New plays in spotlight down under

'Dirty Dancing,' 'Mr. Bailey,' 'Sapphires' successful in 2004

SYDNEY — New Oz legit works enjoyed the best and worst of times in 2004. Some tanked spectacularly, like the $3.9 million tuner “Eureka,” which mined only six weeks at Her Majesty’s Theater in Melbourne.

There were some financial triumphs, the standout being Jacobsen Entertainment’s hit “Dirty Dancing.” And there were a bunch of smaller, creatively successful new works like Debra Oswald’s play “Mr. Bailey’s Minder” and Melbourne Theater Company’s musical “The Sapphires.”

2004 saw Melbourne’s second biggest theater company, the Malthouse, abandon its 28-year tradition of staging only new Australian plays in favor of a season that included more recognizable titles from abroad.

That decision by new artistic director Michael Kantor saddened some scribes, but Kantor said it was made to secure the company’s future.

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New Oz works are expensive, the company needs to grow box office and competition for auds is tough, he told Variety.

“By freeing the program and doing different works, from overseas, using known Australian actors, there is potential for greater recognition (from audiences),” Kantor said.

But just weeks after Kantor made that announcement, a very different picture emerged in Sydney.

At the rowdy season launch for Griffin Theater Company’s 2005 season, artistic director David Berthold reaffirmed his company’s commitment to staging Oz works and announced that ’04 had been one of the company’s best ever.

Berthold jumped atop a heavy wooden table to regale the audience gathered in the foyer of the tiny Stables Theater, home of the third-tier company (Sydney Theater Company and Company B are the dominant orgs).

2004, his first year at the helm, had been a landmark year for the 25-year-old company. It had notched more performances than in any previous year, it had secured its most substantial corporate sponsorship and world preems of “Mr. Bailey’s Minder” and Louis Nowra’s “The Woman With Dog’s Eyes” had been the most successful shows in the company’s history.

In 2005 Berthold intends to stage five new plays. Two of them, Stephen Sewell’s “Three Furies” (about the life of Francis Bacon) and Nowra’s “The Marvellous Boy,” are followups to the veteran scribes’ works staged by Griffin in ’04.

Berthold said he was charged by the desire to “take more creative risks and do more shows.”

Two other plays in the season are by scribes from the company’s Emerging Playwrights Residency: Tommy Murphy’s “Strangers in Between” is about a runaway from the bush in sleazy King’s Cross, while Caleb Lewis’ “Nailed” is about aboriginal teenage runaways. Verity Laughton’s “The Lightkeeper” rounds out the 2005 season.

New works obviously are thriving at Griffin, supported by new management determined to tread gently and keep overheads low. The imaginatively staged productions in its intimate (120 seats) diamond-shaped house are indicative of this.

The Malthouse is, in contrast, a much bigger affair. There are two large theaters — soon to be three — with all the trappings and overheads that requires. That company, like MTC, STC and Company B, will dedicate a third to a quarter of its season to new Oz works.