OPINION: Searching For The Phantom

Saturday, September 07, 2013

DRTCC’s  entrance, foyer, bar and Theatre auditorium are commonplace for theatre attendees. They are easily accessed and comfortable to navigate. However, there lie areas beyond the access of the general population, areas which even after more than three years of having keys to the building I am yet to explore.

I decided it was time to break out of my ticket box, combine my passion for photography and urban exploration and see what hidden treats I could discover around DRTCC.

This is what I found.

Thursday 29 August, 2:36pm

Camera in one hand and keys in the other, I enter the most familiar part of the Theatre: the foyer. I decide against a trail of breadcrumbs and stash my mobile phone in my pocket in case I cannot recall from which direction I came. I ascend the stairs to the mezzanine level and continue through the first of many ‘Authorised Personnel Only’ boundaries I am destined to cross. This one is adjacent to the Door 3 entry into the auditorium.

I enter a small room and climb the narrow stairs with only an ultraviolet light to guide me (it also helps to locate many specks of dust on my clean black shirt). As the stairs end and the room opens in front of me I gain perspective thanks to the large window opening overlooking the stage and theatre auditorium. I have briefly been in this room before but it still feels foreign.
The Bio Box is home to a large desk with many numerous black and coloured knobs for lighting and sound adjustments. Adjacent rooms on both sides house large spot lights and the room farthest to the right allows access to further stairs to soar higher above the auditorium. Given my psychological hesitance to navigate areas of great height I decline my instinct to explore the catwalks high above the audience seats.

I exit the lofty room and continue through Door 3, descending the familiar stairs along the side of the theatre auditorium. Beyond Door 4 and down a few more stairs there is another door again marked ‘Authorised Personnel Only’ and I enter then follow a narrow corridor.

If I hadn’t already trodden enough stairs already, this corridor would make sure I did. After a short passage, there are stairs leading down to a short platform then subsequent stairs ascending to another door. Through the door I see a bright light and unfortunately I have found myself on the exterior of the building along Carrington Avenue and a few metres from the stage door at the rear of the building.

It looks as though I will have to commence my journey from the back of house.

Thursday 29 August, 2:53pm

I re-enter the building from the stage door and make my way past the dressing rooms and through the doors leading to the loading dock. This area often houses large props and stage equipment but, more importantly, it is the workplace and office of three DRTCC technical staff.

Adjacent to the stage manager’s office, there is a roped doorway revealing stairs leading below the dock and stage areas. At the bottom of the stairs lies a workshop. Paint, tools, coloured gels and film are neatly sorted and stacked along the walls of the benches.

I descend a further short flight and arrive under the Theatre stage. Currently used as additional storage, this is where musicians load their instruments onto the orchestra pit, where large props have found a permanent home and where the mirror ball sits alone against the far wall.

Behind this room, moving further away from the Theatre auditorium there is a door leading to an infamous cavity, one which I have yet to see for myself. This is the room with no floor.

The door creaks as I open it and my impressions are swamped with a waft of cold, stale air. Apart from having no floor, there is also no ventilation. Unable to find the courage to enter too far without allowing the door to close behind me and afraid I may be trapped here and become part of a Theatre tragedy I hold firmly on the handle and quickly retreat back into the relative comfort of the narrow hallway.

Following the long hallway and back past the workshop, I notice a small half-sized-door (unfortunately not leading into Wonderland) which enters into a large room that has found purpose as storage. Moving past the door and further along, underneath the Macquarie Auditorium stage now, there is ample storage currently housing large exhibition panels, chairs, dining tables and newly purchased dining chairs.

Opposing the direction of the excessively large painted ‘Exit’ sign, a doorway leading to a dark, musty room grabs my attention and I enter. A few random items from balls and galas gone-by occupy the corners of the room and propped against one wall is a large frame housing a commemoration to Her Majesty’s visit in the early nineties.

Apart from another feeling of myself portraying an extra in a horror movie, I quickly remove myself from the eerie room and now follow the painted exit sign into the Convention Centre hallway, past a cleaning cupboard and into the familiar sight of the Macquarie Auditorium.

Thursday 29 August, 3:18pm

After my short journey, it is easy to see why these areas are off limits to unauthorised and unsupervised persons. While everything has a place and appears to be in it, there still lie many hazards. While today’s exploration has been interesting, there are few areas here where I will need to visit again to fulfil my current role. They are areas that exist for both specific and undefined purposes and even those whose job includes travel to these areas seldom go there.

There are limited occasions where members of the public are granted access to areas. Being involved in a local production may involve backstage and control room access. Volunteering as an usher can transform a performing arts enthusiast into ‘authorised personnel’. But the most convenient way would be to attend one of DRTCC’s rare Open Day’s... one such occasion may just be approaching!


OPINION: Waiting For Applause

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Along with jazz, many consider musical theatre to be the only music styles indigenous to the once great land of America. But as with everything in the modern American era musicals too seem to have become more about quantity and less about quality.

Recently there has been an explosion of performances (and I use the term loosely) gracing the fading boards throughout Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway and the various ‘theatres’ above bowling alleys and liquor stores.

It seems every writer with a tiny spark in the right-side of their brain feels the need to add a few kitsch songs performed out-of-time to badly choreographed scenes (Queue: ‘Is The Sun The Moon?’ from Shane Warne: The Musical.)

“Musicals are not just written – they are collaborative creations that must be put together piece by piece,” writes renowned musical theatre and film historian John Kenrick. So you require a lyricist, a musical director, a choreographer, a producer, a director and countless others simply to create one basic piece of musical theatre.

The unsettling thought is that it takes a number of these apparently creative minds to collaborate on a musical that combines the futile song-styling’s of a nineties pop girl-group to create the West End’s latest jukebox musical gem Viva Forever!.

Musicals are to theatre what pop music is to heavy metal: bright, simple and fun storylines custom made for mainstream audiences, and just like pop music the significance of the storylines (again, loosely) is commonly lacking of any genuine substance.

Mega-movie-corp. 20th Century Fox recently announced plans through a joint venture to create even more stage musicals from popular movies despite the many which have come before and both succeeded and failed in equally spectacular fashion.

Variety’s Peter Bart unapologetically agrees, “Rock of Ages is still a hit on Broadway but the movie was a dud, despite Tom Cruise's bejewelled codpiece, and I think Steven Spielberg should have left War Horse to cavort on stage.”

Similar mediocre reviews have been noted for successful and acclaimed musicals turned into average-at-best movies like Hairspray, Mamma Mia! and Chicago.

Thankfully, many touring musicals have proved me wrong and been positively received by regional audiences at DRTCC to near-full houses. Breast Wishes: An Uplifting Musical, Menopause The Musical (is there a theme here?) and many other high-quality touring productions have kept patrons singing in their seats, dancing in the aisles and even one group of mothers shedding tears into their programs during Motherhood The Musical’s tender ballad, I’m Danny’s Mum.

Aside from the previously mentioned Shane Warne: The Musical, few musical theatre performances are aimed towards the male demographic. Although I imagine it may seem a little bizarre to have rugby loving men dressed in singlets and footy shorts singing and dancing about how much they love their universal remote control.

Andrew Horabin’s one man comedy performance of What’s A Man Gotta Do which came to Dubbo in August last year concerning male coming of age and the man’s side of the relationship is perhaps the closest we are going to come to seeing an idea of this ilk into fruition and despite the rave reviews from members of the audience, myself included, it was far from a packed house and it may be unlikely that there is even a market for such a thing.

Musical productions such as The Addams Family have allowed an attempt at blending cultures, appealing equally to little old ladies who enjoyed the antics of Fester and the gang as kids, through to Marilyn Manson-loving séance indulging modern-Goths. (Fellow attendees had the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with The Cruel Sea’s man-in-black Tex Perkins at the session I attended.)

Despite a common human ability to generate an opinion based on our personal perception of quality or the definition of entertainment there is always someone, and quite often many someone’s, who do find these experiences appealing.

There should always be enough of a good thing to go around regardless of our personal opinions of quality and although I am far more likely to discover stories of Renaissance-named turtles living in the sewers of New York are actually historical accounts than I am to ever be in attendance at Legally Blonde: The Musical, there is still a place in a pop-culture obsessed world for the resulting storyline that comes from the tiny spark of a writer’s mind.

John Kenrick goes on to provide a brief history lesson, “The inspiration for Broadway's first musical hit came out of sheer desperation. The manager of a 3,000 seat theatre needed something to fill his stage for the fall. He threw together a stranded ballet troupe, a clunky melodrama and a stack of forgettable songs. Strange as that mix may seem, it clicked.”

The musical was The Black Crook which first opened in 1866 and has returned to Broadway fifteen times proving that a mindless journey into desperation can on occasion prove to be commercially and critically successful.

Aussie Theatre’s Les Solomon agrees that we are far away from an era that created such timeless pieces as Annie, Les Miserables and Rent, describing 2012 as “a very, very poor theatre year for musicals in this country.” However, for those who enjoy a relaxed afternoon of performing arts without the need to engage your grey matter to any great extent, modern musical theatre has created an occasion that is perfectly suited to your requirements.

Australian Musicals states, “In Australia, musical theatre is arguably the most popular and highest grossing form of live entertainment, but (except for a few notable exceptions) the musicals which Australian audiences are applauding with their ticket purchasing are invariably international.”

With the recent lobby to have the NSW Government build a Broadway-style musical-specific theatre in Sydney it would seem the demand has become so great that the brief scattering of currently available theatres is becoming a bit thin with reports the waiting list for available dates at many of the major city performing arts venues can be as long as three years.

The comparisons between Sydney’s musical scene and that of the world-standard Broadway are already being made, although our landscape still falls far short of the New York district.

"There are only 100,000 'regular' theatre goers in Sydney and Melbourne,” says James Erskine, former business partner with producer John Frost. “On Broadway they get a million a week."

The beauty of musical theatre is that it may attract an audience who might normally never see a live stage performance. If Viva Forever! can convince a sixteen year old that a night at the theatre is more fun than loitering next to Supre with a Boost Juice, regardless of my impressions concerning the quality of the show, maybe musical theatre is in fact succeeding.

OPINION: Has The 'Standing O' Become The 'Standing, Oh'

Saturday, July 06, 2013

There are many commonly used theatre terms a logical person like myself has trouble understanding. For example, it is often quoted that an exceptional performance is ‘show-stopping’. My first thought is if a show is so good, why would it being stopped be construed as a good thing? I would imagine an event described as show-stopping would be in relief of a bad performance.

All the same, there is a term derived from another culture and used regularly at events around the globe which many claim has lost its integrity.

‘Ovation’ has its origins in Roman celebration when publicly acknowledging minor or insignificant victories, those deemed not worthy of a triumph. In many cases receiving an ovation was an insult as combatants and victors personally believed, as they do, they were worthy of higher honours.

For those who are interested, the origin of the word comes from the Latin ovis, meaning sheep, which were sacrificed after military action, ovatio becoming the act.

So it fails to reason an ovation would last through history, find its interpreted meaning on the path into the common public arena and become one of the highest forms of acclaim. Yet here we are.

However, that is where my research hit a wall. The next evolution of the practice seems lost even in the vast expanses of the inter-web and I am discouraged to declare I have no idea how it came from Romans sacrificing sheep through to the early 1830s where standing applause becomes more socially common.

(If anyone can fill in the blanks, you know where to find me.)

It has almost come full circle and returned to its Roman reluctant-celebration roots and again become frowned-upon. Many performances simply for the act of completion have received rousing standing applause where as exceptional performances often leave satisfied and content patrons inanimate in their seats until the house lights rise.

Marina Prior and David Hobson are two of Australia’s living theatrical treasures. Their performances at DRTCC sold out many weeks in advance and it was widely described as the most anticipated performing arts event of 2013.

The first performance, a Friday, was exceptional and even the frail and elderly were inspired to rise to their feet and applaud as if attempting to disintegrate diamonds with their palms. But as I said, we would not have expected anything less from these two performers.

If at all possible, the Saturday and following performance was even more outstanding. The performers seemed more comfortable in their environment and increased the banter between themselves on stage. Yet this performance by response of the attending audience was not worthy of a standing applause.

On this occasion the applause was deafening but still not a full standing ovation.  Alright, so a quarter of the audience stood and clapped wildly but it just does not have the same impact.  Then follows an awkward moment when those sitting uneasily make a move to stand whilst those few standing casually make a move to sit down.  Either way, the moment is lost.

A common observation at performances receiving standing ovations which I have attended has been the instance of an initiator: someone who feels compelled despite surrounding opinion to physically show their gratitude for their enjoyment of the performance. Once this person has made their intentions clear it can take a moment before another realises they are right in their judgement and joins them above the seated crowd. Many others then tend to follow suit and complete the custom.

Without this initiator there may have been no standing ovation despite the merit of the performance.

However, it is with this initiator and the social conduct that follows which has drawn criticism and perceivably devalued the once rare and deserving standing ovation.

The becoming-far-more-common standing ovation is often seen even at mundane events for run-of-the-mill achievements such as rugby league games and the Grammy Awards.

“A standing ovation used to really mean something, but when you start giving a standing O for just any ol’ Tom, Dick or Harry, at least for me, it tends to cheapen the effect,” remarks Life Is Poetic author Richard Lee King.

Many of those who have followed the lead of the aforementioned initiator can be seen subtly glancing around the audience wondering if the performance really warranted such a response.

Equally, at performances lacking a standing applause similar numbers of attendees can be seen offering the same glances wondering if there should be.

In the end, it seems to be entirely at the will of each individual to give their own satisfied level of acclaim towards the performance.

If you feel the need to stand and ‘yahoo’ in the face of the performers, confident they will receive your message then by all means you should care less about what those around you think. Many performers leave comments regarding the warmth and gracious response of Dubbo audiences, so if a mutual feeling strikes you feel free to audibly oblige.

However, if you have been woken from a lovely nap by the incessant clapping of those around you and their need to jump up from their seats, rattling the bones of the row, there is no need for you to follow convention and include yourself in something you don’t believe appropriate.

Richard Lee King concludes, “I’m left to ponder, ‘Is it disrespectful to not stand and applaud when you don’t feel the urge to do so?’ Restated in another way, ‘Isn’t it a bit of a ‘Cop out’ to stand and applaud when you don’t feel it is warranted and deserved?’”


OPINION: Bringing New Audiences To The Party

Saturday, May 04, 2013

In modern society there are few greater feelings than being the pioneer of a trend or the first to be a fan of a new band. However in theatre, it is rarely satisfying to be one of only a few who have attended a performance. It is disheartening as the pre-show announcement finishes and the house lights dim you look around and see only a hundred other people in attendance. It is not the kind of experience you would like to keep all to yourself. You want to share it and ensure performances of quality continue.

As a regional venue with tight touring itineraries, performances are generally limited to a single show so there is little opportunity to generate buzz . This is unlike metropolitan venues which can enjoy seasons of shows lasting up to and beyond three months, more than enough time for someone to see a show and tell their friends about it.

Generally speaking, younger audiences tend to distance themselves from plays and theatre as the projected image of one who might attend such an occasion is of an upper-class person, more likely to invest in a monocle and a Rembrandt than an iPhone and a Banksy. Even many local audiences often confirm this observation (although, sadly, they often attend without their monocles).

Breaking through to a new market in limited timeframes and re-establishing cultural perceptions is rarely an easy task.

Modern brand name musicals, though, have managed to achieve this with well-developed branding, Hollywood-style themes and big name actors which are of greater interest to younger audiences. Opening nights for musical productions of Wicked, Legally Blonde and The Addams Family have included red carpets, celebrities and copious hordes of media and during their inevitably extended seasons have drawn crowds ranging from the aforementioned monocle brigade through to those whose first instinct upon arrival is to check-in on Facebook.

Actor Kevin Spacey recently commented “...exposing youngsters to the arts and culture is enormously valuable, by instilling a better understanding of the world, people, and communication skills.”

The ever debatable cost of seeing a theatre performance is a large factor seemingly keeping the younger audiences away. To see Gold Logie winner John Wood star in David Williamson’s The Club will cost $48. Average tickets to performances at London’s West End are selling at an average of £50 each (approx $AU76).

While these prices are not unreasonable, as with the cost of many things in our lives they are subjective. “Kids are not going to spend that kind of money. They’re going to buy iPads, save the money, or do something else,” Kevin Spacey continued.

It has become an issue noticed widely across the entertainment industry. A ticket to see Aerosmith at Rod Laver Arena will cost you up to $289.00 (2 hour concert). A ticket to see a matinee performance of The Addams Family musical is $135.00 (2 and a half hour performance). To see the rugby league Grand Final you may spend up to $200.00 each (80 minute game).

Last week I went to see one of my favourite bands play in the corner of a room above a Chinese restaurant which was above a hotel and even that cost me $55.00.

As Kevin Spacey remarked, younger people are more interested in spending money on modern conveniences or their mortgage and children. Generally, those who can afford the asking prices are those with disposable incomes.

He continued, "When I look around at Broadway and the West End, theatre is becoming an exclusive club. What happens when this generation that is currently going to the theatre passes on to the great theatre in the sky? Who is going to replace them?"

While younger audiences have become regular attendees at shows such as David Strassman and Guy Sebastian, they are noticeably lacking from age appropriate performing arts events such as The Revenge Of The Bat or Natalie Weir’s modern dance production, R&J.

Recent local investigations have shown audiences at plays and musicals average a little over 160. That’s barely one third of capacity at an average price of $45.00 per ticket to see memorable performances by the likes of Lucy Durack, John Jarrett and Peter Phelps. Thankfully, numerous full houses throughout the year balance out the averages.

A recent $10 ticket promotion for the modern re-telling of George Orwell’s Animal Farm proved overwhelmingly successful with over 150 taking up the offer, doubling the audience in only a few days. If this had been offered when tickets initially went on sale would the play have sold out? Would enough people redeem the offer and make the risk financially viable?

How many of the 18,000 would have attended triple j’s One Night Stand if there was a charge on each ticket?

While struggling for crowds, the recently defunct A-League Gold Coast Football Club decided to offer free tickets to one of their mid-season home games. The club had barely managed to attract an average of 4,000 over the course of the season, a disaster in football expectations and the eventual reason for their demise. Yet when free tickets were on offer there were close to 30,000 in attendance. It ended up becoming a social experiment which delivered more questions than it did answers, not only for the club but for the entire entertainment industry.

How do you maintain that level of response and enthusiasm, as DRTCC comparatively saw with the Animal Farm offer, over the course of the year?

Changing the culture is a whole other conversation altogether. While someone may enjoy coming to see live entertainment just to be part of it, others may consider the proverbial ‘better thing’ to be done with their time.

Many considerations are currently filtering out of the imaginations of DRTCC staff onto the suggestions page for 2014, including lower prices for plays and musicals, theatre memberships and tweaks to the subscription process to entice mature, pre-pension audiences to experience theatre and live performance.

Where metropolitan venues must re-establish themselves as modern institutions, Dubbo Regional Theatre has the luxury of being a relatively new facility and continues to implement fresh ideas to attract younger audiences to the theatre.

Children’s shows such as James and The Giant Peach and the upcoming Possum Magic have enjoyed sold out performances with little promotion beyond the mention of their name. While many of these attendees still enjoy French fry sandwiches and One Direction, as they develop their cultural lifestyle they will continue to remember the positive experience of a theatre show and carry that through their teens and into adulthood.

An investment in a live performance culture is not for a month or a year. It can be decades in the making but the rewards to the facility, the regional culture and, in particular, the individual can be unmeasurably positive.

OPINION: Classic Tales For Modern Times

Friday, February 01, 2013

I’ve heard it many times in my life and I’m sure you have too. Previous generations are great at reciting their contempt when a new version of a song is heard on the radio or a masterpiece of cinema or performing art is updated with modern storylines.

Disappointment from patrons has been voiced towards performances at DRTCC of adaptations of musicals and stories. While general audiences related, traditionalists disapproved of the modernised and pop culture filled reimagining of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado.

Mozart fans ensured their historical knowledge was known in opposition to the story of Lorenzo du Ponte depicted in Mozart and ME by local favourite Damian Whiteley.

And a few frowned upon the sexual innuendos and contemporary comical routines when Dubbo Theatre Company presented The Venetian Twins in 2011. (When word travelled – ticket sales sky-rocketed!)

While strong opinions are expected, particularly when re-working well known stories, fresh audiences and first-time attendees are often attracted to modern day examples. However there are far more exceptional examples than there are failures.

There have been countless instances through history of updating and improving, of borrowing and plagiarising. Andrew Lloyd Webber, Quentin Tarantino, Michael Bublé and Tim Burton have all made illustrious careers from providing their own angle on already well known and popular artistic creations.

A glaringly prime example is that of the stories of William Shakespeare. They have been studied, updated and modernised since they were penned they are possibly amongst the most performed plays of all time. Yet with every re-telling the original text becomes further and further removed, instead focusing the plotlines and imagery through modern angles to appeal to contemporary audiences.

Riverside Productions’ 2010 theatre performance of Shakespeare’s R&J took many attendees by surprise. While the synopsis promised an “inventive re-imagining of a classic”, the injection of an all male cast in a modern college setting provided an angle rarely previously considered.

This is where art plays its most important role. Every civilisation has made attempts to improve on the successes of the previous. Culture always builds on the past.

During my father’s well documented maiden voyage to the popular opera Don Giovanni, it had occurred to me the storyline might be quite hard to follow given the only word of Italian either of us understands is “Ferrari”.

However, to appeal to modern and even beginner audiences the dialogue and song words had been changed to English. This in itself is no easy task, “...a time-honoured practice” says The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini.

“A translation of an opera libretto must fit exactly the rhythm, bounce and flow of the existing melodic lines, which the composer matched to the words of the original language. Libretto translators are forced to play fast and loose with the meaning of the original text to render an equivalent in performable English.”

While the general story rarely deviates from its traditional course, straying from the meaning of the original lines are necessary to “mimic” the original text so it fits more perfectly with the melodies.

I agree it is a worthwhile cause to provide modern adaptations or versions of classic stories, however my mind often wonders what translators of 2113 will be translating. Will they bother with Mozart’s original 1787 story or will they prefer to revise the 2012 translation, deviating further again from the original text?

Another popular creation regularly performed are comedy revues. This is where current affairs are retold through comedic means, accentuating and exaggerating on the whimsical qualities of popular culture figures to create an entertaining storyline. 

Sydney Theatre Company’s The Wharf Revue do this with regular hilarity and are often commended for their accurate observations of our most loved and hated political figures.

However, with a production like this much of the creative process involves taking quotes from speeches and public appearances and matching them to themes from television shows and movies. Ironically, the basis for these sarcastic performances has been unwittingly established by the public figures themselves. The creative process simply involves piecing it together in comical fashion, rewriting the words to a few popular songs and making a date of it.

They are simply doing what many acclaimed creative minds have done for hundreds of years. They are taking their influences and adding their artistic angle to ‘create’ a new piece of art.

Selected portions of the stories may even be left ‘open’ to allow presenters to insert local or regional references, making the script even more relevant and specific to a time and place and adding a unique experience each time the performance is staged.

The key is finding the point between plagiarism and improving on the past.

Dutch composer Louis Andriessen defines "There are two sorts of stealing - taking something and doing nothing with it, or going to work on what you've stolen. The first is plagiarism."

Andrew Lloyd Webber achieved a mixed-response from other creative artists when he penned the über-popular musical version of The Phantom Of The Opera. Many accused Lloyd Webber of plagiarism as he used influences from other composers and writers in his musical.

However, what he did was no different to the creative process used initially themselves by the artists he ‘plagiarised’.  He took a melody or a lyric and mashed it together along with a horror story by French writer Gaston Leroux and a few creative images and words, and transformed it into a far happier (in pop culture definitions) love story.

Despite my love of the original story and the 1925 Carl Lamelle silent movie, the world is certainly better-off for having Lloyd Webber’s now classic interpretation. If you are one of the minority yet to see this musical on stage, you may just get the chance to form your own opinion now the amateur right have been released for the first time.

Re-creation is another aspect of art. The work of icons such as Michael Jackson, Freddie Mercury and the king of staged tributes, Elvis, will continue to entertain audiences despite their inoccupation of this world. Entire nostalgia concert experiences have been toured, recently the most notable being Queen’s 1985 concert at Wembley, adjusted for an obviously smaller venue and filled with patrons who, for one night, can feel like they were there.

This instance involves more of bringing the past to the present, instead accentuating characteristics rather than attempting to modernise them.

I quite enjoy hearing a modern version of popular songs from days gone by. It not only pays tribute to the influences through which the modern creative artists and therefore popular culture have been... well, influenced... but it also allows a modern generation the opportunity to enjoy similar experiences their parents and grandparents enjoyed. To hear the words of songwriters who have long since passed on and to see the plays once enjoyed in theatres which have since been torn down.

OPINION: Raising The Expectation

Friday, November 30, 2012

Our third theatre season has come to a close and already the fourth has begun motion. I wonder at what point a ‘new venue’ becomes an established venue?

Reaching 80,000 ticket sales? Done.

Attracting 190,000 visitors to the centre? Done.

But you may have become somewhat jaded at the constant common statistical reporting we at Council love so much. So instead of me telling you why you love our venue so much it may be a better gauge to ask you for your opinion of the venue. And that’s what we’ve done.

Actually we‘ve done it a number of times now. At the end of every year, we issue a survey to a random sample of patrons to allow them to express their opinion on the performances and how they were presented, the venue staff and facilities and what they find makes for a great theatre experience.

The comments and responses from these surveys are used in a number of ways including being provided to the Mayor for inclusion in his speeches, particularly at the Season Launch and newspaper columns, and most importantly every suggestion and comment is considered in the preparation for the following year’s performances and how DRTCC is presented to our patrons and to the community.

However, it is on a very rare occasion that we are able to respond directly to the comments and questions written on the survey forms.

Aside from the quality of the onstage performances, our customer service is where many staff find pride. Above and beyond is travelled so often when assisting a patron it has become the norm and many of you have shown your gratitude to our efforts.

Veronica says “All theatre staff members carry out their tasks in a very capable friendly and efficient manner.” David adds interacting with theatre staff is “always a pleasant experience”.

On occasion it is not an easy task. Starting at the box office, many of you may presume asking for a ticket is a simple procedure. But “I would like to buy tickets for...” is perhaps one of the least common approaches. Many patrons choose to simply name the performer. Unknowing if they are being asked to provide seating availability, ticket prices or a detailed biography, box office staff begin information overdrive and exhume as much information for the patron as possible until they mutter their follow-up request.

Others tend to say apparently random days of the week implying there may be a performance on that day.

Phone messages are one particular medium in which initial contact can be difficult. Names and questions regarding performance details are generally straight forward and easily decipherable however, as if manifesting a speaking version of a text message people tend to speak in double time when reciting their contact details at the end of message.

Clearly and concisely is not something that is taken into account when leaving a phone number and it becomes the reliance of the investigatory skills of staff to firstly decipher the message and secondly, if the message has been littered with mumbled gaps, to fill in the blanks which may mean a trip to White Pages online or the possibility of number Scrabble to complete the phone number.

Even though there may be the occasional difficulty in communication many patrons leave happy their request has been fulfilled.

Many even comment, despite their confidence and ability to negotiate the world wide web, they would rather travel into the box office to converse with a friendly face. Ruth would “prefer face to face interaction,” and Rita says “I like the young man that helps me with my ticket.”

Come performance day, most plan out their afternoon or evening around the show and allow sufficient time following work to collect the children from school, buy a week’s groceries, fill up the Cruiser with petrol, cook a meal for the kids, make it to the restaurant for a parmigiana and a coffee and still have a half hour to spare before the curtain rises.

But there are still a few who maintain an exclusive late-comers club that has prompted many other patrons to express their concern at this seemingly common practice.

Many city venues employ a ‘lock-out period’ and this may also extend to specific performances. For example, if you were late arriving to The Australian Ballet Dancer’s Company performance of Don Quixote you may have been surprised to notice once the performance had begun there was no late entry until after 15 minutes into the performance.

The question regarding a mandatory lock-out period received an overwhelming response from regular attendees. “Definitely!” concurred Bev and Charlene. Agreement was decisive with many responses going further to include a strongly voiced expression of objection to having tardy bodies moving among the rows of settled and comfortable people.

Karlyn suggested “latecomers should wait for a suitable time to take their seats.”

While mobile phones have become an essential part of our lives, it is often refreshing to allow time away from this technology and immerse yourself in live performance. Pat agrees it is “not acceptable” when mobile phones are used during performances.

Kathy is “...disappointed that they think they are so important, that the phone must be left on.” and Julie extends the issue to the stage, stating there is “no respect for the performing cast.”

It is on occasion difficult to police the use of mobile technology during a performance. As a house rule we like to say mobile phones should be turned off or at least to silent mode and there is no photography allowed, but as you are no doubt aware this becomes a moot point when an eccentric performer encourages you to take their photo!

The conclusion of this market research is the majority of you not only believe DRTCC is being run to its fullest capacity but that the staff are performing admirably and consistently exceeding your expectations. Even former concerns with the venue itself have apparently fallen out of mind.

While the past year has held some great performances it is the interactions of patrons which stick in our memories the most, adding to the adage that the performance is only a small part of the experience.

Even beyond our own expectations, each year continues to exceed the previous and I can’t imagine 2013 is going to be any different.

OPINION: Drumroll, please

Friday, November 02, 2012

Happily, it has come to the point where attendance at the theatre is being taken for granted. Great entertainment and a worthwhile night out is expected on demand. However, having started to overlook the extracurricular aspects that go along with a night out I wanted to re-discover exactly what makes going to the theatre an extraordinary experience amongst the seemingly routine tasks of everyday life.

So what makes a night at the theatre special? How crucial is the performance itself to the whole experience or is it only the performance that matters and the friendliness of ushers and comfort of the seating are irrelevant?

‘Drumroll’ is a popular culture term that has caught on recently to describe the part of an experience which is considered the most exciting, that which precedes the event itself.

This is the moment leading up to a first kiss or the moment when the lights fade to black before Bon Jovi appear on stage, when your heart begins to race and adrenalin occupies your senses. Only the scene of a theatre ‘drumroll’ is the random conversation started with a stranger as you find your seats or hearing the housekeeping announcement over the PA as the house lights start to fade.

Greeted by an usher as you walk from the darkness outside through the doors into the light of the vast theatre foyer is a welcome precursor to the performance and an essential part of the experience. The ushers are as excited to be there as you are, they have willingly volunteered their time as a result of their passion for performing arts and their enthusiasm is rarely overlooked as they spruik performance programmes and upcoming shows.

They glide around the foyer like ice-skaters allowing minimal disruption as patrons wait for their friends to arrive.

As performance time draws near they initiate a pathway to the theatre doors. Seasoned patrons recognise this as a subtle announcement signifying the opening of the auditorium doors moments before a booming voice through the foyer speakers openly declares it to the entire room.

As a few late arrivals burst through the doors and race up the mezzanine stairs the ushers are ready with torches in hand to help them find their seats. With a supernatural ability to see in the dark and bound up multiple stairs like a mountain lion this is the call to action they wait patiently at the end of the aisles for, to ensure that every patron gets to enjoy the performance as much as possible.

You take your seats excited for the performance and the lights fade as the performers begin to appear on stage while the Front of House staff are preparing for their next major appearance during the interval.

After briefly catching their breath they are already executing actions to prepare the room for the 20-minute mid-performance onslaught. They attach themselves to brooms and vacuums and go in search of dust and debris, moving around the vacant foyer and dry bars as if it were a dance floor and the brooms their waltz partners.

They trudge back and forth from the freezing temperatures of the beverage storeroom with cases of liquid and savoury treats. Once they have refreshed the room and restocked the paper towels they prepare coffee, wine and beer for those clever enough to pre-order their interval refreshments.

As the sound of the auditorium doors burst open they take a deep breath and ready themselves for the interval rush.

The attendees are immediately split into three groups. There are those who are comfortable in their seats and plan to stay through interval listening to the generic audio track or relaying initial thoughts of the performance to those who surround them. Then there are those who need to stretch their legs, take in some fresh air or occupy the foyer while enjoying their drinks.  The remainder make haste for the toilets after enjoying their drinks before the performance commences.

As the brief interval continues, bar staff are working frantically to ensure everyone’s request is fulfilled while many ushers have remained in the theatre auditorium to gauge the reactions of the lingering patrons to the performance.

Once the curtain has fallen for the last time and the final attendees have left, the ushers inspect the vacant auditorium and collect any discarded items left behind. Proceeding through the crowd they farewell all who make eye contact and present optimism that you will return.

I am reminded of a television commercial for a sports shoe which follows an athlete as they prepare for an event. Running, swimming, training and as the athlete appears on the start line, the pistol fires and the screen cuts to black and the copy reads ‘What happens next doesn’t matter.’ The lead up to the event on many occasions is more important than the event itself.

Impressions of a performance are generally occupied by two points: the performance itself and your overall experience of the evening. However, from brief conversations with patrons the performance can be greatly affected by the preceding elements. A bad coffee or unfriendly staff member can turn a good performance into a forgettable experience very quickly.

I have a favourite theory that suggests if a job is being performed properly and efficiently then on most occasions it will go unnoticed, but this is not be taken as a suggestion that recognition is not appropriate. It is in fact that appreciation is more appropriate.

The absence of disappointment is, in broad terms, what front of house staff strive to achieve. If you collect your tickets, order a drink, receive a programme and find your seats without giving any of the services you received a second thought then the goal has been achieved and the service staff can leave into the night with a smile on their face knowing that their job has been done.

OPINION: A Welcome Disruption To Routine

Friday, October 12, 2012

To compliment the London Olympic Games, the city blacktop of Regent Street was transformed into a large outdoor public performance area, “culminating as night fell with angels descending on zip wires over Piccadilly Circus, and 1.5 tonnes of feather floating from the sky,” recalls The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner.

Many of us seek out buskers and street performers when visiting the city and with the activities of the various cultural events that take place during Dubbo’s festival season many of these concepts are becoming a more regular sight around our static little city too.

Venturing along Macquarie and Talbragar Streets can usually be a mundane task, but coming across jazz musicians and discovering a seemingly impromptu parade have become highlights during the past few months.

Outdoor events such as these rarely get mentioned in pre-festival advertising, instead they tend to focus on the gala dinner or premiere opening events.

When streets are cordoned off for public performance the disruption to everyday life often overshadows the promise of the event but, as Lyn Gardner goes on to say, “it's the disruption to the fabric of everyday life that is so transforming.”

It is, in fact, the disruption that we should be welcoming.

“Public space in recent years has become increasingly privatised so that it often feels that we are only allowed to walk and shop in it.” Further to that point, it appears that we only allow ourselves to occupy public spaces for routine tasks.

As morning and night markets, street performers and outdoor cultural events become a more common occurrence in Dubbo, particularly during the later months of the year, it is refreshing to see more unfamiliar faces gracing the fresh air and taking advantage of the experience.

We can only hope that this is not just a fad but a trend on an incline and that we are drawn to local outdoor events on a more regular basis.

OPINION: You Won't See That At Cirque du Soleil

Saturday, October 06, 2012

When we were kids I remember sitting on hay bales watching in awe of the tricks performed by exotic animals and equally exotic humans at the circus. Jugglers with flaming batons, elephants with little top hats balancing on balls and death defying tight-rope walkers who I imagine would all feel out of place if they were not performing in front of an audience.

But that was the eighties and while the big top exotic animal circus still rolls around from time to time there is a far more impressive, and home-grown, spectacle owning the limelight.

Contemporary circuses perform without the attraction of exotic animals, instead relying on the attraction of their multi-skilled performers.

While the best known of these is undoubtedly “the Canadian magicians of franchised gymnastic entertainment”, Cirque du Soleil, there is a home-grown troupe who have a “knack for not taking itself too seriously,” says The Melbourne Age’s Jordan Beth Vincent.

Circus Oz has created a uniquely Australian routine stripped of all the glitz and glamour and focused on the raw talents of its performers.

With an artistic bearing that is primarily used for basic direction alone, the “vision is impressive, even if there’s nothing very cohesive about the rough narrative” says Jason Whittaker of Crikey Independent Media. The narrative of their performances is carried by traditional character stories and comedy.

Circus Oz was born from the stages of Australian theatre of the late sixties by performers without any notable traditional circus background. The circus theme of the performing arts company was merely a creative mould in which the directors and performers could relay their ideas to audiences and even after 35 years Jon Hawkes says “the overall tenor of the performance has changed little.”

Even with their growing popularity the renowned performers have remained true to their original mission statement and kept their direction and routines light-hearted. Jon Hawkes continues, “whilst the honing of physical skills has led to even more breathtaking demonstrations of daredevil behaviour, the group has never been tempted to present these tricks seriously.”

“It is a tribute to the enduring strength and relevance of the original principles of the company that, even though there are only two people left from the original 1978 group and that over seven hundred individuals have worked with the company during the years, the shows the group presents have continued to be as consistent and vital as ever.”

The current production From The Ground Up has been inspired by a collection of Lewis Hine photographs of construction workers dangling high in the canopy of the New York City skyline.

Images from their opening performances could easily be of a Motley Crue arena concert more than a circus only the roles of musicians and supporting performers have been reversed. ''We've thrown steelwork and gantries and scaffolding into the mix. The centrepiece is a huge steel beam that we haul up to the ceiling,” describes Artistic Director Mike Finch.

As the Carrington Avenue loading dock prepares itself for the convoy of rigging, rising platforms and other miscellaneous staging equipment, staff are themselves as anxious of the troupes arrival. Constructing a stage set of this magnitude is another inadvertent correlation to the New York construction scenes that these stage pieces are based on.

In addition to the travelling crew and existing theatre technicians there will be a number of ‘hired-guns’ at the ready to assist with this mammoth construction undertaking. One the likes of Dubbo Regional Theatre has not experienced before.

There will be far more involved behind the scenes than there will be on stage. An out of sight assembly as important as the performers themselves and working far longer hours than the performance time to total a combined effort of over four and a half days.

A former entertainer with Dubbo based Circus West, newly recruited Circus Oz performer Dale Woodbridge has taken the childhood dream of running away to the circus and turned it into a reality. “I was more set on being a dancer and dancing with Bangarra, but I went for this and the circus is a whole different ball game to dancing – it is a lot more fun.”

The transition from dancing and gymnastics to circus performer was encouraged with the support of the more experienced Circus Oz performers. "It’s scary when you first come out of the support harness and do it on your own but, that’s what you get when you’re in the circus.”

While the fantastical magic perfection of Cirque du Soleil will continue to leave audiences from around the world dripping in awe, this Australian production plays closer to the theatrical origins of traditional circus art and will continue as an international performing main-stay for many more generations to come.

OPINION: A Beginner's Guide To Opera

Saturday, September 01, 2012

It is Sunday evening and I am at my parent’s house. My father has just emerged from his home office after sorting through some photos he shot at the Zoo during the day. I take a deep breath and pose the question to him by handing him a flyer promoting Don Giovanni. “I was wondering if you would like to help me with a project.”

His reaction is a mixture of confusion and anxiety. He knows what is coming but I don’t think he wants to confirm his apparent fears out loud. “What’s this?” he nervously inquires.

I can only imagine the dialogue of my father’s mind, “What torture, what delirium! What hell! What terror!” However I took his lack of verbal resistance as an acceptance and I began to plan my father’s first trip to the opera.

Arriving at the theatre and waiting in the foyer is not a new experience for him but already the stereotypes were beginning to break down. “It’s not the crowd I expected,” he said with slight excitement. I suspect he was imagining he would stand out amongst a hoard of monocles and fox-fur coats. As we scanned the room and made idle chit-chat with a couple of familiar faces we quickly realised that we were not alone. There were many others amongst the crowd who had not attended an opera performance before.

We took our seats in the middle of the row, thanking those with the courtesy to stand and allow us room to pass by and subtly frowning upon those who chose to remain in their seats believing that a slight shuffle of their feet to the left would provide us with the comfort of passing room.

The gentleman seated next to me announced that he was a seasoned opera attendee but the story of Don Giovanni had eluded his cultured memory, so he borrowed a copy of my program to briefly read the conveniently provided synopsis and refresh his mind. It made me wonder why one would need to become familiar with a story before seeing it performed in front of you.

As the conductor approached his position in the orchestra pit among the ten musicians the audience applauded and the lights faded announcing the start of the performance and our first opera experience.

A week before the Don Giovanni project I decided to use myself as a test subject and attend The Dancer’s Company production of Don Quixote.

I had only ever been to one professional ballet performance previously and I thought this would be a good chance to see if my comfort zone could be easily breached. Thanks to numerous reviews from patrons who had seen this production before I went in with high expectations.

I occupied my usual space at the rear of the auditorium so I could also gauge the audience reaction as the performance was unfolding onstage. Despite my lack of storyline understanding I was suitably impressed. For a performance art that prides itself on absolute perfectionism the dancers did not disappoint. Even as an amateur attendee it was hard to fault their performance.

Once the curtain had fallen for the last time I felt like a child who had just discovered iced cream: mouth wide open and begging for more. I imagine that this is not going to be the last time that I attend a ballet.

As the operatic arias of Don Giovanni continued the reason for my neighbour’s synopsis refresher became clear. I could only understand every other word and felt that because I was concentrating so hard on trying to follow the storyline I was missing key elements of it. After around half an hour I decided to give up and approach it like a classical concert by watching the performance of the conductor and his merry orchestra of musicians.

Around the same time that my experience began to diminish I felt the gaze of my father and I realised that I was not alone in my judgement. With every dimming of the lights I hoped that they would fade to black and the usually disrupting practice of interval would be our saviour.

Along with my father I let out a sigh of relief when the auditorium lights finally came ablaze and we respectfully proceeded to a quiet corner of the mezzanine where we could share our thoughts about the performance.

“I appreciate their singing and that they have good voices,” he commented “but I couldn’t understand anything they were singing.” I agreed. He continued, “I looked around and everyone else was sitting so still and enjoying it. I thought ‘why?’”

He joked that his attendance at such an event with renowned prestige may require his surroundings to become more cultured, that somehow he would be elevated to a higher state of society just by being in attendance.

Opera, or at the very least Don Giovanni, is a coarse and intense experience and I would certainly recommend it to everyone. There are those for whom opera is not suited but we as human beings are all about experiences, either good or not so. We didn’t know that fire was hot until an inquisitive being touched it. We didn’t know that the Earth was round until someone sailed ‘off the edge’ and arrived back where they started. We all have our favourite band or singer but there was a time when you had never heard of them. There are those who like to explore and those who like to accept things as they are.

Many will say that they don’t need to attend the opera to know that they don’t like it. They are the accepters, happy with their comfort zone and the mundane routine that governs it. Then there are people like my father who are willing to take on new experiences, believing that life will be enriched simply by being part of something different regardless of our subsequent opinions.

Despite the fact that we used the interval to end our first opera experience we both left with a sense of accomplishment. While I don’t believe that my father will be in attendance at another opera at least in the near future, I know that he was thankful to have been provided with the opportunity to experience something new.