Musical theatre after the pandemic: imagining its future – ArtsHub

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When the pandemic closed theatres around the world, it created many significant challenges for artists and arts workers. Some people began to reconsider the sustainability of their current practice; others took advantage of ‘the great pause’ to think about the future of the sector, and what a fairer and more equitable arts industry might look like.

Here, five women directors and music directors discuss their experiences of the pandemic upon their careers, from closures to digital pivots and their thoughts about the industry’s future.

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WHAT WERE YOU DOING WHEN THEATRES WERE SHUT DOWN IN MARCH 2020?

Carmel Dean, Musical Director, Fun Home

I was in NYC in the middle of the casting process for the upcoming Broadway musical, The Notebook. We were having callbacks the week everything shut down. The beginning of that week we were all on edge, knowing that COVID could potentially be an issue, but we were progressing with caution (loads of hand sanitizer and elbow bumping rather than hugs and handshakes). 

Jacinta John, Associate Director, Moulin Rouge

I was at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne as Resident Director on Billy Elliot the Musical. While it was the very beginning of what would be an uncertain time for many, the energy around the enormity of what was about to possibly happen was palpable. I vividly remember our last weekend at work: theatres on Broadway had closed that Friday; we carried on for four more shows over Saturday and Sunday, waiting for government announcements to determine whether they would be our last. The children’s cast faced this prospect with incredible poise, and by Sunday night, the theatre was (and still is, at the time of writing) dark.  

Laura Tipoki, Musical Director, Hamilton

I had my bags packed ready to drive to Adelaide to musically direct School of Rock. It was to be our final Australian Season after two years of touring Melbourne, Sydney and China. There were other Asian cities in the works as well, but cancelling Adelaide meant picking up on those was not possible. Mainly I was sad to not be able to farewell the kids who had been the true stars of that show and acknowledge in person all the hard work and efforts they had put in that made School of Rock so special to us all. 

Paige Rattray, Associate Director, STC; director, Fangirls and Triple X

I had just completed my second preview of Triple X by Glace Chase up in Brisbane. The play was starting to find its feet – it was a new work that Glace and I had been working on for three years, and there’s a lot of her own lived experience within the play. It sucked that was the one that Covid shut down, but there were so many people in the same boat all over the world.

Saying that, we’ve just opened it almost a year later to the date in Brisbane and we’re bringing it back here (to the STC) in July. So, we’re absolutely thrilled, but at the time it was devastating.

It was interesting coming back to it because there is, I feel, a world-weariness post-COVID that infiltrated itself into the play – because New York is just not the same: the drag and cabaret world has been decimated, so coming back to it and trying to find that dark, sexy danger that was her a large part of her working world and make that feel fresh and alive in the play, not a thing of the past, was a challenge. We got there though!

Sonya Suares, independent Director/Producer; co-founder of Watch This productions

We at Watch This were about to mount a gallery exhibition in celebration of Sondheim’s 90th birthday. All our costume designers for our previous eight productions were women, and they’ve all spun gold from straw in an independent context, so we wanted to invite audiences ‘behind the scenes’ and celebrate their work. We’d compiled interviews and curated samples of the costumes and production photography etc for Darebin Arts Centre’s Fuse Festival – and with six days to go, on Monday 16 March we had to cancel. But since we had all this material, we repurposed it to make an online series: The Art of Making Art.

The first episode was seven minutes long and we stitched it together in a matter six days, no small thanks to my documentary filmmaker husband. As it unfolded, we realised that within the scope of a whole series, we could expand our focus beyond costume design. So we had our set and lighting designers do what actors do all the time and film ‘self-tapes’ of interviews… and it became a kind of a love letter to the independent sector. It was bigger than ‘this is what these individual costume designers have done’; it was bigger than Watch This. It said: this is what it takes to put on a work of scale – and here’s the added complexity of accomplishing that in a sector without money – at a time when all theatres were dark. It also said when we re-start, this is what we can do together. I was very proud of that.

The original Australian musical Fangirls. Photo credit: Brett Boardman.


DID YOU, GIVEN THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF 2020, CONSIDER A CAREER CHANGE?

Carmel Dean

I thought about it... but not for long. I tried to do an online course in coding – and decided I should stick with what I knew! But then I took a couple of online courses in pop song production using Logic (music software)so I did manage to expand my career ‘tool kit’! I also started making earrings and launched an Etsy shop – but it’s not going to mean a career change to jeweller!

Jacinta John

I definitely thought about a career pivot in 2020. I have worked in the arts (as a performer and director) my whole adult life, so I am accustomed to uncertainty. However, the feeling of irrelevance associated with the narrative around the value of the arts industry at that time was a new experience. Added to that the political revisioning regarding further arts-related study, and suddenly I was wondering whether it was wise to continue with my Theatre MA or reconsider that too. But though during lockdown I read a fascinating article about some West End creatives who have adapted through necessity to undertake new careers, I never did come up with an alternative. And, very fortunately, as yet, haven’t had to.    

Laura Tipoki

Absolutely! Though I think it is pretty common to often consider other kinds of work when you work in the arts. Every other week I feel like I wonder if getting a muggle job would be more sensible, stable, less exhausting and give me more time for family/balance. But inevitably I always realise that the opportunity I have in front of me right now to be a Musical Director is where I am supposed to be. I am very humbled by this kind of work and I love the challenges and thrills it brings. I believe theatre or storytelling will always exist. It may have to adapt and change its form as we know it, but we will always find ways to connect through storytelling and music. It’s part of what makes us human!

Paige Rattray

100%, because our audience didn’t exist anymore and we’re nothing without our audience. But I was lucky still to be working because I have a permanent position within a company. Though we had reduced wages, a number of us continued to work full-time – or more – to put together as many programs as possible to support artists, which is where Sydney Theatre Company Virtual came from. That culminated in us partnering with NITV/SBS and producing a program called The Whole Table, which was a really fabulous outcome - and we hope to continue that relationship and our online platforms. We found we reached so many people we haven’t before because of accessibility issues: that was a really positive thing that came out that time.

Sonya Suares

I didn’t have time to think about that, to be honest, because I was across so many different projects, in so many different stages. Immediately, I felt a real sense of responsibility to my peers, like my role in that moment was to put out as many tendrils as I could so nobody slid off the edge – at least, as far as I could help it. The amount of grants I put in last year was off the charts: there were 26 application that I was either leading or collaborating on try to sustain work across different axes.

That said, there was definitely time to get existential about the sector at large, because what the public health crisis did was rip the façade off our structures and institutions. It also arrested the relentless cycles of activity and gave us a still point – a precarious and frightening still point – to consider what we were doing and what action change we wanted. And, of course, into the middle of that came the rise of the current iteration of Black Lives Matter – current, because obviously black lives have always mattered and there’s always been movements calling for racial equality/justice. However, with a spotlight on this issue on the global stage, it became impossible to ignore in our domestic context – and impossible for us as an industry to deny our own structures of exclusion.

Given my many years of cultural advocacy, I was asked to take part in several conversations/ wrote articles, etc on this topic last year. So there was no time to consider whether I had no future in this industry – I was too busy doing what I usually do but at what felt like double the pace. I do know people who did consider leaving and their names would surprise you: they surprised and saddened me, because I think they’re extraordinary storytellers.

The Australian company of Hamilton. Photo credit: Daniel Boud.

AS THEATRE BEGINS TO COME BACK, DO YOU THINK IT’LL BE THE SAME AND IF NOT, HOW WILL IT CHANGE?

Carmel Dean

I think (and hope) that there will be a newfound appreciation for the theatre and the arts. Without any (or very little) live arts for a year now, I believe that people will have their first experience back and be filled with such joy and appreciation for live storytelling and shared experiences in a theatre that it will only bolster the art form. Of course we still need so much help/funding to get back on track... but I think a year of reflection (and necessary discussion of social issues like BLM, diversity/inclusion) will mean there is more room for different voices to tell their stories. Plus, the entire planet just had a shared, once-in-a-lifetime experience... so on a certain level we are more connected than we’ve ever been. And I think that will fuel audiences and performers and creators alike.

Jacinta John

Theatre is coming back. Australia is proving to be very fortunately placed in this respect. Several musicals are currently in theatres and rehearsals (including FrozenCome From Away and Hamilton) and the Australian musical Fan Girls has been playing to sell-out audiences. I am fortunate enough to be the Australia Associate Director on Moulin Rouge! the Musical, which will open in Melbourne later this year at The Regent (which will be a brilliant full-circle moment for me, having been COVID-closed there last year). We recently concluded a fantastic audition process for Moulin Rouge, despite two necessary COVID-related shake ups. We were always a flexible bunch in the arts business, and will continue to be so, in spite of the challenges thrown our way.  

I have been most grateful for having digital access to theatre experiences when going to live shows hasn’t been possible. While I imagine this will be a part of the theatre-going experience of the future and is an incredible asset for bringing theatre to people who may not otherwise be able to attend physically, I don’t think it will (nor ever should) replace live theatre entirely. And right now, perhaps we should be thinking further about how we can ‘bring’ theatre to those currently unable to attend in some parts of the northern hemisphere.  

Laura Tipoki

Currently we are feeling extremely lucky to be performing to 100% capacity audiences at Hamilton. We have protocols in place like weekly COVID tests, wearing masks everywhere when we’re not performing, and pretty rigorous signing in and out for contact tracing. But you do get used to it, and life seems to flow fairly normally. I know that life in the times of COVID is unpredictable and that we must be prepared for the ‘what ifs’. But also, we must keep making art in whatever ways we can. 

Paige Rattray

Whenever you have an event as extreme as what we have now, everything can’t help but change. And theatre should be at the forefront of change, radical thinking and new ideas. It’s the best thing about working in theatre, always learning something new. I’m so interested to see where we’re headed now but I have no idea where that might be, not yet.

I’ve have had this odd feeling lately where I feel quite conservative – I’ve always been way left in my politics and thinking, but there’s been so much uncertainty in the world you can’t rely on anyone telling the truth any more in media or politics. It's complete chaos, so a lot of the conversations I’ve had with artists recently is about pinning down truths and certainties. I love that our job is being re-examined: what is it?

Sonya Suares

Well, I’m not in charge of that! But many, many people I know are not interested in theatre resuming ‘as was’. We don’t want to go ‘back to before’. I’ve learned over the past few years that when I’m grieving, I become very clear-eyed – and there was a grieving process in 2020, which for me just clarified the kind of work I want to be doing, and that I have no time to stuff around with anything else. I don’t think anyone in Melbourne, having been chained to their own kitchen sink for 116 days, is going to want to leave their homes to see a kitchen sink drama. Theatre is going to need to be epic and ritual in its dimensions, because the dimensions of what we experienced together are epic, and what we hung onto during that time was ritual. I feel very strongly that 2020 has changed us: we have understood both our precarity and our responsibility within the ecology and have had time to address how we want to navigate that in the future.

Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George, Watch This, 2019. Photo credit: Jodie Hutchinson.

WHAT SHOW WOULD YOU LOVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO DIRECT OR MD OR CHOREOGRAPH, AT SOME POINT IN YOUR FUTURE?

Carmel Dean

Ooh. I’ve haven’t music directed a Sondheim show in over 20 years. His scores are the pinnacle of musical theatre for me.

Jacinta John

I would love to be able to direct a production of a musical in development – a multi-media based, Guillermo del Toro-esque, bio of the life of one particularly incredible woman. It is to be a visual feast, most suited to our newer digital-theatrical-way-of-life.  

Laura Tipoki

My current job on Hamilton is honestly a dream! I am in awe of the work and its construction and the symbiotic relationship between all departments that makes this story so wonderful. Not only is the piece itself wonderfully inspiring, but the creators, the creatives, the producers and the full company are very excellent, forward thinking, passionate and nurturing people who make going to work very nourishing and brilliant. I am very grateful!

Paige Rattray

I don’t have necessarily have a wish-list of musicals or plays and I think that’s because I mostly work in new work – and the most exciting stories are always new stories, for me, because they are speaking to a moment. I’m always excited to find the next writer I’m going to collaborate with, or the next story writers I work with regularly want to tell. I would however love to adapt for stage Bob Fosse’s film All That Jazz. The imaginative world of that film blows my mind. It’s probably impossible to get the rights to it but it’d be pretty wild!

Sonya Suares

I’m actually living the dream of what I want to bring to the stage right now. I just did a week at the Hayes Theatre on Vidya Makan’s new work, The Lucky Country, which is a cracker of a show and one I‘d been working on solidly with Vidya as a collaborator and dramaturg during lockdown. Shorter term, I’m incredibly excited to finally get to direct Into The Woods ahead of our October season, once again with Dean Drieberg.

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