Interview: Justine Clarke on her new children’s television show & album release

Justine Clarke is a legend of Australian stage, screen and music. She began her career at age seven and has since spent three decades working in the industry. Most recently you may have seen her in the miniseries Hoges or as Diane in the 2016 film Red Dog: True Blue. Now she’s about to release a children’s album alongside with her new children’s show, Justine Clarke’s Ta Da!

What is your new show Justine Clarke’s Ta Da! all about?

I would say it’s about all the excitement and joy of putting on a show. It’s set at the five minute call. In each episode I’m getting ready for a show [then] something goes wrong and we have to fix it because the show must go on. And at the end of every episode there’s a new song.

We’ve tried to make it about play, fun, excitement, discovery and on-the-spot problem solving, so it’s not a teachy show at all. I didn’t want it to be like, “Here’s a lesson on how to make a rock song”. I wanted to celebrate all of the joy of putting on a show, discovering new kinds of music or working out a dance. I wanted it to be more about the fun of the process rather than teaching kids anything in particular. There’s always room for different ways of looking at things because kids process information so differently.

There’s a guest every episode – Tim Rogers, Denise Scott, David Collins, Rhys Nicholson, Ben Wood … the list goes on! They all play characters backstage that are only in a theatre. For instance, Tim Rogers plays a costume designer, Denise Scott plays a set builder, Ben Wood plays a props master. Everybody who comes backstage has a role within the theatre or a guest performer.

One episode there’s a percussionist who comes backstage and she’s bought her box of percussion but she opens it and there’s nothing in it but a banana. We [then] have to think of other things that she can play. The stories are all slightly different but for the most part people are playing characters backstage and then they end up in the wings watching the shows as I’m on too.

Where did the influence or idea for the show come from?

It’s very heavily influenced by my childhood in that I was a really big fan of The Muppets and the Muppet Show because I really believed that it was live. I really believed it was actually happening. I think that’s something we’re losing a little bit with children. The only way I could think to do it was to have like real time five minutes where you were actually counting down; we’ve tried to time it out so it is actually in real time. It’s actually happening while you’re watching it.

When I was really little, I’d put on a show for my Mum and Dad. I don’t know what we rehearsed but somehow we by the end of that five minutes we knew what we were going to do. And we were very confident to go out into the lounge room and do it.

How hands on are you with the production of Ta Da!?

It was an idea that had been in development for five years. Myself and my business partner and creative partner, Sonia Le, developed it. We got writers on board and development workshops, and then started shopping it around to production companies, trying to find the right fit [and] really trying to refine it. That whole process took a really long time.

Once we were in production, of course, I co-write the songs and produced the songs. I was very much in consultation with the writers, in the process of writing all the scripts, and outlining the episodes. I executive produced the show [and] co-choreographed. Basically I had my finger in every pie I could be. Having been in industry since I was seven I feel I know every department from experience. There’s a point in your life where you just don’t undervalue that. The best place you can learn to do it is just by doing it.

Does the TV show coincide with the new album as well?

Yes. It’s all fifteen songs from the album, which was great! I’m hoping to tour the album next year [on] a big national tour. There were quite a few [songs] written with my original songwriting partners and then I also got to branch out with Josh Pyke, Tim Rogers and Sean Peter, who writes a lot for Giggle and Hoot and various other things. It was really fun to throw the net out a bit wider and have more fun! I wanted it to have a real variety of sound, like [my] past albums have different genres within them, but I wanted there to be different instrumentation as well. I’m really proud of the album. I hope people like it.

Was there a favourite lyric of yours which you wrote that you just thought would be a hit with children?

There’s a song called “A Banana is a Banana”. Josh and I wrote that and I was pretty pleased with a couple of lines in that in the chorus. They’re really simple but they’re really funny. I say, “An orange is really orange and the fly can really fly. But a banana is a banana. That’s what it’s called, I don’t know why.” I thought that was a funny lyric!

You have an eight-year-old son called Max. Did you test the songs out on him?

Yes, I tested them all out on him. His school in the clips so there’s a live audience as part of the Ta Da! theatre. Part of the reason for that was little kids especially, love to see slightly older kids doing things and I wanted to make it normal that audience members sing and dance along when they go to a concert. Max’s school learned their songs and had dance moves that they had to learn, so he knew the songs really well because he’d been part of that whole process at school. He’s good to bounce ideas off because he’s got a good sense of humour.

You have two older children as well. When you first started did they think they had the coolest Mum ever and now that they’re teenagers, do they now find it all embarrassing?  

I thought it was going to be like that but they’re actually really mature and nice people. They still, for the most part, [are] quite proud. I think they have quite fond memories of growing up going to concerts with me, working backstage and being around music. I do feel lucky that I never went through that stage where they are embarrassed of me. Even Max, he’s quite proud [and] happily tells people who his mum – is which is actually more embarrassing for me than him! (Laughs)

You’re a highly accomplished and award-winning actress of stage and screen, but many of us grew up watching you because of your eleven years on Play School. What keeps you coming back to children’s TV?

This project was definitely an idea that I thought was worth pursuing. Nobody who goes into television producing does it without great drive and belief in their idea in what they want the end result to be. I was very driven by wanting kids to keep seeing real people rather than a lot of animation, which I think also has its place, but I think particularly preschoolers really respond to people. I wanted preschoolers to see performers at the top of their game, so I’ve tried to get musicians and artists who I admire and amazingly talented and skillful. Kids obviously benefit from that. I think I always love saying this is music and music is wonderful and if you listen and if you join in you’ll get so many benefits from it. I think that’s probably what keeps me coming back.

Justine Clarke’s Ta Da! is on ABC Kids Mondays at 5.50pm.


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