First published on 7 Nov 2011. Updated on 20 Sep 2012.
On Monday 7th November, the Malthouse Theatre launched its 2012 season. This will be Marion Potts' second full year as artistic director and, with the help of her newly appointed artistic team, she's starting to make a few decisive changes to the way things are run at Melbourne's second largest theatre company.
Rather than stage two six-month seasons as in previous years, Potts is laying all her cards on the table, launching a single 12-show annual season. Speaking to Time Out before the launch, Potts explained that this was about wanting to show audiences the full suite of work on offer. "A 12 month program really is a statement," she explained, "about the breadth and diversity of work that the city will see in a season."
Is this openness a gesture of encouragement aimed at turning occasional patrons into seasonal subscribers? "Well," says Potts, "you always seek to create a really satisfying journey for any audience member who, in your ideal scenario, yes, comes to see every single production."
There certainly is an emphasis on diversity: the season features one dance work, one circus piece, one family show, one work of autobiographical theatre, one adapted poetry text, one new Australian script, one devised performance, one musical comedy and one show in the Tower – the Malthouse's upstairs "studio space". There are six shows directed by women and six shows directed by men. There's even a "mini-festival" of "mini operas" in the middle of the year, just in case you wanted a bit more variety.
"What I still enjoy, going over the proofs of the programme," says Potts, reflecting on the playful multiplicity of genres and artists represented in 2012, "is that each show is surprising, and each one counterpoints another one, so there's a real sense of curatorial mix."
There are some fascinating resonances. The year starts with a Belvoir production of Ibsen's The Wild Duck, re-imagined by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan. It then moves to Comedian Christopher Green's Tina C Solves the Aboriginal Crisis, a country-music cabaret with Auriel Andrew, indigenous country music legend.
"So you go from Ibsen to Tina C – one is comedy, the other drama, but both have a strong political sting. So with Tina it brings the audiences really into this century, but counterpoints Ibsen and to a certain extent The Histrionic, which are both absolutely about us in the present."
The Histrionic is a play by Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard and is next cap off the rank. Melbourne auteur Daniel Schlusser is directing in this STC/Malthouse co-production. Tom Wright is adapting the script and, according to Cate Blanchett at the STC, "He really gets his hands in and disembowels the piece and shoves it back in together."
This points to one of the lines of continuity that persist between this and previous seasons. The Malthouse, since Michael Kantor first took the helm in 2004, has built its reputation on innovative and often spectacular re-constructions of classic texts. This tradition continues in 2012 with no less than three "classic" plays undergoing the Malthouse treatment. Not only Ibsen and Bernhard, but also Federico Garcia Lorca's powerful Blood Wedding, directed by Potts and adapted by Raimondo Cortese. Potts hopes to convey the intense passion that is sometimes lost in translation by staging it as a bilingual production.
"I had the privilege of experiencing Lorca in Spanish at one point, and I was so aware of the musicality of his language and the rhythms of the language." Potts workshopped the idea of a bilingual show in front of a small audience and found that they were more comfortable with the language than anticipated - if anything they wanted more Spanish. "They were feeling the strong emotional stakes of the piece better because those scenes were then communicated in Spanish," Potts explains. "It just made me aware that we are more accustomed to hearing other languages spoken in everyday life than we give ourselves credit for here in Australia, and it's time that we reflect that on the main stage."
Paul Capsis presents Angela's Kitchen, an autobiographical work "told simply and truthfully". Potts describes it as Capsis "in a very different guise." Capsis is becoming something of a feature at the Malthouse, which points a second line of continuity – the personnel. While the structure of the programme might look at first a little different, there are a lot of familiar names behind the scenes as the Malthouse continues to deepen and extend those creative relationships its developed over recent years.
One of those relationships is with writer Declan Greene who had success at the Malthouse both this year and in 2010 with his play Moth. Greene's new work, Pompeii, L.A., is the only new Australian script to premier in the season, but Potts is thrilled to have it."It's a fantastic piece. I'm so pleased to give Declan the opportunity to paint on a slightly larger canvas in his first Merlyn Theatre show."
Although there is only one new Australian script, there will still be a few playwrights hanging about the old CUB building. One of them is Van Badham, the new associate artist for writing, who joins Malthouse regulars Paul Jackson (design) and Matthew Lutton (directing) as a part of Potts' artistic team.
Both Lutton and Jackson will be working regularly on Malthouse shows through the year, but in a company that stages so little original text-based theatre, what will Badham's role be? According to Potts, she's there to connect with the writing community of Melbourne and Australia. "She's very much about the development of new works, working with playwrights, any writer really that has an idea for the theatre. Which isn't to say that she won't ever write anything for us. I think that's absolutely on the cards, but her job is really to be a point of connection for other writers."
Getting back to the launch, one of the advantages of the 12 month season is that it allows the innovation of punctuating the year with a short programme of intimate opera, called Opera XS. "It's a moment of concentration on a particular art form," says Potts. "We're building it around the winter solstice and gutting the Beckett theatre so that we can enjoy some custom made opera."
On the programme are Another Lament and Redfern. The former is a reprise of the Chamber Maid Opera/Rawcus production which played in lounge rooms around Melbourne in 2010, the later a work in progress loosely adapted from Paul Keting's Redfern speech, sung by indigenous opera singers.
Among the other cards on the table, Vivki Van Hout is producing a new dance piece called Briwyant, an "original vision of indigenous dance", and Potts is directing an adaptation of Dorothy Porter's verse novel Wild Surmise with Jane Montgomery Griffiths. For something a bit different, the Malthouse is also programming a circus act, Brisbane's high-top troupe Circa. Another innovation is the programming of a family show, Pinocchio, directed and created by Rosemary Myres, using the much-loved stories of Carlo Collodi.
Finally, the Malthouse studio space – The Tower – will host two projects. First, spectacular indie Wagnerians Four Larks will take up a well deserved residency in preparation for a production called The Plague Dances with writer and director Marcel Dorney. Second, the Malthouse are launching an initiative called Helium, where they invite applications from independent artists to take over The Tower space. Apparently artists will then be able "to tap the practical and artistic resources to further their creative and cultural careers."
When quizzed about these "practical and artistic resources", Potts answers thusly: "We offer them a media kit, make sure that one of us sees the work, give feedback on the work, depending on our availability, you know, whether we're even here. They're the sorts of resources that we can off. And you know, space is main one."
Why is it called Helium? "Josh Wright, our associate producer, is heading up this initiative. He came up with the name. We like it because it echoes the idea of The Tower being high up. It alludes to the idea of elevating the work and allowing artists to thrive. And balloons too. They're fun." They are indeed, but we wonder if Josh is referencing this old gem.
Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt St, Southbank. 03 9685 5111.