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Nick Backstrom’s back on track, bringing Broadway to the bush

Culture

It could be the plot to a feelgood drama: a railway worker from the big smoke lands in the Outback and has a transformative experience through musical theatre. Better still, as Brett Debritz writes, it’s a true story.

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Nick Backstrom is, by his own admission, one of those actors who “never cracked it” in Brisbane. However, he is happy to have found a new audience in a new medium, and an entirely new life in outback Queensland.

Like so many stories, it wasn’t scripted to happen this way. As a child, Backstrom attended performances at the Brisbane Arts Theatre and the original La Boite in Milton, but he never had an inkling to act. He finished school and went to the University of Queensland, where developed a love of Shakespeare, and went on to be a high-school teacher.

The epiphany came at the age of 26, when he decided that acting was his true passion and he enrolled as a mature-age student in the drama course at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba. He returned to Brisbane to try his luck in professional theatre and, despite some very positive reviews for his work, the roles were too few and far between for him to build a career as an actor.

“So,” he said, “I went to Melbourne to have a crack down there.”

Backstrom found some work on stage but, again, he discovered that acting couldn’t pay the bills. In 2010, he took a full-time job as a station officer with Metro Trains, Melbourne’s commuter rail network, while pursuing his interest in theatre in his own time.

His experience working with the general public inspired him to write a play, Train Man and the Rail Way, which he performed as part of the Melbourne Fringe festival in 2016. “The people who came to see it really got into it,” he said. “A lot of them worked in customer service and they said they really knew the characters.”

Backstrom also wrote and starred in Who You Are, a play based on the remarkable story of the man known as “the Tichborne claimant”.

In the mid-19th century, Wagga Wagga butcher Tom Castro claimed to be Lord Roger Tichborne, an English aristocrat and heir to a vast fortune who was presumed lost at sea. While it might seem preposterous, Tichborne’s mother believed Castro’s claim – despite his lack of physical similarity or inability to speak French, which was Lord Roger’s childhood language. This triggered a long courtroom battle with other family members that did not end well for the claimant.

Despite a warm response to his plays, Backstrom said, “My main income was still coming from the railways, and that was driving me insane.”

With that, and a desire to be closer to family in Queensland, he decided to sign up for a course at the Radio Training Institute. In April 2018, he was offered a job in Longreach with radio stations 4LG and West FM, where he presents the breakfast show.

The shift from bustling Melbourne to Longreach, population about 3,000, was not as big a wrench as you might think. Backstrom didn’t mind the quieter life – “I’ve never been a big-city person, as in going out to clubs … I’m more a stay-at-home person” – and embraced the opportunity to do the things a local celebrity does.

“I emceed the Christmas Carols last year and sang a few songs, and if the races were still on, I’d be hosting fashions on the field,” he said.

Backstrom’s favourite moment so far was performing in last year’s Longreach Community Theatre production of Tim Minchin’s Tony Award-winning musical Matilda. He was the only cast member with professional stage experience and while his portrayal of Miss Trunchbull really struck a chord with the audience, he says the initiators of the project, the entire cast and the Longreach Town Band deserve a round of applause.

“Tim Minchin’s music is wonderful, but it’s tough to play,” he said. “We did three performances and people just loved it. People I knew were coming up to me in the street and saying, ‘Oh my God, you were great’. It was wonderful; I’ve never had that before.”

Backstrom isn’t about to pack in a good job, but he is keen to move closer to his family in Brisbane. He has no burning desire to work in the capital so, if there’s a regional centre that needs an experienced radio announcer who can also write, act and carry a tune, he’s prepared to give it a crack.

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