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A Life in the Theatre . . . . with Bernie Lanigan.

As part of our Sessions training, you may have heard that Terri set us an ‘Expand Your World’ task to interview a member of the TheatreiNQ executive committee. In doing so, we would learn more about these incredible individual’s lives, their roles within the company and how they aided the inception of TheatreiNQ. I was fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to interview the legendary Bernie Lanigan. Below is our conversation:

Bernie in Brisbane:

You have said that you ‘first got the ‘theatre bug’ after doing a school production of ‘The Gondoliers’ (Bulletin), what was it about that production which sparked this lifelong passion?

Socialising was the main thing. The ‘Gondoliers’, which is a Gilbert and Sullivan farce, was the first time the school had done a production. My school was a boys college, and the production involved the girls college so there was the social interaction too which was a big thing. I didn’t play a lot of sport because I had injuries, but the Theatre was offered as an alternative, and I got one of the comic leads. I think I enjoyed creating a character, it’s not something I had ever done. I enjoyed singing, I was able to hold a tune. I think I enjoyed the control of being on stage.

As a young man, was acting something you considered making a career out of?

Never. Never did I consider it as a career. I didn’t know anyone personally who had made it a career and in my generation once you got your profession you did it for your lifetime. I went to Uni, and it took me away from the Theatre. I wasn’t in the position where you Bridgees are in, where it was fostered over a couple of years.

So how did you find your way back to the Theatre?

I failed a subject in first year at Uni which meant I had to wait for it to come around in second year. It meant I was home more often, and Mum said ‘you’re under my feet, you’re driving me crazy. Go and audition for something,’. I was a part of a few shows during that time with the Queensland Light Opera Company, including one called ‘Merry Widow’ and ‘Rigoletto’ which I did with the Queensland Opera Company.

How did your passion for Optometry begin?

So I’m in year 12 and I’ve got no real idea of where I want to be. At that time, the Universities would put on vocational evenings for all the subjects. Optometry was the only subject where they actually took me around the clinic and showed us the equipment. You’d say to yourself, ‘Oh, that’s an unusual sort of profession. It’s a generational thing I suppose, but I never looked at doing anything else.

Bernie in Townsville:

After arriving in Townsville it didn’t take long for you to hit the stage. Your local debut was a Townsville Little Theatre production of ‘Cowardy Custard’ in 1983. What do you remember from that experience?

We did ‘Cowardy Custard’ in a little theatre which was upstairs where Dance North is now. That’s where Townsville Little Theatre was. Bill Munro directed that one and he also started the North Queensland Opera Music Theatre. I became that company’s first president and performed in their first 15 shows. He directed all the initial NQOMT theatre shows, and he directed Terri in "Cabaret" and both of us in "Victor/Victoria.

You have stated that you feel you had opportunities here in Townsville that you would never have had if you stayed in Brisbane’ (Bulletin), could you elaborate on this?

Every lead role I have had, I got in Townsville. And some roles, I even got to do two or three times; ‘Godspell’ , ‘Merry Widow’ , ‘Grease’ , ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, Fiddler on the Roof’ and after I got the lead in ‘Les Mis’ (playing Jean Valjean) when we did it again I got the other lead (Javert). Another chance opportunity came when a man called Simon Gallaher produced ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ and toured it Australia wide. Now this is a well-known show featuring national stars Jon English and Jerry Connelly. But Jerry Connelly was committed to a Melbourne Cup breakfast in Melbourne, so Simon phoned me from Brisbane and said ‘listen, he’s going to be gone for three performances – do you want to step in as the Major General?’. And I did three performances in Townsville. That would never have happened for me in Brisbane.

How is the experience of being a member of the TheatreiNQ Ensemble?

In my early theatre days (before I met Jean-Pierre and Terri) it was easy, you didn’t work hard at it, and we didn’t learn what you Bridgees are learning now – That this is all about discipline. That has been the big thing working with Terri. Back in the day, a warm-up for me was to open a stubby and walk around the stage. At TheatreiNQ, this is not just about you as a performer, this is a mission as a team.

Bernie Lanigan and Terri Brabon in "One Man Two Guvnors' (2016)

Bernie and TheatreiNQ:

You have such a rich past with the executive members of TheatreiNQ, is it a special occasion whenever you all have a meeting?

It’s almost like family. You know what to expect from these people, you trust their judgement. It proves the power of the ensemble. As a performer, I get very nervous about working with Terri because it’s important to get it right so you’re ON from the moment you get there, because if she does it for us, the least we can do is do it for her. Working with them (the TheatreiNQ Ensemble) is second nature, you don’t ever take it for granted. You feel secure with them at any time and that the light is for them as much as it is for you.

As Vice President of TheatreiNQ, could you please explain some of your duties and how that influences the operation of the company/productions?

I think my role is mostly attending the meetings and helping with discussions. It’s been my honour to serve on the committee and to act as a sort of sounding board for a lot of the ideas that come through and to help move some of the motions we discuss.

2023 marks the 13th year of TheatreiNQ. Being a founding member of the company, how different is TheatreiNQ now versus in 2010.

The memory of Jean-Pierre sits very heavily over the whole structure of TheatreiNQ. I think such was the gravitas of what he instilled in Terri and Brendan and what they are doing now in ‘The Bridge Project’, has engendered a strong ethic, purpose and direction. The whole thing has a purpose. Shakespeare Under the Stars was the centre of it. It was important that the event be kept alive, particularly in the spirit in which it was started.

Every year there is a new challenge, a broader reach, the tendrils are out to the young people to inspire. See this sort of assignment for you ‘Bridgees’ is the very essence of what TheatreiNQ is. Because it helps you learn the history of what this means. And you’re all a part of this now. If you want to make a living in the theatre then ‘you must be good at it, you must be good at the discipline’. And I think that’s the legacy of Jean-Pierre and it’s the legacy of Terri and Brendan. I think the mark of that legacy is to see the performers come home, to see the ‘Raggatt's’, the ‘Lachlan’s’, the ‘JT’s’, the ‘Brittany’s’, to see them want to come home, continue to be a part of the ensemble and perform with their company.

Bernie Lanigan in 'The Weir' (2019)

In light of your history with ‘Shakespeare Under the Stars’, could you share some memories?

‘Twelfth Night’ was the first one and that was fun because it was performed in between three quadrangles at the Vincent campus of JCU; one scene would be performed in this quadrangle and so on – so we’d hide behind the trees and that sort of stuff. Then it moved to The Quarry, and that’s where the famous ‘rained out Juliet’ was held; with water dripping on Terri’s face as she lay in a coma on a bed beneath a ‘four-poster’ canopy and Richard Gillispie saying, ‘fetch dryer wood’. Then it came to Queen’s Gardens, and it continues in Queen’s Gardens with the good grace of the council.

Bernie Lanigan and Brendan O'Connor in 'Twelfth Night' (1992)

In 2011, you received a Jean Pierre Award. What does this award mean to you?

That was remarkable. It was unexpected and a great honour. When you think about the fact that this whole thing is a Jean-Pierre legacy, to be one of the first recipients of an award in his name was a big, big thing.

You have been involved in over ten TheatreiNQ productions. What has been your favourite role which you have played?

I think the original Andrew Aguecheek from ‘Twelfth Night’ is one I got a lot of joy from. I think Malvolio again from our ‘Twelfth Night’ a few years ago was a highlight for me. Terri’s always gives me interesting roles. I particularly enjoyed ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and ‘The Comedy of Errors’.

Bernie Lanigan in ‘Twelfth Night’ (2015)


You are described as ‘One of Townsville’s health and entertainment icons’ (Bulletin), would you agree with this statement?

Sure, I’m happy to be an example – and the thing is I’ve got my icons – I’m happy to be around to help people with development because I’ve had people who helped me with my development - And my development is still on going. I think ‘icon’ is a bit loosely bandied around, but the thing is we’re all examples for each other.

What are your plans for the future?

I don’t consider myself as retired, you know. This is the next phase of my life. So I did Optometry and I enjoyed it and am happy with it, it gave us a good living and now I’m up for doing whatever’s next. I recently performed in ‘Bloody Mary’ with TheatreiNQ. I think it’s good for me at this age to still have parts available, because a lot of the musicals I did, they’re all young male leads, and now I’m at the stage where there are no old male leads. You know I’m lucky that I’m able to come over to TheatreiNQ and still get a chance to do some theatre myself. I like that there’s such a range of experience on that stage and Terri puts it all in there and writes for all of us.

Officially this was the end of my conversation with Bernie Lanigan, but at the exact moment I shook his hand to say ‘thank-you’, Brendan O’Connor came bustling through the door and began having a twenty-minute conversation with Bernie reminiscing about the days they worked together. I wanted to bring up this conversation as an example, because discussions like this one between Brendan and Bernie are an all-too-common sight. If your sitting on the red couches at TheatreiNQ and two ensemble members of the company sit down and begin having a chat about their shared history, you’re bound to hear some incredible stories. And I think Bernie said it perfectly, that these conversations are the ‘very essence of what TheatreiNQ is,’. Whilst not actually being a part of our training, they are a vital component of our development as actors and young people. It allows us to ‘learn the history of what this means,’.

I’d like to end this blog with something that Brendan said at the end of his conversation with Bernie:

When we were in our first year of drama school, Jean-Pierre said, ‘find yourself a hero - an acting hero and come back and tell us next week’ and I came back with Laurence Olivier ‘and he said have you ever met Laurence Olivier?’ and I said ‘no,’ and he said, ‘well ok, find somebody you know,’ and I chose Bernie because I saw him in a show and I went ‘that guy’. Bernie was my local hero."

Bernie Lanigan in rehearsal for 'Much Ado About Nothing' (2020)

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May 31, 2023

Bernie Langigan is indeed a living legend!

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