THE grandson of a coal miner, musical theatre actor Rodney Dobson is well and truly a Wonthaggi boy – he even still has an uncle who runs a dairy farm just out of town towards Cape Paterson.
Rodney is in Brisbane in the middle of a run of shows for the Australian production of Chicago – where he plays Amos Hart – which will be coming to Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre, from December 14.
“My family moved to Perth when I was about ten, but all of my early childhood memories are all south Gippsland based.
“Back in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, we’d go to Cape Paterson every Christmas for like 10 weeks, I don’t know if people still do this sort of thing anymore but we would move the tent there and all the dads would put on their shirts and ties and go to work in the morning, and all the mums would have all the kids.
“I’ve got so many great memories of that time, it’s such a beautiful part of the world down there.”
He says his mum was in a few amateur theatre productions in Wonthaggi which he was “dragged along” to watch, but he did not find his interest in acting until later on.
Rodney moved to Perth when he was ten, and went on to study at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts but he can track his love of the audience back to his childhood on the Bass Coast.
“I was right into little athletics when I was a little fella in Wonthaggi.
“I trace my love for the applause and all that to that feeling of when you’re running a final lap at a long-distance race and the crowd is clapping; I think that led to wanting to perform and play music and do things like that because you get the same sort of rush.”
Since graduating from the academy in 1989, Rodney has put together a stellar 30-year career.
He’s taken to the stage in the original Australian productions of Moonshadow, Wicked, The Full Monty, Rosie and many more.
But Rodney says he hasn’t left Wonthaggi behind him. He’s still friends with Karen Milkins-Hendry, who
directs musicals with the Wonthaggi Theatrical Group – they catch up and talk musical theatre whenever he is in Melbourne.
He has even used his family history here to help prepare for auditions.
“I had an audition for Billy Elliot The Musical, which is all linked into a mining town and about a mining town on strike and things like that.
“I drew those connections to my roots, to use those for the sake of the art, all the time.”
His secret is having the versatility in his acting and singing to play a range of characters.
“You need to be very flexible and multi-talented to survive, and I think that’s been the key for me. I dabble in a little bit of everything, I’m probably a bit of a master of none.
“I’ve forged a reputation now where the people producing these things go ‘we need someone who can do this and that and this, OK, we’ll call Dobbo, see what he’s got.’”
Although he loves what he does, Rodney says it’s a seriously hard industry to get a start in, and he often advises parents with talented kids about how difficult it can be.
“Chicago is in my top three musicals of all time, and always has been.
“I discovered it when I was a student, I used to have the cassette of the Broadway cast in my car with my AC/DC records and Pink Floyd albums, it’s fantastic driving music.”
Being in a production of Chicago has always been a bucket list item for Rodney, but he thought he had missed his chance before this opportunity came up for him.
Rodney missed out on doing Chicago when he was still studying, and had just been cast in Wicked the last time that the musical was in the country about ten years ago, so he was thrilled to find out that he would finally get to sing some of those favourite songs.
“Chicago came up and I thought ‘I think I’m too old for it now’, so I didn’t really give it too much thought.
“I eventually talked to my agent and said, ‘You know what, ring them up, see if they’ll see me because I’d just love to do the material for them for my own sake, because I’ve always wanted to do it.’”
Rodney is starring in the musical alongside some huge names like Natalie Bassingthwaighte and Jason Donovan, which has been getting a good reception.
“I’m kind of living the dream right now after all these years of wanting to do it way back in the ‘80s.
“I thought I’d be really lucky to be able to do it and here it is, I’m playing the role that I really wanted to play and it’s going really well and the reviewers liked it. So yeah, I couldn’t be happier.”