that the cast is far larger than it actually is. It is a well-oiled machine backstage as we have a large number of competing priorities occurring simultaneously. It is all planned months in advance and rehearsed weeks in advance of opening. 

All of the moves are coordinated and called by the Stage Manager. In this show, he reads a combination of script and score to determine when a move is executed. This is conveyed to the Assistant Stage Managers that are placed on each side of the stage. All cues are placed on standby and then executed with a literal “go”. It’s a high-stress role early in the season before everyone’s muscle memory starts to kick in with repeatability and anticipation developing consistency. 

With this show, because we were changing on the side of the stage, we needed to store all of the one-half of the show’s stage furniture in a container on the dock of TSB Showplace. At half time Act 2 was taken out onto the stage and Act 1 was packed into the container. Logistics management of these requirements falls to me to determine months in advance as we need to seek the permission of businesses located in the docks right of way to allow us to keep a container there for four weeks. 

That’s insane, was there any major slip-ups during the three-week performance?

The beauty of live theatre is that the audience generally doesn’t know if something was to happen or not. This was a little more difficult as for this show, we had a lot of people come back for a second or sometimes third or fourth viewing!

We have little things go wrong all the time. Its live theatre, and despite the checks and processes we have in place, humans are involved. Costume failures were the biggest hiccup for us in that the costumes for this show were from the original UK Tour that started 12 years ago. In fact, some of these costumes still have Jason Donovan’s name in them. That was a little buzz for some of the older cast members who can remember who Jason was.

Some of the costume pieces were just outrageous and as such hard to manage in the tight backstage areas. The set was new so we didn’t have too many issues with the bus or set pieces.

Technology let us down a few times but we run parallel systems for video and lighting so that if a control system freezes or locks up (Software) we switch on the fly to a backup system. In this show, our Technical manager is normally onto a problem before the cast is even aware and resolves it quickly. 

I must admit a secret, I watched the show twice and I didn’t see any major differences between the two shows – what is the secret behind performing day-in and day-out, and maintaining that energy and consistency?

Planning, Planning, Planning and follow this up with good communications of said plan and then structured step by step rehearsals before we open. The cast rehearses singing, dancing and movement three months before we open. This is all planned by the director well in advance. The band gets together three months out and starts rehearsing separately too. 

Four weeks out from opening everyone meets at the theatre for the first time. For this show we had four technical rehearsals where we essentially walked through the show and checked that the movement of people and hard scenic elements do not have any problems, we call this tracking. The cast members leave the stage at a defined location and time, walk a defined path to a defined spot, get the costume, makeup and wig changes, while singing, and then walk a defined track to a holding spot until it is time to make an entrance on stage again. At the same time, stage furniture may be travelling a defined track so that the two never meet. Timing is key and rehearsed.

Once we have this tracking and timing down we start to introduce the costumes, and hair and makeup elements to determine if windows of planned time are sufficient to allow costume changes etc. So as noted earlier in this show cast members would come off stage after wearing “Cupcake” costume and within 30secs be pushing a casino truck back onstage and dancing with a new wig, makeup and costume on. It’s an incredible sight to see in action and an awesome feeling of accomplishment as you succeed in this outcome night after night. It’s the pure definition of teamwork. The buzz of 245 people cohesively working with each other forms a very tight community and it thrives.

I know of no other community-based organisation that has the level of age, race, ethnicity and gender diversity that this type of theatre has, and for two months we are family supporting and building each other up. The comradery and sense of worth and accomplishment at the end of each show is amazing. That’s why our volunteers keep coming back, show after show after show.

It was recently the national volunteer week in New Zealand, talk to us about the challenges in bringing all the volunteers together and preparing them for a three-week-long show?

This show functions on volunteers. If we just looked at the contribution from the first full dress rehearsals through to the end of the season our volunteers will have provided us with 25,625 hours of volunteer labour. In total, I calculate a contribution of approx 48,000 volunteer hrs for the entire start to finish for Priscilla Queen of the Desert. 

“I calculate a contribution of approx 48,000 volunteer hrs for the entire start to finish for Priscilla Queen of the Desert.”,h_700,al_c,q_85,usm_0.66_1.00_0.01,enc_auto/7a5d6b_829ee0a94c05478d852771245e57d850~mv2_d_3919_2613_s_4_2.jpg

I know you have to get back to your day job but just quickly, what’s next for Priscilla and when is it coming back to our city?!!!

The bus has left New Plymouth, being packed out on Sunday and isn’t headed anywhere at this stage. The set and costumes are staying in New Plymouth for a while and then will get picked up by another society on the back of our successful season.

Planning however for our end of year show, Highly Strung is inflow and we are just finalising the Production Managers role for next years season of WICKED which will be just as epic as Priscilla was.

I have a feeling that Priscilla may be back in the future but there’s plenty of new shows lined up to keep us entertained for the coming five years.

Cheers Steve