Theatre

The coronavirus crisis has left many in the arts struggling. But Belvoir artistic director Eamon Flack is determined to use the shutdown as a catalyst for positive change and to push ahead with bringing new Australian works to the stage. “Really early on in this – when we didn’t know how bad it was going to get – we decided that this was going to be a good time to rethink a whole lot of things. We wanted to come out of this crisis, however long it went on for, having fixed some things, and having made some deep, permanent changes.” By Steve Dow.

Belvoir artistic director Eamon Flack

Eamon Flack.
Credit: Brett Boardman

On the first Tuesday in May, seven weeks after the Covid-19 pandemic forced Sydney’s Belvoir theatre to shut its doors to the public, the lights flicked on in the white-painted rehearsal room and shadows crossed the floorboards as a tiny group of actors came to play.

Perhaps the late Orson Welles, who wrote the words the actors soon spoke – about making a stage show out of nothing – was looking down on them. His 1955 two-act play Moby Dick – Rehearsed starts with the actors thinking they are there for a dress rehearsal of Shakespeare’s King Lear, but the stage manager tells them they must pivot instead to Herman Melville’s great whale tale, with whatever resources they have to hand.

And at Belvoir, the handful of actors inaugurating the Artists at Work program were making do with little. Gareth Davies, Rebecca Massey, Bardiya McKinnon and Nikki Shiels kicked off a weekly meeting to read plays and workshop at a 1.5-metre distance from one another. More actors have since joined them, all there solely due to the generosity of theatre-loving donors because jobbing actors have not been eligible for the federal government’s JobKeeper program.

In Belvoir’s case, JobKeeper did mean some staff could carry on – albeit on a reduced wage – at the theatre company, which opened in 1984 in a converted tomato sauce factory in Belvoir Street in inner-city Surry Hills. Eamon Flack, artistic director since 2016, was in the room during that first rehearsal back, as was artistic associate Tom Wright, and Hannah Goodwin, an emerging theatre-maker on the privately supported Andrew Cameron Fellowship.

But some staff had to be made redundant early on; most of the company’s casuals were ineligible for JobKeeper. The hard experience of Covid-19 has not blunted Flack’s ambition, nor his capacity to speak his mind about how artists have been treated. This year has been particularly jarring though, off the back of an enormously successful 2019 for Belvoir, during which his ambitious co-production with writer S. Shakthidharan’s Co-Curious company of the Sri Lankan–Australian epic Counting and Cracking was garlanded in awards. But 2020 is not over yet.

“That day when the actors were in the building for the first time, it felt a little bit like the ship was put back to sea, out of its dry dock,” Flack tells The Saturday Paper this week over FaceTime from a quiet room at Belvoir. “Until that point, we were struggling.

“As soon as there were artists in the building, suddenly there was a breath that the company took and there was a purpose again. I’ve clung to that, I have to say. The projects we have done with Artists at Work since then have become terrifically inspiring.”

Down the hall that morning, in another sign of optimism, actress Anita Hegh was again running lines with director Carissa Licciardello from an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, despite the production being cancelled in April as the pandemic worsened.

The next play that will – hopefully – be seen at Belvoir is Kendall Feaver’s adaptation of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, directed by Kate Champion, starring Nikki Shiels, in September. But social distancing of audiences remains a huge challenge still to be faced.

Meanwhile, Belvoir is sifting through 160 applications for an as-yet-undecided number of $5000 grants and residencies it recently offered to artists, again fully funded by donors. Last month, the company hosted a virtual fundraiser on YouTube, hosted by actress Virginia Gay, which featured highlights from two loved and lauded musicals seen last year at the theatre: Barbara and the Camp Dogs, a co-production with Vicki Gordon Music Productions that toured the country in 2019, starring Ursula Yovich and Elaine Crombie and co-written by Yovich and Alana Valentine; and Yve Blake’s Fangirls, a co-production with Queensland Theatre, Brisbane Festival and the Australian Theatre for Young People. To date, patrons have donated 52 per cent of tickets to cancelled shows back to Belvoir, while as part of the theatre’s end of financial year fundraising campaign, donations have risen more than 50 per cent in May and June this year compared with the same two months last year. Belvoir declined to release dollar figures.

 

Last September, in brighter times, Flack wrote a message to launch the 2020 Belvoir season. “What’s happening to our country?” he asked. “To our planet? Why are women still shut out? How do we maintain the rage? How do you love when you’re angry or scared or desperate? How do we learn to live together better? What are we missing, what aren’t we seeing? What more is possible?”

Endless discussion could flow from this Socratic string. On Thursday this week, months after the ravaged arts sector first pleaded for support, the Morrison government finally flagged a $250 million package of grants and low-interest loans to help the arts, film industry and entertainment sector, although queries remain about how much this will help individual artists and the small-to-medium sector. The most obvious question, however, is: Why did the federal and New South Wales governments spend months failing to acknowledge the impact of the lockdown and recession on the arts? Could it be that theatre offers cultural, social and political critique that is not always what politicians want to hear, or see?

“It’s hard to say,” says Flack. “There was that week quite early on when the live seafood industry was given $110 million, and I was like, ‘What’s the difference?’ Because the size of employment of the two industries… If anything, live entertainment is bigger.

“I’m not seeking to score cheap political points, but the sense that we didn’t seem to matter was frightening to people … Maybe we’re seeing that [strong arts industry economic] argument getting picked up now. It’s a little hard to say. I have to credit the government with the fact they were dealing with a massive emergency, and they clearly had to make a national response, not a sector-specific response.”

But Flack says it felt as if the dynamic shifted with the resignation of NSW Arts minister Don Harwin, after he was fined $1000 for travelling outside Sydney during the pandemic lockdown. Eleven weeks on, Harwin’s portfolio has still not been filled, with Arts currently rolled into Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s responsibilities.

“When Don Harwin abandoned his post and we didn’t even have anyone arguing for us in NSW – where the arts spend is the smallest per head in the country and yet it’s the state with the biggest industry – that was pretty galling and pretty worrying,” says Flack.

“Summoning the energy to keep going on some days has been tricky, definitely. But having artists making work has been the most important thing.”

 

The second of four brothers, Flack was born in 1979 in Singapore, where his father, Bob, was working as an aircraft mechanic. The family moved variously after that – to Darwin, Cootamundra, the Gold Coast and Brisbane, before Flack headed west to study at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).

Moving around a lot, as “an introvert and a big fantasist”, sparked both Flack’s interest in a career in theatre and in ideas of equality. “But also growing up in an Irish Catholic family, you take on certain ideals in social justice that you don’t shake, even if you shake the religion,” he says.

Reflecting last year on fathers and sons while directing Tommy Murphy’s play Packer and Sons, about the Packer and Murdoch media dynasties, Flack wrote: “How much of my running of this theatre company comes from Bob Flack? My best guess would be little to none. I can’t imagine Bob at Belvoir any more than anyone flying a Dash 8 over the New Guinea highlands would want me to have done the maintenance checks on the engines. The gap between a father and a son can be vast. And yet, for most of history, for most men, sons were born into their father’s function …”

Bob Flack “kept getting fired his whole life; that was his great talent”, his son says now. “I think partly because he just wanted to go up to New Guinea the whole time. We were worried. There were great financial problems in the family.”

Or at least there were until Flack’s mother, Julie, joined a Lotto syndicate at the Mater Hospital Special School in Brisbane, where she taught. It won.

“And so suddenly we were able to pay off our house,” says Flack. “But Mum insisted on giving a fair whack of that money to a Catholic school in Sudan.

“That stuck, you know?” He prods his forehead with his index finger to emphasise the point.

Flack first worked professionally as a theatre actor in Sydney after graduating from WAAPA in 2003, but long knew he wanted to direct. “Like a lot of actors, the sense of not having a lot of control over your life was not fun,” he says. In recent years, working with collaborators from a variety of backgrounds, Flack says he has learnt to listen more to avoid becoming a “control-freak” director.

His first professional directing gig was with veteran actor Robert Menzies in Samuel Beckett’s The End downstairs at Belvoir in 2010, when the company was still under its founding artistic director, Neil Armfield. Until that year, Belvoir had been a parity-based company, where everyone was paid the same amount, whether they worked the bar or acted on the stage.

“I’ve always been an idealist and remain an idealist, which gets harder and harder to hold on to,” says Flack. “Belvoir, I think, is an idealistic company. I don’t pretend it’s perfect. I’m very wary of cultishness, but I do think it is an idealistic company, and does try to put its money where its mouth is.”

Indeed, Flack later learnt the first play he saw – David Hare’s The Judas Kiss, about Oscar Wilde – was a Belvoir production, directed by Armfield. “It’s always felt a little bit of calling for me, this place,” he says.

Flack’s partner is the stage actor Tom Conroy, who played Winston Smith in Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 and Jasper Jones’ Charlie Bucktin in a Belvoir production adapted by Kate Mulvany from Craig Silvey’s novel and directed by Anne-Louise Sarks.

“We talk about everything that we see in the way artists do, we just talk about it,” says Flack. “When it’s each other’s work, I think that’s the same, really.”

Flack has undertaken that all new Australian works cancelled during the Covid-19 crisis will be staged, including his Counting and Cracking follow-up collaboration with S. Shakthidharan, The Jungle and the Sea, which had been due to open at Belvoir in July. The pair are also making plans with a group of actors to produce a separate six-hour epic, which is still in its early stages and as yet untitled.

“Really early on in this – when we didn’t know how bad it was going to get – we decided that this was going to be a good time to rethink a whole lot of things,” says Flack.

“We wanted to come out of this crisis, however long it went on for, having fixed some things, and having made some deep, permanent changes. So, Counting and Cracking was a brilliant play on stage, but it was also going to force us as a company – and as a sector – to look at who gets to have a say and who doesn’t. We took on Counting and Cracking knowing that was just going to be the beginning of that conversation…

“We were lucky that Counting and Cracking had brought us in some funding for another project, and Shakthi and I invited in up to nine, 10 artists into this other group, and the purpose of that group is to make permanent change to the artistic, administrative and marketing processes within this company.

“Because the machine has halted, you can have a talk about it. We’ve been using this shutdown to try and crack open the way we work. To diminish the hierarchies inside the company, to bring some new people in. Far from pulling back, we’ve redoubled our commitment to those things in a very concrete way. We hope to come out of this having made some real permanent changes.”

As for describing the criteria for those changes, Flack says the word “diversity” has been “banned” at Belvoir. “Using the word stops you from thinking about what you mean. If you don’t use the word, then you actually have to think about what you’re saying,” he says.

“The point is not to achieve some bureaucratic standard; the point is to change the institution, change the stages and open up the stories.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2020 as "Coping Flack".

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Steve Dow
is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.

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