Betcha Bottom Dollar

The Melbourne Cup is over for another year, and in the wake of the hype, colour and excitement of this year’s Spring Racing Carnival I began to ponder how Australia responds to theatre in comparison to other forms of entertainment.

Despite my deep seated theatrical bias, I know (and love, in a way) that we are a sporting nation – be it AFL, Rugby League, Rugby Union, Soccer, Cricket, motor cycle racing, car racing or horse racing – we love a good sporting event. We watch sport because we love to have ‘our team’, ‘our guy’, ‘our country’ come up trumps.

Phar LapThe Melbourne Cup is publicised as “the race that stops a nation”, and the lovely people of Melbourne are granted a public holiday so they may better prepare themselves to watch a three minute race while wearing fancy clothes (and I’m not at all suggesting that this is a bad thing – for the first time this year, I was one of those people in fancy clothes watching horses run around in circles, and I’m sure the economy was stimulated hugely with all the pre-carnival purchases). Football grand finals nigh on stop traffic every year and the umpteen olympic events which keep households glued to the television set every 4 years is absolutely incredible.

However, as Kander and Ebb so eloquently put it, ‘Money makes the world go round’, and this, I believe, is the reason sport is so highly funded in Australia and why theatre is left so far behind.

As far as I can see, the difference between the way the majority of Australians respond to theatre as compared to the afore mentioned sporting events is simply this: the ability to make a bet. Now I mean anything from the kind of bet you place with bookies at the races to verbal bets with mates, family, even yourself about who is going to win or lose.


You can bet on sport. You can’t bet on theatre. Sport never has a pre-determined outcome. Sport is variable. Someone is always going to win, someone is always going to lose. And that alone has the ability to generate cash flow. Therefore, there is so much money to me MADE from sport – not just by the teams and the sporting organisations themselves, but by all business who become affiliates.

Theatre can be spontaneous, but in a subtle way. Unless you are presenting a choose-your-own-adventure musical, the outcome of a piece of theatre is always going to be the same. Sure, there may be slight differences from show to show, week to week, but often our job in the theatre is to make sure the audiences are not aware of any changes which may occur from one show to the next. Understudies are rehearsed so that the performances run as smoothly as they would with the first cast. It is almost discouraged to publicise any goings-on in the theatre world – illness in the cast, injuries, cast changes etc.

In comparison, the more diverse the sporting events are from week to week, season to season, the more exciting they are. Players in teams are chosen for their diversity, injuries and alterations to sporting team lineups are reported as news (and often take up the back 7-10 pages of a newspaper).

We all know that the chandelier falls in the Phantom Of The Opera, we all know that Tony, Riff and Bernardo are killed in West Side Story, for the theatre goers, the excitement is in the 2 hours of suspended disbelief, the journey of the characters, the atmosphere, the story. I suppose the bet we place is on the success of that story, the actors, the music, the production values – trouble is, once it’s done, it’s done. There’s no changing the outcome – just how the public perceive it.

In sport, the excitement is in the spontaneity, and the bet we place is on the winner. Unfortunately for theatre, this makes sport much more profitable.

So how do we alter the paradigm? (This is not rhetorical, I am actually asking…)

Reality television began the shift with shows like So You Think You Can Dance, Australian Idol, The X Factor, and the latest TV talent contest The Voice. They made the arts into a ‘game’ of sorts by allowing performance to be viewed as a sport, with a variable outcome. They turned sections of the industry (particularly the ‘audition’ part) into mainstream entertainment. In London, they have created entire reality TV shows about casting a lead role in various Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, creating a sport out of the audition process and thus hyping the lead up to the production. Is this a path we want to take here in Australia? Would it work?

Ticket Booth

Do we keep tickets at $140+ for musical theatre? Do we lower ticket prices? Do we opt for short, sharp seasons, or offer extended seasons at the risk of closing shows early, cancelling or ‘postponing’ them? Do we make sure that theatres are constantly in use throughout the country and invest in new, manageable theatres in areas like Western Sydney, Brisbane, Newcastle, Melbourne, Geelong?

I have been very lucky – I graduated from drama school in 2005 and have been fortunate enough to land in a working environment which has been fairly stable, thank you very much.

The only industry I have known in Australia has been flush with musicals – Wicked, Mary Poppins, Love Never Dies, Hairspray, Billy Elliot, Mamma Mia, We Will Rock You, The Phantom Of The Opera, West Side Story, Dirty Dancing, Dr. Zhivago, and we are soon to make way for The Addams Family, An Officer and a Gentleman, A Chorus Line, Legally Blonde, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Strictly Ballroom, King Kong  ... the list goes on.

However in the last few months, we have seen Strange Bedfellows struggle (apparently due to inability to confirm a ‘key cast member’) and subsequently postpone all seasons. Rock Of Ages recently ‘postponed’ their Sydney season, with no alternative date proposed. Love Never Dies will only play a maximum of 12 weeks in Sydney and doesn’t look like touring the country, and the only reasons we are being given is ‘economic climate’.

I know that there is always a risk in producing theatre. I know that it’s a tough gig. I know that when an economic crisis holds the world’s life source in it’s nasty little grasp that it’s the arts which is stifled first. I applaud the producers of major shows in this country for providing Australians with access to an art form which, at times, has really struggled hard to survive here. But I can understand why it does.

The live arts industry is escapism, it’s fantasy, it’s drama, it’s a statement, it’s life, it’s all of these things – and yet on many levels, so is sport. If you can attend a football match at the MCG for just over $21 ($2.50 for kids aged 6-14), soak up the atmosphere, cheer for your team and drink beer at the same time – why would you spend $140+ on a theatre ticket?

With a maximum of three shows playing in Sydney or Melbourne at once, with ticket prices as they are, for the extended seasons we would like to see them play – of course ticket sales are going to struggle. It’s common sense, really.

So perhaps we need more theatre playing in the one city at the one time (with much cheaper ticket prices) so that the theatre industry appears more varied and interesting, allowing the public a greater choice. Or, shorter seasons and a higher turn around of shows coming and going. Personally, I like the first idea – it parallels the concept of putting all the car dealerships in the one place in any given township so that the industry remains competitive and the consumers are stimulated. Seems to work well for the automotive industry…

Theatre SportsIt’s unfortunate that we don’t have the theatre hype in Australia that West End and Broadway experience. I guess we are too much a sporting nation for theatre to ever give the ‘game’ a run for its money. I wish I could wind up this argument with a novel and industry-changing idea, but unfortunately all I have created is a whole lot of questions. Where do we go from here? Should we re-visit the way we present theatre in Australia? Is it better to only produce bankable, family friendly favourites likeAnnie rather than new musicals like Strange Bedfellows andRock Of Ages? My artistic side says ‘of course not’. We need creative stimulation, new works, innovative productions along side revivals so that we can grow as an industry.

Perhaps we just need to combine sport and theatre together into a brand new musical – directed by Simon Phillips, choreographed by Jason Coleman, starring anyone who has ever been on performance based reality television show about the relationships between AFL WAGs and cricket players, on NRL grand final night set in an olympic pool. It’s a choose-your-own-ending kind of show, which has several different closing numbers, depending upon audience reaction on the night.

Theatresports – The Musical. 

That’d sell, now, wouldn’t it?

Have your say on this issue – post in the DISQUS box below.



Phar Lap: State Library of Victoria

Ticket Booth: Evelyn Giggles 

Theatre Sports: Yumiang 

Erin James

Erin James is's former Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

Erin James

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