March 31, 2012
Les Liaisons Dangereuses marks director Sam Strong’s Sydney Theatre Company debut, but already there is talk of the former lawyer running the place.
Sam Strong is a quiet achiever among today’s crop of theatre directors. So quiet, he’s slipped under the radar while riskier – some might say flashier – directors such as Benedict Andrews and Simon Stone have grabbed the headlines and critical awards for variously dividing and conquering Sydney audiences. But that is about to change.
In just two years as its artistic director, the 35-year-old former lawyer has worked to reposition Griffin Theatre Company as the city’s third main stage company, one dedicated to new Australian writing, and now, under Strong’s vision, revisiting Australian classics.
His acclaimed, sold-out season of The Boys stunned audiences during the Sydney Festival in January and went on to become the most successful play in Griffin’s 32-year history. Last year, his production of Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues, the play later adapted into the film Lantana, proved another hit for Griffin, becoming the third most successful show in the theatre’s history. (For the record, Griffin’s second most successful show was Tommy Murphy’s Holding the Man, directed by David Berthold in 2006 and 2007.)
Subscriptions have almost tripled under Strong’s leadership and single-ticket sales are up 30 per cent. The foyer is buzzing with a young crowd.
Now the theatre industry is watching closely as he makes his debut with the Sydney Theatre Company directing Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, starring Hugo Weaving, Pamela Rabe and Justine Clarke.
Some insiders are already tipping Strong as a front runner to take over from STC co-artistic directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton when they finish their term at the end of next year (see box). Liaisons could be his calling card.
”Sam is very serious about what he does,” says Rabe, Strong’s choice for the role of the deceitful Marquise de Merteuil. ”I think he likes to pretend his vocational calling sits casually on him, but you can feel his drive, his passion and his eagerness shine through. I think he’s going to make a big impact on theatre in Sydney.”
If the director is feeling any pressure, he isn’t showing it. The only outward sign of theatricality by Strong, who is dressed in a white business shirt and smart black pants, are the green shoelaces of his brown suede shoes. He’s in an exuberant mood, after a session preparing Weaving for the role of the play’s great seducer, the Vicomte de Valmont. ”It’s an absolute monster of a role and he is ideally placed to monster it,” Strong says.
Actors who have worked with Strong describe him as ”exacting”, ”demanding” and ”a fierce multitasker”. But his manner is gentle and quietly determined. ”He’s got a terrific brain,” Weaving says. ”And he’s got an incredibly positive, forward-moving energy in the rehearsal room. I like that a lot.”
Blanchett agrees: ”He’s able to conduct the all-important electricity between actors that can make moments in the theatre not only lift off, but sing.”
Strong says he’s the kind of director who puts a production’s writing and actors first. ”My directorial hand is not heavy. I’m of the view that my interpretation of a work will be present, but the greatest compliment I can get is that my work is in some way invisible,” he says.
”As a director, I’m not particularly interested in high-concept theatre or the question of what am I doing to a work. I resist that question. So in Liaisons, I prefer to think of what the material is doing to me and what it’s doing to the creative team and the cast. We’re looking for the essence of the world of that play and how we can find a contemporary equivalent that matches the opulence and sense of idleness as the original.”
When Blanchett and Upton asked Strong to think of a play to direct at the STC, he pitched Les Liaisons Dangereuses with Weaving and Rabe in the leads. ”They are quite literally forces of nature,” he says. ”We’ve designed the production so the audience and the actors are as close as possible in the intimate space of Wharf One. You’ll be able to smell them.”
That olfactory intimacy is a feature of Griffin Theatre’s home at the SBW Stables Theatre in Kings Cross. With only 120 seats, actors and audiences are able to ”breathe the same air”, Strong says.
It takes more than intimacy to build a successful theatre, however. So what is the secret to his success at Griffin?
He laughs and sips his coffee. ”I can’t give it all away! But I can say that one of the most important assets a company can have is energy and momentum and I wanted to give Griffin as much of that as I could,” he says.
In his first three months at Griffin, Strong launched a season featuring twice as many plays, beating Belvoir’s launch by a day. ”It was taken in the irreverent spirit with which it was intended rather than fiercely competitive,” he says.
Griffin has always been a launch pad for emerging talent, but Strong has been luring back some of its best writers, directors and actors. He sets aside time to meet artists once a week and writes a personal email newsletter.
He has also thrown open the doors to artists and audiences with film nights, talks, visual arts in the foyer, Sunday afternoon short works (plays, cabaret, even mini-musicals) and a snappy use of social media. For their sold-out run of Angela’s Kitchen in 2010 (returning this year), they tweeted clues to potential audience members, who went out and hunted for wooden spoons all over the city. For Lachlan Philpott’s play Silent Disco, they hosted a silent disco in the theatre. For The Boys, they hung Adam Cullen’s controversial portraits of the Murphy brothers, the siblings who inspired Gordon Graham to write the play.
As a result, Griffin audiences feel part of a neighbourly community. On Australia Day this year, Griffin tweeted: ”Just about to fire up the BBQ. If you’re in the X [Kings Cross], drop round to Griffin for an old-school snag.”
”All of this is a real attempt to make the company as welcoming and accessible as possible,” Strong says. ”It’s become a really energised and fun place to be.”
As a director, Strong works on two productions a year at Griffin. His next will be Ian Meadows’s climate-change play, Between Two Waves, in October. He says he thinks musically when he directs. ”I think about the rhythm of the language and the rhythm of an entrance or an exit,” he says. ”I’m also keen to make work for a contemporary attention span. I want it to be fast. I like work that asks an audience to keep up and forces them to lean in. I want my work to gallop out in front of an audience and demand they keep up.”
Born in Nowra but schooled in the Northern Territory and Melbourne, Strong comes from a go-getting family. He grew up wanting to be a lawyer like his father, James Strong, the chairman of the board of directors of both Woolworths and the Australia Council for the Arts. He is also a former chairman of the Sydney Theatre Company.
Strong always admired a photo of his father that was on the mantelpiece, showing him dressed in a wig and gown. It was taken on the day James was admitted to the bar.
”I wanted to be a lawyer since I was about six,” he says. ”I always loved public speaking and was captain of the debating team, so law felt like a logical path.”
After practising at the law firm Freehills for several years, Strong took a sabbatical to study directing at the Victorian College of the Arts drama school. He tried to juggle the two careers before quitting law in 2007 to concentrate on theatre.
Strong came to Sydney when he was headhunted by Neil Armfield, who created the role of literary associate at Belvoir specifically for Strong in 2008. He spent two years moving between cities (with his wife, Katherine Slattery, a former actor and now a film-script developer), often working on two productions simultaneously.
”It was an exciting and tricky time,” he says. ”If you want to have a thriving freelance practice, you need to get very good at working on more than one show at once and they were good skills to take into being an artistic director.
”I definitely function better when I have too much on.”
Directing David Hare’s The Power of Yes at Belvoir in 2010 was a turning point for Strong’s career in Sydney. The verbatim play had a cast of 12 highly experienced actors and concentrated on the slippery details of the global financial crisis in London. Strong’s production was a hit.
Rhys Muldoon, who starred in the play says it was a difficult production but Strong was a good fit because he has the world of business and finance in his DNA. ”Sam brings a businesslike, successful confidence to his theatre work and that is one of his key strengths,” he says. ”He’s very well bred and polite but very determined. He has a lot of ambition but it’s not naked.”
Griffin offered Strong the top job while The Power of Yes was still running and Armfield graciously let him leave early. ”I’d made no secret of my ambition to be an artistic director of a company,” Strong says. ”I wanted the challenge of curating a season and working with new writers. I learnt from Neil how to support artists within a season and maintain the health of a company, not just the shows you’re directing. I was keen to put those skills into action.”
Asked whether he will be applying for the artistic directorship of the STC, Strong gives a diplomatic answer – a lawyer’s answer. ”My focus is very much on the present. Running Griffin and directing something at the STC is a dream come true. I don’t have too much time to think about what I might be doing in the future.” Watch this space.
SAM STRONG is expected to be among the leading applicants to take over from Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, when the Sydney Theatre Company advertises for a new artistic director in the coming months. Industry insiders say the company may look for a proven stage director this time – or possibly two.
“Given that the artistic director needs to be across rehearsal and stage responsibilities, artistic maintenance, season planning, corporate and philanthropic fund-raising, and given the size of the company now, perhaps the model of a solo AD is simply asking too much,” a source close to the STC says. “When the AD is in the rehearsal room, on stage, or touring, they obviously aren’t able to do full days in the office, and the company is reaching the point where that probably isn’t desirable. So a good pairing which can divide those duties could be advantageous.”
Other contenders suggested to the Herald include Simon Stone (Belvoir), David Berthold (La Boite, Brisbane), Marion Potts (though her appointment to Melbourne’s Malthouse may rule that out), Adam Cook (formerly the artistic director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia), Tom Wright (STC associate director), Kate Cherry (Black Swan, Perth), and former Queensland Theatre Company AD Michael Gow.
STC regular Benedict Andrews tells the Herald he “would be interested in the opportunity to lead the company” but commitments in Europe prevent him. The artistic director of Belvoir, Ralph Myers, also says he won’t be applying.
It is expected to take most of this year to fill the position, with the incoming artistic director expected to start early next year to work with Blanchett and Upton during a year-long handover, the general manager of the STC, Patrick McIntyre, says.
The selection panel will be a sub-committee of the STC board, McIntyre says, and it will not include Blanchett and Upton. He says the committee will consider any model put to it, including another co-directorship. The STC confirmed the search would also stretch internationally and that it has engaged executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry.
“Cate and Andrew are leaving very big shoes to fill,” McIntyre says. “It was always clear they would stay two terms and the board accepted that graciously, although a third term would have been fantastic. They were mould-breakers and very conspicuously successful in the role, so it makes the stakes quite high for their successor. It doesn’t mean the next person must be very high profile but they must be ready for a lot of attention.”
Some insiders believe the role could go to a high-profile actor such as Geoffrey Rush or Hugo Weaving. Weaving says he won’t be applying. “I’d be hopeless,” he says. “Seriously, I would be awful. I’ve never directed anything and I’ve seen how hard everything else has been for Cate and Andrew, who have done an amazing job.”
Les Liaisons Dangereuses opens on Thursday at the Wharf 1 Theatre.