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STC artistic director Kip Williams on stage with Hugo Weaving, Jessica Arthur and Wayne Blair
Photograph: Prudence UptonSTC artistic director Kip Williams with Hugo Weaving, Jessica Arthur and Wayne Blair

What theatre in Sydney will look like for the next six months – or forever

From vastly reduced seating to masked audiences, it's a whole new look

Written by
Stephen A Russell

The hottest tickets in town, to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multiple Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton, are already on sale and are being snapped up feverishly. After months of Sydneys theatres sitting largely empty since March, lit only by eerie ghost lights, theres obviously a hunger to return. But a big question mark hangs over the blockbuster shows. 

As Hamilton producer Michael Cassel told the Guardian, if the four-square-metre social distancing rule wasn't lifted by opening night next March, allowing them to fill the 2,000-seat Lyric Theatre,  the show would not go on. “We need people sitting... side by side,” he said. Social distancing would be “a deal-breaker”.

The show must go on 

The first time Sydney Theatre Company (STC) artistic director Kip Williams sat in on a rehearsal of Angus Cerini’s new Australian gothic play Wonnangatta after months of empty stages, it brought a tear to his eye. “I cannot wait for the first preview and being amongst an audience again,” he says. “It’s going to be extraordinarily special.”

But the concerns faced by mega-shows like Hamilton also impact STC. “We’ve maintained from the get-go that the four-square-metre rule is an untenable financial model for theatre companies, irrespective of their scale,” Williams says.

The Hugo Weaving and Wayne Blair-led Wonnangatta, directed by Jessica Arthur, is going to look very different for audiences. Originally bound for the 544-seat Drama Theatre, it's been bumped up to the 880-capacity Roslyn Packer. But strict social distancing measures mean that only 147 audience members suitably spaced can sit down to the show each night. 

Having a hotly anticipated new show has taken the edge off, for now. “It’s serendipitous, to say the least,” he says. “The company’s been working on [Wonnangatta] for a number of years, and it was a real jewel in the 2020 season, so the fact we’ve been able to salvage it in and of itself is a win. It’s also a good way to encourage people to come back to the theatre, to see two of our greatest actors of all time telling a remarkably written new Australian play by one of our great writers, realised by this extraordinary creative team.”

Strong sales in the Beforetime meant refunding all tickets was a worst-case scenario, rather than proceeding at a reduced capacity later. Now, some 3,000-odd tickets, or about half of the six-week season, are already accounted for, with STC prioritising long-term subscribers. So its worked out in this instance. But it wont be a sustainable model for the future.”

Clearly folks aren’t too nervy about returning. “Theatres would have to be arguably one of the safest and most controlled public spaces out there,” Williams says. “This is an environment where everybody is sat still. Everything is cleaned; it’s incredibly controlled. And so if people are going to venture out of their homes, coming to the theatre would have to be one of the safest things you can do.”

With contact details recorded, masks will also be mandatory. “There’ll be some adjustment, but humans are incredibly adaptive creatures,” he suggests. “We’ve seen it in the first days and weeks of [lockdown]. We adapt very quickly.”

STC has already conducted a two-hour run through with a test audience in masks the whole time. They accepted the new normal with good grace. “I think for performers looking out into the theatre, it’ll be strange to begin with. They won’t see the audience's facial expressions. But they’ll adapt, and audiences will adapt. Angus’ play is this incredible ghost story of sorts, a true-crime drama. So the slightly empty Roslyn Packer theatre will add to the atmosphere.”

Anita Hegh rehearsing A Room of One's Own at Belvoir 2020
Anita Hegh rehearsing A Room of One's Own at Belvoir 2020Photograph: Brett Boardman

Who’s afraid of half-empty theatres?

If Belvoir artistic director Eamon Flack worried audiences would be too scared to return, the fact that co-writer and director Carissa Licciardello’s Virginia Woolf adaptation A Room of One’s Own sold out quick smart was incredibly reassuring. “The response has been overwhelming,” he beams. Even still, his fingers are crossed for opening night on September 10. “The thought of having audiences back in and actors on stage makes me want to weep with joy, but I’m not going to believe it till I see it.”

He suggests that for folks already exploring the city again, the experience will be much like visiting a bar, restaurant or cinema in Sydney, with a combination of contact recording, temperature checks, spaced seating and asking everyone to wear masks. “But the real effect of what it’s going to be like to make and watch theatre with [seating] gaps, that’s something that we won’t really know until we do it,” Flack says, adding with a chuckle. “I mean, we’ve certainly had half-empty houses over the years. We know what it’s like not to play to a full house. ”

Flack says star Anita Hegh and the entire creative team have been heroic, holding the show in their heads for some six months, and he can’t wait for audiences to see the results. “I wouldn’t want to be reopening with a big raucous ensemble show. There’s something electrifying and liberating about listening to this text.”

Even with sold-out runs in full houses, theatre is an expensive game. Dramatically reducing capacity, of course, makes it far worse, and extending seasons to compensate incurs higher costs. “We never make money anyway, but we will we will definitely lose it putting on A Room of One’s Own,” Flack says. So why do it? “Because theatre is not a theoretical art form. It’s a real-life experience or it’s nothing. Reopening at a loss is just a down payment on figuring out how to keep going.”

When the dust settles, things might never be the same, he suggests. “When we’re able to return to full houses, the world will be different. The kinds of theatre that we need to make will be different. The stories that people need will be different.”

Griffin Theatre Company’s tiny home at the historic Stables in Kings Cross was never going to work, with the four-square seating bubbles curtailing an already compact 105 seats to around 30, artistic director Declan Greene says. “In the Beforetime, it felt like a good thing being able to say that you could be sprayed with an actor’s spittle, and that is absolutely not the case now,” he laughs.

The solution? They’ve decamped to the University of Sydney’s Seymour Centre in Chippendale for the remainder of the year. Reopening show Superheroes, Mark Rogers’ play about two women on opposite sides of the world living through political upheaval, is also sold out, underlining the audience hunger for these long-awaited returns. “It’s essentially a play about hope, and it feels like the right time to be offering that kind of message,” Greene offers.

A three-hander starring Gemma Bird Matheson, Claire Lovering and Aleks Mikic, the play is another serendipitous choice. The Superheroes script won both the Griffin and the Patrick White Award in 2019. “It’s a pretty rare thing to scoop both in the same year,” Greene notes. “This is Mark’s first mainstage work, and Griffin really exists to offer that kind of support. And we have such a long and important history with director Shari Sebbens. It’s wonderful to have her theatrical imagination, which is such an incredible, insightful, vivid and playful thing.”

Greene’s very keen for audiences to see later show Wicked Sisters by celebrated playwright Alma De Groen, opening in November, with tickets still available. Greene is a champion of the quiet, oft unsung work that dramaturgs do to help creative teams shape a show. He stepped into the role for Superheroes, and there's a nice throughline connecting to De Groen, who way back when was Griffin’s inaugural dramaturgical resident.

Wicked Sisters debuted at the Stables in 2002 and, like the Woolf, it feels just as relevant now, if not more so. “It’s really nice to welcome her voice and structural expertise back into the fold of the company, and both plays are about connection and humanity in a time that feels like there’s an absence of both those things in the world,” Greene says.

Gemma Bird Matheson in Griffin Theatre's Superheroes 2020
Gemma Bird Matheson in Griffin Theatre's Superheroes 2020Photograph: Brett Boardman


Looking to the future

Darlinghurst Theatre Company was one of the first venues to throw open their doors once more, back in June, smartly adapting Two Trout Restaurant to offer a new twist on the old dinner-and-a-show model with the appropriately spaced Red Carpet Cabaret. Recently elevated co-artistic director Amylia Harris says there was a fantastic response. “We had these really beautiful, intimate evenings connecting artists and audiences in a really safe way in the space. It was extraordinarily joyful.”

After extending the initial run by one week, they made the difficult decision to wrap it up when the Melbourne situation occurred. Still, it’s only a brief pitstop, with plans already afoot for a spring festival of cabaret and more. “I know the word of the day is ‘pivot’, but we really are re-looking at our business model to see what we can feasibly do. What’s the creative provocation of the moment we’re in? How can we create work that fits into that? How can we use this asset of the Eternity Playhouse to connect with community  and audiences in a way that’s different?”

We can’t wait to see where that takes them, but the future already looks bright, thanks to the Next in Line program, proudly championing new voices. “There are so many exciting ideas happening there,” Harris says. “This really is a moment of radical change. Let’s have a look at the structures that our industry is built on. There are some great things and not so great things, so now is the time to surround yourself with radical thinkers.” 

Want to check out some theatre at home or in person? You can do both at Global Fringe.

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