Ireland The Show is a full-throttle whirlwind of Celtic colour, characters and high-kicks, celebrating the very best of Irish heritage and culture. It’s received standing ovations around the world, but it wasn’t conceived by an Irishman — it’s the brainchild of a boy from Brisbane.
When Ethan Walker was a 14-year-old living in suburban Brisbane, he saw Riverdance on TV. Most kids his age would have just kept flipping through the channels — but for Ethan, it was the start of something incredible.
“I just saw Riverdance on TV, and I thought it looked cool,” he says now, his Aussie accent inflected with a distinctly Irish flavour. “I took a few lessons and moved to Ireland and it all took off from there.”
He makes it sound like the most natural, obvious thing in the world, but his journey to Ireland wasn’t exactly that simple. He was 16 when he moved overseas, and he had to pull off quite the con to do it.
“I had a pen pal in Northern Ireland,” he explains. “I forged a contract from an Irish dance company on the computer at home, and then I mailed it to her. I asked her if she could do me a huge favour and send the fake contract back to me so it looked convincing.
“I faked a conversation on the phone, and when my mum asked who it was, I said, ‘Oh, it’s just a dance company in Ireland, they want to send me a contract’. And then, lo and behold, this ‘contract’ arrived in the mail from Ireland! This was back before email was really big, I guess.”
Despite Ethan’s ridiculously elaborate con, his parents weren’t keen on the idea of their boy packing up his bags, giving up on school and moving to Ireland. “They wouldn’t let me do it,” Ethan remembers, “so I just refused to go to high school. I just wagged every day until they gave in. I was a little brat!”
Backed into a corner, Ethan’s parents agreed to pay for his flight to Ireland, where he lived in an alleyway with his suitcase until an audition came up.
“I knew there was a show on that I wanted to get into, that I’d actually seen in Australia when they toured. So I did have a goal and I knew there was a possibility of a show to get into. I was lucky enough to get an audition, and I was quite honest with the producers — I told them I’d quit school and lied to my parents about being in the show, so could they please cast me in the show? And they did!”
It was an unusual way to get his start in the industry — and if he had to do it all over again, he probably wouldn’t.
“I can see now that it was crazy, and I realise now how dangerous what I did actually was. But when you’re young and you’re stupid and you don’t know anything, you don’t think about that. You just do it. You have this bravery that I think you lose a bit as an adult, when reality kicks in.”
Which is not to say, of course, that Ethan’s choices since then haven’t been brave. After a few years with that first show (“they treated us like rubbish and the money was horrible,” he remembers, “but I had the best time ever”), he had the chance to audition for Michael Flatley, and he grabbed it with both hands.
“It was nerve-wracking. The audition was in Dublin, and I was living in Killarney, a few hours away. I had a show that night, but I never told anyone I was going to audition, so I had to wake up really early, catch the train to Dublin, and then make it back for the show. I think I made it back to Killarney just in time to throw my clothes on and rush onstage. I could have been fired if I’d missed the show, but I thought it was worth the risk.”
Once again, that risk paid off, and Ethan ended up travelling the world three times over with Flatley. “I know he’s perceived as having a bit of an ego,” he says, “but in real life, he’s actually a really nice guy.”
A few years after that, Ethan got restless again, and he decided he wanted to produce his own shows — not just Ireland The Show, which became an international success, but also a broad range of productions that had nothing to do with Irish dancing. One thing led to another, as it tends to do for Ethan, and he soon found himself working for Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“We did the arena show of Jesus Christ Superstar, with Tim Minchin and Mel C from the Spice Girls, which actually came to Brisbane. It played the Entertainment Centre. I think we did a good job with it.
“We had a five year plan to do a different Andrew Lloyd Webber arena show every year. The next one was going to be Starlight Express, and Deadmau5, the DJ, was going to come on board and do all the music. Then we were going to do Cats, and we were going to team up with Cirque du Soleil for that one and make it a big, Cirque-type show. Then we would have done Evita, and then we would have done Phantom of the Opera. But they just weren’t working.
“The shows were costing too much to run, and they weren’t making as much as they should have. So they just canned them all. Once they finished Jesus Christ Superstar, I finished up with the company, because there was no arena division anymore.”
On his own again, Ethan headed for Las Vegas with a concept for a new show, Piano Man.
“I think it took about 10 days of living in Vegas to get a contract to put on a show at Planet Hollywood. They said, ‘We love the concept, let’s put your show on’, but I didn’t have the money to stage it. I didn’t tell them that, though. I just quietly thought to myself, ‘Oh my god, I don’t have the money to finance a Vegas show!’ I had a bit of capital, but I kind of needed another half a million dollars.
“It took about two weeks to raise it all. It really does come down to good numbers on paper, and your profit margins. If you’re good at budgeting and you have a proper, detailed budget that you know how to control, it’s actually relatively easy to get people’s money.”
With Piano Man becoming a success in Vegas, and his production of Alice in Wonderland set to debut in New York and Hawaii later this year (“I had a stopover in Hawaii recently and I wanted to spend more time there,” he explains, “so I figured if I put a show there the trip would pay for itself”), Ethan saw a window to bring one of his shows back home.
Ireland The Show is coming to QPAC just in time for St Patrick’s Day. At the ripe old age of 29, Ethan is coming out of retirement from Irish dancing to perform in the show, which will mark his first appearance on stage in his hometown.
“I remember when I was seven or eight years old, I used to see the shows at QPAC, and I used to think, one day I want to do my own show here. But I never thought I would do everything overseas first, and then come here. I feel like I’ve done everything in reverse.
“It’s definitely a much smaller show than Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. I knew I couldn’t copy those shows, so I’ve made ours different. In those shows, there’s this big line-up of faceless dancers, and you don’t really get to identify with anyone. Everyone’s kind of faceless and there’s not a lot of personality. So what I wanted to do was make the cast a bit smaller and make sure everyone has a solo to do at some point, from the dancers to the musicians to the singers.
“That makes it a harder show to cast, because you can’t hide ‘adequate’ dancing in a long line-up like you can with those bigger shows. You really need to have the world’s best dancers, because everyone is on display. Everyone has to have a world championship title and be a really good performer. So it’s more difficult to cast than the other Irish shows I’ve worked on, but it’s more personal, I think, and more approachable.”
While he’s in town, he’ll have a chance to reconnect with his parents — you know, the ones he tricked into paying for his flight to Dublin all those years ago. Now that he’s made it, I ask him how his parents feel about his scam.
“You know, I don’t actually think they know,” he laughs.
“To this day, we’ve never had that conversation. I guess they’re going to know now!”
Ireland The Show plays QPAC on Wednesday 16 March. For tickets, visit qpac.com.au.