The notion of ‘home’ inspires The Old Fitzroy’s Theatre’s season 2020.
Which is why, in a striking departure from the industry norm, Red Line Productions’ season brochure is devoted to portraits of the Woolloomooloo pub’s eclectic community rather than the actors who will grace its stage over the course of the year.
But the vision for 2020 looks well beyond the locale observable from the corner of Dowling and Cathedral Streets. It is, says Red Line Productions’ Artistic Director Andrew Henry, a response to what he believes has been a “seismic shift” in Sydney’s independent theatre landscape over the past five years.
“We’ve seen Calamity Jane going from the Hayes to Belvoir to Melbourne. We’ve seen The Wolves going from the Old Fitz to Belvoir, and our A View from the Bridge play at the Ensemble and Glen St Theatre,” Henry explains.
“There’s been a lot of growth in the indie sector and now it’s informing a lot of what you see on the subsidised stages. But for us, it’s still an impossible economic environment to work in. It is impossible to make work and be financially sustainable.”
In order for the Old Fitzroy to continue to be a creative crucible for independent theatre, Henry says, Red Line has to think big and beyond the confines of its 60-seat basement ‘home’.
“This year is all about the Woolloomooloo community but it’s about taking steps to becoming a national theatre company, too.”
With that goal in mind, Red Line is producing its first show with the Sydney Festival, Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined, an ambitious reworking of Reg Livermore’s Betty Blokk-Buster Follies of 1974. The show will be staged throughout January in the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent in Hyde Park.
“We’ve been working on this for the last four years,” says Henry. “Wesley [Enoch] and the Sydney Festival have put a giant amount of trust in us to make something really, really huge, and Reg has given us his blessing to us to re-make the show for a contemporary audience.”
Betty Blokk-Buster Follies graced the stage of the Balmain Bijou in 1974 and made a household name of its titular, feather duster-wielding hausfrau. It played for eight months in Sydney before embarking on a national tour. The live album of the show went platinum.
The Bijou is no more, but now Betty lives again in a brand-new show directed by Craig Ilott (Velvet, Smoke & Mirrors) and starring Josh Quong Tart.
Mary Rachel Brown and Louis Nowra, writers with long Old Fitzroy pedigrees as well as national profiles, have created the script. Oscar-winner Tim Chappell (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) is designing the wardrobe, Brian Thompson the set.
“The Spiegeltent has always felt like the crown jewel in the Festival,” Henry says. “It’s an institution in itself and people love it so much. For the Festival to give a theatre company with a 60-seat venue opportunity to produce a show in a venue that seats 10 times that is a huge opportunity and it allows us to collaborate interstate to an even greater degree than we already have.”
The year’s second large-scale, beyond-home project launches Red Line into the world of family entertainment.
“We’ve bought all of the rights to Andy Griffiths’ Just! series,” says Henry. “Just Shocking!, Just Disgusting!, Just Crazy! … we’ve got them all. We’ve commissioned Robin Goldsworthy to adapt them into a stage show that’s touring nationally from September next year after a world premiere at Glen St Theatre.
“Then it’s everywhere from the Seymour Centre, to Parramatta, Penrith, Rooty Hill and then interstate. “It’s a huge undertaking for us, a show that’s basically for 8 to 108-year-olds.”
The home season
The 2020 season in the Old Fitzroy Theatre opens with the world premiere of a devised work, Our Blood Runs in the Streets.
Created by a team led by Shane Anthony (who directed Anatomy of a Suicide at the Old Fitzroy in 2019) and inspired by Sydney’s troubling history of anti-Gay and Transgender hate crimes, the production blends elements of aerial, physical and verbatim theatre into an exploration of prejudice and the possibility of reconciliation.
Late March sees the opening of the Australian premiere of playwright Aleshea Harris’ Is God Is, presented by Sydney indie company Empress Theatre, producers of 2019’s Old Fitzroy hit Cypress Avenue.
Taking the form of a modern myth, the play follows two sisters, Racine and Anaia, from the American South to the California desert on a mission to exact righteous revenge. Nothing and no one can stand in their way.
“Is God Is was the toast of New York two years ago, and is about to be turned into a film,” says Henry. “Put it this way, we’re very lucky that the playwright’s agent loves us.”
In April, Louis Nowra moves from his usual spot in the front bar to the stage to perform The Twelfth of Never, a candid autobiographical performance looking back at the playwright’s fractured family and entirely unconventional boyhood.
After that short season, the space comes under director Alexander Berlage’s control for the Sydney premiere of American writer Robert Askins’ wicked comedy Hand to God, the story of a Texan teenager who finds an unexpectedly terrifying outlet for his grief and anxiety at a Christian Puppet Ministry.
“Alex Berlage came to us back in 2014 as a lighting designer and now he’s one of the most prolific and exciting directors in the country,” says Henry. “And this show is perfect for him. It’s absolutely outrageous. Think Book of Mormon meets Sesame Street.”
Sydney indie company Glitterbomb take over the room in June for the world premiere of The Pageant (Or, Honey Boo Boo Blood & Gore), a surreal exploration of the kiddie beauty pageant industry.
July belongs to the late black American writer Ntzoke Shange’s “choreopoem” For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, which weaves the stories of seven women who have suffered racist and sexist oppression. Charmaine Bingwa, who appeared at the Fitz in 2017’s Doubt, will direct.
Melbourne-based playwright Patricia Cornelius’ multi-award-winning Do Not Go Gentle occupies the theatre as winter gives way to spring, in a production directed by Dino Dimitriadis (Angels in America).
“It’s an incredible play that has never been given a life in Sydney and we’re honoured that Patricia is trusting us with it,” Henry says. “I’ve been hunting this play down for four years and it’s an opportunity for actors of a particular vintage to work on something that is about people approaching the North Pole of their life and it is incredible.”
The late Sarah Kane’s stunning drama Cleansed will be produced in September (directed by Dimitriadis) and Clemence Williams returns with a second instalment of her exploration of the classics in Chorus: Elektra from September 16.
Henry says he deliberately hasn’t programmed anything. There are some things you can’t plan for, he says.
“I really feel like I can’t predict what I could put into the theatre at the time there’s an American presidential election happening. All eyes are going to be on that and what it means for the world.
“I don’t want to make the call yet because I feel we have a responsibility to put something on stage at that time that really speaks to the world as it is after what is, arguably, one of the important elections of our lifetime.”