It takes a little courage to use the phrase “Commercial Theatre.” In some circles it is a term of opprobrium, and there is a common perception, not just that we are handing truckloads of cash to foreigners, but that we are taking it out of the hands of starving artists we ought to support. We, Melbourne’s commercial theatres, compete with each other, but on a playing field that is pretty level. Using the principle of good-for-the-goose, good-for-the-gander, we understand that our resources are much better employed getting the general public into the habit of going out to the theatre than in trying to steal audiences from each other. In short, our interests are exactly parallel, and our competition is not for audience-share but for Producers’ signatures on rental contracts and for chunks of the calendar. The best demonstration of this took place in July 2014, when the casts and crews of four major musicals, playing successfully and simultaneously, assembled for a photo-op on the steps of Parliament. This demonstration of common interest served to announce and cement the alliance among the Marriner Group, Her Majesty’s and the Athenæum – now badged together as the East End Theatres.
Two things are remarkable about that photo-shoot – New York and London and, at a pinch, Toronto are the only other cities in the world where four major musicals can play simultaneously, and right now a year later, Melbourne’s East End could do it again. This is authentic cultural horsepower.
I suggest that an Arts Ministry’s policies should not exclude commercial theatre, but that is precisely what they do. No policy document published by a State or Commonwealth Ministry even acknowledges our existence. An unfortunate result is that it can actually be difficult for an Arts Minister to display any form of support for the commercial sector. The former Minister, Heidi Victoria, showed herself to be a good friend and ally to the East End Theatres and willingly (in Humphrey Appleby terms, “courageously”) participated in many profile-raising events but expressed regret at being unable, within the Napthine Government’s policy framework, to offer more substantial support. Martin Foley, Minister of the newly-badged Department of Creative Industries, appears to offer an opportunity to revitalise the sector by publicly calling for submissions. The East End Theatres’ contribution has one key theme: put us in the picture.
A state-funded theatre company uses its subsidy to exist. The Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) was created by the government’s willingness to save the Union Repertory Company from bankruptcy, a willingness stemming from the belief that its cultural contribution was worth paying for. All state and national theatre, opera and ballet companies owe their existence to the same impetus. The problem for the commercial presenters is that this sets up an unnatural dichotomy in public interest. I have heard MTC and STC subscribers declare that they would never buy a ticket to a commercial production, in the belief that this would somehow undermine their support for the Arts. I have heard a prominent ABC radio announcer make a similar statement on air, with predictably unpleasant results at the box-office.
John Frost, a prominent commercial producer, has lately established partnerships with Opera Australia to mount South Pacific, The King and I, Anything Goes and the recently announced Jekyll and Hyde; as well as with MTC to present Once. One reason for doing so is to gain access to those companies’ subscriber mailing-lists, as well as to their substantial production-based resources. Current indications are that these experimental partnerships are successful – certainly the outcome has been advantageous to the East End Theatres, as these shows have all booked at the Princess. Feedback from within the opera chorus includes such comments as, “How nice to be playing in a proper theatre.”
The value of commercial theatre’s contribution to Melbourne’s economy is well-attested. The four productions represented on the steps of Parliament (The King and I, Les Misérables, Rocky Horror Show and Wicked) were bringing about 50,000 patrons into the CBD every week. In addition to the obvious boost to the local economy (estimated at $230 million), we were giving direct employment to about seven hundred people. The value of our business to the city and state leads Tourism and Major Events to promote, in various ways, one major musical every year. One reason for this support is simply competition with Sydney – it is perceived as an advantage to host the première season of a major production. There is, conversely, anecdotal evidence indicating that success may be more likely when a show premières in Melbourne. Addams Family, Officer and a Gentleman and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels all opened in Sydney and closed there. Ironically, Melbourne’s theatres might benefit were another major theatre to open in Sydney, where there are only two houses considered big enough. It being entirely unthinkable to bankroll a major production without dates in both Melbourne and Sydney, the imbalance often results in one of Melbourne’s theatres being dark for months at a time. The fact that both Sydney’s theatres are under one management does nothing to alleviate this problem – influence on Melbourne’s calendar can be exerted in Sydney.
This brings me to what may appear to be the unlikeliest challenge of all: in a strange way, we are in competition with the productions that play in our venues. They attract publicity and Government support; in a good season, they make lots and lots of money, but even the most successful run comes to a close. If we don’t have following bookings, those seven hundred people are looking for work again – if we were canneries or car-makers it would be in the headlines.
The theatre-going public often forgets which theatre is which – we don’t have the same profile as the massively-promoted shows we host. The theatre-going public expects its night at the theatre to be perfect. It doesn’t want a rickety seat, or a queue for the toilets; it doesn’t understand that the venue doesn’t set the ticket-price, seat them behind an AFL ruckman or send on the understudy.
Some patrons don’t even know that we are privately-owned.
The average age of the East End Theatres is over 100, and they take a lot of maintenance. The problems with that are twofold – they are all heritage-listed, so the red tape required for even minor work is a burden, and most work can only be undertaken when we are dark. Myer and David Jones can put up some hoardings and trade in a building-site. We can’t. Hamer Hall can refurbish for a year while the taxpayer picks up the tab – we can’t. We had to beg and plead for Heritage Victoria’s permission to replace Her Majesty’s seats. They were seventy years old, uncomfortable, broken and un-repairable, and ultimately the only product we have to sell. Heritage suggested we store them all so we could put them back one day. Really.
All Melbourne’s Heritage Theatres need substantial work to keep abreast of the demands of modern theatre and the expectations of a modern audience, but we don’t have a Fairy Godmother. Doubtless there are other heritage buildings in private hands with the same needs, but few that have such prominence in Melbourne’s cultural landscape and none that add millions of dollars to the economy.
What we must ask for is not a government handout to help us present major musicals, but some support when we are between engagements. Can we ask for some promotion, some place-making; some shared pride that might make a Producer less likely to open a show in Sydney? Can we ask for a bit of investment, a bit of acknowledgement of our value to the cultural landscape? A bit of partnership, perhaps, and a bit of government policy that admits our existence.
Matthew Peckham is Manager of Production and Capital Works at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne.