'A light at the end of the tunnel': Australian theatres launch 2021 seasons as the rest of the world stays dark

“Australia has become a test case for the rest of the performing arts world,” the Washington Post proclaimed last month, as theatres across the country prepared to move to full capacity, while throughout most of Europe and the US they remain dark.

So yeah, no pressure there, says Sydney Theatre Company’s artistic director Kip Williams, two days out from launching the company’s complete 2021 season – the largest season the STC has seen since 2017.

“It’s actually quite exciting to have the rest of the world’s eyes on us,” Williams told Guardian Australia. “And to be leading the way in that regard. I’ve got many friends in various cities around the world who work in theatre, they’re having such a difficult time – we’re certainly a light at the end of the tunnel for them.”

Maybe some shows will open in London’s West End in the northern spring, the New York Times surmised last month; on Broadway, autumn seems more likely.

“Australia, normally a secondary market for big-brand shows developed in New York and London, has become an unexpected pandemic pioneer, a model and a test case for the global theatre industry,” the Times wrote.

“Now producers on Broadway and the West End are watching the Australian rebound with envy, hope and a desire to learn what works as a kneecapped art form tries to get back on its feet.”

Back in Australia, when the multi Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton opens at the Lyric Theatre later this week, it will make Sydney the only city in the world with a live production of the show that has become the Phantom of the Opera of its times.

“I feel like Dorothy going to Oz,” Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller told the Times. “Finally the whole world is in full colour again.”

The STC lost almost $18m in revenue during the six months that Australian theatres were forced into lockdown due to Covid-19. The STC’s Victorian counterpart, the Melbourne Theatre Company, estimates it lost $12.5m as it endured multiple closures throughout 2020.

Towards the end of 2020, both theatre companies remained leery about revealing their proposed 2021 seasons in full; the return-to-normal horizon still looked blurry, and those venues which had reopened were playing to 50% to 75% capacity under state health department guidelines.

Last Tuesday MTC announced the second half of its 2021 season, which will include three new works: Cyrano, Virginia Gay’s musical take based on Cyrano de Bergerac; Sunday, a play by Anthony Weigh based on the life of Heide Museum of Modern Art founder Sunday Reed, and a comedy called Jacky by first-time playwright Declan Furber Gillick.

On Sunday the STC added a further 11 productions to the six already announced, including an encore of a 2020 work that despite two season extensions was still unable to meet extraordinary audience demand.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Williams’ one-woman hi-tech show that earned Eryn Jean Norvill standing ovations late least year, will return to the Roslyn Packer Theatre in July.

Another show presently earning standing ovations in Brisbane – Triple X – will arrive in Sydney in early July. Billed as the first trans romcom to hit mainstage Australia – and possibly the world – the Queensland Theatre/STC joint production features New York trans performer Glace Chase, who developed the show in collaboration with the STC’s associate director Paige Rattray.

Triple X enjoyed just two previews in March last year in the Bille Brown Theatre before the pandemic turned the sunshine state’s theatres dark.

Chase remained in Australia, and said on YouTube in May last year that her show would include “the best sex scene ever seen in live theatre”.

In preliminary publicity material issued by the STC this week, Triple X’s “intimacy director” Nigel Poulton gets special mention.

In a post #MeToo environment, the presence of intimacy coordinators, choreographers and directors in the live performing arts and film industries has become de rigueur, says Williams.

“It’s become so necessary to engage them, as we move forward and create much safer practices for how we realise intimate content on our stages and on our screens,” he said.

“Working with a trained intimacy director ensures that the process is safe for all participants, and that we get the best story being told on stage, as well as a consistent story.”

Towards the end of the year Sydney will see another world premiere, The Dismissal: An Extremely Serious Musical Comedy.

The reinterpretation of those fateful events of the 11th of the 11th, 1975 on the steps of Canberra’s parliament house will be steered by Matthew Whittet, channelling Garry McDonald’s inimitable 1970s creation Norman Gunston.

The production has the full blessing of McDonald, says Williams, who travelled from his sanctuary in the Shoalhaven to sit in on several readings at the STC’s Wharf premises recently.

Other highlights of the 2021 STC season include a production of the Arthur Miller classic Death of a Salesman featuring Wayne Blair – likely the first time a First Nations actor will bring the Willy Loman character to life on an Australian mainstage – and the return of an almost equally enduring homegrown classic, The 7 Stages of Grieving.

First devised by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman more than quarter of a century ago, the production scheduled to open in May has been updated and will feature new scenes reflecting contemporary Indigenous experience.

“It’s become such an iconic Australian work, one of the great works in the Australian canon,” says Williams.

“[When it was first performed] it gave an extraordinary snapshot of the seven stages of Aboriginal history [dreaming, invasion, genocide, protection, assimilation, self-determination and reconciliation] but what’s happened in the last quarter of a century? It will show what has changed but also what has not. And the path ahead.”

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