Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton are poles apart in the celebrity stakes, but together they are the power couple behind the resurgence of the Sydney Theatre Company.
They’re leaving at the end of next year, but by that time the Oscar-winning actress and her director/playwright husband will be able to point to a legacy punctuated by VIP glitz, financial gains and green redevelopment.
And while some may be churlish about their high profile, this couple’s star power — particularly that of Blanchett — has been a key factor in their success at the company.
“She knows how to use that [her profile] and how to have impact with sponsors, how to have impact with government, how to have impact with subscribers and different audiences,” Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele tells The Power Index.
Blanchett may have helped provide a “Hollywood fix” to the STC’s financial troubles, but together with Upton the couple have shown a willingness to get their hands dirty.
Since they took over in 2008, the pair have “greened” STC headquarters at the Wharf, pushed for a new Sydney cultural arts precinct and won critical acclaim for home-grown shows taken to the United States.
On stage the pair have also been busy. Last year Blanchett starred in an Upton adaption of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya alongside John Bell, Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving and Jacki Weaver. The production was a smash hit, selling 44,295 tickets and drawing in $3 million at the box office. In July it opens in New York.
They’ve also brought in a steady cavalcade of internationally acclaimed actors and directors to collaborate on revivals and new plays, including William Hurt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Liv Ullmann.
And the pair have drawn praise for making some daring programming choices, like including dance and cabaret alongside the more traditional blockbuster offerings.
According to Ralph Myers — who runs the acclaimed Belvoir St company across town and was named as one of The Power Index‘s young turks — Sydney theatre is “in a very good place at the moment”. That starts at the top.
“I think there’s kind of a lot of oxygen associated with theatre because of not only the programming and the decisions they’ve made but also just the kind of light that is shone on the art form in a city by having an artist of that calibre who is that famous in that role.”
Myers says the bolder choices made by the pair benefit all theatre companies — and artistic endeavour — in the city.
“If you have a really conservative big company then that pushes the whole artform in that direction,” he tells The Power Index. “I think we’re really lucky that the biggest tree in the forest we all sort of grow underneath is doing really adventurous work and producing things that are really pushing the envelope a bit because it’s good for all of us really.”
Griffin Theatre Company artistic director Sam Strong agrees: “One of the interesting things about the Sydney theatre landscape at the moment is the level of audience hunger for work,” he tells The Power Index.
Strong was seconded to Sydney Theatre Company by Blanchett and Upton to direct a new production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, opening this week. He says the “collegiate spirit” fostered by the pair and other companies has allowed artists like himself to blossom.
And it’s also been a boon for the company financially. After years of losses under previous boss Robyn Nevin, the company turned a profit of $607,167 in 2009 and $919,860 in 2010.