Exciting New Ventures

Les Solomon finds a new theatre and a new theatre company worth exploring

This last week with the cancellation of The Addams Family without a tour and an early closure of the Sydney season could easily make both agents and performers throw their hands up in horror and wonder why we work so hard in Australia to make everything as good as it can be in theatre.

Yet, with every theatre company that folds or show that fails at the box office, if you look closely enough there are always new initiatives that make one realise that there are silver linings everywhere if we look hard enough. In the last couple of months I have found two new initiatives that make me believe every time something folds there will always be something new popping up in one area or other that shows the resilience of theatre and show business. In this instance, a sparkling new professional theatre company and a fabulous new theatre – to the theatre first:

A Little Gem in Newtown

King St Theatre
King St Theatre. Image supplied

Cabaret artists and producers of small theatre productions are forever bemoaning the fact that there is not enough new venues that suit their needs.

Well, let me tell you, I have found one.

Nestled in the St Peters end of Newtown in NSW, is the newly named and newly refurbished King Street Theatre, a spectacular little professional theatre awaiting the industry to come and embrace it. This small theatre of two performance spaces (seating approx 80 and 60 people each) is a gem that has risen out of the dust of what used to be known as the Newtown theatre.

Theatre producer/director and entreprenuer Markus Weber has spent close to two hundred thousand dollars renovating this fabulous space and to walk in the door one could easily believe you were inside of one of a number of similar sized off Broadway theatres in New York (Weber jokes that the theatre is officially off-Broadway in its closeness to the Broadway area of King St)

The larger of the two spaces is a beautifully crafted black box theatre with attractive and comfortable red velveteen seats. A super lighting rig and an excellent sound system (so missing from so many smaller theatres in Australia) help deliver a night of totally comfortable theatre going.

The bar and foyer area also doubles as a smaller performance space. It is full of intimate possibilities and for the many cabaret artists who are always complaining about the dearth of good cabaret venues, this could not be better. Audiences get drinks from  an art deco bar and can relax in the ambience of a perfectly appointed space with a large raised stage that offers perfect sightlines (again something missing from almost every cabaret venue in town). This theatre is a real find and fits so well as either a late night venue for cabaret or small shows  and a main  stage for bigger productions.

Getting the industry to embrace superb spaces like this can sometimes be difficult. I have taken the punt and am taking a two hander play into the smaller space of this theatre next month. I hope other producers and artists will do the same. Weber has an interesting lineup of theatre coming into the theatre, but it also needs the professional industry to  support a venue that offers so much. It is well positioned just around the corner of King St (Into Bray St) and isnt bothered by the noise the constant traffic of one of the busiest inner city streets. Those in the industry are great at complaining about lack of venues, well here is one that works, go take a look.

Is this our National Music Theatre Company at Last?

Angela Harding and Ian Stenlake in Harvest Rain's Oklahoma! Image by Trent Rouillon
Angela Harding and Ian Stenlake in Harvest Rain’s Oklahoma! Image by Trent Rouillon

Those who regularly read my columns on this site will know I don’t have a lot of time for amateur musical theatre companies. Not because they don’t have their place in our entertainment world, but because more and more they try to emulate and in some cases almost compete with commercial theatre productions. Amateur theatre is great for those wanting to play in the arts, but it takes itself often far too seriously and (its my biggest gripe) often allows young performers starting out in the industry great chances to perform but along the way often doesn’t correct mistakes and as a result many young performers come out of this world with bad habits that can be impossible to break (just ask those who try to audition them for WAAPA and the like).

So what a surprise to find a musical theatre company that grew from base amateur roots into a fully fledged professional theatre company, with ideas and ambitions that if carefully managed could result eventually in a national music theatre company that this country so badly needs. I speak, of course, of the Harvest Rain Theatre Company, which has just staged its first  totally professional production of Oklahoma in Brisbane. Our great northern city (which for reasons I never understand is often given the idiotic title of Brisvegas by people who don’t even understand the joke they are trying to perpetuate) – is a thriving arts hub these days.

Commercial musicals do very well at QPAC in Brisbane and audiences hunger for more shows. Yet the city has no recognised WAAPA or NIDA equivalent to train young artists who choose to live in this beautiful sunny oasis. A population drift has resulted in Brisbane bursting at the seams and many of its young yuppie locals want theatre.

Andrew Conaghan as Jud Fry in Harvest Rain's Oklahoma! Image by Trent Rouillon
Andrew Conaghan as Jud Fry in Harvest Rain’s Oklahoma! Image by Trent Rouillon

So, Harvest Rain is ideally situated to present not just to Brisbane but to all of Australia, a way of producing musical theatre that is both rich and entertaining and professional but also world class. I was knocked out by their outstanding production of Oklahoma recently. Starring an all pro cast including Ian Stenlake, Angela Harding, Andy Conaghan and Glenn Fergusson. The creative team in less than three weeks jumped several rungs up the ladder of short rehearsal/short season productions, until now only the signature of The Production Company.  Yet unlike that company (which is committed to only three short seasons a year of shows and only in Melbourne) Harvest Rain has ambitions for more productions and hopefully longer seasons and touring to every state.

This is not a subsidised company at the moment, money comes from funding from sponsors and box office. From their early beginnings as an amateur company in 1985, to their first semi-pro production in 1999, they are slowly achieving their goals. It has taken the company some years to progress to this point and even now two of their productions later in the year (Blood Brothers and All Shook Up) will only be paying 5-6 leading players. From 2014, they say all their productions will be fully professional and if the standard that Oklahoma demonstrated is any example, we will soon be seeing a major new force in musical theatre. I also must add that Harvest Rain has a training programme which teaches young up and coming performers about the rudiments of professional theatre, in this way filling a huge void that needs to be addressed in the northern capital.

Keep an eye on Harvest Rain, hopefully their magnificent Oklahoma will pick up a few Helpmann nominations to add to the credibility needed to move this company forward. Our industry can be very slow in embracing new initiatives, so here are two that hopefully will move forward in success quickly. They deserve all the support that can be mustered.

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Les has written 59 articles on AussieTheatre | Read more articles by