The Sydney Morning Herald
February 10, 2006
The Sydney Theatre Company’s latest foray into New York is a big gamble, writes Alexa Moses
IN THE sweaty rehearsal room by Sydney Harbour, seven actors perch around a table pretending not to hear the click of camera shutters. Flanked by Hugo Weaving, Justine Clarke and Aden Young, the woman wearing red in the centre of the group appears uncomfortable – the fixed, tranquil smile plastered across her face does not disguise her fidgeting hands. No doubt she’s painfully aware that, despite the ensemble seating arrangement, she’s the reason everyone’s here.
With the presence of Cate Blanchett, at least the financial success of the production the Sydney Theatre Company is promoting is assured.
This weekend, these actors -plus Annie Byron, Julie Hamilton and Anthony Weigh – will pack their suitcases to take the company’s acclaimed production of Hedda Gabler to New York, with Blanchett in the title role. Directed by Robyn Nevin, it will play from March 1 to 26 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, an organisation the theatre company’s general manager, Rob Brookman, describes as "New York’s arthouse theatre".
Touring Australian productions overseas is a costly, risky business – companies often have to pay freight, rehearsal costs, air fares, the expense of rejigging the set, even performers’ daily expenses, depending on deals cut with the hosting festival. Brookman estimates the four-week season of Henrik Ibsen’s 19th-century play will cost as much as $1.6 million.To break even, the Brooklyn Academy of Music must fill 90 per cent of the 800-seat theatre.
The theatre company’s record at the academy is patchy. It had a financial flop with a 2001 tour of the Jacobean tragedy The White Devil which, as the academy’s executive producer, Joe Melillo says, "took a bath". This was despite a packed, critically lauded season in Sydney the year before. The reviews from New York critics were scathing, with the mighty New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley writing "the show doesn’t have an ounce of psychological credibility".
This year, the Sydney company has two weapons in its armory.
First, the lure of Blanchett’s celebrity means 75 per cent of tickets have already sold.
"To have someone like Cate Blanchett inevitably does help," Brookman says. "It would be disingenuous to pretend it wouldn’t."
Second, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is paying for all but $250,000 of the production, a shortfall which the Sydney company has, as of last Monday night, met, with help from the Australia Council, the Federal Government, sponsors and individual donations.
Neither company expects to make money, but the reasons for touring internationally have more to do with prestige, artist development and promoting the Australian arts. This is despite the potential financial crisis Australia’s flagship theatre companies are facing, reported in a survey released this week (see right).
Brookman says the tour also indirectly benefits Australians.
"It holds up a mirror for our Australian audiences," he says. "Don’t we love it when someone from somewhere else says, ‘This is terrific’? You tend to believe it more from someone else. We love to see our sporting teams having success in the international arena, our movies, people are interested in how they’re viewed by the rest of the world."
The Sydney Theatre Company is not the only local group scrambling onto the tour bus. Belvoir St’s Company B is about to tour Page 8, a self-portrait from composer and performer David Page. The production will play in New Zealand and Britain. Previous successful Company B tours include Cloudstreet, which went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and to Europe, and the 1999 production The Small Poppies, which went to Ireland.
Redfern’s interdisciplinary arts centre, Performance Space, is touring four works through Britain in collaboration with Bristol’s centre for the contemporary arts. The associate director of Performance Space, Caitlin Newton-Broad, believes touring is vital, and says the company is hoping to "cook up" as many opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region as possible.
"Works need to be shown across a year, the work becomes richer and fuller, and the artists can draw from that with their next work," she says. "Touring is a global conversation that has to happen."
It’s a global conversation the federal arts funding body, the Australia Council, is listening to keenly, despite the predictions of a crisis within Australian theatre. The council gives quick-response grants to companies that have confirmed an international tour. The executive director of the council’s community partnerships and market development area, Karilyn Brown, says overseas opportunities for Australian companies are burgeoning.
"You can’t expect companies to be creating new work every year, running subscription programs, touring regionally and internationally," Brown says. "It’s a balance, but the opportunities are increasing. One of the issues for theatre is that it’s English-based text, so the United States and Europe are the main markets."
At the polar side of the spectrum from the Sydney Theatre Company sits the Redfern company Performing Lines. The mission of the small company, powered for decades by general manager Wendy Blacklock, is to tour eclectic works within Australia and overseas. However, Performing Lines makes its money from touring internationally. Touring works include photographer and writer William Yang’s shows, and director Nigel Jamieson’s shadow puppet drama The Theft of Sita, which won acclaim at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2001.
"It’s all to do with timing," Blacklock says. "You’re programming a year or two years ahead, you’re guessing an audience, you have to think, ‘Will this still be relevant to the audience that will hope to see it, or will there be other shows they’ve seen in the interim that makes it not so special?"’
With Nevin’s Hedda Gabler, starring Blanchett, Blacklock echoes the sentiment of many in the theatre sector, saying the STC has nailed it in the gladiatorial international market. "It’s a wonderful coup to have an actress of that standing playing," she says. "Otherwise, it’s hard to get these works up. Other countries have their own productions, or they get the Royal Shakespeare Company. There’s a lot of competition."