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Theatre Works launches its own 'glasshouses' to keep audiences safe in 2021

The St Kilda theatre has created perspex booths to keep audiences safe when it reopens in 2021

Nicola Dowse
Written by
Nicola Dowse

St Kilda’s beloved independent performance space Theatre Works has unveiled its 2021 season – and an innovative way to keep audiences safe when they return. 

While some of Melbourne’s theatres are embracing larger or outdoor venues to allow for audience safety, Theatre Works has constructed a series of clear perspex booths, which it calls its Glasshouse. The idea was inspired by similar structures in restaurants in Amsterdam, and Theatre Works decided to transplant the idea into the theatre with “a $20,000 budget and determination,” says Theatre Works general manager Dianne Toulson. 

Glasshouse comprises 12 custom-made perspex booths constructed by the Theatre Works creative team to house audiences in a safe and socially distanced manner. The perspex booths are sectioned into four banks, with two small and one large booth in each bank. Inside each booth are seats, cushions, coffee tables and pot plants. “It’s like coming into a living room,” says Toulson. From entry to exit, audiences are moved through contactlessly through the aid of an app, created specifically for Theatre Works.

People sitting inside Perspex booths
Photograph: Andrew Bott

The whole structure is about a metre off the ground and required Theatre Works to convert its front-on seating arrangement into an in-the-round format. “The experience is very much focused on the audience and how they will go back into the world of theatre,” says Toulson. “For the performer, they’re pretty much eye-to-eye with the audience. It’s just so intimate.”

Glasshouse does, however, reduce Theatre Works’ seating capacity by two-thirds, with between 20 and 48 guests able to be seated within the structure. The sliding capacity of Glasshouse was a conscious decision to give “artists a certainty around the future”. Even if harsher restrictions were to return, Theatre Works hopes to be able to operate with an audience of 20 safely ensconced in the individual booths. Yes, a smaller audience means slightly higher prices at the box office, but as Toulson reminds us “with Theatre Works, the artists are the ones retaining the box office”. That is, you’re directly supporting artists when buying tickets. 

"With Theatre Works, the artists are the ones retaining the box office.”

Theatre Works relaunches January 5, with Fringe Replanted – a way for the theatre to support the artists who had Theatre Works shows scheduled for  Melbourne Fringe Festival 2020. In fact, ensuring that artists who were unable to perform in 2020 have work is front of mind in Theatre Work’s 2021 season. “The first priority in our reprogramming of 2021 was to look at all of those works and think when can they feasibly happen in 2021,” says Toulson. “We’ve reprogrammed shows like Voldemort and the Teenage Hogwarts. Even though that’s a big-selling production, we believe the concept of doing their show in the round is a better fit for that production. With the four booths we can create the Hogwarts houses.” Of course, not all postponed production will suit the Glasshouse in-the-round configuration, and those that can’t will run from June 2021 onwards. 

Some works have also been specifically commissioned for Glasshouse, and a strong cohort of productions are running as part of Midsumma, which will actually be more of a Midautumn (it’s running April 19 to May 5, 2021). Highlights of Theatre Works 2021 season include Prophet X (the Danger Ensemble’s irreverent take on the story of Greek mythology's blind, gender-fluid seer Tiresias), Paper Stars (a musical and highly imaginative exploration of the early career of Mary Poppins’ author P.L. Travers), Common Dissonance (Na Djinang Circus’s contemporary work examining harmony and conflict in contemporary Australia) and Kerosene (a tale of revenge and friendship set in Melbourne’s outer fringes and playing as part of Fringe Replanted). 

While it's encouraging to see theatres and performance spaces reopen across Melbourne, there’s a whiff of the “use it or lose it” to the industry, hinting at how it has never been more important to be engaging with locals artists and organisations. “We’re trying to not ever put staff or artists out of work,” says Toulson. “But the harsh reality is that once JobKeeper finishes, if our box office isn’t operating, we will have to make hard decisions.”

Of course, the more people buy tickets, the less likely those decisions will have to be made. Head over to Theatre Works’ website to view the full 2021 season and to buy tickets.

For more shows to look forward to, check out Victorian Opera's 2021 season.

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