Keep Calm and Get Your Theatre On

keep calm and get your theatre onIs it possible that people involved in theatre are slightly dramatic, on occasion? Do you think?

In my experience, theatrical folk often are over-the-top and heightened in their reactions to events for which the ‘general public’ wouldn’t even bat an eyelid. The release of an Audra McDonald album or the lead up to the Tony Awards, for example, seem to create quite a stir.

It may come as a surprise when I confess that, despite media attention and a whole lot of alarmist discussion recently, theatrical folk don’t seem overly concerned about the ‘current economic climate’ and how it is affecting our industry. I’m not at all suggesting that we don’t care for economics and the state of affairs on a global scale, but I am throwing it out there that the situation is not as dire as some people would have you believe.

Hairspray closed early in Sydney and Rock Of Ages announced it was postponing its Sydney season = media frenzy. Articles spring up about the fact that Sydney can’t support three major musicals at once, the Theatre Royal’s future comes under scrutiny because it’s lost a large booking and has no other shows booked in for 18 months (it’s actually just being sold, and wasn’t taking any bookings during the sale), people blame publicity, marketing… But really, a show shortening (or postponing) a season is nothing new in this country. It’s nothing new in any country. It’s nothing new. Period.

Our industry has forever been combatting the odds. It’s a fickle industry, yes. Ticket sales determine how well a show fares, yes. Historically, Australia has seen economic downturns and slumps, and the industry never collapsed around us.

“The business we are in – producers, performers, marketing, whatever – our business has always been on a knife edge, universally. Shows open, shows close, they come and go”, John Frost, producer and Managing Director of the Gordon Frost Organisation told me recently.

“With the early closure of these shows [Rock Of Ages, Hairspray] – I don’t think anybody should be sending up a red flag saying ‘Oh my god the industry is collapsing around us’, says Frost.

Yes, it’s tough out there, but it always has been and in the face of what claims to be a ‘financial crisis’, an alarming number of economists agree that Australia’s reaction to the crisis was overdone in many sectors, not least the arts. Our industry is ever-changing – but it’s not going to fall at our feet any time soon.

“In the years that I have been doing what I do, we have managed to sail through recessions and downturns” Frost said.

“I remember a time when Cameron Mackintosh had a show at the Theatre Royal, Anything Goes was at the State, there was a show on at the Maj and I was running the Footbridge theatre at the time and we had some small musical on there. The city of Sydney had 4 shows in it and every show was flourishing and cross selling across each other”.

“Saying that Sydney can’t take three shows at once, I don’t believe that. At the end of the day, it’s got to be about the show”, he said.

I’m going to go out there and say it: it’s not the end of the musical theatre “boom time”. (Partly because I’m not sure we were ever in a “boom” to begin with). The shows which have sparked conversations about a “boom time” for musical theatre in Australia are, really, a very well programmed selection of musicals which (through their success) can support lesser known works and brand new projects.

Not every show is going to be a Phantom of the Opera, or a Lion King, a Mary Poppins or a Wicked, but we have seen all of those shows of late, all of which had HUGE success here in Australia, and despite a few hiccups along the way there is no need for a knee jerk reaction.

In fact, we are about to see some more wonderful shows down under and Frost assures me the industry is far from slowing down.

“Australia is about to get an onslaught of new shows and revivals that haven’t been seen for 10-15 years. No-one is slowing down in Sydney and Melbourne or wherever”, he laughed.

So, readers, we can all relax a while.

Let us not forget that producers are canny folk – Rodney Rigby has a winner in Jersey Boys, so could take a risk with Rock Of Ages. Frost struck gold with Wicked, so now he can produce the likes of An Officer And A Gentleman and Dr. Zhivago, Dream Lover. Global Creatures had such success with Walking With Dinosaurs that they can now present the world premiere of King Kong in Melbourne.

Isn’t that wonderful? Despite the fact that some musicals don’t sell as well as one might hope, isn’t it fabulous that we have the opportunity to present them, big and small, known an unknown?

They employ hundreds of people, they stimulate the economy, the promote travel, they promote culture, they bring children away from the television and computer screen and into the magical world of live performance.

True, some are harder to sell – as new shows don’t come to town with Tony Awards and Olivier Awards under their belt – but aren’t they exciting? I’m calling for less negativity about the state of the theatrical world and more encouragement.

I know the adage “any publicity is good publicity”, but I’m not sure it rings true in this case. Nor does John Frost:

“It’s not healthy really for anyone. It kills producers’ aspirations and mainly it kills investors wanting to put their hard earned dough into an industry that the media are saying is on a downturn”, he said.

It is important to have the big shows which fill theatres for a year, employ a heck of a lot of people and stand a higher chance of making money back for investors – to bring both investors and the public into the mindset that ‘shows are doing well’.

Frost admits that this is one of the reasons he is about to present Annie, and co-present South Pacific.

“Without a doubt I will do a lot more revivals. It’s one of the reasons behind doing Annie – knowing it’s a certain crowd pleaser. I know that nothing’s definite, but I can say ‘well, Annie did great business last time’, but then again, nothing is a certain winner”, he said.

So, ladies and gentlemen – let’s take a deep breath, relax and rejoice in the successful industry we have running here in Australia. Not every show will run for years, or even months, but at least we are given the opportunity to see them and enjoy them.

Good times and bum times, we’ve seen them all and my dear – we’re still here. And we’re staying. So Keep Calm, and Get Your Theatre On!

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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