Andrew Upton: "Every show is like an iceberg – the audience sees only the tip"

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Arts power-couple Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett copped their fair share of criticism when it was announced they would take over as joint artistic directors of Sydney Theatre Company back in 2008 (most of it before they’d actually started in the roles). There was a perception out there that, despite their joint experience in the theatre, they’d been picked for their star power, rather than their abilities (actor Colin Moody, for example, questioned their appointment as he quit STC’s Actors Company).
Over the past several years, Upton and Blanchett cemented their place and proved that they were up to the task. They’ve managed to bring in both audiences and significant corporate sponsorship, which has allowed the company to take more artistic risks. Though the profits haven’t set records every year, the company has maintained a strong position, both financially and artistically in quite challenging times. Over that time, the company managed to achieve critical success, and bring a lot of exciting artists on board.
Blanchett has now departed the role (though the 2013 season was programmed under her directorship) and Upton is sole artistic director.
The 2014 season looks to be one of the company’s most innovative yet. Upton describes it as a season of masterful playwrights, and it includes a lot of choices that represent significant artistic risk. One such move is a production of Macbeth starring Hugo Weaving, in which the audience will sit on the stage, while the actors will perform in Sydney Theatre’s 900-seat auditorium. It’s not just bold artistically, but it’s a big statement to use a 900-seat theatre for two months, playing to only around 300 a night.
We asked Upton a few questions about his first year flying solo; a year which saw a huge hit in The Secret River, and an unexpected surprise when Upton had to step in at the last minute to direct Waiting for Godot because original director Tamas Ascher had to pull out because of a back injury.
Andrew-Upton-WEBIt’s been your first year as solo artistic director. Has it been difficult to go it alone?
Well, while I have been solo this year, the season was in fact both mine and Cate’s. We programmed it before she left at the end of last year. Difficult is not a word I’d use. Of course there have been many challenges but the job continues to be exhilarating.
Has Cate still been a big presence around the company? Was the transition strange at first?
Cate was in The Maids, one of the biggest shows of the year. She is an important part of the company’s personality and history.
There have been many highlights for STC throughout 2013. A few shows weren’t massive hits, but you didn’t present any work that failed to reach an audience. What has been the highlight for you, personally?
Probably my favourite show of the year was The Secret River because it was so long in coming and in some ways represented a culmination of our time sharing the job. It was great to work closely with Neil Armfield on such powerful material and with such a beautiful cast and creative team … We’ve had some amazing shows though – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Little Mercy, Waiting for Godot, The Maids, Fury and Storm Boy to pull out a few. And some mesmeric performances – Helen Thomson in Mrs Warren’s Profession, Paul Blackwell in Vere, Sarah Peirse in Fury, Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth Debicki and Isabelle Huppert in The Maids, Ewen Leslie, Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin in Ros and Guil, Harriet Dyer in Machinal, Eryn-Jean Norvill in Romeo and Juliet, Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins in Godot (and Luke in Little Mercy too) and there are many more I could mention.  None of these stand-out moments could have happened without the teams around them. In business terms, many things we’ve worked towards over several years came to fruition, such as Suncorp Twenties, which mean that at every single performance STC presents there are tickets available for just $20. Also this year, the future of the company in Walsh Bay was secured with 45-year leases at both The Wharf and Sydney Theatre and an extraordinary philanthropic gift from the Packer family, which allows us to plan into the future with confidence. Our ‘School Drama’ program was expanded further, trialling interstate. It’s been a big year.
In every season, there must be works that are pretty easy to put in motion, find the right creative team, and reach wider audiences. But there would also be those that are a hard slog to make happen; real labours of love. What plays in 2013 would you put in this category?
All theatre is a labour of love. Every show is like an iceberg – the audience sees only the tip of what is an amazingly collaborative effort from multiple people.
It’s also been the year of star-power duos – The Maids with Cate and Isabelle Huppert, Ros and Guil with Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz, and Waiting for Godot with Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh. How much does the fact that they’re all box office-gold affect casting decisions?
Casting is based on appropriate connections to a work; it’s always about getting the right teams for the right shows.
How was it to be thrown in the deep-end with Godot? Did you have any desire to direct it?
It was daunting and intimidating initially to be thrown in the deep-end with Waiting for Godot, as I would have never have thought I could or would direct it. However, the cast and crew around me were so into it and I came to enjoy every minute of working on this brilliant play.
How do you think next year’s season compares with what’s just been?
There’s a lot of great theatre to make and see – some terrific collaborations and teams are coming together. Hopefully, another fantastic year.
[box]Featured image: The Secret River. Photography by Heidrun Lohr[/box]

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