SYDNEY — While Rupert Murdoch was presiding over News Corp.’s annual general meeting in Adelaide, Australia, in late October, Murdoch’s nephew Michael Kantor was enjoying his own public debut as artistic director of the Malthouse Theater Co.
Stalwarts of Melbourne’s theater scene know Kantor as a director with decidedly fringe roots but increasingly mainstream aspirations.
In his acting days, he was the only male in an otherwise female “Hamlet” in 1989, playing Polonius with Cate Blanchett as Claudius.
At the well-attended Oct. 25 season launch, the 35-year-old Kantor announced the erstwhile Playbox Theater Company will be called the Malthouse, after its famous home in a disused beer factory.
Also, rather than announce a 12-month season, as Aussie subscription companies traditionally do, Kantor has broken the year into three thematically linked seasons, in line with the international trend.
And, in a significant departure from the past, the company’s third artistic director in 28 years announced the Malthouse would cease to commit the majority of its resources to staging new Australian plays.
Kantor is ushering in rapid change on the advice of two old hands. Sydney Theater Company artistic director Robyn Nevin and Company B’s Neil Armfield advised him to make changes while he was fresh in the role. “You won’t be able to do it in two years,” they warned.
“Theater companies need a spark to reignite,” Kantor observes.
He also is chasing a bigger and younger audience; plans to redecorate the theater, which hasn’t been touched since 1990; and is moving from the script-driven theater to a collaborative model.
Kantor says the Malthouse’s A$1.2 million ($900,000) in state and federal government funding is unlikely to grow and the company must build its financial base from box office and sponsorship.
Sponsorship currently amounts to $225,000 a year; B.O. ranges from $525,000 to $750,000.
“Box office is the real room for growth, and the high risk factor of new Australian plays (usually equates) to very small box office,” Kantor says.
“By freeing the program and doing different works, from overseas, using known Australian actors, there is potential for greater recognition” from audiences.
The first programming block, themed “Chaos,” in May will feature Wesley Enoch’s adaptation “Black Medea,” which has its first outing with Sydney’s Company B in April. Guy Rundle’s political satire “The Big Con” with Max Gilles also arrives at the Malthouse from Sydney (it’s at the Opera House from Nov. 19).
Kantor will direct one ensemble alternating between Patrick White’s classic “The Ham Funeral” and Tom Wrights’ “Journal of the Plague Year,” beginning April 11.
In another change, Kantor canned the company’s script assessment service, an valued free service for Melbourne’s playwrights that was costly for the company.
Playwrights contacted by Variety feel some sadness at the company’s new direction, but accept its inevitability after such a long and unwavering commitment to new works.
That commitment was renewed by former artistic director Aubrey Mellor just two years ago in celebration of the company’s silver anniversary.
In 2002 the company staged 15 plays, nearly all of them original. Writers were heartened by the opportunity to present their plays to an audience, but the heavy load strained resources, and creatively few of the plays sparked.
Audiences were unimpressed, but general manager Jill Smith cautions numbers through the door remained “steady within a band.”