Monday, 30 May 2022


Assisted a cow giving birth via caesarean section?
Been offered a civic reception by the mayor of the town you grew up in?
Acted alongside the likes of Marina Prior, Anthony Warlow, David Campbell, Caroline O’Connor, Ramin Karimloo, Geoffrey Rush, Todd McKenney, Rhonda Burchmore, Nancye Hayes and Robin Nevin?
In the case of Alex Rathgeber (XC 2000) the answer is 'yes, to all of the above’, so let's discover more about Alex.
Jock O'Keefe (JO)
You arrived @ The Big School from Horsham where you lived with your siblings and parents on a farm. You made your mark and in the final year of study you were made Vice Captain of the School.
Did you have ambitions to strut the stage? Where did you go after cutting the umbilical with Xavier?
Alex Rathgeber (AR)
My motorbike and horse-riding upbringing 3-and-a-half hours from Melbourne was a world away from the professional arts and entertainment industry, and I didn’t have any links to ’the biz’ in my family. But I was very fortunate to have parents who encouraged me and my siblings Olivia and Nick (OX 1997) to take up a wide variety of hobbies and extracurricular interests. One of mine was singing. I started out singing in primary school choirs and gradually started stepping out front as lead vocalist with the choir. It was my singing which led me to being cast in local musicals, and those first few experiences of being a part of a musical company in Horsham were so formative. I was hooked. I used to sing along at home with the soundtracks of big Broadway and West End shows like Les Miserables (the double cassette recording!) but pursuing it as a profession seemed kind of like a fantasy - it sort of sat outside the realm of possibility until midway through Year 12 at the Senior School. I remember being really distressed about which post-Year 12 courses to apply for but my incredible singing teacher at Xavier, Andy McCalman, could see how passionate I was about it, and obviously thought I had enough talent to make a career out of it. Andy opened one of the biggest doors of my life when he encouraged me to audition for WAAPA (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts) at the end of Year 12. To gain some insight and advice ahead of the auditions, he encouraged me to get in touch with Simon Gleeson (OX 1994) who had recently finished studying at WAAPA and was in his first years working professionally in some big shows. Simon was incredibly generous - he met me for coffee, told me all about WAAPA and life in the industry, and offered to come to the school and help me prepare a few songs and monologues. The auditions coincided with the dates of schoolies week, so I had to sacrifice going away with my boarding house mates for schoolies in order to have a crack at getting into WAAPA. Thankfully, it proved to be worth it - I was lucky enough to get in on my first attempt. So I went straight from Xavier to studying over in Perth for three extraordinary years. It was while there at WAAPA, as my skills, knowledge and confidence grew, that I really felt my ambition start to come alive in a big way, and I haven’t looked back. Incidentally, I’ve been lucky to call both Andy and Simon great friends for all the years since.
Graduating from WAAPA in 2003 with a Bachelor of Arts - Music Theatre, it wasn't long before you were playing the lead role of Raoul in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ in London's West End. While in London, you received in the post a congratulatory letter from the Mayor of the City of Horsham. A proud moment as Horsham was where you started acting in local productions. The crits were very kind and before long you were signed for major productions in Australia. At one of your Aussie performances of 'The Boy Friend', then Melbourne Theatre Company artistic director Simon Phillips was in the audience scouting for talent. This lead to a part amongst an all-star cast, including Geoffrey Rush, in 'The Drowsy Chaperone' for MTC. Tell us about life in the fast lane as you built your career, not overlooking winning the Robert Helpmann Award.
It’s definitely been an action-packed ride, full of twists and turns and plenty of variety. When the highs happen, they are fantastic. There are the more obvious publicised highs, like the big casting announcements and opening nights etc. But other more personal moments like landing a gig I’ve worked hard to achieve is always a huge high. As is the first day of rehearsals when everyone comes together to start breathing life into the make-believe world we’ve been contracted to create and inhabit - for however many weeks or months. Rehearsals are one of my favourite times - it’s where we do all the experimenting and playing to figure out the most effective interpretation and staging of the material. We dissect all the individual components of the piece - such as text, music and choreography - into tiny chunks and, piece by piece, we painstakingly link and layer them all together, drilling and refining all the smallest of details until we’ve built a complete and congruous show.

The performance side of things is particularly thrilling when we can hear the audience enjoying the show - laughter, sighs, inhales, exhales, and those moments when the audience is collectively holding their breath with anticipation, and you could hear a pin drop. And there’s always at least one other ‘show' happening in the wings and backstage - we find ways keep it interesting and different for each other and ourselves. Those of us who work in the theatre share a love of the routine and rigour of performing usually 8, sometimes 9, shows a week. It’s a satisfying challenge, but it’s definitely a lifestyle that’s not for everybody. I have so much admiration for the people I get to work with. On every show I’m a part of, I’m surrounded by unbelievably hard-working, motivated, inspiring people - those in the spotlight, and the many behind the scenes who go unseen but deserve the applause just as much, if not more. Across the board, my industry colleagues are people who love their work intensely. It takes a lot of commitment, self-discipline and sacrifice to continue working in any area of the performing arts and entertainment industry. I’m constantly buoyed and inspired by the resilience, optimism, creativity and passion of the people around me. 
At the back of your mind was the quotation your Dad drilled into you as a youngster, so much so he wrote it on a sheet and nailed it on the back of the dunny door? What did the sign say?
Another quote you first heard at Xavier, and still adhere to is 'Get outside your comfort zone'.
Wow, I can’t remember who I told about Dad’s sign, but yes, he did put up a slightly humorous tweaked version of the (historically inaccurate) quote by Winston Churchill: ’Never, never, never give up.’ I think both Mum and Dad instilled a strong sense of commitment and determination in us from a young age, which I’m sure has helped me remain focussed through some tougher times I’ve faced. Similarly, the idea of pushing myself beyond my comfort zone has been helpful to adopt both professionally and personally. Sometimes when I doubt myself and my ability to perform a certain role, for example, I might just be feeling uncomfortable and a thought like ‘get outside your comfort zone' can help me dig deeper or just think differently about how I might be approaching and thinking about what’s at hand, and then I can find a way to navigate my way through the discomfort and step up to the challenge. People often ask us as performers if we get nervous when we perform. I always reply that if there aren’t nerves, something isn’t right. For me, nerves are an essential part of performing - they’re a gauge. If I’m nervous then I know I’m about to step into something that’s challenging, that it matters to other people and counts for something - it carries meaning. 
Then along came Covid and stage productions ground to a halt. How did you cope?
On March 13 2020, the day the pandemic was declared by World Health Organisation, my partner Tom and I were all packed up and 5 days away from hopping on our flight to relocate to New York City. So, understandably, with NYC in the chaotic state it was, we were forced to cancel. It was a big disappointment for sure. We’d spent a lot of time preparing and planning and getting excited for a big new chapter of our lives over there. But we very quickly saw how fortunate we were not to have landed in NYC yet, and to be so much safer in Sydney at the time. And while Tom was lucky enough to be asked to return to his interior architecture job, yes, showbiz was completely derailed and I knew it was unlikely I’d be getting on stage any time soon, so I had to look at other options.

For some time, I'd been wanting to expand my skills into producing and directing, and so I reached out to number of producer and director colleagues in the industry to seek some advice about where and how to start. I was given some great tips and decided to just have a go. With so many artist friends desperate for a gig and something to do amidst the lockdowns at the time, I asked a friend of mine if she’d be keen to make an online concert with me. We ended up producing a 90-minute online concert called Heart Sounds to celebrate the healthcare workforce who were under immense pressure as they tried to understand and adjust to those early days of COVID-19. We were kickstarted by a huge amount of financial help from the proceeds of an amazing trivia night that my good friend Michael Nunan (XC 2000) and his family were running, and altogether we were able to raise just shy of $10,000 through a GoFundMe campaign so that we could pay all the artists during that time when everyone in live entertainment was struggling. Off the back of that project, I pitched an idea to the Arts Wellbeing Collective, which is the mental health division of Arts Centre Melbourne. The idea was to create a music-meets-documentary web series looking at mental health in the performing arts, especially while the industry was grappling with the impacts of the pandemic. It was fantastic to be able to provide another large group of artists with a gig as part of that project, and to produce a collection of mental health videos centred around music and creativity for people to watch, relate to, and feel supported by. Those projects led to me landing a project management and executive producing position working on Global Citizen Live, a 24-hour global broadcast event produced by Global Citizen, the international organisation whose mission is to end extreme poverty by 2030. I worked remotely from Sydney with a team spanning Melbourne, London, New York and Los Angeles to create a 20-minute segment for the broadcast which was filmed on the steps of Sydney Opera House. And now, with live performance back, I'm finally back on stage - I’m in the company of the play North By Northwest, a very slick and stylish adaptation of the iconic Hitchcock film which is directed by former Melbourne Theatre Company artistic director Simon Phillips and starring David Campbell, playing a short season in Sydney after successful seasons in Melbourne a few years ago. It’s impossible to express how good it’s been feeling for all of us to be back in the rehearsal room and on stage.
You have acted, sung and danced in many of the major stage shows as well as appearing on the small screen in telly productions. What plans do you have for the next few years?
After the tough two years we’ve all just had, where members of our industry have really suffered from shows being unable to go ahead, and audiences have been deprived of live entertainment, I’ve never felt more motivated to get working to create as many life-affirming theatre and music experiences for people as possible - as a performer and in other roles. I look forward to seeing familiar faces from the Xavier community at the theatre!