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(Image: Getty/ maksicfoto)

It’s still the worst of times for the Australian theatre sector but there is a small spotlight of hope beginning to flicker on some stages.

From Perth to Adelaide to Brisbane, state companies are raising the curtain in various guises, although in shuttered Victoria the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) yesterday cancelled performances for the rest of the year and revealed the devastating financial impact.

“Financially this year has been a seismic crisis for the company with the cancellations equating to a $12.5 million box office loss and over a 60% drop in total revenue,” said CEO and artistic director Brett Sheehy.

Sheehy yesterday outlined the cost of shutting down 11 of MTC’s 12 shows this year, noting “the impact will be felt for many years to come as we move from survival to recovery”.

But the biggest surprise of the week was Sydney Lyric Theatre’s announcement it will be staging the Tony-award-winning Broadway show, Pippin from November.

It is a brave call, and Foundation Theatres CEO Graeme Kearns admits they are trying to lead the way to “kickstart” major productions again.

“We wanted to take the initiative and part of that strategy was to be confident to produce theatre again and make audiences confident to come back to the theatre,” he said.

While the 2000-seat theatre will abide by all COVID-19 protocols, the company is working on the hope that it will not need social distancing. This has been preventing theatre companies from reopening, with “not economically viable” consistently cited.

While the US sets for Pippin are already in Australia and the production has the backing of Australia’s biggest musical producer John Frost, Kearns admits it is hardly an opportunity for money making, but more about showing leadership and instilling confidence to get the industry underway.

And he appreciates the risks; there’s only once chance to “kick the battery and restart the engine”.

“We might fail but we won’t die saying we didn’t try” he said.

Companies plan during intermission

Foundation Theatres is not the only one trying. Australia’s other major musical producer Michael Cassel has recently reiterated that the highly anticipated Sydney opening of Hamilton is still planned for March next year.

In June, Sydney Theatre Company auditors warned of “significant doubt” about the group’s ability to stay afloat. Crikey understands that it has decided to resume rehearsals in the hope of reopening at least one of its five remaining shows later in the year.

Elsewhere, Sydney’s renowned Belvoir Theatre announced it has just started rehearsals for a planned production of My Brilliant Career at the end of the year.

Opera Australia (OA), which warned of the threat of bankruptcy as early as March, cancelled the rest of its 2020 season — but in a sign of optimism has announced it is still planning a production of The Ring Cycle for the end of next year.

OA last week talked up the rescheduled 2021 Brisbane production as the world’s first all-digital production of The Ring Cycle, but it remains to be seen whether audiences will even then be prepared for a total of 17 hours of opera.

The Queensland Performing Arts Centre is using opera singers and other select performers as part of its scaled down reopening in two weeks time. Other more modest events include a cabaret at their smaller Cremorne Theatre. (Sydney’s small Darlinghurst Theatre pioneered the idea with great success in June when it used its foyer restaurant to stage live musical performances for small groups of diners.)

Theatres in other closed border states are also reopening. The Western Australian government is even providing a $9 million underwriting to help in case of COVID-19 cancellations. The curtain goes up at Perth Ballet on September 4.

State Theatre Company South Australia is opening its production of Gaslight on the same night. Originally planned for the 600-seat Dunstan Playhouse, it was able to move to a 1500 seat venue.

This not only allows the company to socially distance in a safe chequerboard formation, and to be as economically viable as originally planned, but it also gets to relaunch Her Majesty’s Theatre after a massive $66 million refurbishment.

Peter Fray

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