While many of us would to and fro about what to do after school, Bonnie Lythgoe never had any doubts.
The former British dancer who found success as a choreographer on the West End, set about pursuing a thrilling career in producing and directing. Fast forward a few decades and Lythgoe has managed to build an unparalleled career in television and the international theatre scene including producing shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and more recently bringing her acclaimed British pantomimes to North American and Australian audiences.
Since the news of the virus broke, the devastation to the Australian arts sector caused by social distancing and government enforced lockdowns, has brought the industry to its knees. With venues closing their doors, festivals cancelled and seasons postponed the livelihood of thousands of artists, performers, venue and technical crew is up in the air and the fate of many productions remains uncertain.
AussieTheatre caught up with the incredibly talented Bonnie Lythgoe for a first hand insight into how the pandemic is affecting independent theatre productions and her upcoming Australian production Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.
Can you tell us a bit about your history of producing theatre in Australia?
When I came down to Australia to judge So You think you Can Dance I realised that there was a lack of theatre productions for families. I started to investigate what families were watching and to be honest it was very little. I wanted to change that and because I was brought up with British panto I knew this was what was needed for the Australian audience. Trying to convince theatres here was not easy and it took many meetings, emails and showing footage of the British productions to convince them. Thankfully the State Theatre in Sydney finally said yes and then I had the biggest challenge of getting sets and costumes shipped to Australia.
Have you been negatively affected by the current closure?
Without doubt everyone has been affected by the current closure, the panto (Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs) had to be rescheduled all the company had to agree to wait until 2021 before they could perform. Money was lost on holding auditions and booking rehearsal rooms and of course the cast lost money this year. We had to immediately stop & shipping to Australia was held up until next year. I think we lost a few tickets for the performances but luckily not many and new contracts had to be issued.
What has been the response from your contractors, cast and crew of your upcoming production?
All of the cast have been amazing and because of the current situation have all agreed to come back in 2021. Of course they are upset but totally understand that I had to put their safety first. The theatre management were also in agreement that we had to reschedule for 2021 and the crew were absolutely fine and are no doubt enjoying a well earned rest.
How did your audience respond to the news of cancelled performances?
Because our audience are very loyal to us they were sad that the theatre production of Snow White was postponed but happy that we will return in 2021 and make them laugh again. I was concerned that we would lose some of our audience but we haven’t and most of the people who had already booked have decided to keep their tickets for next year.
Theatres need people and people need theatre.
What strategies are you implementing to make sure you come out as strong as possible on the other side?
It is impossible to say, all we can do is keep our options flexible and constantly react and review the ever changing social and government restrictions.
Do you think there is enough support around for independent producers during these times? If not how could the industry support struggling independent producers?
Absolutely not and self financing is hard enough in normal circumstances let alone what is happening now. Many of the independent producers will not be able to recover and that means people will miss out on going to the theatre. The only way forward is for Government understanding and supporting how important the arts and theatre is and help to get our cast members back on the stage and working again.
What are the challenges you foresee in the immediate future following COVID-19?
When this passes and we can all be together again we need our theatre loving audience to feel safe being next to each other again and encourage them to support our artists. Re-waken our performing arts industry in Australia so that we can come back and share with one another the beauty of live performances.
Have you ever experienced anything like this in your career, and if so what was it?
Thankfully I have never experienced anything like this before and hope I never have to again. The closest I came to a closure was when the BBC went on strike and the TV series I was dancing on was cancelled until the following year, it was pretty awful at the time but nothing like this.
What advice would you give other producers struggling in the current climate?
Keep persevering and never giving up.
I think we should remember that our audience come to the theatre to escape and it doesn’t matter what age they are it is our dedication as producers to give our audience a safe and wonderful time. Theatres need people and people need theatre.
We don’t know when our industry can re-emerge from the shadows of coronavirus, but we can safely assume it will be one of the last to do so when restrictions are carefully lifted.