Terry Moran was a senior Victorian government bureaucrat before he was chairman of the Melbourne Theatre Company, but since he took on the role 18 months ago he has learnt the error of his ways.
“I neglected theatre in my previous life,” Mr Moran said yesterday — and he wasn’t talking about how often he attended first nights. As former premier Steve Bracks’ chief of the Premier’s department which oversaw the arts portfolio, he knows why and how the arts funding pie gets sliced.
“Theatre is fairly underdeveloped in government support and the reasons for that go back decades,” he said. “We have got to the point where governments have to do something about theatre — not just the MTCs and the STCs — there’s a real hunger for theatre in the community and governments have to get behind it in the regions and outer suburbs and we want to have a debate on the issue,” he said.
Moran’s appointment at the MTC coincides with the new broom that swept through its Southbank headquarters in 2012. The departure of long-time chairman Derek Young, artistic director Simon Phillips and general manager Ann Tonks led to the appointments of new artistic director Brett Sheehy, executive director Virginia Lovett, and a raft of other new artistic appointments.
Since then Moran, Sheehy and Lovett have been working to reinvent the MTC by finding ways of building new audiences while keeping their established subscriber base, and producing theatre that is both innovative and audience friendly.
While Sheehy and Lovett do the day-to-day lifting, Moran — one of the most connected men in the country — has been busy stating the case for theatre to politicians and senior bureaucrats at both state and federal level.
Moran was speaking yesterday at Lovett’s announcement of the MTC’s positive 2013 financial results. He took time out to explain how the MTC is the poor cousin of Victorian arts by pointing to a financial chart slipped into Lovett’s PowerPoint presentation.
The charts showed that while the MTC has an annual audience of 263,000, it gets $486,000 from the state while the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has an audience of 238,146 and gets $2.3 million. The Victorian Opera has an audience of just under 50,000 and gets $3.9 million.
Although Moran wasn’t saying it, he might now regret assisting Bracks in throwing so much cash at the VO when it was established in 2005. But the 2013 results show that while government grants only contribute 9.3% to its $23.2 million annual revenue, it’s travelling well.
Lovett said last year’s season saw 71.5% of its income come from ticket sales –$13.6 million — its highest result in 60 years and $750,000 more than its previous record in 2011. The company’s final net profit was $37,232, which sounds tiny from a $23.2 million revenue, but Lovett described this as “spectacular” because of sluggish sales in the first quarter, the half million dollars (in cash and kind) cost to stage its inaugural “Neon” season of independent theatre (which returned $121,000 in box office), and finally because of the $486,000 it pays in payroll tax.
The MTC is a department of Melbourne University and is compelled to pay payroll tax which effectively wipes out the grants it gets from the Victorian government. The only other major arts company that pays this tax is the Queensland Theatre Company which is a statutory authority, but it is the most subsidised arts company in the country and gets $3.6 million annually from the Queensland government. (In 2013 the STC saw a turnover of $35 million with only 7% of that coming from government grants and the rest mainly coming from its 290,000 paid attendances.)
Moran, Lovett and Sheehy say they are continuing the work of their MTC predecessors in trying to make MTC exempt from paying the tax. The triumvirates’ grand plan is to raise more government investment to help assist its vision of — in Moran’s words — making Melbourne “recognised as a centre for theatre”, not just in Australia but the world. This recalls the ambition of former premier Jeff Kennett who in the 1990s imagined the theatre centres of the world as being Broadway, the West End and … Exhibition Street.
The MTC crews’ ambitions are not so commercial, but they say they are determined to use MTC’s status to develop a stronger theatre culture in Melbourne and the state by building more engagement with the independent theatre companies, more focus on new Australian writing with more commissions which it’s hoped will result in productions, developing more co-productions with smaller companies and commercial producers (as in this year’s Gordon Frost co-production of Once) and overseas companies, touring more both regionally and overseas, and extending its education program and family theatre offering.
The company began acting on all these plans in 2013 and the fact that a third of 70,000 single ticket sales were sold to first-time MTC attendees is proof, they say, of their efforts to reach new audiences.
The MTC’s subscriber base of 19,816 — which is the highest in the country — remained steady. Sheehy said yesterday that he was prepared to lose some subscribers last year because he thought the change in direction might lead to a drop-off, but the result is evidence of subscriber loyalty. It might also prove that MTC audiences are more adventurous than he thought.
Sheehy said last year’s David Williamson’s affectionately critical bio-play about Rupert Murdoch, Rupert, has attracted interest overseas since it was invited to last year’s international theatre festival in Washington DC after its premiere in Melbourne. “I’m confident it will be seen on the West End with a British cast by the end of next year,” he said.
Its current play The Speechmaker by the Working Dog television team cannot extend its sold-out season because of cast commitments, but Sheehy said there may be a return season next year.
Although the MTC is eyeing bigger audiences, the age of digital delivery of its works to far-flung locations is still very much a long-term plan. The model established by the National Theatre in London — filming its plays for digital release — is still complicated by working through pay issues with the actors’ union and the $250,000-plus costs of filming a play.
MTC 2013 season in paid attendances: One Man, Two Guvnors (33,693), Rupert (27,348), The Crucible (25,442), True Minds (19,715), Other Desert Cities (19,506), The Beast (19,162), The Cherry Orchard (19,090), The Mountaintop (17,928), The Other Place (16,676), Solomon and Marion (14,107), Constellations (13,228), Red (8,487), The Book of Everything (7,023).