Sydney Stage Online
Written by Selma Nadarajah
September 27, 2006
Each year, Robyn Nevin, Artistic Director of Sydney Theatre Company, has the exciting but arduous task of putting together the following year’s program. Not only is she to carefully consider the breadth of work that is to be featured in terms of the Company repertoire but she is to also ensure that at least four of the productions are financially viable and suited to the thirteen performers of the Company ensemble who will be entering their second year in 2007. It is no doubt a mammoth exercise which requires much planning, exchanging of ideas and researching, not to mention, a lot of reading! “We received 117 scripts received this year – 78 unsolicited and 39 solicited. For the 2007 programming, we looked at 102 plays; 30 by women, 30 pre-twentieth century, 18 by Australians, 30 by British, 18 by American and 28 by European writers.”
Although Nevin has a literary team led by Chris Mead who are responsible for the flooding in of new plays and who advise her of the ones to look out for, Nevin is always looking for old and new plays to add to her list. “I’m always thinking about programming choices… There’s always an ongoing list that you carry over, of predictable choices, the plays you’ve always wanted to do, the plays that once you thought were wonderful and are worth reviving, a list that includes all the great classics and the most popular classics, plays that provide wonderful roles for particular actors … just a constant in one’s life and in one’s head… then I respond to individual artists who come to me with their ambitions and their wish lists. I respond to the repertoire; the classic repertoire, the modern classics… the new plays from overseas and new plays from Australia, and (the) revival of Australian plays which have been a bit lost and I revive those to remind some generations who’ve never seen them of our own repertoire.”
Now in her eighth year at the STC, Nevin is bringing a wonderfully dynamic program to 2007 boasting such highlights as the world premiere of Andrew Upton’s “Riflemind” which will be directed by Academy Award-winning, Philip Seymour Hoffman and performed by Hugo Weaving, David Harrower’s controversial “Blackbird” which will mark Cate Blanchett’s second directorial contribution to the STC, and the world premiere of the specially commissioned “The Art of War” by Stephen Jeffreys and directed by Complicite’s Annabel Arden. As part of the revival repertoire, Nevin has selected two Australian classics; Patrick White’s “The Season at Sarsaparilla” which will be performed by The Actors Company and David Williamson’s “Don’s Party”, which will be perfectly timed with next year’s federal election. Also to add to the season is acclaimed musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” starring Marina Prior, the Australian premieres of “Ying Tong: A Walk With the Goons” – an inside look at the wonderful world and mind of Spike Milligan and Don DeLillo’s “Love-Lies-Bleeding” which will feature Nevin in her only role for the season, the world premiere of new Australian play “Troupers” by Michael Cove and the Shakespearean classic, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to be directed by Cheek by Jowl’s protégé, Edward Dick.
It is certainly a great mix of old and new with some startlingly impressive international talent. Nevin who has been in the theatre business for over 40 years as an actress, director, producer and Artistic Director is clearly a woman who knows what she wants and is adamant to get what she can. As part of her role as Artistic Director, Nevin travels once a year predominantly to London and New York to meet with directors. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of them. “He was just very interested in meeting (me) and very interested in the idea of working in Sydney so that was just the starting point,” she says as matter of fact. Nevin had shown Hugo Weaving Upton’s new play “Riflemind” and after Weaving happily expressed interest to play the lead role; Nevin approached Hoffman to direct it. Nevin makes it sound easy but the likelihood is that relationship-building, which is crucial in this business, though sometimes fortunate, must happen gradually over time. Part of Nevin’s key goals for the future is to ‘internationalise’ the STC. “I’ve been very interested in developing… relationships and positioning the company internationally because it’s a globalised world now, so for us to continue to work in isolation from the rest of the world seems a bit static,” she explains. If the 2007 season is anything to go by, it is evident that the Company is already on its way there.
The creation of The Actors Company this year was a key achievement for the STC. Although financially demanding, it is according to Nevin, a company’s dream. “Company for me suggests a group of players…. A theatre company is a group of players rather than a production house and we’re a production house but we’ve got a situation to begin the Company… it costs an incredible amount of money… and they can only fit in four (productions) a year… Logistically, it’s sort of a nightmare which we’ve taken on cheerily.” One of the key plays for the Company next year will be “The Art of War”. British playwright, Stephen Jeffreys, who has been associated with the Royal Court London and who now spends most of his time writing screenplays for John Malkovich, has adapted the ancient Chinese military manual to three main narrative threads; “a love story, party political venality and corporate manoeuvring”. Nevin is thrilled at the prospect of husband and wife team, Jeffreys and Arden, working with STC. “(Annabel has) got an extraordinary combination of skills and her partner, Stephen Jeffreys, is just one of those very gifted writers who can work across genres. The combination of these two people I find very exciting. He knows how to write for actors and she knows how to develop a production out of a group of actors”.
The process of choosing directors is one that Nevin goes through very, very carefully. While herself a director, Nevin doesn’t interfere in the directorial aspect of each production until the very end of the 5-week rehearsal period. “I invite directors I respect and I give them the responsibility. I’m responsible overall for the standard of each production. Sometimes, they don’t reach a particular standard and sometimes, there’s nothing to be done about that. It just means you’ve chosen badly. It just doesn’t happen very often,” smiles Nevin. Trust in her colleagues is something Nevin takes very seriously. She has great faith in her creative team and that extends to Wharf2LOUD, collaboratively led by Brendan Cowell and Chris Mead. This division of STC devoted to developing artists will next year feature Cowell’s new play “Self-Esteem”, a cotemporary black comedy which Cowell will also direct. Nevin has high expectations from her team but she also recognises the STC as a place to grow. “I believe in throwing people in at the deep end and letting them have a go and then they learn from their mistakes. It’s a learning place; it’s a site for development so you don’t want to have a tight hand on it.”
Naturally, like with any large-scale project, things change and don’t always go according to plan. Michael Cove’s new play “Troupers” was initially intended to be a production performed by The Actors Company and directed by Jean-Pierre Mignon. It was later however decided that the production was to be brought down in scale; out went The Actors Company and in came leads, Barry Otto, Blazey Best and Josh Quong Tart, and Mignon, remained as director, which is why 2007 will unusually see one director direct two productions, (Mignon will also be directing The Actors Company in Odon Von Horvath’s “Tales from the Vienna Woods”).
“Troupers” will be part of the Australian repertoire. Set in country Australia just after World War 1, the play depicts two scheming entertainers who deceive grief-stricken communities by making them think they’re communicating with their dead via a supposed psychic they employ. “It’s an extraordinary look back at Australia and because we’re now still at war, it’s a way of connecting with now through the past,” says Nevin. This of course happens to be one way in which the play is relevant to Australia’s current political climate but that doesn’t explain why Nevin chose it. Adamant about not working to themes, Nevin selects plays simply because they are good plays.
“Blackbird” written by Scottish playwright, David Harrower, is another example of a good play on offer. As yet to be cast, this will be the last production of 2007 to be directed by one of Australia’s best exports, Cate Blanchett. Selected by Blanchett herself, Nevin too was immediately drawn to the play. “Blackbird is very complex because it doesn’t allow you to sit in judgment. If you know it’s about a 12 year old girl and a 40 year old man, you’re going to go thinking ‘whoa, how appalling’ or you won’t go because you won’t want to watch that. You’ll probably be taking pre-conceived notions of disapproval but the play doesn’t allow you to stick with those”.
Controversial themes are also addressed in Don DeLillo’s new play “Love-Lies-Bleeding” – an intense drama addressing the issue of euthanasia. Nevin will take on the role as Toinette in this production to be directed by Lee Lewis, her only acting role in the entire 2007 season. This decision to perform in only a single production is a far cry from the 2006 season where Nevin was involved in a staggering five productions in addition to juggling her role as Artistic Director. “It’s very hard when I’m acting in a season because working six days and six nights a week acting… play(ing) large roles, and doing this job in the day, is extremely difficult… That’s why I’m only doing one (play) next year because I really have to pace myself… I have to give myself space and time to think.”
Nevin’s vast experience in the industry has obviously given her the mindset, knowledge, strength and energy to keep up, that and of course, the sheer love of it. In an industry where funding is consistently a central problem, determination is vital. “If I hung on to the details of the complications, I’d just be dwelling in the past. I’ve learnt to move on very fast because the disappointments can eat you up. I use to be a person who used to dwell in disappointments but not any longer … I have to keep moving forward.” And moving forward is just what Nevin is doing. With the 2007 season round the corner with its strong and exciting diverse mix of theatre, Nevin also wants to expand the educational program and art form development work at Wharf2Loud and is very keen to see the company tour overseas. As she reinforces, “I am very interested in this internationalisation of the company.” With Nevin’s fierce ambitions, the multitude of strong talent and the international relations that have been thus formed, STC is bound to set sail soon. Let’s hope the money keeps rolling in for them.
Sydney Theatre Company’s 2007 season was launched on Tuesday, September 26th.