Stars top high-profile shows as next gen talent nutured

The Australian stage looks quite healthy lately, hosting a bevy of stars in high-profile productions, seeing its subscriptions rise and launching innovations to ensure that there’s a new generation of talent in place for the future.

High-profile names hitting the boards include Geoffrey Rush, who returns in two productions (Melbourne Theatre Co.’s “The Drowsy Chaperone” and Belvoir Street production of “Diary of a Madman”), while Cate Blanchett teams with Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh in Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” for the Sydney Theater Co. William Hurt also makes the trip to Oz for STC’s version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

STC is having a boffo year with subscriptions up 3,000 to 20,000 and several shows, including the star-studded “Vanya,” extending their runs on the strength of sales.

But the legit community isn’t just relying on established names. The STC has launched the Residents, a troupe of nine young actors who were introduced late last year by artistic directors Blanchett and Andrew Upton.

The group replaces the Actors’ Company, a similar troupe set up under the previous STC topper Robyn Nevin, the departure of which has had many in the industry lamenting its demise. But STC associate director Tom Wright says any perception that the previous model failed is wrong.

In terms of its impact on the Australian performing arts scene and even the international performing arts scene it was one of the things that drew Cate Blanchett to the company,” Wright says. “It raised the bar for the company in so many ways.”

The biggest change is that while the Actors’ Company — with established thesps like Deborah Mailman and Colin Moody — produced four main stage productions a year, the Residents model has its focus firmly on developing ideas and on the growth of the actors themselves. They will only do two main stage shows, perform for schools, take part in educational programs, act new scripts and develop work. And it is already starting to bear fruit.

We’ve increased the level of new play writing in development by 300% since the Residents started because I can put three actors aside for three weeks with a playwright,” Wright says. “If you offer writers or directors resources such as inhouse actors, it is a hothouse environment for new work.”

The troupe was whittled down to 40 from open casting sessions, with Upton and Blanchett having the final say in those chosen. A proposed troupe of eight became nine, however, when it became too hard to pick between the final candidates. Experience varied but Wright says they tended to have youth in common.

They ranged between Cameron Goodall, who is a senior actor who has played ‘Hamlet’ and won multiple awards, through to Ursula Mills, who had never been on the professional stage,” says Wright. Sophie Ross, Alice Ansara, Julia Ohannessian, Zindzi Okenyo, Richard Pyros, Tahki Saul and Brett Stiller complete the troupe.

The Residents started off with a production of Dario Fo’s “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” last September for schools before the first main stage work, the challenging “The Mysteries: Genesis.” They are soon to be seen in Aeschylus’ “Oresteia” in June.

Over at the Melbourne Theater Co., a.d. Simon Phillips has also seen a positive year with record subscribers (20,000), and strong single ticket sales for “Chaperone.” But the company has also finally been granted its own home in the new 500-seat Sumner Theater in Melbourne.

Its effect is a great psychological boost having a home of our own that is identified as solely ours,” says Phillips. “The 500-seat capacity takes the pressure off trying to fill the 850-seat (Playhouse) theater three times a year.”

In addition to this space, the MTC has the Lawler Studio, a 150-seat venue designated for “edgier” works and development, though for practical financial reasons the theater will also be leased out.

This month the Lawler will present “The Ugly One” by Marius Von Mayenburg and Matt Cameron’s “Ruby Moon” to students.

A good year for sure, but Phillips know the legit scene is not completely immune to the general financial malaise.

In 2010, we have found that our first three shows have sold very well on both subscription and single tickets sales and we are feeling positive, but the rest of the year is to come so let’s see how things fluctuate,” he says.

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