The Hayloft Project Relocates to Sydney

Hayloft's Delectable Shelter. Photo: Pia Johnson

Hayloft’s Delectable Shelter. Photo: Pia Johnson

Founded in 2007 by Simon Stone, The Hayloft Project has quickly established itself as one of Melbourne’s most exciting theatre companies with critics hailing it as “a shining light in Melbourne theatre” and “the hottest property in Melbourne’s indie theatre scene.”

So news that the company is relocating to Sydney in 2014 under its recently appointed artistic director Benedict Hardie is very welcome – at least to theatre lovers at the Sydney end of the Hume Highway.

The move follows in the footsteps of Stone, who left Melbourne to become resident director at Belvoir in 2011, and Anne-Louise Sarks who took over from him as artistic director of Hayloft and has now replaced him at Belvoir as one of two new resident directors.

Hardie describes the relocation as “a very exciting challenge for the company next year, to see if we can’t work up some of our Hayloft magic (in Sydney).”

He says that there was a mix of reasons for the decision, some of them personal. “It’s a bit of a homecoming for me. I’m from the Blue Mountains, I went to school in Penrith so coming back is an exciting new challenge for me and an excuse to see my Mum a bit more.

“I think Sydney is looking like an exciting prospect to a lot of theatre artists,” adds Hardie. “The independent scene in Sydney in the last five or ten years has been expanding and acquiring much more legitimacy and interest from audiences and that means, I think, that the Sydney scene is poised only to expand and get more exciting in the next few years and it’s great to be a part of that.”

As to whether he hopes to keep working with actors already associated with the company he says: “We like to establish long-term collaborative relationships with actors and designers so those who can work in Sydney, then absolutely I would jump at the chance to have them working (with us) but that will be on a case by case basis.

“Many actors that we have worked with before have already relocated to Sydney, some of whom you see regularly on the Belvoir stages, so I am looking forward to reconnecting with some of those actors.”

Actors performing in Sydney who have worked with Hayloft include Gareth Davies, Ashley Zuckerman, Shelley Lauman and Eryn Jean Norvill.

Sydney has already seen several Hayloft productions including Stone’s memorable Thyestes, his version of Spring Awakening and The Only Child, which he adapted from Ibsen’s Little Eyolf.

This week the company will perform its post-apocalyptic, black comedy Delectable Shelter at the Seymour Centre as part of a national tour.

Written and directed by Hardie, the play (which premiered in 2011) is set in a bunker where the last five surviving humans plan a utopian future. The production features an eye-popping design, elaborate, five-part, Bach-style, a cappella arrangements of 1980s love songs (arranged by Benny Davis from The Axis of Awesome) and a range of comedy styles.

“My intention was to write a comedy where I could shine a harsh light on some of the prejudices and fears that people harbour but don’t talk about,” says Hardie. “Then it all became bonkers and I ended up creating this very elaborate play set in a bunker underground and spanning 350 years with choral arrangements of 1980s pop ballads.

“But it’s a lot of fun. Silliness and fun were the guiding principles for a lot of it. It leaves no comedy style unturned.”

Delectable Shelter, Seymour Centre, August 13 – 17

An edited version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 11

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Helpmann Awards

Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Sydney Theatre Company’s stage adaptation of The Secret River was the big winner at the 2013 Helpmann Awards, receiving six awards from 11 nominations including Best Play, Best Direction of a Play (Neil Armfield) and Best New Australian Work.

Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s award-winning novel was a popular choice at last night’s ceremony at the Sydney Opera House, hosted by Eddie Perfect and Christie Whelan Browne.

However, the musical category has caused a fair amount of discussion on social media, with some believing that South Pacific was unjustly snubbed.

King Kong – the new musical from Global Creatures – had been portrayed in some sections of the media as the main rival to The Secret River in terms of its potential to sweep the awards.

But it was Legally Blonde that took out the main awards in the musicals category, winning five from eight nominations including Best Musical (over South Pacific, The Addams Family and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Best Direction and Best Choreography in a Musical (Jerry Mitchell) and performing awards for Lucy Durack and Helen Dallimore.

Rob Mills and Lucy Durack in Legally Blonde. Photo: Jeff Busby

Rob Mills and Lucy Durack in Legally Blonde. Photo: Jeff Busby

Tellingly, King Kong was not nominated for Best Musical or Best Direction of a Musical – and rightly so, I would suggest, for a show that most critics agree needs more work on its book.

However, King Kong picked up four design awards (though Marius de Vries’ original music lost out to Iain Grandage’s for The Secret River.)

The show was also given a special award for Outstanding Theatrical Achievement for the design, creation and operation of King Kong – the creature. Apparently there was genuine discussion at one point as to whether King Kong himself could actually be nominated as best performer. He is certainly truly extraordinary but since he is a puppet, common sense prevailed.

Technically King Kong was not eligible for consideration at this year’s awards since it had its opening night on June 15 after the cut-off date of May 31. However, the rules allow for late inclusions in “exceptional circumstances” and given the relatively weak field of musicals over the last year, the decision to include it was presumably made to bolster the field.

For my money, Bartlett Sher’s production of South Pacific – presented by Opera Australia in association with John Frost – was the best musical of the year. Of course, that’s a subjective view, however, it did win Best Musical at the Sydney Theatre Awards over Legally Blonde, Love Never Dies and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

There’s also the question of whether a revival should be judged against a new musical, let alone a new Australian musical, and whether we should be giving Best Musical awards anyway to shows that are carbon copies of overseas productions, regardless of how well we perform them. (We could still give awards for performances in a musical).

Among the four nominees for Best Musical this year, only John Frost’s Forum (seen in Melbourne) was a new production created in Australia.

The Helpmann Awards have always been a curious beast. Trying to create live entertainment awards with a national reach in such a vast country where few voters have seen all the nominations in any given category is always going to be a challenge with the inevitable oddities and anomalies occurring as a result. (People can only vote in a category if they have seen at least two nominations.)

There is probably more chance of voters having seen all the nominations in the musicals category than any other as most of them tour nationally – as Legally Blonde and South Pacific did.

There seemed to be a few curious omissions among the nominations this year. With no disrespect to any of the nominated performers, it seemed strange, for example, that none of the cast of South Pacific were nominated despite the production being up for Best Musical.

Such oversights have happened before (remember when Cate Blanchett failed to gain a nomination for her stellar performance in A Streetcar Named Desire).

For me there were one or two others this year but it is inappropriate to name names when, again, these things are so subjective.

Partly I’m sure that this is the result of trying to ensure a broad geographical spread of nominations (though there are always complaints that Sydney and Melbourne are over-represented) and partly because it is the producers who put forward the nominations in the first place, paying a $50 fee per entry.

You can’t help thinking that there must be at least some element of strategy as to who and what a producer nominates in order to raise the profile of a show or a performer.

I have also always found it odd that the Helpmanns give awards for Best International Contemporary Concert. This year Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Wrecking Ball won over Coldplay, Barry Gibb and Tedeschi Trucks Band & Trombone Shorty. Doubtless the producing team and their staff work extremely hard to make these tours happen but surely the Helpmann Awards should be about honouring and supporting Australian entertainment.

Among other major awards, Geoffrey Rush won Best Male Actor in a Musical for Forum, Colin Friels won Best Male Actor in a Play for Belvoir’s Death of a Salesman, Alison Bell (who had two nominations in the one category) won Best Female Actor in a Play for Hedda Gabler at the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Opera Australia’s Salome won four opera awards, while Bangarra Dance Theatre collected two.

With 43 categories, it was a loooong night running around four hours. The entertainment helped maintain interest notably Tim Minchin singing “When I Grow Up” from Matilda the Musical, and performances by the casts of Grease and Hot Shoe Shuffle, among others.

For a full list of awards go to: www.helpmannawards.com.au

Disclaimer: Jo Litson is one of the industry voters for the Helpmann Awards.

Independent Music Theatre: creating a new home for small-scale musicals and cabaret in Sydney

The Independent Music Theatre team. Left to right: Lisa Campbell, David Campbell, Neil Gooding, Michael Huxley, Richard Carroll, Simone Parrott, Michelle Guthrie, Jay James-Moody and Jessica Burns

The Independent Music Theatre team. Left to right: Lisa Campbell, David Campbell, Neil Gooding, Michael Huxley, Richard Carroll, Simone Parrott, Michelle Guthrie, Jay James-Moody and Jessica Burns

Yesterday’s announcement that a new, not-for-profit consortium of producers and organisations called Independent Music Theatre (IMT) is to run the Reginald Murphy Hall in Potts Point as a home for small-scale music theatre and cabaret has my heart singing.

It’s exciting news given the potential for the company to become an important and much-needed addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

Currently known as the Darlinghurst Theatre, the 111-seat venue was home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company from 1999 until this March when the company vacated it to move into the new Eternity Playhouse in East Sydney, opening in November.

Having won the tender from the City of Sydney Council to become the next resident company, IMT will announce a new name for the venue in the coming weeks.

Describing themselves as a “collaborative partnership”, IMT comprises a team of organisations who already have runs on the board producing small-scale musicals and cabaret: Luckiest Productions (David Campbell, Lisa Campbell and Richard Carroll), Neglected Musicals (Michelle Guthrie), Squabbalogic (Jay James-Moody and Jessica Burns, who are soon to stage Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at The Factory in Marrickville), Neil Gooding Productions (who produced the Australian musical The Hatpin by Peter Rutherford and James Millar) and independent producers Michael Huxley and Simone Parrott.

Commercial musicals currently dominate the music theatre scene in Sydney – and there aren’t that many of those each year given the relatively limited audience compared to London or New York.

It’s not that Sydney doesn’t see small-scale, independent musicals but the productions are sporadic and scattered around various venues. Presenting regular shows in one venue will give the work a very useful focus.

Having their own home, where they can support each other, will also give the companies involved a better chance to survive and thrive.

Initially IMT’s audience is likely to be industry-based along with serious musical theatre fans but if the work is good a broader audience will hopefully follow pretty quickly. London’s Menier Chocolate Factory is an obvious model, whose success will doubtless be encouraging for the IMT team.

The chance to see musicals from overseas that would otherwise be unlikely to make it to our shores – whether that be little seen classics or more recent, innovative work – is so important for the development of the artform, as well as for the people who want to make it and perform in it.

Developing new Australian musicals – that most challenging of theatrical beasts – is  something that IMT will hopefully be well placed to undertake in the fullness of time.

It is a small venue but the IMT team are specialists in the field of small-scale music theatre and cabaret and should have the expertise and nous to choose the right shows and make them work in the intimate setting.

Neglected Musicals is already associated with the venue having presented terrific rehearsed readings of nine musicals there including No Way to Treat a Lady, On the Twentieth Century and Variations by Australia’s Terry Clarke and the late Nick Enright.

Stephen Colyer’s Gaiety Theatre (not associated with IMT) has also had success staging musicals there, including Hello Again and Kiss of the Spiderwoman.

The first IMT production is likely to be presented at the start of next year. I can’t wait.

You can find IMT at www.independentmusictheatre.com or follow them on Facebook or Twitter @IMTsydney