Setting the stage for theatre’s dramatic revival | The Canberra Times


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Theater is nothing if not resilient. For centuries the theater has survived war, dictatorship, oppression and censorship. Though threatened by the predominant emergence and popular appeal of film and television, the theater thrived and proved beyond doubt that live theater occupied a special place in a society’s cultural experience. However, theater faced its greatest challenge during the pandemic when lockdowns forced venues to close and artists to survive as best they could by other means. Across the country and in the ACT, theaters shut their doors and stages lay bare. Major state theater companies offered credit vouchers or refunds, while hoping that patrons might donate their ticket costs back to the company. Many opted for vouchers in the hope that theater productions would return once the pandemic had been brought under control, chiefly through the national vaccination program. And so it is that theater has survived as borders open and society learns to live with COVID. Canberra Repertory Society’s 2022 launch revealed three productions that have been carried forward from the 2021 subscription series. Audiences will be able to enjoy Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento and Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Sydney Theater Company’s 2022 Season A includes two plays, Triple X and Grand Horizons, that have been transferred from last year’s season. Major musicals also have been revived after having to go into recession. The smash hit musical Come From Away about the rerouted passengers to Gander in Newfoundland on 9/11 will finally open at the Canberra Theater in February. Better late than never! I am only referring to the live theater productions that were thrust into devastating lockdown. Some companies, such as Lakespeare and the Street Theatre, live streamed productions such as Lakespeare’s Richard lll and the Street Theater’s Saint Nicholas with Craig Alexander. Both were valiant attempts to keep the productions alive and the artists in work. But they lacked the visceral impact of live theater and the rapport between performer and audience. The contrast was most apparent when Canberra enjoyed a long period of relief from the existence of COVID in the community and before the ACT was thrust into another long lockdown in August. Rep once again demonstrated its vital role as a producer of high-quality amateur productions such as Louis Nowra’s Cosi, directed by Sophie Benassi and Patrick Hamilton’s Rope, directed by Ed Wightman. Dylan van Den Berg’s award-winning Milk, a semi-autobiographical play about van den Berg’s indigenous heritage through various generations, received enormous acclaim when performed live at the Street Theatre. The theater proved yet again not only that it could survive “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” but that it is also a force that “holds the mirror up to Nature”. The return of the popular political satire The Wharf Revue delighted a partisan Canberra audience with its hilarious political caricature. It was not only theater companies whose mettle was tested. Neil Armfield and Rachel Healey’s 2021 Adelaide Festival suddenly discovered that border closures prevented international companies from coming to Australia. Some outstanding productions were live streamed from London and Moscow but artistic directors were compelled to include Australian companies in their programs. Some shows such as The Doctor, a harsh look at the politics of the health system and starring Juliet Stevenson, did make it from London’s Almeida Theatre, but the artists faced the necessary quarantine conditions. Robyn Nevin’s remarkable performance as Goebbel’s secretary Brunhilde Pomsel in A German Life that Canberra audiences saw earlier in the year had to be rehearsed in Sydney before being allowed to tour to the Adelaide Festival. The uncertainty that gripped a nation was no less evident in the theater industry. Similarly, internationally renowned Alan Cumming had to tailor the Adelaide Cabaret Festival to showcase Australian talent, which we have in abundance. Cabaret artists from around the country brought to Adelaide shows worthy of cabaret festivals from New York to London. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, Cabaret Festival artistic director Julia Zemiro was compelled to create an online collage of cabaret acts to simply keep the festival alive. Cumming was afforded the luxury of lifted restrictions in the 2021 festival. Annette Shun Wah’s first OzAsia Festival was also forced to present artist interviews online and this year’s return to a live festival again featured primarily productions featuring Asian artists such as Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl, which also became a casualty of the Canberra Theatre’s proposed 2021 season. In 2022 the Adelaide Festival, the Adelaide Fringe, the Writers’ Week and WOMAD will return with packed programs, sustained by Australian performers, writers and musicians in a bold and creative expression of resilience and survival. Similarly, theater in the Canberra region promises to thrive with the season launches of Canberra Repertory, the Q Theater in Queanbeyan and the newly formed ACT Hub of Mockingbird Theatre, Everyman Theatre, Free Rain Theater and Chaika Theatre. Audiences and artists can once more look forward with hope to theatre’s resilient resurgence .

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