Belvoir’s new artistic director talks about his vision for the company.

Congratulations on the announcement of your maiden season for Belvoir. What was your mission in approaching the 2011 season?

I tried to put a season together of plays that people really wanted to do. I realised that the most successful things I had worked on, or seen, were plays where the director has a really distinct need or artistic vision for that project and was given the opportunity to do that by a theatre company. Rather then projects where a play was offered to a director and then that director had to find a connection to the project.

Did Simon Stone want to do Ibsen’s The Wild Duck especially?

Very much. He has a great history with Ibsen; he did The Only Child in the Downstairs Theatre, which was this really radical transformation of a little-known Ibsen play that people thought was a little dusty. Simon has a great interest in lots of the classics, but within that was the pleasure of discussing what would fit in with what else was on during the season.

Did Benedict Andrews have a yen to do Chekhov’s The Seagull?

Yeah. Directors love it! On one level it’s about theatre, a play about the making of a piece of theatre and the nature of being an artist. But it’s also a play about the breadth of human experience. So Benedict wanted to do it very much. It’s an exciting prospect seeing him direct that cast in that play.

Was it your idea to get Judy Davis back up on the boards?

Benedict had that casting idea but she doesn’t appear on the stage terribly often so we were pleased when she agreed. She’s extraordinary. Judy is a great actress playing the role of a great actress; she dominates the family in the play. It’s fantastic.

So we’re seeing a few classics. What else motivated you in shaping your season?

I made the conscious decision not to do new plays from overseas but to make a season out of new plays by local playwrights. To me it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to do new plays written by foreign playwrights that have already played overseas in local productions.

What new Australian plays are you putting on?

Everything in the Downstairs Theatre, so that’s five, and then Jack Charles vs The Crown, Lucy Guerin’s new work Human Interest Story, and Lally Katz’s Neighbourhood Watch…

Is Lucy Guerin’s more of a dance piece?

It is I suppose. I’ve always been puzzled by the distinction between dance and theatre really, when people dance, talk and act, and people in theatre frequently dance and move; I think it’s a bit of false distinction. The timing is good to be getting Robyn Nevin for two plays, following her amazing performance in Long Day’s Journey into Night. She’s an extraordinary actress. She’s been deeply involved in Lally Katz’s play, Neighbourhood Watch, from the time we first commissioned it, so it’s fantastic she can play the role. Then as Emma, in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – there’s no one in the country who would be so suited for that kind of wonderful character. Having her and Yael Stone doing that together is theatrical gold. I worked for Robyn as a set designer at STC under her tenure there. She’s been supportive of me, and it’s lovely to be working together again.

I believe that the Downstairs Theatre’s B Sharp programme is effectively over?

Yes, that’s right. Essentially the reasoning behind that is to find a way of paying all the artists who work there and making the space fully professional. It’s about bringing it into the same programme and artistic decision-making as the Upstairs, and unifying it into one season, and allowing season ticket holders to buy tickets to those shows.

Have you come up with a name for your chair-and-gumboot mascot yet?

No, not yet. The best one someone came up with was ‘Wellington’. Everyone in the office keeps calling it ‘Gumby’ but I’m trying to suppress that name.

Did you think initially you’d be at a disadvantage getting this job being a mainly designer, not a director?

It’s not a conventional path to a job like this, so you can only apply and hope really. It did requite a certain leap of the imagination to think I’d be applicable. I’m glad I applied though.

Did you have to prove yourself in any way?

I talked about it very explicitly during the interview process – what the advantages and disadvantages of me being a designer would be, and that seems to have convinced the panel. I wasn’t trying to pretend to be something I’m not, but I suppose the core point is that an artistic director is both an artist and director, so they have a role as an artist producing work, but also as a curator, looking at what other people will do. A set designer spends a lot of time with directors, is almost their right hand man, and not to blow my own trumpet, but I’ve worked with some of the great directors of this country. I’ve had quite a fortunate career as a set designer.

Has outgoing artistic director Neil Armfield offered any advice?

There’s a lot to learn from him. He’s full of pithy advice and I should start writing it down because I don’t remember any of it at the moment! He’s a great role model.

Did Cate Blanchett or Andrew Upton offer any?

Nothing I can repeat! [laughs]. Their appointment was a turning point for the arts in Sydney. They kind of woke a sleeping giant in terms of audiences … They’re like this tree that provides shelter for all the other little shrubs to grow under.

Nick Dent

Belvoir Street Theare 2011 season

Source: Time Out Sydney.

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