The theatre set remains, on average, stubbornly old, but a new generation of wunderkinds is dominating main stages and setting a new course for theatre in Australia.
These 35-and-unders — including directors like Simon Stone, writers like Lally Katz and company chiefs like Ralph Myers and Sam Strong — are contributing to the age gulf between those making theatre, and those watching it.
We’re calling them theatre’s young turks and together they take the No. 8 spot on the arts and culture power list.
The Power Index chatted with all four 35-and-unders, who veritably spit creative juices. They share not only youth but a remarkably relaxed understanding of their meteorically rising influence in the cultural space. They are artists seemingly without excessive ego yet with searingly-bright ambition.
Brenna Hobson basks in the “extraordinarily talented” people she works with as Belvoir St’s general manager in Sydney. “There has very clearly been a shift in the past three years, it’s been quite quick,” she says.
“After the explosion of energy in the ’70s we had a group of artists, baby boomers, who were very successful and really drove the industry but then stayed in those positions. So I think the generations older than your Ralphs and your Simons and your Sams found themselves quite frustrated … shut out of some of the key artistic roles.
“And now that we have had a shift it’s been some of the younger ones that have taken it on. We’ve almost skipped a generation.”
Belvior, a couple of blocks up the hill from News Limited’s headquarters in Surry Hills, is a creative hub. It turned over $10 million last year with record subscriptions — thanks largely to the efforts of new artistic director Ralph Myers, who took over from Neil Armfield for last year’s season. Myers didn’t just steady the ship; he steamed ahead with a season that included the hugely successful The Wild Duck and a celebrated remount of Summer Of The 17th Doll. Audiences — and Sydney’s notoriously fickle critics — loved it.
The epitome of a bearded hipster with a relaxed charm, NIDA-trained Myers married his parents’ livings (architect and art teacher) to become an in-demand freelance set artist. Many eyebrows were raised when a set designer — rather than an actor or director — was chosen to replace Armfield, but Myers has proved the doubters wrong.
“I think the thing about Ralph is that he’s a real person of the theatre,” says Hobson. “And if you look back through history … the best theatre artists that we have really immersed themselves in theatre.
“Ralph has spent more time in rehearsal rooms … than most directors. He’s worked intimately with the Neil Armfields, the Benedict Andrews, the Barrie Koskys, he really has worked with the best across several generations. And so he just has the most extraordinary understanding of theatre and an extraordinary generosity towards other artists.”
People say the same of Sam Strong (perhaps because the stubble and glasses make them look so similar). At Griffin Theatre, from an intimate Darlinghurst space that has given birth to some of the best Australian drama of the past decade, Strong has the job he’s always wanted. He chucked in a career as a barrister — “the first love was always theatre” — to emerge as a leading director and dramaturge (script doctor).
“When you come through a career on the independent scene you become very good at multi-tasking,” he tells The Power Index down the phone from Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf complex, amid final rehearsals for a production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, starring Pamela Rabe and Hugo Weaving. “I always wanted to be an artistic director. I made no secret of that.”
That it’s happened at such acceleration doesn’t make him giddy, a sentiment shared by all our young turks. “You sort of absorb the speed of your own career and you don’t feel like it’s moving very quickly,” Strong says.