The reactivated stage-three coronavirus restrictions placed on the city of Melbourne have dealt a hard blow to a performing arts industry entertaining hopes of a big comeback, with plans to reopen theatres crushed for up to an additional four months, further damaging the sector’s chances of recovery.
“It is devastating,” said Claire Spencer, chief executive of Arts Centre Melbourne, home to resident companies the Australian Ballet, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Theatre Company and Opera Australia.
“We completely understand that it needs to happen and that this is the right call from the perspective of community safety, but for us … it is devastating, personally. It’s not just having our venues closed. It’s also that we’re removed from our purpose. It’s about more than just money. This feels like we’re having to take a big step back.”
Arts Centre Melbourne had planned to reopen in late June with a cabaret-style show designed for audiences of just 50 assembled on the stage of the venue’s 880-seat playhouse.
“We were going to do two sittings each night and the shows sold out straight away,” Spencer said. “We knew there was an appetite among audiences to come back. But when restrictions weren’t relaxed, we had to cancel. This is our business now – planning with enough flexibility and contingency so that you can shift or delay if you have to. We’re having to delve deep into our reserves of resilience as well as our creativity.”
The suddenness of the shutdown is testing the resilience of arts businesses and artists to its limits, said Elizabeth Hill-Cooper, CEO of the Victorian Opera, which was in the late stages of producing a newly composed work for online audiences when the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, locked the city down once again.
“We had already engaged a raft of singers and designers and costumiers, we had pivoted the whole company to digital,” Hill-Cooper said. “Now we have to postpone all that because the filming was scheduled for smack in the middle of this next six weeks. We know we have to be agile and spin on a dime, but every day there’s a new message, something else we have to react to. It’s absolutely exhausting.”
Individual artists are also experiencing the same kind of whiplash. On Tuesday, prior to the announcement of the lockdown, Australian Ballet soloist Rina Nemoto posted on Instagram, saying she was excited to finally be heading back to the studio. Her elation proved shortlived.
Contacted for this story, David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet said: “We are now working through a revised return to work plan in light of the recent developments in Victoria. Our aim is to ensure that our dancers are able to continue to maintain their strength and technique while safeguarding their health and wellbeing.”
Nemoto and her colleagues must now return to their kitchens and living rooms.
Every day there’s a new message, something else we have to react to. It’s absolutely exhausting.Elizabeth Hill-Cooper, CEO, Victorian Opera
Also affected will be the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which was slated at the time of writing to open on 14 September. That seems unlikely now, given stage-three restrictions will stymie rehearsals until late August. MTC has yet to confirm any postponement of the production, though co-CEO Virginia Lovett acknowledged that the reimposition of social distancing regulations was “a setback”.
“We’re working through the impact of the lockdown on our plans for the rest of the year,” Lovett said. “This situation is ever changing and a serious challenge for MTC, our artists and the entire sector. It is uncharted territory.”
It is also a wake-up call to the other states, said Sam Strong, a former associate artistic director at MTC and now chair of Melbourne Fringe.
“It reminds everyone else of the risk they face,” said Strong, who was to direct the stage adaptation of Trent Dalton’s novel Boy Swallow Universe for Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival, opening next month. The production has been postponed to 2021.
“There was some light on the horizon with MTC planning to go back into rehearsals but now it’s like we’ve been set back four months, we’re at the start of the pandemic again.”
Now is the time for worst-case scenario planning and innovation, Strong said. “We can’t operate with full theatres or nothing. There has to be a change to the business models.”
Hill-Cooper agreed. “I think we are on the verge of a significant unravelling of the sector but we’re optimists by nature and I don’t think anyone is willing to let their heads go to that place just yet.”
Musical theatre productions, which rely on full houses to break even, will be heavily affected by the new shutdown: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie was scheduled for Arts Centre Melbourne in October. Opera Australia and Gordon Frost Organisation were planning to open The Secret Garden at Her Majesty’s, and Fiddler on the Roof at the Comedy Theatre, in November. All are cancelled or postponed. The shutdown is also bad news for the producers for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which was exploring the possibility of reopening in September.
And even when theatres and arts venues do reopen, there is the expectation that audience numbers will take months if not years to return to previous levels.
“There will be an audience drop off,” Strong said. “If you felt uncomfortable with someone coughing behind your seat six months ago, you’re going to be feeling very strongly about it now.”
Spencer agreed. “We surveyed our audience in partnership with several other organisations and we got over 3,000 responses back. What we heard was that our audience wants to come back – but only when they feel it’s safe to do so. We’ll run the survey again in July and August to see if that sentiment has changed.”
Spencer is pinning her hopes on the summer months and plans to mount shows in Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl. “We believe our audience will be more comfortable in an outdoor venue and we think there’s a lot of opportunity there. The community is going to need some joyous and uplifting experiences once we get on top of this outbreak.”