Debbie Keyt: Living for Theatre

We all know theatre people who are constantly involved in a production or project and are seemingly happy to be over-committed. Aside from acting and directing with various companies, Debbie Keyt has been conducting a school for performers as well as serving on committee with Beaumaris Theatre since 2002.

VDL President Bruce Cochrane, managed to catch up with Debbie to talk about her busy schedule.

Bruce: Not many people can claim as many years on a committee as you, Debbie. Are you President at Beaumaris or did you manage to persuade someone else to take it on?

Debbie’s first production with Beaumaris Theatre in 1996, Table Manners,
pictured with Derek Curd.

Debbie: I was cast in my first play at Beaumaris Theatre in 1996 and was invited onto the committee many times, but because I had a young family and was actively involved on kinder and school committees at the time, I always declined. I finally accepted an invitation to join the committee in 2002 and put my hand up to be Secretary at the first meeting. I’ve been on committee ever since and held the positions of Secretary and Vice President. Currently I hold the role of Secretary and Trevor Osburn is our President.

Bruce: And what about the time commitment to your acting school, D.K. Productions?

Debbie: D.K. Productions started in 2001 at Moorabbin Primary School and in 2002 I approached my fellow Beaumaris Theatre Committee members about conducting classes at the theatre. They were very happy for me to do so and it really took off. The classes are on hiatus at present during the restrictions, but prior to that I ran ten classes a week over three afternoons and evenings for 64 students including children, teens and adults.

Bruce: So, when you take on rehearsing and directing a production, at what point does it all seem too much?

Debbie: Never! I love what I do and I’m better when I’m busy. My passion for the theatrical arts runs deep. I adore directing and thrive on the entire process from choosing a show, applying for rights, procuring a production team, holding auditions, rehearsals, set builds, overseeing costumes, props, ticket sales, publicity and all the other elements that take a production from page to stage with the highlight of the performance season. Of course, there are always numerous challenges along the way which I always tackle head on and those challenges always make the positive outcomes all the more rewarding.

Bruce: It must be reassuring to have a team of regulars at Beaumaris whom you can rely on for a show.

Debbie: We have a magnificent team at Beaumaris and they are experts in their field and the loveliest, most dedicated, committed and devoted group of hard working individuals you could wish for. Collectively they are all extraordinary and we’re so very fortunate. We also pride ourselves on mentoring and training anyone who is keen to learn new skills from our experienced technical and creative masters.

Bruce: And there are some top people there who would be invaluable with design and construction, I’m sure. When you’ve had experience in most of aspects of theatre it’s tempting to feel that you should put your imprint on all facets of a production. How much of a delegator are you?

Debbie: Absolutely and we are blessed to have such a wealth of experience with so many of our designers and builders. Since 2016, the very talented architect Pietro Giordano has designed and built the sets for the shows I’ve directed. Pietro is a gem and really listens to my ideas and vision and then creates a set that works perfectly for our needs. We make a good team. He is also an outstanding photographer and our resident photographer at Beaumaris.

I do love to be involved in every aspect of the production. Some may say I’m a control freak but I like to see it more as a director is the ultimate storyteller and it’s our responsibility to bring the whole production together with excellence and in a harmonious way. It’s important to listen to the ideas of others and even though they won’t always be practical or applicable, being a good communicator is a quality all directors need to display.

I try and delegate as much as possible and for the last four years I’ve had a wonderful production assistant, Lynda French, whom I admire, trust and respect and she carries out many of the tasks that I ordinarily would do. She is a perfectionist and a great sounding board and so I look to Lynda for help and support and cannot imagine doing a production now without her.

Bruce: You would have seen a large number of young people come through your school. What percentage of them continue when they are older?

D.K. Productions Graduation Award Oliver Culshaw with Debbie Keyt

Debbie: Over the years one of the greatest joys has been watching young thespians grow up and blossom on and off our stage. Witnessing them develop skills and stagecraft and become young adults with admirable values and helping to nurture them is an immense pleasure. So many of my former students and cast members are still performing and working behind the scenes as a passion or a profession. Those who are not often tell me the confidence they gained during their time at D.K. Productions or Beaumaris Theatre has been invaluable in their career and personal lives. That is very gratifying and makes me so proud.

Bruce: Why do you think girls are more drawn to being performers than boys?

Debbie: The story of our theatrical lives! I went to an all-girls school and so I always played a man because of my height. It’s funny to think that in Shakespeare’s day the opposite was true and men played all the female roles.

With my classes there have always more girls enrolled than boys and of course we know it to be true from young boys to grown men. We have some enormously talented and creative gents in classes and the wider theatre world, but it’s an unfortunate fact of life that more girls are drawn to performance than boys. Hopefully, we can change that in years to come.

Bruce: And then of course we see that trend continue with women of all ages being predominant at auditions.

Debbie: When I entered the theatre world, I realised there were always more ladies auditioning than men and strangely enough there always seemed to be more male roles than female. Of course, there are a great many outstanding scripts for all-female casts now too.

One of the challenges I love as a director is head-hunting and if the male actors don’t come to auditions you have to go searching. I thrive on the thrill of the search and ultimately finding the perfect performer for a role. Particular examples are looking for guys for our production of Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, A Chorus Line and Buddy – the Buddy Holly Story. The fruits of that labour have been immensely satisfying. Talented, gifted men are out there, you just have to find them.

Bruce: When I became involved in theatre many years ago, there were very few women directing but now we see the balance of directors and writers has swung toward women being recognized as having something special to offer. While this is clearly part of more enlightened societal attitudes evolving, what do you feel is important in encouraging boys to be performers?

Debbie: Attending a girls’ school in the 70s, we were always told we could do anything we wanted to do and be anything we wanted to be and shouldn’t let anything or anyone stand in our way, so we can thank the feminist revolution for helping make our path so much easier. I always loved being on stage but I always knew I wanted to be a director and there was never any question or doubt that I wouldn’t.

For many years boys were always encouraged to play sport and in years gone by it was a macho attitude that the arts was ‘sissy’. Thank goodness we’ve seen a turnaround in that kind of thinking. Impressionable teenage boys probably still are teased if they audition for the school play or do a dance class, because as we know kids can be mean, nasty and tough, but hopefully parents and teachers ultimately can change that mindset and with luck we’ll have even more boys drawn to performance in the future.

Bruce: You’ve had a range of successful productions over a long period, what do you still want to do?  

Debbie: Without a doubt at the very top of my directorial wish list is My Fair Lady. It was the very first live stage show I saw when I was 7 years old at Her Majesty’s Theatre and I went with Mum, Dad, Auntie Gloria and Uncle Keith. I dressed up and Mum curled my hair and Uncle Keith bought me a box of Newman’s chocolates and I felt so special. My memories of that night are precious. I have always had a very deep affection for My Fair Lady and I love the story and the music. I was privileged to see the 50th Anniversary production at the Sydney Opera House in 2016 directed by my theatrical idol, Julie Andrews and I was mesmerised; it only enhanced my desire to stage it one day and I will.

Bruce: Well, all the best, Debbie and thanks for taking the time to talk.

Debbie: Thank you so much, Bruce, it has been a pleasure indeed.