One-time Trinity student Gene Petersen is one of the Lismore region’s great success stories. A phenomenal percussionist, a prolific composer and exceptional pianist, Petersen has left the quiet country life behind with a world tour that has seen him create 360 Allstars, which is coming to Lismore City Hall this week.
What is 360 Allstars exactly? What was the impetus to create the group?
360 ALLSTARS is an urban circus! The concept behind the show was to reinvent the circus by replacing traditional stereotyped circus artforms with contemporary street styles. So instead of acrobats we have breakdancers, instead of a juggler we have a basketball freestyler, and instead of a unicyclist we have a BMX flatlander, and so on. All of the artforms in the show feature rotation, hence 360, and all of the cast are quite literally the best in the world at their given disciplines, hence ALLSTARS!
Gene, it seems like such an inner-city thing to do. How did a country boy like you find his way to producing and directing shows?
My path to this was through music. I toured with a lot of other shows as a drummer, and ended up composing the music for several productions too, and so quite inadvertently I gained firsthand experience in how to build a show. It was never really an aspiration of mine to be a producer or director, but I soon realised I’d acquired the knowledge and an understanding of the creative process, so it came about quite organically. Ultimately it came down to jumping in at the deep end and having a go, and fortunately it didn’t suck!
What are the things that you like to talk about in your raps?
Well, I wouldn’t go promoting myself as a rapper really. I enjoy it a lot and I do rap in the show a bit, but Roman MC is our main rapper and vocalist, and for good reason. As far as content goes, the incredible thing about Roman is his ability to freestyle. In one section we even have him taking word suggestions from the audience and instantaneously incorporating these into his lyrics, live on the spot. His verbal prowess is genuinely staggering, and it’s just ridiculous how quickly his brain can generate the lyrical content and deliver it perfectly in time with such amazing showmanship and killer flow.
How does percussion fit in? Does it become the pulse for the show?
The whole soundtrack for the show is performed live and the drumming is certainly one of the main elements, with the keys and Roman’s vocals being the other key ingredients. We run all of these through a loop station, which enables us to record and stack layers upon layers of musical phrases, and with the use of synthesisers and an array of effects we are able to emulate almost any instrument or ensemble. So one piece might be funky, the next is orchestral, and the result is an eclectic soundtrack that’s far more diverse than what would normally be achievable by just a duo. After the foundation for each piece is built, we both revert to our primary roles of drummer and rapper, and so I do spend the majority of my time in the show playing the kit. This allows me to support the performers on stage musically, building behind them or bringing it back down to create suspense, and generally just accentuating their movements to have maximum impact.
Where has the show taken you?
Well this is our sixth year touring the show around the world, so quite a lot of places! We’ve toured the UK, Europe, Asia, North America, and of course Australia and New Zealand. It’s been an exciting journey, and we’ve been lucky to have had so many wonderful and contrasting experiences. From performing in Alaska in the middle of winter, to sellout seasons at Edinburgh Fringe, to playing to Indigenous communities in the outback, to selling out on Broadway in New York. In the next six months alone we’ll perform in Australia, China, the Czech Republic, England, France, Scotland and Malaysia… and Lismore City Hall!
My kids go to Trinity. You must have been a bit left of centre for most of their curriculum. Were you developing your ideas back then?
I’m not sure if I was that far left of centre… I think the whole centre is pretty far left on the northern rivers! I did always have lots of creative ideas, but so do all kids. That was probably the real key to making this show; tapping in to that childlike imagination and allowing myself to think like a kid in a candy store. By intentionally removing all the sensible limitations or parameters that you would normally work within when creating a production, you’re suddenly free to dream big. What’s awesome? Breakdancing! Basketball freestyling! BMX flatlanding! How many different types of awesome can we get on one stage? And who’s the best in the world at all of these things? What country do they come from? Let’s get them!
It’s resulted in a work that connects so well with young audiences, but also appeals to the inner child of our mature audiences. It’s fun, and that’s universal.
How do you involve breakdancers in the show?
The B-Boy scene is one of my favourites. It’s set inside a video game, with each breakdancer an avatar from within the game, competing live in a Street Fighter-esque dance battle. They’re both insanely talented and execute moves that defy gravity and probably several other laws of physics! Aside from this scene, throughout the show we build relationships between the various artforms, and the breakdancers help to facilitate a lot of the collaboration here, as they are so physically capable of replicating the motions featured in the other disciplines.
Pardon my ignorance, but what is a Basketball freestyler or a BMX Flatlander?
Basketball Freestyling is all about tricks with a basketball – spins, dribbles, juggling, flow etc – think Harlem Globetrotters! Basketballman is one of the best in the world, all the way from New York, and is an absolutely phenomenal performer. Six years I’ve been watching him wow crowds, and I’m still just as much in awe as I was on day one. BMX Flatlanding is all about BMX tricks on a flat surface; spinning, rolling, balancing and all sorts of crazy combinations. It’s super impressive, but also quite graceful – almost like ballet on a bicycle – so it translates to a theatre stage quite effortlessly. Peter is the two-time World Champion from Hungary and, unsurprisingly, very good.
What’s it feel like bringing the show home?
Feels great! Having toured with the crew for so many years now, we’ve all become a tight-knit little family, so it’ll be wonderful to share with them this beautiful area I was lucky enough to grow up in. And of course it’ll be personally gratifying to rock a home show after having performed this literally everywhere else!
Friday & Saturday 7.30pm (2.30pm Sat mat) | NORPA at Lismore City Hall | Bookings: www.norpa.org.au or call 1300 066 772 |Tickets: $25/$44/$49