It’s no secret that the last few years have been difficult for Griffin Theatre Company. While the “home of new Australian writing” has continued to punch well above its weight (it operates out of a tiny Kings Cross theatre that seats just 105 people, meaning its capacity to make a killing at the box office is pretty limited), funding cuts have forced the company to operate on a shoestring budget.
Plenty of arts companies in the “small-to-medium” sector were hit hard when the Abbott Government cut a heap of money from the Australia Council for the Arts in 2015. Despite its track record as the arguable leader in Australian playwriting, Griffin wasn’t spared.
In 2017, the company was forced to reduce its mainstage season from five plays a year to four. It’s managed to now get money from the Girgensohn Foundation for that fifth play, but only until 2020.
Now Griffin needs to get its funding back from the Australia Council.
“Either we’ll get that support or we’ll cut back Griffin, because we can’t continue to do the stretch,” artistic director Lee Lewis says. “We’re at full stretch.”
There’s no artistic leader in Sydney who can match Lewis’s energy, but despite her constantly sunny attitude, she’s realistic about what Griffin needs: the government must hand over a little more cash to the Australia Council. And the Australia Council needs to give Griffin a little more cash when it applies for ongoing funding next year.
“We’ve become incredibly efficient, but the fun of that is nearly at the end and I’ve learned all I can out of that. I just need essentially a governmental choice about what their real values are. And if they do value new Australian writing and that uniquely Australian voice, then we just need more money to do what it is that we are continuing to do.”
But Lewis isn’t one to slow down her pace when times get tough. She’s just launched an ambitious season of five plays and a bunch of extras that she’s promising will challenge and entertain her audience in equal measure, all the while leading big, essential conversations. Here’s what she’s got in store.
Griffin mainstage season 2019
Dead Cat Bounce (Feb 22-Apr 6)
By Mary Rachel Brown
Director: Mitchell Butel
Mary Rachel Brown wrote one of the most successful plays to ever come out of Griffin’s independent season, The Dapto Chaser. Now she’s had a play picked up for the mainstage season which tells the story of a woman (played by Kate Cheel) in a relationship with a man 20 years her senior who has a problem with alcohol.
Lewis says: “It’s funny because it’s Mary, but it’s also really moving because it’s Mary.”
“I say it’s a grown-up love story, but all that means is it’s a relationship story rather than a love story. What happens when you’re in love and there’s real baggage?”
The play won Griffin’s Lysicrates Prize in 2016.
Prima Facie (May 17-Jun 22)
By Suzie Miller
Director: Lee Lewis
Suzie Miller is an award-winning playwright who’s had plenty of plays produced around Australia in recent years. But she’s also a lawyer and in this play argues that our legal system is falling well short and needs a major rejig.
“It’s Suzie bringing together her lawyer brain with her playwright brain and attacking our legal system for failing to provide sustainable pathways to justice for women who are victims of sexual assault and rape,” Lewis says.
Kate Mulvany stars in this one-woman show as a win-at-all-costs lawyer who finds herself questioning all she believes in when she ends up on the other side of the equation.
“It’s the last story any of us want to tell, but it’s one that has to be told,” Lewis says. “So we’re all joining hands and leaping in together in the hope of bringing about enough provocation to create a meaningful dialogue around change.”
City of Gold (Jul 26-Aug 3)
By Meyne Wyatt
Director: Isaac Drandic
Meyne Wyatt made his professional debut as an actor at Griffin in 2011’s Silent Disco. Now he’s returning with a semi-autobiographical work about an Indigenous actor from Kalgoorlie who angers his community by starring in a controversial Australia Day ad.
“It’s the right story for the right time and he’s brave enough to do it,” Lewis says. “I’ve been in two development workshops so far with actors reading it, and watching Aboriginal men reading the play going ‘oh, I’m glad I haven’t written it, but I’m glad somebody has’. He’s putting himself very much in the firing line.”
Wyatt will star in the play himself and Isaac Drandic will direct this co-production with Queensland Theatre.
“Meyne is writing one of the most profound portraits of pain about what it is to be a young black man in Australia that I have ever read. It’s scary and funny and an international work that I think needs to be not only made but sent out around the world.”
Splinter (Sep 6-Oct 12)
By Hilary Bell
Director: Lee Lewis
Hilary Bell’s thriller is about a couple whose missing five-year-old daughter returns after nine months missing – with no scratches and no explanation.
“There was this play that I read before it went into production at Sydney Theatre Company, which I loved but didn’t get to direct, and it stayed with me always,” Lewis says of Bell’s work.
The original production played in Sydney in 2012, which would usually count a play out of a major revival for at least a few more years. But Lewis wants to challenge that expectation.
“There’ve been extraordinary plays that have been written over the last 20 years which aren’t old enough to be considered classics so we can’t do a ‘classic revival’, but we could just do the damn play again because it’s good.”
The play will star Hilary Bell’s sister Lucy Bell and Les Miserables star Simon Gleeson.
First Love is the Revolution (Nov 1-Dec 14)
By Rita Kalnejais
Director: Lee Lewis
This play premiered in London, where Australian writer Rita Kalnejais has relocated. It’s a strange Romeo and Juliet-esque love story between a 14-year-old boy and a fox, and is described by Griffin as: “Fantastic Mr Fox if Margaret Atwood wrote the Netflix adaptation”. It will star Daniel Monks.
Lewis says Australian playwrights like Kalnejais have had plenty of success in recent years internationally.
“The Australian way of looking at things as imperfect – asymmetrical, not explicable and neat – is becoming very useful to the rest of the world. Where they used to be able to believe in institutions and symmetry and beauty, a lot of that is falling away.
“Their traditional forms are not reflecting the awful mangle that everyday life is, but Australian writers have always written in that mangle.”
Since Ali Died (Jan 7-19)
Written and performed by Omar Musa
Director: Anthea Williams
This fusion of rap, poetry and theatre played Griffin’s Batch Festival last year. We loved it and gave it a four-star review.
Love and Anger (Jan 21-26)
Created and performed by Betty Grumble
The original surreal showgirl and sex clown is back for a full season of her radical cabaret.
Exhale (Apr 9-13)
By Black Birds
Created and performed by Ayeesha Ash and Emele Ugavule
This is a new interdisciplinary and intercultural work from Black Birds, a collective of female black and brown artists.
Batch Festival (26 Apr-May 11)
The successful festival of boundary-pushing performance returns for its second year.
The Happy Prince (Jun 25-Jul 6)
By Little Ones Theatre
Director: Stephen Nicolazzo
Melbourne’s queer theatre darlings are back in Sydney with this award-winning take on one of Oscar Wilde’s stories.
Glittery Clittery: A Consensual Party (Jul 8-20)
By Fringe Wives Club
Director: Clare Bartholomew
This fringe show from the all-singing, all-dancing cliterati is described as “a cult feminist cosmic disco”.
Can't wait until next year? Check out our hit-list of the best theatre in Sydney this month and read our latest reviews.