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Is God Is

"How do we suddenly detach from this work?"

Director Anna Houston counts the costs involved in the COVID-19-related postponement of the Australian premiere of Is God Is - and it's more than just financial.

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Show: Is God Is
Company: Empress Theatre
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Counting the cost of COVID-19

Date: 16 Mar 2020

On Saturday afternoon, two weeks out from opening night, the Is God Is company came together to run the show.

The energy and confidence in the room was galvanising. It felt as though we were unearthing a rare jewel: a text that bounced off the page onto the rehearsal room floor with shocking clarity and texture and weight.

We finished the run in a stunned kind of silence. We held something special in our hands that afternoon, something rare and precious and alive.

After the run we took a break, arranged our chairs in a circle, sat together as an ensemble and talked. We talked about our play: its narrative, its themes, and their reverberations – how the conversation of the play intersected with the conversation of the room. How playwright Aleshea Harris’ questions and provocations got under the skin, surprised us, challenged us. How we held space together, constructing a work that felt new and revelatory and necessary.

And while we talked, in my back pocket, my damn phone would not stop buzzing.

I didn’t check to see who was calling. I knew who it was and I knew what it was about. And as we sat and spoke about the play and what it meant to the room, I willed my phone to stop ringing.

It didn’t. At the other end was our co-producer Polly Brett. Then Red Line Artistic Director Andrew Henry. Then Polly, and then Andrew again.

We wouldn’t be opening in two weeks.

In late December last year, we began to assemble a cast and creative team whose talent, grace and generosity still astonishes me.

We held our first read on January 20th and began rehearsing part time. There are jobs and families and partners and lives to rehearse around, impossible deadlines to meet, and mounting costs that must be paid.

Here’s a smattering of those upfront costs: performance rights, rehearsal venue hires, production photography, marketing costs, set builds and costume purchases.

Here’s what happens when your show gets postponed: the thousands of dollars you have already invested … disappears.

With no immediate box office, that money is on hold, spent on a show that no longer has a season. But if we do push ahead, with poor ticket sales, how will the actors be paid? The designers? How will we pay our stage manager, our assistant director?

Then there’s the hours of work every single actor and creative has poured into building this play. This incredible ensemble that has given everything they have emotionally, physically, intellectually. Sacrificing time with friends and family, juggling rehearsals with work schedules, summoning the superhuman reserves of energy and creative instinct demanded by a text like Is God Is.

Andrew Henry made an extremely tough call, but it’s the right call, and I consider us profoundly lucky in these circumstances.

Red Line has been a source of phenomenal support and guidance as we figure out our next steps, guaranteeing us a season in the second half of the year, and absorbing our initial financial outlay until we’re back on our feet. The show of support and solidarity from Red Line and our larger arts community has been overwhelming.

There is, of course, another cost.

How do we suddenly detach from this work, from the dark places it demands we travel to, and from each other? We’ve formed a tight knit ensemble that must now rapidly untangle. Disjointed, disconnected, dispirited. The momentum of seven weeks intense creative practice dissipated just two weeks before opening.

I spent three hours on the phone, calling our cast and creative team, breaking the sad news.

But also sharing the silver lining. We’ll be back. And the work will be stronger, richer, deeper and more dangerous than before. In the second half of the year, the Old Fitz will make room for us, and our hard work will not have been in vain. We will sell tickets, cover costs, pay our artists and bring this stunning play to searing, vivid life.

Aleshea Harris’ phenomenal work demands an audience, and if the audience isn’t here right now, we’ll wait. We’ll wait and trust and believe that they will be here when the sector and this city bounces back. These are exceptional times that demand exceptional stores of resilience and kindness.

So, we disentangle from our theatre family and go back to our separate lives. For now, every member of the Is God Is family has time to reflect on seven weeks of hard work, and consider how we move forward.

We held something rare and precious in our hands. A play, alive and fragile. We’ll find it again, when Sydney is ready. Until then we must look after each other, give whatever support we can, and turn up when it counts.

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