Theatre Spotlight: Belvoir Theatre Brings New Voices to the Stage
Welcome to TodayTix Theatre Spotlight, where shine a light on the amazing theatre companies around the world who are creating and producing works. We chat with founders and artistic directors of some of our amazing theatre partners to give you an inside look at how they do what they do.
This week, we’re featuring our colleagues at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre, a company that specializes in producing new pieces that speak to the diversity of the community. We spoke with them about some of the highlights and challenges from the company’s history and what you can do to support the arts industry right now.
When was your company founded and what is the origin story?
Belvoir is a theatre company on a side street in Surry Hills, Sydney. We share our street with a park and a public housing estate, and our theatre is in an old industrial building. It has been, at various times, a garage, a sauce factory, and the Nimrod Theatre. When the theatre was threatened with redevelopment in 1984, over 600 likeminded theatre-lovers formed a syndicate to buy the building to save it from becoming an apartment block. Since then, Belvoir St Theatre has been at the forefront of Australian storytelling for the stage and has become one of Australia’s most distinguished and beloved theatre companies.
What is the mission of your theatre?
Belvoir is a traditional home for the great old crafts of acting and storytelling in Australian theatre. It is a platform for voices that won’t otherwise be heard, and it is a gathering of outspoken ideals. Belvoir is about theatricality, a variety of life, and faith in humanity. Each year, we present an annual season of shows for this now-iconic corner stage. Our programming includes new work and new stories presented alongside a mix of classics and international writing, works about diversity and a lasting commitment to First Nations stories.
What have been some highlights of the theatrical productions you produced? What about these shows really stands out?
“Counting and Cracking” was the most grand, large-scale show we ever created. Written by S. Shakthidharan and Eamon Flack (our artistic director), “Counting and Cracking” was presented at Sydney Town Hall during Sydney Festival and featured a cast of 16 from six countries, speaking five languages and performing 50 characters. It was awarded seven Helpmann Awards, the Victorian Prizes for Literature and Drama (2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards), the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting (2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards), and three Sydney Theatre Awards.
Eamon Flack says: “’Counting and Cracking’ could have brought the whole thing crashing down. It was the biggest show we had ever done, and no one had ever done anything quite like it. The first day of technical rehearsals was terrifying. We did our first preview without having done a full run of the show. It wobbled and surged and wobbled some more. At the end, the audience stood at once to applaud, and they did every night after. The lessons of that show now form the basis for the company’s ambitions for the future: new kinds of stories told in new ways, driven by the possibility that a story told right can open up more room inside our culture and society, and allow more people to find their place.”
“The Drovers Wife” by Leah Purcell is a post-colonial, feminist, semi-biographical re-telling of Henry Lawson’s short story. Leah Purcell re-centres the story, placing the Indigenous man as the hero, and turns an unflinching lens on the brutality of the time. This new version of “The Drover’s Wife” spurred a book deal and a film, now in post-production. The production won four Helpmann Award, APDG Award, AWGIE Award, four Sydney Theatre Awards, 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Award (Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting) and Book of the Year, and the Victorian Prize for Literature.
Eamon Flack says” “Leah Purcell is a powerhouse actor, this we’ve known for some time. Her new version of ‘The Drover’s Wife’ announced her as a powerhouse writer. ‘Drover’s’ was perhaps the truest achievement of our season – a brutal and tender portrait of colonial Australia, and a Black woman’s unsparing retelling of our history. It was directed by Leticia Cáceres – one of the few directors in the country who could really ride that bull. Leah went brilliantly, even alarmingly to her outer limits in the title role. The performances were all terrific, but Mark Coles Smith’s quiet, subversive performance as Yadaka was a standout. I hope that was the beginning of a great stage career. This show was one of those special ones.”
What is one of the early hurdles you encountered as a theatre company, and how were you able to overcome it?
For many years, Belvoir lived on the smell of an oily rag, dependent totally on box office income and people’s goodwill, including the fact that all staff earned the same (low) salary regardless of which position they hold. It was known as “parity pay.” Over time Belvoir gradually secured some government funding and started to attract sponsors and a few donors. However because the staff were paid such low wages there was considerable turnover, with other better funded companies pinching staff once we’d trained them up. Eventually it was decided to move away from parity and pay staff more in line with industry standards. This led to a more consistent and cohesive workforce, retaining key artistic, technical and production skills, and less pinching by others!
What is one of your favourite moments (either onstage or off) from your theatre’s history?
Last year during a schools’ performance of our hit musical “Fangirls,” the whole audience spontaneously lit up their phones (usually not allowed during a theatre performance), held them up high and swayed and sang in unison with the pop star in the show. It was like being at a huge, exciting concert but was happening in little ole Belvoir. It was magical.
What do you hope audiences gain from the work you produce?
Enjoyment, a sense of community, new ideas, questions about society, provocations, creativity, a desire to come back and see more of our shows or even the same show again (and bringing their friends along).
We understand that COVID-19 has severely impacted the arts community. How has this time allowed you to pivot creatively, and how can people support your theatre at this time?
Belvoir has had to do some very serious recalibrations of our business model and also reflect on how best to make theatre in the face of a pandemic and what the new “normal” will be.
Artists and audiences are at the core of Belvoir. What is a theatre company without them? While the Federal Government’s JobKeeper scheme has assisted us in retaining many of our regular production, administration, ticketing ,and other staff, unfortunately the 150-odd writers, actors, directors ,and designers we employ each year are slipping through the cracks. So Belvoir is changing tack. We’re gathering ensembles of artists to develop work for the future, through the help of donations.
Our theatre may be dark, but we can keep working behind the scenes to turn life, crisis, change into ideas, scenes, scripts, plays. This work can be slow and unspectacular but the results can be magic – “Counting and Cracking,” “Barbara and the Camp Dogs,” “Fangirls,” “The Wild Duck,” “Cloudstreet” – our goal is to be ready at the other end of this pandemic with more shows like these.
Now is the time for new ideas, new stories, new ways of working. Time to change some things, to fix some things. With your help, we can employ more artists and create great work. And if you can support our appeal – Artists at Work – before midnight 30 June and your donation will be matched dollar for dollar. So you can feel doubly proud about how you’ve helped both Belvoir and others who love theatre and want to hear great stories.
Is there anything else we should know about your theatre?
We have a fabulous, atmospheric bar where you can come and get a drink and snack, even if you don’t want to see the show. If you come early, you’ll probably bump into people you know, or famous people you think you know! If you come late you may get to hang out with the cast after they’ve finished their show. It’s a real Surry Hills secret!