John Frost is Australia’s most prolific and successful theatre producer, having produced almost 200 productions around the world.
Responsible for touring between 4/5 large scale musical productions across Australia annually, if you don’t know the name, you certainly know the shows.
The Gordon Frost Organisation is responsible for the recent staging of musicals such as My Fair Lady, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Shrek, Book of Mormon & Chicago, to name but a few. Future plans for the company include Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 the Musical and collaboration with Opera Australia to revive The Secret Garden. It was full steam ahead for all these shows when the news landed that the live entertainment industry would need to enter immediate hibernation due to the COVID-19 crisis. I caught up with Mr Frost to find out more about what the crisis meant to his organisation and how current events would impact the future.
John Frost began his career at age 16 as a dresser on the J.C. Williamson tour of Mame and worked his way up through the ranks. His early productions included Jerry’s Girls and Night Mother and it wasn’t long before the company moved onto national tours of large-scale musicals such as Big River, The King And I, South Pacific, Hello, Dolly!, The Secret Garden, Smokey’s Joe’s Café, Cabaret and Crazy For You.
In 1996, The Gordon Frost Organisation’s (GFO) production of The King and I won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical on Broadway and in 2003, Frost won his second Tony Award as a co-producer of Hairspray.
With a wealth of knowledge from his years of experience, I wanted to take a step back and explore the development of the Australian theatre landscape prior to the current crisis.
“Prior to the COVID lockdown, certainly my experience was fantastic,” Frost said, “People were going out to the theatre, we had shows up and running and people were spending their money on entertainment. The wonderful thing about our business, if we go back and look at the last 15 – 20 years, it has just got stronger and stronger and stronger. It was in an extremely healthy state which I think has a lot to do with the types of show that have toured through the country and the constant flow of productions. There has always been things on for people to see and there has hardly ever been a dark theatre in the country for the last 15-20 years.”
GFO has gradually built on their tour portfolio over the years, slowly increasing output to meet demand. I was told that a quieter year would consist of producing around three shows until audience demand for productions increased to what it is today.
“When we first increased our output we would be working around the clock to deliver shows and as an organisation we were physically and mentally exhausted. When it all got too much we would drop back down to three [shows] for a while. Picking up production would largely depend on theatre availability and what was out there already. Venue availability is an enormous factor playing into touring shows in this country. When we had Book of Morman, for example, which played in Melbourne for over a year (and that doesn’t happen too often in Australia), that would take a venue off the radar for that period. So we had to look very carefully at what we wanted to stage”
GFO is a commercial production company that does not receive any Government funding, so each production relies solely on revenue derived from its audiences. For this reason, the company places a great emphasis on their catalogue of revivals which I am told they will continue to produce as long as Mr Frost is running the show. On top of the tried and tested, Frost also speaks fondly of his experience of bringing the magic of new Broadway and West End shows to Australian audiences when the opportunity presents.
So back to the current crisis, I wanted to know how the organisation had faired through similar events in the past.
I think I can put my hand on my heart and say that I have never witnessed anything like this in my career.
“I remember going through the recession in the 90’s but it didn’t seem to affect my shows at all. I suppose in those days there were not as many shows to see. It was easier to get a theatre back then, you could pick and choose what you wanted to put on and things were just a little different. It was nothing like this, where the world has just come to a complete stop.”
So what is going on behind the closed doors at GFO during the lockdown?
“Well we only have a couple of people in the office at the moment and everybody else is working from home. The problem we have is that we can’t make plans without knowing when things will be up and running again. Because we do so many shows, we have a very well oiled machine both financially and creatively so it’s not hard for us to get a production up and running. The issue is that we work approximately 3 years ahead, so without knowing a date we can go back to work, it’s very difficult to get any plans in place. We can get up and running very quickly but there is also no guarantee that audiences will want to run back to mass gatherings.”
Another difficulty the company faces is that with production budgets running into the tens of millions of dollars, for a show to be financially viable in mobilising, it needs to play between 3-5 major cities.
And none of this is even taking into account the issue of social distancing. Let’s say I have done my budget for a production and I need to sell 1200 seats per night, well therefore I need to be in a 1,500/2,000 seat venue but if the Goverment is saying we cant have more than 500 people in a theatre; well then it’s just not viable.
If I’m honest, I can’t see a musical happening until the second half of next year. We are speaking to theatre owners daily to try and find work arounds and there is no doubt in my mind that theatres in Australia will do everything they can to get things moving but there are just so many variables at this stage.
The effects of the crisis are going to be far-reaching with impacts not only on the obvious health and social distancing factors but also the looming economic fallout. In desperate times, statistically, audiences have always looked to various forms of entertainment to lift their spirits. Our conversation progressed to explore how important entertainment will be for the public when we come out of the crisis.
“I think entertainment will play an enormous role as the world gets back to normal. Especially in Australia, with so much additional tourism revenue generated from travel and accommodation.”
The concern felt by many producers at this stage is, those working in the entertainment industry might be ready to go back to work but will audiences be ready to return to the theatre.
I think what this virus has done, is show us just how fragile the world is, in the sense of the economy. This virus has brought us to our knees, practacally overnight. I think there is a lot of work to be done to get us back to where we were prior to this.
Empathising with those working in the creative industries, for the lack of support available form the Government, Mr Frost has this advice:
Stay strong, keep positive and look to the future; because this will pass. I know that sounds cliché, but it will pass. We’ll look back at it and say, “I survived”. It will be scary for a period of time but hold on and just keep going for god’s sake and dont give up thinking it’s too hard, it’s not too hard, it’s not brain surgery what we do and we will come out the other side.
This goes for everybody; actors, management, technicians, everybody. . .
Whilst nobody truly knows what the future has in store for our industry quite yet, it is going to take strategic planning and small calculated steps to get theatre back on its feet. Careful consideration needs to be given to exactly how productions will mobilise and attract not only existing audiences but new audiences into the theatre. A topic which Mr Frost said he was very keen to explore.
The time will come when we can go back to the theatre but for now, we just need to stay at home and look out for each other.
With a plethora of awards and accolades under his belt, including the prestigious J.C. Williamson Award for his outstanding contribution to the Australian live entertainment and performing arts industry and recognition by the Order of Australia in the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours, we can take confidence that Mr Frost will be taking whatever steps are necessary to emerge positively on the other side.