In America recently, one theatre manager had a bright idea, a way to allow audiences to express their feelings about the show they’d just seen.
“They painted one end of a wall in the foyer with ‘LOVED IT’ and the other end with ‘HATED IT’ and asked the audience to stand at the point they felt represented their experience and talk about it with the people around them,” says Simon Hinton, the artistic director of Wollongong’s Merrigong Theatre Company. “I find that so fascinating.”
Is this the new look for the foyer of the Illawara Performing Arts Centre for Season 2018?
Not this year, Hinton says. But he admires any theatre that goes the extra mile to connect with its audience.
“We’re doing a lot of thinking about the audience experience,” Hinton says. “Theatre is a social event, so how do we prevent audiences getting in their cars and going home straight after the show? How can we encourage them to stay and disuss what they’ve seen, and perhaps talk about the next thing they want to see?”
There’s no shortage of things to talk about in Merrigong’s 2018 season, which begins in February with Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White, a hit comedy that turns a family gathering in a ritzy beachside holiday home into a laugh-a-minute war zone of racial and family politics.
In March, the award-winning musical Calamity Jane comes to town with Virginia Gay as the buckskin-wearing frontier gal with, in this version, a bi-curious heart of gold.
Later in March, Palestinian actor-writer Amer Hlehel brings his internationally acclaimed portrait of the revered poet Taha Muhammad Ali to the stage, while in April, IPAC runs red hot with the arrival of the raunchy circus cabaret Limbo.
It’s part of a season designed to reflect and cater to the region’s rapidly diversifying population, Hinton says.
The season also features a number of productions from companies and artists Merrigong has built relationships with over recent years, such as Australian Dance Theatre, Circa and Brink Productions. “They’re all companies who take their audience on a journey with them. So they are all in there in 2018.”
Hinton says he’s witnessed “massive change” in Merrigong’s audience.
“Things we are able to do now would have been impossible even five years ago,” he says. “We need to make sure we are reflecting the diverse thinking and changing attitudes of our community and provide a place where we can examine those things.”
Even five years ago, subscribers would come up to Hinton in the foyer and “tut-tut about the number of brown faces in the brochure”.
“They would tell me they weren’t very interested in ‘that stuff’. They were polite but that was the attitude. Now it’s completely changed. This year, Black is the New White is the number one pick up from our subscribers by some margin. That is a real shift.”
Wollongong tends to be thought of as either a rust-belt city or a beach city. It’s certainly the latter, with 17 beaches within easy reach. While the city retains its reputation as a heavy industry town, however, more people now work at the University than in steelmaking and at least 20,000 white collar workers commute to Sydney for work every day.
In recent years, too, “the Gong” has become a haven for artists escaping Sydney’s cost-of-living pressures.
While the city has its streak of working class conservatism when it comes to the arts, Wollongong audiences have always been keen to see theatre with a political edge, says Hinton. “It’s always been a very political town and a very politically astute town. It’s always been a very diverse town, too, thanks to the steelworks, which attracted people from all over Europe.
“But now we have Syrian and Sudanese people in the area and a level of gentrification, too. I think it drives people to want to engage in the culture, to think about what their town is and who their community is.”
Audience attitudes are evolving, says Hinton.
“There has been a massive overhaul in the way people communicate, find out about things and engage with them and there are things about the transactional nature of our business that suddenly seem, I think, quite antiquated.
“The idea that we produce a show or buy in a show, then we tell people about it, and sell tickets to it … I don’t think it really reflects the way people want to engage or even pay for things now. That is a real challenge and we’re embracing it with both hands.”
A regional company is ideally placed to experiment, Hinton believes. “We are not distracted by having to compete with other theatre companies and other venues in our region.
“I think you’ll see increasing innovation in the industry coming from regional centres because the risks in innovation are lower and in my experience, regional audiences are more prepared to take chances big city audiences shy away from. People are willing to give things a go because they can’t opt for something less risky in another theatre down the road.”
In Hinton’s opinion, issues that keep audiences at arm’s length are systemic in the industry.
“We are casting the audience in the role of consumer and we’re selling art to them in a way that doesn’t communicate its value beyond boiling it down to $65 a ticket,” he says. “Then we use marketing speak to try and make them buy one. You can’t have a dialogue through a shopping list. I want to find ways where the audience feels it has a voice from the beginning and feels connected to what we do.”
Hinton has a plan to involve the community in the programming and curation of show in the future. “It won’t be until 2019 but we are thinking about removing ticket sales altogether and looking for a different kind of engagement with the audience.
“For example, community commissioning, where we will ask groups of our audience to come together and invest in the making of the work from the beginning, rather than just being marketed to with a neat product once it’s made. It will involve some technology we are developing now to move out of a traditional ticketing system.”
Hinton is even up for questioning his own role in the theatre.
“How do we test the idea of expert curation of our programs in a world where people want to choose their own things?” he says. “How do you deal with that in an industry where, traditionally, white middle-aged men such as myself have had he power to be the gatekeepers? We need to look at the power structures and who sit in those positions.
“As much as we write inclusive policies we will never really be diverse until diverse voices are in the process of decision making. The real paradox of the arts is what’s on stage can be innovative yet the business around it is actually really archaic and hasn’t innovated very much at all.”
Audiences, Hinton says, are ready and able to be more deeply involved. Some old habits will need to be broken, however. “The concerning thing for me is we’ve taught audiences to sit back and wait and cherry pick rather than be part of something. We need to get rid of the idea that going to the theatre is just about buying a ticket. We need to ask the audience, do you want to be part of this? If you do, then here are all the different moments in the process where you can engage. Some of it will be before the show is even made. Then there is no question that you are coming to see it because you are one of the people who made it happen.”
Hinton’s Hot Tickets:
Commissioned by Merrigong Theatre Company from playwright Lachlan Philpott, Lost Boys examines the hate crimes against and murders of gay men in Sydney in the 1980s.
“We are supporting independent artists and Lost Boys is really important for us. This play comes at a really interesting moment in society,” Hinton says. “Same-sex marriage has passed, but the stuff that resurfaced in that process, and that was given voice in that that process is looked at in this play. The first half is set in the 1980s when there was a spate of terrible crimes, and the second half fast-forwards to now, where people who committed those atrocities are brining up their own children.”
The production will be directed by Leland Kean, who joined Merrigong after a decade as the artistic director of Sydney’s Rocksurfers Theatre Company and the Old Fitzroy Theatre.
“I brought Leland into the company and I said for the first two years you are not allowed to direct anything,” Hinton says. “I wanted him to focus on producing. But obviously, part of bringing him here was to exploit his great artistic ability.”
“A beautiful solo piece by a beautiful artist from Palestine, Amer Hlehel. I’m really excited that we’re providing a performance in Arabic because that’s a community we want to reach out to. We want people to see that coming to the theatre isn’t about coming on our western European terms. It’s about finding experiences that reflect the diversity and interests of our community.”
“We are super excited about this. It’s an extraordinary visual-physical piece from Swedish director Jakob Ahlbom that plays on all the tropes of the horror movie. Its not for the faint hearted it must be said – lots of blood on stage!”