Ross Mollison’s observation that the United States was unfamiliar with Belgian spiegeltents saw him build an entertainment empire. The Melbourne-raised promoter now lives half his year in America, growing and developing his Spiegelworld company. His productions dazzle tens of thousand of happy punters across the world – particularly New York City, Las Vegas and Australia – with an adult-themed, sensual cocktail of circus arts, cabaret, vaudeville and comedy.
Mollison brought the Spiegelworld production Empire to Newcastle last year and the show sold over 14,000 tickets. Empire played out of a custom-built spiegeltent erected in Wheeler Place, alongside the Civic Theatre.
Now Mollison has brought a second show, Absinthe, to Australia and it kicks off its Down Under run in Newcastle next week.
The impresario is on the phone from his Brooklyn home in the middle of the so-called “Snowpocalypse”.
NM: You’re an Aussie ex-pat – you grew up in Melbourne?
RM: Yep, in Mt Waverley. I started working here [in New York City] in 2000, but I have a house in Melbourne and I live between the two places.
NM: Did you move to America to pursue a form of entertainment like Spiegelworld?
RM: The first show that I produced here was Puppetry of the Penis. I produced it in Australia and I thought we would bring it to America and we launched that here in 2001. Then I produced Slava’s Snowshow in America and Australia, and all over the world. My love has always been – for lack of a better term – circus arts. Absinthe is not traditional circus arts, but I love that sort of circus art with a strong comedy bent.
Nobody has heard of a spiegeltent in America. A friend of mine, David Bates, started bringing them to Australia about 10 years ago and they’re really popular. I thought “we should take this idea and do it America”. I started off working with David and then I built my own business here doing it, because people really love this form of entertainment.
To a large degree, that’s why we went to Newcastle. I worked on the original production of Tap Dogs, I promoted that with Sydney Theatre Company and Dein Perry. Which was a whole lot of Newcastle boys. When we decided to do [the show] commercially we said “let’s go and try it out in Newcastle”. [With Absinthe] I said “what are the major markets in Australia that a spiegeltent has never been to?” And one had never been to Newcastle and we took our show Empire there. It went nuts, it was crazy.
“When I say that we get the best talent in the world, we really do. We really go out and find the best artists we possibly can…”
NM: How does the mood and atmosphere of Absinthe compare to Empire?
RM: The Gazillionaire, who is the host of the show [Absinthe], is as inappropriate as the prime minister. I think he really gets it wrong a lot. He’s very opinionated. So the comedy and the attitude of the host, The Gazillionaire, is really something to be seen. Particularly in this environment now. It’s going to be extremely interesting to see what people think of it.
[Abinsthe] has been an enormous hit in Las Vegas and has played for four years there – it’s about to have clocked through 2000 shows – and it has just been voted best show in Las Vegas for the fourth year in a row. And there’s eight Cirque du Soleil shows there. People are really in for a treat.
Empire was a new show, it was cutting edge in many ways, but this is really something that’s tried and true and something that people will really love.
And a lot of Australians have already seen it – there a lot of Aussies in Vegas when I go there now. I think because of the higher dollar a lot of people jump on a plane to LA and go to Vegas.
NM: How does a show like Absinthe come together? Could you explain the genesis of the initial idea or concept?
RM: It’s a really good question because it is a really interesting process that we go through. We do develop what’s called a “narrative” for the show but it’s not like a musical or a play. It’s just a written document that talks about what we’re hoping to achieve and who are the characters and what is the relationship between them all.
Then we literally go everywhere in the world where there is live entertainment where we think there might be something interesting to see. We’ve been to Russia – you’ve got this new parallel bar act which will blow everybody’s mind. To see a parallel bar act in a Spiegeltent is going to be exciting. We just go everywhere to look for talent for what we’re doing. Then we rehearse it. Rehearsals have been going on for months now in Vegas. Then when we’re happy with it we send it out.
With Absinthe we’ve done this show on a pier in New York for three years, down near Wall Street. It really is something we know very, very well. With my experience in Australia we think audiences are really going to like it because I think Australians really like something different. In live entertainment they really want something different.
I think the play market [in Australia] is a bit lackadaisical. The musical market is things you would expect. So I think people want to go out and have their mind blown. That’s what we try and deliver.
NM: Everyone I spoke to that saw Empire seemed dazzled by it. They gushed about the intimacy of the venue, the level of talent and the fact there were cocktails on hand.
RM: Well when I say that we get the best talent in the world, we really do. We really go out and find the best artists we possibly can. And I’d also say that you’re absolutely right, it is an entertainment that is best consumed while holding a drink. I don’t know many entertainments that aren’t best consumed that way, but we certainly encourage it. We try and create an environment of no rules. If you’re annoying other people or you’re disrupting the show we might get a bit grumpy, but generally we want people to come in and just relax and be part of it. It’s becoming part of a community. Everyone’s in the same room. When you go to the theatre, everyone’s in a different room from where the actors are. They’re up on a stage, there’s a curtain that closes that room off and then when it opens you’re looking into that room. In our shows everyone is sitting in one big lounge room together. We just want everyone to behave as you would if you were going to your friend’s house. It’s a lot of fun.
NM: You have another show called Vegas Nocturne. Is that something you would bring to Australia in 2016?
RM: Yeah, we’re really working hard on that. The Empire tour of Australia went for nearly two years, so if Absinthe went for two years in Australia we’d be definitely interested in looking for another show to bring to Australia.
If Absinthe does well in Australia and sells a lot of tickets, then we’d definitely bring Vegas Nocturne down there. We’d love to do that. Because that is a totally different show and focuses mostly on music. It’s a really interesting show.
NM: Is the version of Absinthe that we see in Australia identical to the show that played overseas or has it been tweaked slightly?
RM: We have a whole lot of cast members from Vegas coming over [to Australia] to do this. So I think we’ll go in presenting pretty much the Vegas show. We’ll all be there and we’ll see what we think.
People go to Vegas because they want to have a Hangover experience. They’ve seen the movie. You watch it when they’re checking in at Caesar’s Palace or one of the other great hotels there and their eyes are wide with excitement. You can see that their pupils are ready to go. They want that Hangover experience – they don’t want to get their teeth kicked out or end up with Mike Tyson’s tiger in their bathroom, but they just want to have a stupid fun time. That’s what Australians want to see in the theatre, something whacky and fun.
Look, it would be hard not to have a show on in Australia now and not comment on the knighthood scenario, so there will be some localization. I mean, isn’t that bizarre? I mean, I’m right wing but this guy [Tony Abbott] has lost the plot. I have nothing against the guy but that’s not the purpose of an honour system in Australia. It’s ridiculous.
NM: Are there any new shows in development?
RM: Yeah, we’re working on two shows right now. The way we work is that we put them into a 50-seat theatre in New York, very under the radar. Then we send them out to tour around a few places. Then we decide is this show for Vegas, or should it tour to Europe or Japan or one of the other markets that we go to.
We’re really excited about our development. This is a market that is going to explode over the next few years. It’s an enormous employment opportunity for young kids that want to get into the arts – skill based, vaudeville, burlesque, comedy-type entertainment.
Absinthe opens in Newcastle on Tuesday, February 17 and runs until March 1.
Tickets through Ticketek.