Viral viability: Is theatre sustainable at 75% capacity?

Victorian State Ballet. Photo by Sasha Kane.
Victorian State Ballet. Photo by Sasha Kane.

Walk into Theatreworks in St Kilda, and you can see what COVID has done. The foyer has been turned into a café, and the old seating bank has been replaced by 12 self-contained viewing booths. The new ‘TW Glasshouse’ looks less like viral devastation and more like a superbly creative solution — a cross between corporate box and theatre-in-the-round that factors in safety and honours idea of the live performance. 

“When we came back, we came back with a unique experience,” says Theatreworks’ GM, Di Toulson. “It wasn’t just, here’s a row of seats and every second one is empty; we reimagined the whole experience.”

Victorian State Ballet in 'The Little Mermaid'. Photo by En Pointe Productions.
Victorian State Ballet in
‘The Little Mermaid’.
Photo by En Pointe Productions.

Indeed, reimagining the whole experience is something that the Australian performing arts sector has had to do since last March. Closures, capacity limits, deep cleaning procedures and the continuing on/off uncertainties of theatre in a pandemic have stretched resources and tested the resilience of an entire industry. Even now, a year on, the ground is shaky. Open today, closed tomorrow. In a room, stuck on Zoom. 50 percent, 75 percent, who knows?

Although many will be mired in corona-angst and foretelling all manner of doom, the history of the arts shows us that theatre has always been precarious. Artists have always relied on patrons, private or public. Viewed from above, the present drama is simply another call to evolutionary action. Adapt or die.

Placing this in its current context, Toulson notes, “Theatre has always had viability issues, but COVID probably made a lot of people look again at their financial models. If you’re relying entirely on box office, especially in the independent sector, you’re almost certainly going to have issues. That was true even before COVID.”

Alec Pernes for FREEDANCE (10 weeks of energetic dance classes in the open air at Abbotsford Convent, led by local artists from Dancehouse). Photo by Mathew Lynn.
Alec Pernes for FREEDANCE
(10 weeks of energetic
dance classes in the open air
at Abbotsford Convent,
led by local artists from Dancehouse).
Photo by Mathew Lynn.

Across town, the new CEO of Melbourne’s Dancehouse, Josh Wright, ponders the impact of the virus. “Across the sector, it has called to account a lot of inefficient ways of doing things, or, if you like, the imbalances in the industry.” 

In an industry where creative and commercial impulses often clash, and where the vogue-ish politics of public funding can have a distorting effect, the viability question is notoriously touchy. 

“There’s no way I would put on a show without budgeting for a minimum 50 percent capacity,” Wright states plainly. “So, if it can’t work financially based on that, it’s not something I could currently entertain.”

For Dancehouse, which is ground zero for much of Melbourne’s independent dance community, COVID has meant reduced fees for artists, a doubling of labour cost around cleaning and ushering, and a collapse in bar sales. 

Sydney Dance Company in 'Impermanence'. Photo by Pedro Greig.
Sydney Dance Company in
‘Impermanence’. Photo by Pedro Greig.

“Whatever the reality was for Dancehouse beforehand has already foundationally changed,” Wright elaborates. “Luckily, I’m a producer, and I think about these things all the time, and I think about models and how we work. To be completely honest, as soon as we stopped producing shows, we knew we had to work with artists to set the minimum conditions in which we would be able to create and present work. And that was stuff like the size of audiences, the number of shows we could get in and whether or not performers had to wear masks.”

Meanwhile, at Theatreworks, Toulson reveals that her organisation works on the assumption of “a 20 percent house.” This underscores the tough reality of the performing arts, especially in the independent sector. 

Yet, it is precisely this kind of risk taking that allows venues like Theatreworks and Dancehouse to present new and experimental work from artists who don’t yet have star power or critical cachet.

On the other side of the box office split, performing arts companies are also adjusting to the realpolitik of the post-viral bottom line. In an ecosystem that includes everything from big state funded brands to oily rag indies, the rippling uncertainties of snap lockdowns, hotel quarantine breaches and audience jitters have forced root and branch reviews and driven many into the algorithmic arms of the internet. 

“We learnt that performing to a theatre with no audience was very hard indeed,” says Michelle Sierra, director of the Victorian State Ballet (VSB). Recalling 2020, she adds, “Considering the possibility of needing to move into digital seasons long-term was not going to be enough to sustain us.”

Rukshikaa Elankumaran, Amma: The Loss of our Motherland (2021, Sangam at Dancehouse). Photo by Arun Muñoz.
Rukshikaa Elankumaran,
Amma: The Loss of our Motherland
(2021, Sangam at Dancehouse).
Photo by Arun Muñoz.

As restrictions have eased and theatres opened, VSB has returned to in-person performance. ”This year, we have performed already three weeks running to full houses at 75 percent capacity,” Sierra explains. “We are so grateful to have good houses. However, the loss of income due to capped audiences is not something that can see our industry viable in the long-term.”

While her company is relatively secure, Sierra acknowledges that for smaller organisations, ongoing COVID disruptions are more likely to be existential. “Although most of our productions are in venue partnership arrangements, in general, venues are not in a great position to financially accommodate the capped numbers to production companies across the board,” she contends. “This does place a strain on independent companies, schools and groups who are themselves struggling to re-build their businesses without financial support from the government.” 

Even at the top end, capacity limits and other regulatory uncertainties continue to impact operational models. As Anne Dunn, executive director of Sydney Dance Company, observes, “The uncertainty around border closures and international travel restrictions is still causing disruption and making medium term planning difficult; and I think there are some elements of the business that have shifted permanently.”

Sydney Dance Company Executive Director Anne Dunn.
Sydney Dance Company
Executive Director Anne Dunn.

Looking forward, she suggests, “Like music and literature before us, the performing arts are now grappling to find a financially sustainable model in a digital delivery world. I think the sector needs to be very open to continued change, and not assume that things will go back to ‘normal’ in order to find a new model of sustainability and viability.”

For all of the diverse opinions and differing realities of those in sector, there seems to be one clear universal. Zoom is not a room, and virtual doesn’t cut it. 

Back in St Kilda, Toulson sits in the newly revamped Theatreworks foyer and explains. “It’s like people went, ‘Oh, we get it now,’ and have been prepared to come along, to pay a little more because they get why theatre, why the arts, are important.”

At Dancehouse, Wright talks about “being respectful” of the live dance experience. “There’s this beautiful thing that we expect from live performance, which is the socialising and the experiential aspects. Coming together and congregating in foyers beforehand, having a drink afterward, meeting the artists, the critical dialogue about work. We can’t do that in COVID, or we’re severely limited.”

While the bottom line is critical, the psycho-social and ceremonial aspects of performance are perhaps even more salient. For some of us, dancing like no one is watching is not the point, and for others, watching 2D dance from a bedroom somewhere is not quite what we want from the theatre. 

As for the venues, empty seats and unsold bar stock are not simply a matter of taste.

By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.

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