LIKE John Travolta before him, Horsham’s Mark Henstridge has Greased Lightning to thank for his career.
Having built up his knowledge of theatre production in secondary school musicals and doing lighting for local bands, Mr Henstridge took part in Horsham Arts Council’s production of Grease when he was 16.
“The car that was built for the production eventually went on to be used in the professional production. Some producers saw the car we made in Horsham and used it in the show around Australia,” he said.
“From there, (then HAC president) Richard Morris and his wife Jan went up to Sydney, and while there Richard saw an advertisement for Phantom of the Opera for a traineeship.
“He handed me the ad and said ‘you should go for this position’ and I did. The powers that be at Cameron Mackintosh productions said they wanted me, but I had to finish school first; I had just turned 16 when he saw the advertisement.”
Mr Henstridge hit the ground running three days after his final exams. He didn’t attend his graduation from Horsham College and instead started work on Phantom of the Opera.
From this serendipitous start 26 years ago, he has gone on to become arguably Horsham’s biggest arts export, now the technical director for Disney Theatrical Productions Australia.
He is charged with faithfully recreating tales as old as time for live audiences, such as Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins, The Lion King, Aladdin, and next year, Frozen.
“The planning and preparation for Frozen starts now so I’m working very closely with our colleagues in America to start building the production for Australian stages and the tours we do here,” he said.
Mr Henstridge said he felt confident in his ability to manage the large productions, having been in the industry for more than a quarter of a century.
“I’ve had to deal with a Pride Rock for eight years driving around a stage (for The Lion King) and currently I look after a carpet that flies around a stage (for Aladdin). With Frozen it’s going to be everything freezing over on stage,” he said.
“I really enjoy that aspect. Disney throws everything at you, and there’s no expense spared. Being a part of that group, it’s lovely to be able to have these little toys and this amazing technology which can bring all these shows people know and love to the stage.”
Mr Henstridge said his favorite piece of technology to work with was the magic carpet from Aladdin – without revealing how it worked, of course.
He said in many ways he and his team had to create real magic to simulate Disney’s magic.
“It is an amazing bit of technology, it really is a magic carpet and we get to play with it every day,” he said.
“I think there are some favorite things I do on any production. Mary’s flight in Mary Poppins is another one.
“It’s all conceived in America, and when Disney brings out a show the designers come out to the production to set it all up, and I go along to the States to look at these shows and talk to them.”
We’re travelling all the time and working up to 54 hours a week, so we become a close-knit network. You sacrifice a lot, but if you didn’t love it you wouldn’t be there I suppose.Mark Henstridge
Despite the sophistication of the technology, Mr Henstridge said he and his team still needed to use significant brain power every day to get the job done.
“You have to be ready to call on your old-school background and innovate all the time,” he said.
“A lot of my dealings are moving these big productions – for Aladdin we have 30 40-foot shipping containers and we’re travelling that around the world now, dealing with customs and freight issues. It’s a massive undertaking, and there is so much behind the scenes stuff that no one knows about. They come and see a polished production on stage and that’s the way we like it,” he said.
All of Mr Henstridge’s achievements are made more interesting by the fact he started his life in the arts as a performer on stage in secondary school musicals.
“I used to make myself so nervous I moved into the backstage area,” he said.
“But you know, when I first started high school my dream job was to be a park ranger… If I wanted limelight, I’d be on stage, and that’s sort of not my thing, but I have an amazing team that works underneath me.
“We’re all there as a family support network, and because we’re travelling all the time we’re working up to 54 hours a week, so we become a close-knit network. You sacrifice a lot, but if you didn’t love it you wouldn’t be there I suppose.”
Though he’s worked in New Zealand, Singapore and across Australia, Mr Henstridge still considers himself a Wimmera boy at heart. Fittingly, he came close to quoting a musical to make this point.
“I still have family and friends in Horsham, and I come back every now and then. I’ve been a gypsy of sorts since leaving 26 years ago – I don’t really have a base, so I still call Horsham home,” he said.
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