Mark Dooley is an Australian Film & TV Producer who has worked on shows ranging from I’m A Celebrity to Gogglebox. Mark’s new documentary, Repeat Attenders, delves deep in to the world of Musical Theatre Superfans: fans who take theatregoing to a whole new level.
Hi Mark. We know that you’ve worked extensively in TV – what was your inspiration for a documentary about the Theatre community?
I love Theatre and personality-based or character-based documentaries and the fans that hang around the stage door have always intrigued me. I’ve often wondered why adults continue to hunt autographs, meet the actors at the stage door and watch the same production over and over again.
What makes a Superfan?
Superfans are all unique, but what links them is seeing a show multiple times – we’re talking hundreds or even thousands of times. That’s why the documentary is called Repeat Attenders.
What are the top Superfan shows? Do certain shows attract repeat attenders?
Shows with a strong human bond seem to attract Superfans – for example people feeling a strong connection to Elphaba in Wicked where people understand that she feels different; an outsider. People are similarly attached to Phantom – perhaps they’re in love with somebody or something that they can’t have, so they relive that experience through the characters on stage – often unknowingly.
Do Superfans tend to follow characters in the show rather than actors?
Repeat Attenders focuses mainly on people who follow the same show, the same production in the same city – but there are variations on that. Some fans will travel all over the world just to see different productions of the Phantom of the Opera. Then again, some people might just follow Kerry Ellis in every concert or production that she is ever in. That’s their love, their passion.
Which aspect does the documentary focus on?
Repeat Attenders is mainly focused on the big statistics – fans who see a show hundreds and hundreds of times – though not exclusively. There’s a fan that collects costumes from productions of Cats and a fan who collects tattoos from Broadway – he has tattoos of Broadway shows, logos, portraits of performers, all over his body.
Does being a Superfan ever cross the line into becoming a stalker?
I guess some people’s first impression could be that Superfans are dangerous. But it’s my experience that the majority of fans know where to the draw the line and are respectful towards the actors and productions. The flipside is that productions are very protective of both their staff and their brand. Security measures are in place to ensure that, for example, actors aren’t followed home – that’s not to say that it hasn’t happened.
What’s so powerful about theatre is that you can have a relationship with somebody that’s on the stage performing – you may have very strong feelings towards them emotionally, romantically or even sexually – but it’s very safe because there’s a distance between you and them. So it’s a very safe relationship. You could be deeply in love with the guy playing Raoul in Phantom and it’s like you’re going on a date where you’re guaranteed he’ll turn up!
You mentioned Kerry Ellis – are there other well-known actors who seem to attract particularly loyal fans?
The documentary doesn’t really cover that specific angle, but it does feature some actors from a production of Starlight Express in Germany. Some Superfans attach themself to a particular cast member and become their “fan”, even running their personal website or become their fan club leader. That’s obviously an arrangement which works both ways – the fan gets to be close to someone they admire and respect, and the actor gets a free website and adoration!
You filmed in London, New York, Germany and Australia for the documentary – is there a distinct fan culture in each place?
There are vastly differing theatre industries in each of those different locations and the fans are very different too. In London, fans seem to have more access to the actors and their world, whereas on Broadway it’s very strict: barriers are set up, sometimes with security guards. Stage doors of each theatre run the autograph queues – it’s a highly regimented operation.
For European and regional American audiences, when a big show comes in, the whole city knows about it. In Melbourne for example, the streets are lined with logos and when Wicked is in town the streets are bathed in green lights – it’s a big deal.
Do any Superfans really stand out for you?
There was a young guy who in the space of just a few months lost both of his parents and began seeing Phantom of the Opera every evening. After a while, the box office staff were curious and asked “what is it that keeps you coming back night after night?” and he told them his story: he said “It’s the one thing in my life at the moment that I can rely on. I come to the show, sit in my seat and at seven thirty I know I’m going to be transported away from what I’m experiencing right now. For just a few hours every day, life is still beautiful”.
I’m also very fond of Arnold, who appears in the Documentary. Arnold was diagnosed with cancer. Being Jewish, his faith demanded that he didn’t taint his body in any way. When he beat the cancer he basically said “Screw it, I survived” and decided to cover his body in tattoos to feel connected to the show. I love his carefree attitude to life: He doesn’t care what people think of his tattoos, he loves them and that’s all that matters. I would love to be like that.
Has romance ever blossomed between Superfans?
I recall a Canadian couple who met at the Stage Door of Phantom in Toronto. They got married as Christine and Raoul at a Phantom-themed wedding. Another fan actually changed her name to Christine Daae and married her version of Raoul!
Has anyone ever bankrupted themselves for a show?
Some people are very thrifty, but I recall hearing a story about a fan who took out a £20,000 loan to buy tickets to a show. Some communities can turn on each other through jealousy or because some fans can afford to see a show more often than others, and that can create tensions. Fan communities have the same ups and downs that any community has.
In the documentary trailer, we see a Superfan in full costume – is it common that fans emulate characters from shows?
Some of the fans feel close to a show by dressing up as a specific character – some even make outfits and go to Fan Days in costume. In the film we see Starlight Express Superfan, Gudrun Mangel, dressed as Pearl, one of the trains – complete with rollerskates. When she’s at that Fan Day she feels like she’s a part of the show and kids will ask her for an autograph. She always tells the children that she’s not the real Pearl but they don’t care! She may not be in the show, but she gets to experience that kick that the actors get when they’re recognised and admired.
How do we find out about Fan Days?
They don’t happen everywhere, although Halloween is celebrated by Wicked all around the world. There’s a massive fan convention in New York called Broadwaycon which is a huge Musical Theatre fan convention. This year was the very first one and it’s basically a whole weekend of fans getting together to celebrate Theatre.
When and where might we see Repeat Attenders?
The film is still in post-production – were’ about ¾ finished and then it will be up available to purchase online via streaming and itunes. It would be nice to at least have some screenings in the West End or Broadway for the fans to enjoy a celebration of their passions.
And finally…Do you have a show that you’re a repeat attender of yourself?
I’m a big fan of Wicked, Les Miserables and Into the Woods. I’ve seen Wicked twelve times, so I know there’s a Superfan lurking in me…but one of the characters in the Documentary has seen Rent 1,169 times, so I guess I still have a long way to go!
Are you a Superfan? How many times have YOU seen Wicked, Phantom or Les Mis? Or do you have another favourite? Maybe you have a secret passion for one of the Worst Musicals in West End History? Let us know! Maybe it’s time to book tickets for your next trip to your favourite West End show!