Brett Sheehy: "I hope the independent sector at least feels we’re all in the same game together"

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Brett Sheehy has just finished his first full year as artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company with its 2013 program of plays and events crafted by him. He moved to the MTC late last year after running the Melbourne Festival as artistic director for four years. He has been joined at the MTC by his team which includes general manager Virginia Lovett (from the Melbourne International Comedy Festival), literary manager Chris Mead (Playwrighting Australia), associate directors Sam Strong (Griffin Theatre) and Leticia Cáceres, as well as a new casting director.
Sheehy’s was a surprise appointment to the MTC given he has been regarded as a creative producer rather than practised as a director, writer, actor or set designer, which is the usual career path for state theatre company artistic directors.
As a festival director (he has also been artistic director of Adelaide and Sydney festivals), Sheehy has applied his creative producer’s skills at the MTC. He has rebranded the company’s livery and initiated a number of programs that have brought it attention from artists and audiences not usually seen at the MTC.
Today the MTC announced that  its 2013 season “has achieved the highest box office in its 60 year history at $13,500,000, a margin of $780,000 over the previous record year of 2011”.
An MTC press release said the company recorded its highest number of single ticket (non-subscription) sales in a decade and single ticket attendees topped 70,000 with nearly 33% first time attendees to the company.
In the release Sheehy said he was: “Thrilled with the result, especially given the number of risky initiatives undertaken this year. All credit must go to the MTC team who had no additional resources to successfully implement a raft of programs which increased our overall activities by 25%.”
Daily Review asked Sheehy some questions about his first year running Australia’s oldest professional theatre company in the country.
brettsheehy2-WEBThis has been your first full year with your new team on board. So have you achieved what you hoped to when you pitched your ideas for the MTC  to the board?
I pitched 14 key elements in the original vision I presented to our board.  They are listed below, with their outcomes. We have yet to activate/achieve the final two points.

  1. Maintain our subscription base with a mainstage season of quality work, and build single ticket sales (done and resulting in our highest annual box office ever – $13.5 million, by a margin of $780,000, as well as our highest non-subscription single ticket sales in a decade).

Additionally we undertook to:

  1. Open MTC up even more to new and younger audiences (achieved with programming decisions such as Constellations and The Beast, and the NEON Festival of Independent Theatre).
  2. Build our international profile through securing presentation of our work on an international platform (our production of Rupert is going to Washington DC – our first tour in 30 years) and explore the possibility of presenting international work on our home platform (One Man, Two Guvnors was our first ever international production in an MTC program).
  3. Explore cross-artform theatrical practice (we developed and programmed Complexity of Belonging for 2014).
  4. Rename ‘MTC Theatre’ as ‘Southbank Theatre’.
  5. Enter into co-producing arrangements with more partners (The Beast was with the Comedy Festival and Melbourne Festival, One Man, Two Guvnors was with Arts Centre Melbourne, Complexity of Belonging in 2014 is with Chunky Move, Marlin in 2014 is with Arena Theatre Company, and Once in 2014  is with Gordon Frost Organisation).
  6. Build a relationship with the independent theatre sector (we presented the first NEON Festival of Independent Theatre).
  7. Explore bringing non-theatre artists into MTC’s milieu (we engaged international visual art star Callum Morton to design Other Desert Cities).
  8. Build links outside MTC’s regular demographic (we launched MTC Connect with Multicultural Arts Victoria and presented Neon Festival of Independent Theatre).
  9. Develop a policy to start to address the issue of women directors (we launched the new Women Directors Program led by our associate director Leticia Cáceres).
  10. Make a fresh commitment to Australian writing (we appointed former Griffin Theatre Company artistic director and CEO Sam Strong, and Playwriting Australia Director and CEO Chris Mead, to the MTC team).
  11. Make family programming a part of MTC’s annual activities (we programmed The Book of Everything for 2013, and Big Bad Wolf and Marlin for 2014).
  12. Invigorate the Southbank precinct with late-night live music at Southbank Theatre (not yet activated).
  13. Install and activate cinema facilities at Southbank Theatre to screen films relating to theatre in general or Melbourne theatre and arts programs in particular (not yet activated).

So yes, we achieved much of what we set out to do.
What do you think has been the biggest achievement this year?
Taking big risks and having those risks pay off. They included the Neon Festival of Independent Theatre, going out to Melbourne with the unnamed Zeitgeist slot (which turned into Eddie Perfect’s first play The Beast), being the first company in the world to tackle Rupert Murdoch on stage (David Williamson’s Rupert), presenting Simon Stone’s MTC debut (The Cherry Orchard, with the inevitable controversy around adaptations), and partnering in a massive financial undertaking (by our standards) with One Man, Two Guvnors.
NEON we  assume was a necessary risk but was it a bigger risk than you thought?
Happily there was no financial risk in Neon – we decided to put a match to around $500K in cash and contra and wear that loss, which meant we weren’t sweating on box office. That each production had sold-out performances was just great for the artists involved to take away that revenue. The artistic risk was personally significant since I have never before presented a season of work for which I was entirely curatorially hands-off. I had no idea what was going to end up on stage – works satirising or criticising MTC?, works which were offensive?, works which were incomprehensible to our usual audiences? There was considerable concern about some of the content of the works amongst various people, but my response was always simply “If it’s legal, they can do it.”
How were the audience numbers for Neon?
Over 5151 ticket buyers to Neon Festival shows, and 685 attendees to Neon Extra activities.
Is this a long term investment meaning the program is now ongoing or is it limited by funding sources?
Certainly we have made the same commitment for 2014. Whether it continues in the same form in 2015 is open, but I would want MTC to invest in some way in independent theatre into the future.
Do you think Melbourne’s independent scene feels some ownership now of MTC?
I have no idea. But I hope the independent sector at least feels we’re all in the same game together – collectively doing our best to create great art for Melbourne.
How can the next generation embrace all of the MTC when tickets are so expensive?
At the moment the tickets are expensive unless you’re under 30, in which case you can see anything for $33 or less. My biggest ambition now is to get cheaper tickets on sale for a broad range of people who find our prices prohibitively high.
Can you do anything like the National (UK) and STC has done to make them cheaper?
We have been in talks with potential sponsors to make this happen – it would be fantastic.
Have you lost any of your long term subscribers this year?
We have sat consistently in the 19,000 to 20,000 range for some years, with slight fluctuations up and down. We are projecting about 19,500 for 2014 which is pretty well lineball with 2013 and 2012, with the expectation of more new audiences with non-subscription single ticket sales.
How are numbers this year and the renewals for next year?
Renewals for next year are line-ball with renewals this year.  However single ticket (non-subscription) sales did increase this year and are expected to continue next year, but they are sales which will be made much closer to the time of each production, and during the productions.
There are only three  Australian writers on the mainstage (non-Neon) for 2014 and one of them was previously produced. Is this statistic good enough?
Seven, actually, over five productions – Neighbourhood Watch, The Speechmaker, (three writers), The Sublime, Pennsylvania Avenue and Big Bad Wolf.  Of these, four are subscription season plays, three are world premieres and one is an ‘add-on’. I am happy that for a company whose brief is to present classic, new international work, and Australian work, we are approximately achieving a third, a third and a third across those three categories on the subscription stages, and increasing the Australian content significantly on the non-subscription stages (the second add-on, Complexity of Belonging, is an Australian work albeit ‘co-authored’ by Falk Richter and Anouk van Dijk).
How effective has the name change from the MTC Theatre to the Southbank Theatre been?
The change has been very effective. Now when I get into a cab and say “Southbank Theatre” the driver knows to go to Southbank. As well, guest theatre companies have been very comfortable not having the confusion of performing at the ‘Melbourne Theatre Company Theatre’, but rather at ‘Southbank Theatre’. It has also given a greater sense of ownership of the building to Melbourne, rather than MTC territorially saying “this is ours and ours alone.”
Has there been a decrease in co-productions between state companies?
Not intentionally. We are presenting Belvoir’s Neighbourhood Watch, just as we presented their Summer of the Seventeeth Doll last year. We are discussing with all our interstate colleagues possible co-presentations in 2015. It just depends on how the schedules and availabilities of artists fall – whether every member of the team can continue on for another six or seven weeks in another city, whether they are all available to re-mount the production three months later etc.
Isn’t it an odd state of affairs when The Secret River is not seen outside Sydney and The Beast is not seen outside Melbourne?
It’s crazy and we would kill to have The Secret River on our stage. In fact, we have been negotiating to get The Secret River to Melbourne since it opened in Sydney, but of course the Sydney season happened because two very generous Sydney philanthropists each made huge six figure contributions to the costs. We are looking for that kind of generosity here, as well as looking at other avenues to afford a production with a touring party of 42. On The Beast, I wouldn’t rule out its touring interstate – Eddie Perfect is a huge star nationally, and I can guarantee to anyone who presents the play, you will do knock-out business with it. So discussions on that front are also continuing.
Are plans progressing at all to work with the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance and other funders to develop the filming of plays a la the National (UK)?
Yes, this is the top of our priority list for the MEAA, to get a comprehensive agreement which can cover both stage production and eventual broadcast.
Is the MTC what you want it to be next year or is it still evolving?
Always, always evolving – this year, next year, the one after… I would be lousy at my job if at any point I said “That’s it, we’re there – it’s perfect.” I would also be a liar.
How is the idea of a non-directing AD working? How do you keep close relationships with theatre makers when you are not on the floor with them?
It’s working well, I think, since I can be devoted to every single production 24/7 throughout the year. And even though I am not locked away in any one rehearsal room, I am all over each production, artistically and financially, so much so that I’m sure half the time the productions’ directors wish I would keep my reams of notes to myself!
Has that aspect of your job been harder or easier than you thought?
The same as it has always been. My nature is one of shyness, despite having learned to appear gregarious and confident, and I automatically have a deferential and devotional attitude to artists. So conquering that shyness is important, but that has always been the case, even in festival-land where for 17 years to do my job well I necessarily had to befriend and court some of the greatest artists of our times.
[box]Featured image: The Beast, photography by Jeff Busby.[/box]

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