Ian Darling, film maker, appeared on Sunday night at the Sydney Film Festival to present the new documentary that he has directed and produced, In the Company of Actors, which follows the Sydney Theatre Company’s preparations to tour the production of Hedda Gabler to New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Darling, also an investment services professional, described himself as new to the world of film and failed to mention to a packed State Theatre that he is now Chairman of the Sydney Theatre Company. He runs his own film company, Shark Island productions, and told the audience that it was a privilege to have been allowed into the rehearsal room to film the documentary. At the presentation Darling announced that a charitable organisation, The Caledonia Foundation (an arm of Caledonia Investments of which he is Executive Director), had generously decided to provide a grant to donate a DVD copy of his documentary to “every high school in Australia … to encourage a deeper understanding of theatre”.

It was Ian Darling who, as Chairman-elect of the Sydney Theatre Company, defended the appointment of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton as co-Artistic Directors at a press conference in November last year saying “we reached a unanimous decision that the intentions of Cate and Andrew were in total sync with the intentions of the board in terms of the artistic direction of the company.”

The Hedda Gabler production in 2004 and international tour in 2006 was prominently in the headlines and marked the return of Cate Blanchett to the Sydney stage after a brief absence in Hollywood. Directed by current Artistic Director, Robyn Nevin and adapted by Blanchett’s husband, Andrew Upton, the Sydney season was a sell-out with “standing room only” and marked the first venture back to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the STC since the less than successful 2001 tour of The White Devil.

This is a feel-good documentary about the STC family. Centring on interviews with the cast, who talk about some of their experiences in remounting the production, we also see some of the actor antics when they forget their lines or are waiting off-stage. We follow them to New York, struggling with subway ticket machines and preparing for a star-studded premiere and we experience the problems that the construction team have when the set is too low for the larger theatre in Brooklyn. Darling pointed out that one of the cast thought that it was like a “home video”.

The description for In the Company of Actors says “within the world of theatre, the rehearsal room is a sacred space, the private domain where boundaries are pushed, risks are taken, mistakes made, vulnerabilities exposed and, at its very best, magic created. It is not a place into which the public is often, if ever, invited. Until now…”

Unfortunately, as the documentary only starts with footage from the re-mount it misses out large chunks of casting and early rehearsal processes that have been captured in more recent documentaries such as Drama School (2001).

Indeed, it is hard to believe that there isn’t more interesting footage. It involves Robyn Nevin, who has a reputation for being colourful, during what must have been a very trying time in coordinating an enormous tour to New York and when the STC was involved in a number of public controversies.

It doesn’t mention the conflict that arose after the initial production in 2004 between actor Julie Hamilton and Nevin as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald when Hamilton discovered that she was to be the only member of the seven-strong cast not to be going on tour and that “Robyn Nevin could take on the role of Aunt Julle”.

Nor was the issue surrounding the lack of finances to fund the tour documented. Alexa Moses in the Herald reported in February 2006, that the Brooklyn Academy of Music footed the bill for most of the tour apart from around AU$250,000 which the Sydney Theatre Company had to raise through “help from the Australia Council, the Federal Government, sponsors and individual donations”.

The result is less a warts-and-all documentary about the STC and is more like a promotional video that has carefully orchestrated the public profile that the Sydney Theatre Company would wish to convey to current audiences and to young people around the country.

Both Nevin and Upton talk of the reasons for taking a production to New York, stating that audiences there are “intelligent” and “theatre literate”. It appears that the company has created a difficult situation by limiting local audience development over the years and anchoring creative decisions within the framework of subscriber seasons.

As subscriber numbers diminish back home in Sydney, the company looks to be engaging in a publicity campaign to develop a better public profile for audiences and sponsors alike. As opposed to touring big international productions and creating promotional videos, wouldn’t it be better for the STC to expand on more of its good work through recent productions and its Wharf2Loud programme?

This documentary may end up being counterproductive and instead of helping the STC’s reputation, portray the company as a little too paradisiacal to almost be unsettling. It could distance the STC from audiences that little bit further. It could on the other hand, open up a discussion that is desperately needed. What do Sydney audiences want from the STC? And what does the STC want from its audiences?

In the Company of Actors screens at the Sydney Film Festival again at 1.35 pm on Thursday 14 June, State Theatre.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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