[00:00:02] Tim Bullard
Welcome to the Teach Learn Live podcast. I’m your host, Tim Bullard Secretary of the Department of Education in Tasmania. Through this podcast, we’re going to shed some light on how we connecting students and young people to succeed. Every day in our classrooms we’ve got teachers working hard to inspire our learners and I see great school leaders making a real difference in many people’s lives.
Join me as we get to know more great teachers, curious learners and inspiring families and communities who teach, learn and live in Tasmania.
Teach. Learn. Live. Tasmania! [giggles]
[00:00:42] Tim Bullard
My guest today is John X. Last year, John was one of Tasmania’s public school ambassadors, sharing stories and celebrating the value of public education throughout the year. He was born and raised in Tasmania, attending Lindisfarne North Primary School, Geilston Bay High and Rosny College. John has an extensive career in corporate entertainment, stage, radio and television, and he’s also one of Australia’s most sought after musical performers, most recently playing The Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. He’s previously appeared as Pumbaa in Lion King, the musical for which he was nominated for a Mo Award in 2016 and he’s been in productions such as Opera Australia’s South Pacific and Billy Elliott: The Musical. He’s a regular on our TV screens with television credits including Rose Haven and the Kettering incident. And you might also recognize his voice from his role as a broadcaster on ABC Local Radio.
So welcome, John, to the Teach, Learn, Live Tasmania podcast.
[00:01:41] John X
Thank you very much for having me. It’s a pleasure.
So last year you were one of our ambassadors for public education. We celebrated 150 years of public education in Tasmania and we had a ball going around the state. Great. You shared your stories and your experience during that time. What role do you think public education plays in Tasmanians lives?
[00:02:11] John X
Oh, well. Based on my experience over the years, it plays a massive role in most people’s lives. I don’t know what the figures are against who goes to public education and who does private. But practically all my friends, all the people I grew up within my area and I grew up on the Eastern Shore, you know, it’s sort of shaped who I was and what I did. I mean, I started off being very sport-minded in primary school. And then by the time I got to high school, I wanted to do things like accounting and technical drawing for some weird reason. Then I had college and then I discovered drama, and then that shaped what my career was going to be. But, you know, I changed my mind about 15 times. And I suppose that’s the beautiful thing about it, is that there’s so much you can do with your life and when you have to have choices that it’s a lot different now than it was for 40, 30, 40 years ago when I went to school, 40, you could say 40 now. No, I mean, I just turned 50. So, yeah, 35 odd years ago. Things have changed now. Like, it’s not all about math, science and English anymore. And I think the choice that you have in regards to what to study and what careers to pursue and the fact that you can change your mind and change from year to year and the people that are in the public school system, who teach these people, who understand these people who come from the same sort of, I guess, level that these people come in the background and they’re willing to help them out. I think it’s a vitally important part of shaping people’s lives in Tasmania, especially.
[00:03:41] Tim Bullard
So do you want to describe, John, the student? You’ve talked about heady days in theatre at Rosny College, but you also went to Geilston Bay High and I think you went to Lindisfarne North Primary. What would we have seen if we were looking in on John the student?
[00:04:00] John X
Well, he had hair, which I don’t have now. He had hair. Look, he was some I was a pretty good student. I was one of these students who was naturally quite good at stuff. So didn’t try as hard as I probably could have. And I love talking. I love chatting. I love the camaraderie of being in a coeducational public school the whole of my life. So I love that more than anything. That’s what I look forward to, catching up with my mates, playing sport when you get ahead to play sport. It’s great. You know you had to one day a week, you had the GPA it was awesome for me. So I loved all that stuff. And that’s why I got introduced to music very early in primary school. And that sort of helped me on down the track. Well, Tim, go to high school. I started playing tuba, you know, still no drama. I guess I was a bit sporty in primary school and then I maintained the sport all through high school. I played like things like cricket and football and basketball. Then I got right into basketball and stuff. All at the same time, still pursuing academic subjects, but got all sort of maths and science, accounting and technical drawings sort of stuff in high school and then try to pursue that in college. But then. So you found this kid who was from a Greek background, which was hard. And I won’t you know, I won’t colour the picture. It was tough, in high school especially.
[00:05:26] That’s where I realized that some people didn’t like the fact that you were Greek. And I was sort of introduced to the word wog a lot. But I sort of you know, I was pretty resilient and as you know, dealt with all that. I went to a pretty sort of tough school. Geilston Bay on the Eastern Shore, right near Rose Bay on the Eastern Shore with a sort of and you had Warrane High School as well. There’s a quite a few tough schools on the Eastern Shore in the public system. But yeah. So I was quite a resilient, happy go lucky, chatty sort of guy and got out really well. I did like languages, discovered languages in in high school as well. I was to my I did French and German and did quite well because I was Greek, because I could do all those sounds that the Germans and the French used because it was a lot of them learning the Greek language as well. So so that’s what I helped me. And I cashed in on that as much as I could and loved school. But, you know, always was always sort of fat kid who could run and play sport pretty well for fat kid. [Tim – a multilingual, overweight, sporty student.] That’s right. You’re from a great background and just a nice guy. I mean, I’ve always been very nice and that’s my parents, someone who used to say that was always my downfall, because I’ve always been very generous with everything and I’ve always been happy to help, but I never say no to things.
[00:06:37] So that was always a problem. And I like, you know, I used to hate cross-country running. And the problem of going to this place like Geilston Bay High School was we had to run across the oval over to the hill on the other side up there and through Shag Bay. You go down to this bay and you go up this steep hill, which almost was like you’d be climbing a cliff and then down the other end of it, like it used to kill me. Like I’d come back from count cross-country running with a couple of my mates at the back of a group half an hour into lunchtime. Lunch had started – half an hour in – we were training. I didn’t say no, I didn’t cry. I got stuck in it. So, you know, John X the school schoolboy was pretty much into everything I like – I tried everything, everything was on offer and I did choir and stuff. And then it was interesting that I did that early in primary school, didn’t do much in high school and all it all came back in college. And I started singing in and acting all over again so did the full circle, but had a hell of a time amongst it all. And I am therefore a multi-skilled. I know all about a lot of sports and I know little about practical drawing and I know a lot about math and science and I know a heap about drama. Because that ended up being my career? And, you know I spent a lot of time in the 90s going back to Rosny College, for example, and chatting to kids about drama and how I got my start and how, you know, Rosny College was the best, two – I went back for a third year and just did drama because I loved it so much. Best three years of my life.
[00:08:03] Tim Bullard
So I’ve already heard a couple of the values that that I think you saw or you got instilled in you from public education. I’ve heard that you had to be resilient. I heard that you had to pursue opportunities that were provided to you. And you certainly did that. And also to that, you know, keeping your options open and exploring different pathways seems to be something that that was part of your education. What other values do you think public education brought forward for you?
[00:08:34] John X
I think one of the most important things, I guess, when I think back about it now is that the fact that I was in a public school opened me up to people from all sorts of different backgrounds, ethnicities and socio economic backgrounds as well. No matter how tough it was that my toughest time of being a fat Greek kid at know a mainly sort of Caucasians or Anglo-Saxon sort of schools, there’s always someone else worse off than you. And I know people with all sorts of different problems and issues and stuff. And then I’m able to think now, like my wife is a clinical psychologist and she works with kids with Autism and Asperger’s, and she’d been doing it nearly more than half her life. She’s an expert in the field and I’ve been close to it since then. When you think back, you think, my God, you know, there are certain students who back in the 80s when I was in high school, who definitely had Autism or were on the spectrum and we had no idea. We just thought how weird and eccentric, you know. So you came across those people. You came across people that came from some of the suburbs that are doing a lot better now, I guess, on the Eastern Shore, who, you know, who were from a lower socioeconomic background. And they you know, they had this sort of third generation brothers, hand-me-down, you know, we used to wear brown windcheaters at Geilston Bay High, you know.
[00:09:47] So that opened you – and you learn an appreciation to appreciate, you know, who you were and what you had. Being in a public school education scenario like that allowed you to relate to everyone on a whole, a whole different level because you could see where everyone was coming from. But at the same time at school in a classroom were all, you know, we’re all there to learn the same thing, regardless of what we sort of necessarily go home to and stuff. So it was a good eye opener. And I think it instilled the more compassion for community because I a little – I’ve grown into doing a lot of community work for years and years now. You know, I got nominated for Tasmania the year and became was a finalist in 2009 and fifteen, sixteen. And I just don’t think about that. I you know, I hope I do a lot of community stuff. And I think that comes from, you know, being in a in a situation back in school all my life in primary and in high school and even college, where I dealt with all sorts of people from all sorts of different backgrounds and ethnicities and socioeconomic situations. And you learn to appreciate that and realise that, you know, we’re all the same. You know, once we are all at school, we’re all there to learn, we are all there to become better people no matter what.
[00:10:53] Tim Bullard
And has that set you up well in life? An understanding of different people from different backgrounds, how we interact, relate, it’s not horses for courses.
[00:11:02] John X
Totally, I did a lot of corporate time and coming to the late sort of nineties and I do a lot of gigs with my friend and we’d go out to bars and nightclubs. After the gig. We’d finish a corporate thing at the casino and we’d go out and people would come up to me and say, oh, because I guess they sort of knew who we were – we were quite prominent in the paper or we’re on telly and ads and stuff. So people come and talk to us and some of them are quite scary looking tattooed sort of people. And my friend, who sort of I mean, he went to a similar sort of background, but he he’d certainly had trouble, you know, and felt threatened every time these people come out and we’d chat to them and we laugh and muck around and then they’d leave and he told me, gee, how do you talk to these guys? How come you can communicate? I said, I don’t know. I guess I grew up – and they just people were just out having a good time, just like we are. The fact that, you know, we’re in tuxedos, in a black T-shirt with tattoos up their arms doesn’t make them necessarily any different. So, yeah, I guess it’s really helped me. And I’m grateful for it. And, you know, I’m constantly happy to wave the flag for it as well.
Do you still see yourself as a learner?
Oh, absolutely. One of the one of the things I talk about when I go back to schools and talk about things and whether it’s in a simultaneous story time a day I’m reading to the primary kids of words, going back to drama schools at college level – I explain that what I really learned very quickly, especially after law school, is that you never you never stop learning from anyone. And one of the things that really brought home to me recently was trying to home school my six year old who is in grade one, you know.
How did that go?
Oh, it was tough. My wife would – after about the first week – my wife would ring every day from work and just check to see how I was – how I was going. I wasn’t coping very well, but I learnt a heap, you know, stuff that I thought I knew as well. So that’s extraordinary. And she’s only in grade one – so that they’re teaching kids stuff in grade one in primary school, she goes to Montagu Bay – but, you know, I thought I knew, but I didn’t. She knows things that I don’t know. You know, it’s extraordinary how you never stop learning whether you learn from someone who’s a professor at uni or someone or someone who’s, you know, a professional or even if it’s a kid, you know, a young child who’s learned stuff at school, she knows things that I had no idea about. I learned from her all the time. So you never stop learning and you never will till the day you die. There’s always something, no matter how much you think you know, there’s always a lot you don’t or someone who knows more than you do.
[00:13:26] Tim Bullard
One of the things that we’re exploring through this podcast is the idea of what makes a quality teacher. Have you got a teacher that you feel was a particular influence on you or that particularly encouraging?
[00:13:39] John X
I have several throughout the throughout the years, through primary, through high school. Mrs. Burgess, who taught me French and German, she was really good. She was really understanding with me again, because I would because I was so good at the practical stuff. You know, I just bludged on the on the written sort of work stuff and, you know and therefore basically did enough to pass. But had my written work being done and or, you know, remotely up to scratch out of out of credited some of these classes.
[00:14:06] So, like, look, she was really good. I loved Mr. Molliner who was PE. He was a great people person. I mean, teachers are extraordinary. The teachers I’ve had in my life – and we get to college. You realise that – college was the first time at Rosny College I realised that teachers were real people, just like you or me. And I made mistakes. You know, I went through primary school, even high school, cause you’d never, never get to go on the staffing that you dragging in by a teacher. For some reason, you never went. And I just thought teachers were these, you know, amazing, perfect people who, you know, were quite strict and they had to be in the class and stuff and then went into the staff room in the staff. And then you get to Rosny, you’re in the staff room all the flippin’ time and you realize these people are normal people like you, you know, and it just it’s their job. But they bring – what I loved about it, was especially when I got to college. They brought all this lovely down to earth relatable stuff with you. Chris Thomas, my drama teacher for most of my drama in Rosny College, Simon Hurst, who was my English lit teacher but did a lot of sort of drama stuff. Those two were very influential in me choosing a career path. These teachers were very, very relatable and like always there to help you. And I sort of realised that a little bit.
[00:15:21] I realized that more in college. But it took me a while through primary and high school. When I go back and talk to these schools, that’s what I talk about. I realised a little too late for myself that they – these amazing people that taught me in all my school career were there to help me. And I should have taken more attempts at asking them for help because that’s what they are there for – that’s their job, is to help you – so you can constantly ask for help the whole time because that they because they want to help you. They want to see you do well. I realised after I left that, you know, all these teachers who I bump into its supermarket and stuff, it’s a beautiful thing about living in this state, is you run into half your school life all the time and how proud they are of what I’ve achieved and stuff. And you think, wow, you really – I wasn’t just like a number or a snotty little bum on a seat. I was a real person that you cared about that you followed after I left and you realise, you know, it makes you feel good to realise that you’ve made an influence. You’ve
influenced me and they’ve certainly all done that. Now I realise they’re all too late, unfortunately, but yet it was great. I would love to get back now, knowing what I know now.
[00:16:26] Tim Bullard
Go back for year 14?
I’d be awesome with studying drama. Knock it out the park. I’ll be on the cover of the paper when all the results come out with one hundred and fifty who are going, hey, top of state.
Have you got a favourite moment from school that that comes to mind?
Oh, hey, look, if I really thought about it, there’d be some there’d be some awesome moments. I can’t really think about what they would be in primary school not. Yeah, well, there were just there just like there are these moments in the playground, like they were like that, like, like sort of great education moments. Being a great kid my mom used to give me a roll for lunch with feta cheese, olives, tomato and spring onions in it. One kid gave me so much abuse one day about – I just was picking on me flat out – that I shook up my can of Coke and opened it in his face. And then instantly felt terrible, terribly guilty because I’d covered this kid and I ended up giving him half my salad roll, which he really loved. And since then, I had to get his mum to emulate my lunches in primary school, like I do remember that. But my most moment to cut to the chase – I think Rosny College was when I first realised that I had an ability to stand in front of an audience and every Friday theatre sports was very popular even in schools in the late 80s. And I literally went from playing theatre sports every Friday practically the entire school at Rosny would give up their lunch hour to come and watch theatre sports for the whole lunch here in this room. And you’d be pushing it uphill now to get them to come and sit, give up their lunch hour and sit in an auditorium the whole time watching play theatre sports nowadays. But back then and then I’ve turned into emceeing the whole thing. So I would literally run the whole thing. I would stand up and having a massive auditorium at Rosny, who had the downstairs areas, and the two lecture theatres packed with people falling off the rafters, screaming and laughing and throwing out lollies to them. And they were throwing back one and two cent coins to me. There was this moment there where I thought, oh, this it doesn’t get any better than this.
[00:18:35] Tim Bullard
One of the other aspects that we’re exploring is living in Tasmania and part of this podcast is also to promote not only the great work of public education, but what a great place Tasmania is to live. And you’ve worked Melbourne, Sydney, and you’ve worked internationally, but you’ve come back here.
[00:18:54] John X
Always. Always. I guess it’s because I probably left a bit older than a lot of people now who do, especially what I do in my field, but I guess in other fields as well. When they leave, they leave quite early. I’ll finish union leave it like 21 or I’ll get in a drama school at 19 and go to Melbourne or Sydney and study for three years and then they’re there. I guess I stuck to my guns and wanted to see as get as much experience and learning as I could here and then didn’t go to uni, there was no real course for drama. Tasmania wasn’t gonna go and live in Launceston for some reason, I wasn’t interested, there was I think a course there. So I started working on the mainland other than the odd conference here or there. Quite late, like I was like 35 by the time I started working in professional musical theatre and spending heaps of time away on the mainland and overseas. So I guess I was established and like I realised living in those places. And you don’t realise that you do live there. What we have here is that whole thing that that same old thing that it once is, you know, I realise what you’ve got until you haven’t got any more, you know, and coming back, you know, on weekends or every sort of third weekend, you’d realise how great this place is and how there’s a lot of aspects and everyone’s different as to what they like. But for me, it was always just the quietness, the peacefulness of the place, the air, just the fresh air, just that cold breeze that hit you at the top of the steps when you step off that plane. And the fact that, you know, you have quiet times in the middle of the city – in Melbourne on a Tuesday is like New Year’s Eve at the docks in Hobart – like, you know, that was extra and you couldn’t – you can’t breathe. The rest of these big cities almost suffocate you. And we used to take that for granted because we just think that’s just, you know, life’s like this everywhere, but it’s not, you know. And then, of course, since then, you realise you get older and you start exploring the state. I was very fortunate enough to work with the Tourism Department and went round the state three weeks and realised how amazing this state is and came back to my wife and said, we’re not going to Sydney or Melbourne or Queensland ever again for a holiday.
[00:20:56] We’re going to we’re going to stay here. And at the end of the day it’s the people, like even people come from the mainland and go, oh, you’re also friendly down here. It’s like, well, we aren’t (I can’t find you a whole bunch of non-friendly people). But apparently we are. They don’t get that over there. People, you know, you walk down the street here and I say hi and smile to every practically every stranger that looks at me. You know, you do that in Melbourne and they’ll ask you
what you’re after, what you want. And next thing you know, you’re in a scuffle. You know, it’s we’re a different breed down here. And I think and that feeds through everything, feeds through, you know, our education, you know, our businesses, everything we do. You know, I love that. I feel safe. I feel at home. If I can do what I can do at home, just come and visit these other places and then say bye, I’m going back to paradise – see ya. Yep. That’s for me.
[00:21:44] Tim Bullard
As Tasmanians, we’re very proud of you and your career. Amazing career achievements. But what’s the highlight? What’s your highlight? Your career highlight?
[00:21:52] John X
Ah gee, I have many. I mean. Well, you know, it depends what you call a career highlight. I mean, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some very big names. Your, Todd McKenney, Kate Celebranos, your Lisa McEwen’s over the years. I had a chance because of those shows of meeting, you know, and have been in time with people like Hugh Jackman, with people like Celine Dion, like all these people that you meet, because, you know, you’re in a capital city called Sydney and those people are doing concerts or whatever, they’ll come and see your show. You know, Hugh Jackman has seen me in two shows. He’s seen me in Lion King. And seen me do South Pacific. You know, and then he came back stage at South Pacific and at the Opera House – don’t know if you know the Opera House – but there is a massive green room that connects all the areas. And we spent an hour and half in the green room after the show just chatting to Hugh Jackman, like I’m telling you. So those are highlights. I think my first ever big commercial musical when I did The Lion King, took over for it in Sydney as Pumbaa. I did it in Melbourne. And then we got bussed up the road to the Sofitel where we had the entire double storey mezzanine and booked out and there were fifteen hundred people in. Every Australian celebrity you can think of was there. And we got to walk in off the bus were there all there. And we were cheered and clapped. And you got to approach people that you would normally approach. but because they’d come to see you and you had something to talk about and that was realising that I’d sort of gotten to where I wanted to get to. And it was pretty touch and go, I decided I was if I didn’t hit the mainland by the time I was 35, I was going to pull the plug on thing and just do it just work in Tassie. Just get work here.
And then literally two months before my thirty-fifth birthday is when the call came through for my agent to say, Lion King wants you to play Pumbaa. And then my world just changed. So being there in that and having press – The Mercury stuff and I had a big sort of double-page spread in the paper like that I thought okay, this is pretty cool.
But, you know, lots of things are highlights. I do gigs in halls in, you know, Claremont or in Burnie or whatever, you know, 250 people. We do some old gags that we did in the uni review, you know, to real sort of grassroots non theatre going people and whether it’s for a fundraiser or whatever, and having them scream the roof off, you know, and laughing – making people laugh is pretty much the highlight for me. And that’s what I’ve always been comfortable with and always what’s been easy doing.
And so entertaining an audience is pretty much the pinnacle for me. You know, I’ll die happy, man, if I could just keep doing that, because now I have kids, so, you know, I have to have some other priorities. But yeah, that for me, I mean, hitting the big time and knowing that I could do it and then getting into Billy Elliot straight away and realising the first time wasn’t a fluke – that was pretty satisfying. But there are there have been some great moments, but nothing beats being back here and perform to your home crowd. You know, we broke the record with We Will Rock You a few years ago at the Theatre Royal. And we didn’t realise it was going to be that popular show and that gave me the greatest joy because we had people coming into that theatre saying ‘Is this the Theatre Royal’l? ‘Is this where you see…’ Where you say they’d never been there before? They’d never been there before – moments like that are the highlight for me. I think.
[00:25:15] Tim Bullard
So you’ve talked about being at school. I think you have had some reflections around things that you might have done differently and obviously some reflections about things that you’d like to do again with the year 14 enrolment. If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
[00:25:32] John X
It would be – oh just the one thing? It would be never give up on your dreams because the people on your way up – who teach you, who guide you, who are mentors for you – all want to help you achieve that dream. And, you know, nine times out of ten you’ll get it, I think. But, you know, people along the way are there to help you get to it. No one’s going to try and stifle your dream. So, you know, people like your teachers and stuff. Listen to them. I just needed to listen to them a little bit more. Who knows? I might be on space station by now, but there’s nothing I really wanted to do, to be honest. So I’ve got to where I wanted to be and that’s pretty cool and I’m grateful to the people who help me get there. And most of that was, were my teachers throughout school.
[00:26:20] Tim Bullard
Well, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. John X, thank you so much for your time.
Sorry I’ve talked a lot! But yeah, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
[00:26:37] Tim Bullard
I hope that you’ve enjoyed today’s podcast. To hear more about those people who teach, learn and live in Tasmania.
Join us at www.education.tas.gov.au/podcast or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Why not subscribe so that you can keep up to date with what we’re doing?
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Teach. Learn. Live. Tasmania! [giggles]