Melbourne’s indie theatre-makers, Watch This, turn their gallery exhibit into an online celebration in five acts.
On Sunday, March 22, Stephen Sondheim – arguably the most influential composer/ lyricist of our time – turned 90 years old. All around the world functions and performances were planned in celebration of this momentous occasion and Australia was no exception. Enter, COVID-19.
Just over a week ago, The Guardian described the devastation the coronavirus has unleashed on the arts with major venue closures and festival/ tour cancellations world-wide. That was before Monday 16 March, when the federal government brought in bans on gatherings of over 500. These were scaled-down only days later to apply to groups of 100 or more.
“It felt a bit like quicksand describes Watch This Artistic Director, Sonya Suares. “And ultimately, this is a global health pandemic. Our first responsibility must be to play our role and limit transmission to ensure we #flattenthecurve and save lives.
“But my heart absolutely goes out to artists because we are a vulnerable community at the best of times. In this situation, where we cannot come together and share stories, then many of us have no livelihood for an indeterminate period.”
The online platform, I Lost My Gig, currently tallies the lost income recorded in Australia’s performing arts industries at $280m and rising. Let’s not forget that this sector – worth $111bn nationally – was already reeling from having its federal department axed late last year. Quicksand would seem to be an accurate description, an industry in free-fall.
Hardest hit, of course, is the small to medium independent sector, which is right where grass-roots company, Watch This, live.
“We had been gearing up for a pop-up gallery exhibit with the same title, championing our incredible costume designers – all women – and taking audiences on an immersive journey behind the scenes. It was to be part of Darebin Arts’ inaugural FUSE Festival and it was a really exciting departure for us. We’d once again assembled these incredible women, Crisanne Fox, Chloe Greaves, Zoë Rouse, Emily Collett and Rhiannon Irving, as well our wonderful photographer, Jodie Hutchinson, for a labour of love.
“So when it came time to make the call, it hurt. We had no interest in recklessly drawing people out of doors against explicit public health advice. And simultaneously, we were determined not to let the side down … or let Sondheim’s 90th birthday slide by without marking it. We are, after all, a Sondheim repertory company. It didn’t feel right!”
What they have achieved instead is rather extraordinary. In a matter of five days, they have woven material filmed for the exhibit together with older rehearsal and production footage and photography into a Schmick series of 5 x 6-minute episodes. And yes, they managed to release Episode 1: Meet the Designers, last night – right on time for Sondheim’s big day.
“It’s turned out to be something rather special,” Suares says. “I mean, it nearly broke us. I don’t believe everyone can just magically transform all of their art into viable online projects. But in this case, we were able to pivot quickly and get something equally exciting together for a digital audience. In fact, over the arc of the five episodes, it lifts off from our own world into a call to arms about sustainability and greening our practice as a whole [industry].
“It was a real labour of love. Certainly, many colleagues have already had an emotional response to it, in the context of what is happening to our beloved industry. So our hope is that it can serve as a ray of light in dark times.”
The sun is still shining on Sondheim’s milestone birthday in NYC. So why not join in the digital celebration with Watch This and tune in to what – in the words of the man himself – is “The Art of Making Art“?
Dropping via Watch This’ Facebook page each Sunday night for the next four weeks.
If you wish to support independent theatre at this difficult time, Watch This is DGR endorsed and can receive donations directly at https://www.watchthis.net.au/support.php