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Blanchett and Upton grab the reins

Duo take over Sydney Theater Co.

SYDNEY — When Cate Blanchett and her husband, playwright Andrew Upton, assume the helm of the Sydney Theater Company next year, they will inherit a vibrant stage entity with three production divisions, a 17-strong actors’ ensemble and a solid reputation.

They will also shoulder full financial and creative responsibility for Australia’s largest subsidized legit troupe as it heads toward what seems likely to be its third successive annual deficit.

STC is not about to crumble; it has reasonable reserves, and a 2008 funding boost in the May federal budget will help ease the path for directors of future productions.

But the company’s struggles are symptomatic of what’s been a treacherous stretch for major legit orgs Down Under.

STC reported an A$348,000 ($286,000) deficit for ’06; its leading counterparts in other states, Melbourne Theater Company and Brisbane-based Queensland Theater Company, reported mild surpluses, but all three complain loudly of being forced to rein in their artistic ambitions.

Interest in quality theater in Australia is not waning, and audience numbers are either stable or growing. But the funding model underpinning it all is being subjected to immense strain from rising costs.

“Box office comprises a much higher percentage of our income than (equivalent companies) in either the U.S. or Britain,” explains STC general manager Rob Brookman. “Corporate sponsorship also comprises a high percentage of our income, and yet we would receive nothing like the philanthropic support in the U.S. or government support of Britain.”

MTC a.d. Simon Phillips laments the lack of “a big splashy classic” in the 2006 season, which he programmed mostly with contempo works.

Phillips says without additional funding, major companies will continue to favor modestly scaled new plays over the larger, often more thematically ambitious ensemble works of the past.

At QTC, general manager Libby Anstis says, “The shrinking happens a lot by stealth, and it’s difficult for even the most passionate theater lovers to observe those changes.” In 15 years, QTC’s average cast size has dropped from 12 to five.

“All state theater companies are in the same trajectory,” echoes MTC general manager Ann Tonks, pointing to the inevitable and ongoing downsizing of both physical productions and artistic adventurousness.

But help is already at hand. Last month, the government allocated each company an additional $500,000 on average, starting next year. Meanwhile, strategies for boosting B.O. and philanthropy are well under way.

“It means the belt we have been tightening for the past few years can be eased back a couple notches,” Phillips says.

MTC has already allocated its extra funds toward producing additional classics and employing emerging designers, directors and writers, while at STC, Brookman is confident Blanchett’s profile will prompt a boost in philanthropic contributions.

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