Sydney Theatres: My Three-Month Reconnaissance Mission

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I work in theatre and, like most people crazy enough to make this their profession, it is both a job and a life-commitment. As a result, my three month tourist stint in Sydney served as something of a professional and personal covert mission (and sometimes even an overt mission) to learn as much as I could about the live theatre scene.

Now, I’ve written here (and here) about going to the Sydney Opera House, but that’s not really what I’m getting at. I’m talking about home-grown theatre companies, rather than international acts who are booked in for a few shows, and then go home.

Some of these companies do appear at the Sydney Opera House. My first play was Bell Shakespeare’s King Lear, which I wrote about more extensively here.

Photobucket (From www.abc.net.au)

Bell Shakespeare is a Sydney based company who operates under the leadership of John Bell, one of Australia’s most highly respected actors. They tour their productions all around the country (had I been inclined, I could actually have seen this Lear in both Canberra and Melbourne while I was there), and have an extensive education component. I am quite inclined to see more of Bell Shakespeare’s work. The production I saw was rich in style, while maintaining a simplicity of design; highly energetic and accessible, without being condescending or simple. It was simply a beautiful production that I still think fondly upon.

My next foray took me far from the Opera House grandeur to the historic and grittier little Stables Theatre in Kings Cross.

Photobucket (From TimeOut Sydney)

A walking tour of The Cross that I’d taken had me determined to go there because this unassuming little building, off an easily missed side street, is credited with being a birthplace of truly Australian Theatre (in fact, this is the place where John Bell got his start, according to his commentary on my audio walking tour). After the elegant Shakespeare, I was ready for a grinding gear shift to some rootsy, rough theatre. The Stables is now home to Griffin Theatre Company, a feisty young company who describe themselves as “Australia’s leading new writing theatre.” The piece we saw was actually a British play which was presented as part of the Griffin Independent series. I loved the vibe of the audience – primarily 20-something artistic souls who looked like, on another night, they might instead be at an AFI concert. And, goodness, there were a lot of them! The House Manager crammed body after body into the little oddly-shaped theatre, displaying admirable Tetris skills. As we looked around, Partner-in-Crime and I noted that we were decidedly the oldest people in attendance, including the entire cast and the playwright. I can’t say that I loved the play, or even that I liked it very much. It was the type which I refer to as “vague totalitarian state dramas,” of which I was a huge fan in my own 20-somethings. I was not the intended audience, but I can tell you (and I can tell you with some certainty because there happened to be a post-show discussion with the cast and playwright on the night we attended) that the intended audience adored the play and production. And while it was not my cup of espresso-based-coffee, what I did admire was the spunk and zeal presented by all of the young artists here. It’s that sort of enthusiastic nothing-can-stop-us-from-creating-theatre attitude that breeds the more polished artists of the future. It is also this type of theatre that breeds theatre-goers of growing sophistication. The next time I go back, it will be for the purpose of exploring the work of new Australian writers, which this company supports with frequency. I’ll be sure to at least polish my nose ring before I go to remind myself that I was young and hip once, too.

After our foray into the theatre of youth, our next outing had us crossing the Old Coathanger into Kirribilli to Ensemble Theatre, which, by reputation, is said to play to a rather older crowd.

Photobucket (Thanks again, TimeOut Sydney)

I was raring to get into this theatre for a couple of reasons. First, their season reminded me quite a bit of the work we presented at my previous employer in Florida and I knew that I would “get” this place. Second, the show on offer was none other than Animals Out of Paper by American writer Rajiv Joseph. It is a play that I’d read in my previous job and had fallen deeply in love with for its beautifully realized origami metaphor and its simultaneously endearing, clever, and heart-rending characters. I’ve long admired Josef’s writing, and was actually rather shocked that I’d never had the chance to see one of his plays in America, but found him here in Australia. The theatre space was a three-quarter thrust, and we were on the first row (read: our feet were essentially on the set). This is one of the toughest set ups for a theatre because everything is close and exposed, and I give them credit for doing a seamless job of moving between scenes with minimal distraction. The cast was quite strong, and, yes – they aced the American accents. It was almost like a piece of home for a couple of hours. Ensemble’s season is eclectic and features both new and classic plays. I’ll be back. I knew I’d “get” them.

Our next reconnaissance mission was a trip to Surrey Hills for a visit to Belvoir Theatre.

Photobucket (No really, TimeOut Syndey, you’ve outdone yourself with all these pictures I’ve borrowed)

We wanted to see their production of David Hare’s The Power of Yes because it deals with the Global Financial Crisis, which is of perpetual interest to Partner-in-Crime, and because I’d very much enjoyed some of Hare’s earlier work, despite his raging liberal agenda (I’m quite liberal, but Hare is a raging liberal. He rages his liberal-ness. And, my Australian readers, I mean liberal in the American sense of the word). Plus, we had a feeling that Belvoir was The Place to Be because it took us three tries to find a date that wasn’t sold out, yet. When we got to the theatre, I knew immediately that this was the one that I was going to most enjoy attending, out of all the theatres in Sydney. Everything from the layout of the lobby to the marketing materials to the Company B T-shirted box office staff said, “professional and cool, all at the same time.” I was immediately struck by the set, which demanded the viewer’s attention. The floor was covered in brightly colored uninflated balloons (a metaphor for the financial crisis, but it was so visually striking that it did not feel forced). The production was rather flawless. The cast was solid, the direction featured some particularly inventive staging techniques that kept ones attention rapt, and the script itself was engaging enough. I talked briefly about its shortcomings in my review of Mike Daisy’s The Last Cargo Cult, and frankly, Hare’s adoration of himself and his ideals colored the play too much for it to be universal. Word on the street is that Belvoir is known to be rather a “gentelman’s club” of an operation, and I don’t see a lot to suggest otherwise, though – Belvoir staff, if you’re reading this, I’d be thrilled to be proven wrong(!). I feel particularly passionate about the need for parity in female voices in the theatre. Regardless, just today I booked tickets for a date in January for their production of The Diary of a Madman starring Geoffrey Rush.

Before I get to the big-guns of Sydney theatre, I do feel that I need to mention the one theatre that I missed on my tour, and that is Darlinghurst Theatre. I’m a little embarrassed because they’re in my own neighborhood and I, quite literally, walk by them every single day. Darlinghurst, don’t worry. I’ll visit you soon. Will a blog post of your very own make up for the slight?

And now, at last, I come to the giant: Sydney Theatre Company. STC, which has a rather amazing (and environmentally sustainable) home at the Wharf, is the Arena Stage, the Alliance (for my Atlantans), the Manhattan Theatre Club of Sydney.

Photobucket (Sorry, TimeOut, I took this photo of the Wharf, myself)

Its artistic directors are Andrew Upton and his wife, who you may have heard of, Cate Blanchett. In fact, my first exposure to STC was in grad school, when a classmate who interned at Brooklyn Academy of Music offered tickets to the dress rehearsal of the touring production of Hedda Gabler, featuring Blanchett. As a New York City theatre student, I’d seen a lot of celebrities on stage, but I was truly starstruck by the opportunity to see her. So, all this is to say that I had a preconceived idea about Sydney Theatre Company, and knew that if nothing else, we’d get the highest quality productions for our buck. Now, you may have noticed that in all the plays we’ve seen, I had yet to see an actual Australian playwright. I feel compelled to explore that further in a moment, but for now, I’ll simply say that I was very happy to have the opportunity to see a play by one of the only Australian writers I’d even heard of – Joanna Murray Smith. We saw her play Honour, which was presented at the Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre (the same theatre in which I saw King Lear). At this point, I have to admit a bias that I have against naturalistic plays about upper middle class intellectuals. While I’m shedding my baggage, let me also mention that I typically dislike characters who are writers. And since this is a play about upper middle class intellectual writers, my pre-disposition was disinclined to care for this play. But, like I said, I knew we’d see a top-notch production, if nothing else. And we did. What a lovely and emotionally engaging cast. The set and staging were simple, yet made bold use of the stage, which could easily have been too large for an intimate four-character play. While I had a few minor quibbles (i.e. – the choice for one actress, playing a distraught character, to have buckets of mascara running down her face for most of the play … very gross from our seats on the front row), I will say that the script exceeded my expectations and my biases. It explored questions about whether it is inevitable for us to lose ourselves within the confines of our relationships, and if we should or even can find a way out of that loss, as we grow older. Partner-in-Crime and I had shared some deep discussions after this play, and found a lot of depth to mine from the script. Nicely done to you, Sydney Theatre Company, for offering us a smart piece by an Australian, and a woman. More, please!

Thus concludes my three-month tour of theatres. Let me be the first to admit that seeing one play at each theatre is only scratching the surface of “knowing” what each one is about, so none of this is meant to be a blanket assessment. Now that I’ve given the lay of the land, as I see it, you can expect a lot more specific pieces about what I’m seeing at each theatre, as well as special events (hey, Sydney Fringe – can’t wait until September!), and International presentations.

But, I have to mention one trend that I noticed in all of my theatre-going and theatre-studying; and that is how very minimally Australian playwrights are represented here. As an American whose profession is primarily based on new play development and production, one of the things I was most excited about in coming to Australia was the opportunity to get to know the work of a whole crop of writers that I never “met” in the U.S. I imagined theatres whose stages were full of talented local writers with their own unique tradition and dramaturgy, who I wanted to meet on their terms. That, for the most part, is not what I found. Overwhelmingly, what I saw were theatres primarily populated by the plays of British and American authors. There are exceptions, and each theatre seems committed to presenting maybe one Australian writer per year, in order to say that they do support Australian playwriting. However, as an outsider ready to be immersed in Australian voices, I must say that I hope that all of the Sydney theatres can find more space for the writers that I just know exist there.

There is a term that I learned from a documentary I saw on the famous Australian dancer/choreographer/director, Robert Helpmann, which was subsequently repeated to me several times by folks in the industry. The terms is “cultural cringe,” which essentially means that there is a sense that art produced in Australia is not as good as what is produced in England and, more lately, in America. As a student of new play development, I’d call this cultural cringe business a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any playwright will tell you that she/he learns her/his craft through production opportunities. It is not learned through music-stand readings or peer workshops (these have their places, yes, but it cannot be the primary outcome). If playwrights are not getting production opportunities, then they are not going to ever hone their craft. It is as simple as that. Maybe it’s changing, and I do know from my flitting around that there are some remarkable people and organizations who support just this cause. I’ll simply add my voice (and my dollars, many of which go towards theatre tickets) to say that I, for one, am anxious to see more Australian writers represented on the Sydney stages. And, when we hear them, I hope that they don’t feel as if they have to write like New Yorkers or Londoners to be heard. Playwrights – write like Australians, whatever that means to you. I hope I’ll hear your voices soon!

One thought on “Sydney Theatres: My Three-Month Reconnaissance Mission

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