Performing in Limbo

With TWISTED and SHORT+SWEET ILLAWARRA in COVID’s firing line, local independent theatre companies Rising Arts, Short+Sweet Illawarra and the Phoenix Theatre band together to try and save their shows.

Phil Harris, Associate Producer Short+Sweet Illawarra

Actor: Tim Love as Jafar in Rising Arts production of TWISTED.
Photo: splitfocusmedia.com.au

It’s no secret that Covid 19 has devastated the world. There has not been an industry that has escaped its scourge. That’s just as true for the performing arts world and all those that dabble in the greasepaint or bring your entertainment under the stage lights. To have a nod of agreement that ticket sales are down is one thing but to truly delve into the organisational and personal cost of the pandemic is something completely different. Herein is that impact on 3 different levels. Actor, Producer and Venue Provider.

A producer’s nightmare is known as “no bums on seats!” We pull out hair worrying the budget will be shot, tickets will not be sold and the show will lose money thereby jeopardising future shows. After months of pulling all the pieces together, recruiting the illusive production team, promoting hard and scraping together every cent, we prime ourselves for the oncoming opening night. Then someone tells you it’s over before it begins!

The tears fall, the fury bursts, the financial panic sets in and everybody has been hit. The much anticipated Short+Sweet festival and the Rising Arts production of TWISTED have collided head on in their attempts to get their events on the stage. Only by working together have they managed to pull it off, but they are not out of the woods yet.

TWISTED the musical parodies the 1992 Walt Disney Animation Studios’ film Aladdin, and the Walt Disney Company in general, telling the story from the point of view of Ja’far, the Royal Vizier (Pictured). It has several nods and homages to the musical Wicked, which similarly retells a popular story from the villain’s point of view. It’s fun, looney and toe tapping. Just what we need since Covid devastated the arts industry.

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JARROD RIESINGER

Director, TWISTED – Rising Arts Productions

When the current COVID lockdown was announced, it risked taking local production TWISTED with it – their two-week season coinciding with the recent closure of live theatre. But where there are stage-lights, there is hope.

Jarrod: We were preparing and finalising last minute bits and pieces for the production week of Twisted when the news broke. Naturally, it was a crushing blow for us as a creative team, cast and crew who have spent the last year working on the show which had already experienced significant delays due to the 2020 lockdowns but an eventuality we were expecting given the circumstances. We at Rising Arts did what a lot of community theatre groups did when the news broke, we quickly pivoted to plan B and worked in with one another to secure new dates and contingency plans for our shows while also sharing commiserations with one another knowing how devastating it is to have a show affected by COVID-19. It has honestly been touching the amount of love that has been shown to us and everyone else going through a similar experience and has really brought us closer together as a community; a silver lining from a terrible time for all members of the creative arts community.

We’ve been very fortunate to have had the support of so many. Thanks to the flexibility of Short+Sweet Illawarra and Steen at the Phoenix Theatre, we at least have the opportunity to hit the stage when this is all over. At the end of the day we are all one big extended community, so to have people willing to move heaven and earth to try and get you on stage after repeated delays to your show and the offerings of help and support from other companies in the area really emphasises the positives that can come out of working as a collective unit. It’s often easy for companies to isolate themselves and run their own race, but when push comes to shove its moments like these that really epitomise the kind of energy we should all be bringing to the stage and the way we operate at all times.

At this point we’ve spent over 12 months trying to get Twisted to the stage and so many people have spent countless hours to build this piece of theatre; whether it be cast, crew, orchestra or creatives. It’s always hard on a person when something you’ve dedicated so much time to doesn’t come to fruition. That said, artists are nothing but resilient and we’re lucky to have a really resilient and adaptable team who has been willing to go on this wild journey with us, which I think is a testament to the kind of people involved in theatre in the Illawarra. We’re a tough and talented breed, and together we’ll come out the other side of lockdown stronger and better for the experience.

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LUKE BERMAN

Festival Director, Short+Sweet Illawarra

With local theatre In the firing line of COVID, Short+Sweet Illawarra producer Luke Berman throws a lifeline to Rising Arts Productions, moving his festival to give TWISTED a chance to shine.

Luke: Not only is this is anxious time for our artists with the uncertainty how long the current lockdown might last, but any closure of live performance is a loss to our community. It’s the audiences that miss out too. People have showed they want to go out. Short+Sweet fans know we put on an excellent festival every year. They look forward to it. Our Sydney festival was seeing record audience attendance before lockdown. People are definitely sick of Netflix.

We’re doing something really special here in the Illawarra.

We have a vision to be the only region in the world to offer an annual season with six separate Short+Sweet performance strands. Theatre, Film, Dance, Youth, Cabaret and Stand-up Comedy. This festival could engage with almost anyone in the region and give them a stage in which to tell their stories and to show their talents.

But we too rely completely on ticket sales to ensure the festivals success, so there is definitely the risk of the festival losing money with audience restrictions or extension to lock-downs. If we can get the bums on seats, we could make enough to expand as early as next year. Ourfuture  success financially and creatively relies entirely on how we nurture, engage with, and support our actors, directors, writers, technicians, filmmakers, venue owners and our audience.

We have a lot of experience in creating sustainable festivals that are adaptable to market volatility, so we’re well placed to weather the current uncertainty. But as an independent hirer to the theatre, there is only so much we do. Any change to our dates we risk losing plays, directors, actors and crew. It’s tricky to keep changing when you’re working with 23 separate productions and over a hundred artists. But such is the risk of producing theatre during the age of COVID.

What is remarkable though, is the effort that each group is going to for the others. With the cooperation of multiple groups, Short+Sweet Illawarra we were able to move our opening week of plays to free up the stage, and give TWISTED a chance to survive.

This is how we work in the Illawarra. We look out for each-other. I’m sure Rising Arts would do the same for us. We’re not out of the woods yet, and even if we can return to the stage as scheduled, we need the community to support us. Buy a ticket and let us entertain you.

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STEEN

Venue Manager, Bridge Street Theatre (Phoenix Theatre Company)

Venue owner Steen from the Phoenix Theatre has moved mountains to ensure that there is a stage ready for local independent producers Rising Arts Productions and Short+Sweet Illawarra. But his generosity comes at great cost.

Steen:  When the first lockdown happened we were already in debt for three shows about to open, fortunately we have recouped those shows since but it was a very difficult time. We fortunately have very low running costs because we don’t often do rights based modern shows. We are also not profit-driven so we did not have as tough a time as others may have, but we did come close to closing the doors, a possibility that still hangs as a shadow over us in these uncertain times.

Bouncing back will be hard. The key is diversity but it is also the problem. Theatres need to keep diverse audiences want a diverse medium. We hear it all the time that people are sick of seeing the same sort of thing over and over again, but people often fear trying something new.

The Phoenix Theatre is dedicated to emerging theatre makers and providing alternative performance opportunities to the community, this essentially means we do not do standard popular work and do not have the financial resources available to companies that do more audience-friendly theatre such as well-known musicals or comedies.

This does not mean we are any less in quality, we strive for improvement and high-quality performance, it just means resources are sparser due to numbers.

We keep our door prices very low, so people can try something new, if they like it they will come back. I feel smaller more diverse shows that are well done at a lower price will eventually gather more audience who want to see something new along with the big entertainment events, this model is slowly taking on around the theatre centres of the world.

There is absolutely room for both, at the core is telling stories and the shared experience of being in the same room with the performer, feeling the resonance of the voice, the air move with the gesture of the actor and the shared emotional experience with the fellow audience members, the theatre will survive but it may look a little different when it comes back, and that is not always a bad thing. Adaptation is what people do best.

The Phoenix will always be here for the odd the quirky and the alternative, we are deeply connected to our community, and we will adjust to fill in the gaps as best we can and support the emerging theatre makers and audience.

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ZAC CHADWICK

Actor, Short+Sweet Illawarra

Short+Sweet Illawarra actor Zac Chadwick, who lost his role in Short+Sweet Illawarra due to the changed dates reflects on the importance and innovation of our Illawarra theatremakers.

Zac: This most recent COVID outbreak has been tough on individuals, families and business in NSW and let’s be honest, all of Australia. Local business struggle to survive, people from all sorts of situations struggling with demands they’ve never faced before. One such industry that has been hit hard, and strikes a special note with many, including myself is theatre. 

Theatre isn’t just superficial for people who do it, consume it and interact with it, it’s much more. In the same way exercise can help the body and mind, theatre does this for the hearts and souls of people. For myself in particular, there’s been changes in casts, and I haven’t been able to perform in pieces I’ve wanted to, work with friends and colleagues who I learn from and respect, there’s been pieces moved years in advance to accommodate for the uncertainty and most of all it’s stopped a lot of the face-to-face interaction we all need. 

That being said; theatre has been positively affected: seeing communities grow, reach out, there’s been so many accommodations and creative solutions like Facebook live theatre, recordings and rehearsals over zoom, there’s been poets and musicians arise in people who didn’t know they had it in them and it’s given theatre a surge in voices and presence in the online community. 

Whilst it’s been difficult through the financial impact of not only actors but hirers, behind the scene artists, crew, lighting, etc. it has been amazing to see that being physically apart doesn’t have to mean distant. The mood is sombre but hopeful in many cases and hopefully with support, the theatre will thrive again in the way it’s meant to be consumed, in person, in full. 

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