company b: dissolving distance

keith gallasch catches rachel healey as she leaves the building

Ursula Yovich, Snugglepot & Cuddlepie

Ursula Yovich, Snugglepot & Cuddlepie

Ursula Yovich, Snugglepot & Cuddlepie

IT’S MID-MORNING AND THE NEWLY IF NOT QUITE COMPLETELY RE-FURBISHED BELVOIR STREET THEATRE IS BUZZING WITH WORKMEN AND THEIR DRILLS, THE FLOOR IS GRITTY, THERE’S LOTS OF COMING AND GOING. AND THERE’S A SIGNIFICANT IMMINENT DEPARTURE.

After more than a decade, General Manager Rachel Healey is leaving Belvoir St Theatre and Company B for the Sydney Opera House where she’ll take up the position of Director, Performing Arts vacated by Sue Hunt, now CEO of the CarriageWorks.

Healey describes her time at Belvoir St as “a fantastic partnership for over a decade”, one of “great intimacy and personal commitment.” Above all she is describing her working relationship with artistic director Neil Armfield. She anticipates that her new job will be of a very different kind: even though, when we meet, she’s moving to the Opera House the following week. She quips, “It’s not like I’m getting divorced and then getting married the next day!”

As in any good relationship, Healey says, she and Armfield developed shorthand communication, shared a similar intuitiveness and were in constant exchange: “You have to have this and you have to believe in it.” Healey was on the Company B artistic sub-committee and was involved in casting, commissioning and the operations of the B-Sharp program in the downstairs theatre. Despite the scale of her involvement in the life of the company, Healey says “I had no desire to be called executive producer. I was the general manager and I was responsible for keeping the company in the black, building reserves, not letting the company collapse.” Her aim always was to firm up the foundations of a “left of centre and challenging” company and make it flexible—not least if its artistic director ever chose to move on.

When Healey arrived at Belvoir St, the company’s reserves were a mere $100,000, now they’re around $1.4m (although, she remarks, a sizeable chunk has had to go on Seymour Centre theatre rental during the rebuilding). The reserves not only offer security, says Healey, they also “look after the artists of the future.” When Colombia’s renowned Bogota Festival wanted Benedict Andrews’ 2003 production of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, Healey knew the company had the reserves to help the trip happen. Other tours included taking The Small Poppies to Dublin and Cloudstreet to New York and beyond.

Healey says her departure from Belvoir St feels sudden: there’s still work to be done on the $11.5m building. As we talk, I’m conscious of her eagle eye on the foyer activity around us. She describes her former office as an incredibly crowded and uncomfortable “cocoon” behind the box office and with a view of the customers coming into the foyer—“perfect for keeping touch with everything that was going on—I heard some fantastic things!” Management, she feels, has to be integral to the life of the company. She was adamant that the new offices be kept in the theatre building, but when the company was refused the right to add two storeys to the building, an alternative site had to be found for offices and rehearsal space. Luckily a warehouse building almost immediately across the street from the theatre became available, “one floor for offices, and another, an ex-judo studio with a lovely old pressed metal ceiling, for a brilliant rehearsal space.”

Sudden or not, Healey feels that her departure comes after reaching “major milestones”: radically improving conditions for performers and patrons in the rebuilding of the theatre, developing international touring and building financial reserves.

Given the key roles played by Healey until now and Armfield (with three shows to direct in 2007) it’s promising to see that with the support of Arts NSW Wesley Enoch will be the company’s inaugural Associate Director for the next three years. Enoch will direct Alana Valentine’s Paramatta Girls and Howard Brenton’s Paul. Healey says that Enoch, who directed his own Black Medea for Company B, will “develop a relationship with the company that goes beyond show-to-show.” As well as being on the artistic sub-committee, he will be involved with the education program, with B-Sharp and work with the literary manager, all of which Healey sums up as “a dialogue with the company.”

company b 2007

Neil Armfield sums up the 2007 Company B program in his introduction to the subscription brochure as looking “at faith and obsession and religion, childhood and fantasy, theatrical song and dance, [and] a couple of the most extraordinary classics of 20th century theatre…” And he proposes these as necessary antidotes to Australian money culture, reduced civil freedoms, anti-sedition legislation, the engineered weakening of public education and the new government-given power of media monopolies. In a co-production with Adelaide-based Windmill Performing Arts of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Little Ragged Blossom, writer John Clarke and director Armfield will doubtless meld homage to the May Gibb’s children’s classic with satirical infidelity: “The stinky old Banksia Men want the bush for themselves, gumnuts are being thrown overboard”, says the subscription blurb, and cheekily suggests, “Adults, why not see it twice? Once with the kids, once with your local MP.” Music is by Alan John and design by Stephen Curtis. Elsewhere in the program the life-art nexus undergoes even more scrutiny, whether in Ionseco’s Exit the King (in partnership with Melbourne’s Malthouse) with Geoffrey Rush as king of the clowns (a stellar lineup of Bille Brown, Julie Forsyth, Gillian Jones), or in Michael Gow’s Toy Symphony where writer’s block (Richard Roxbrough as the writer) unleashes reflections on the origins of creativity. All three plays are to be directed by Armfield.

Belief is most directly explored in Howard Brenton’s Paul, directed by Wesley Enoch with Ewen Leslie in the title role. It’s a provocative account of the life of a saint that drew street protests from Christian fundamentalists in London. Brenton’s work is rarely seen here, but in the company of David Hare, David Edgar and Howard Barker, he has been one of the great forces in British theatre since the 1970s. Stephen Sewell, in many ways a kindred spirit of these writers, tests the beliefs of a middle-aged woman (Lynette Curran) who ventures into the Middle-East, against the wishes of her family, in The Gates of Egypt, to be directed by Kate Gaul.
Mike McLeish, Terry Serio, Keating!

Mike McLeish, Terry Serio, Keating!

Mike McLeish, Terry Serio, Keating!

Sydney past and present provides material for the 2007 season. Wesley Enoch directs Alana Valentine’s Paramatta Girls with a cast that includes Leah Purcell and newcomer Roxanne MacDonald, from Queensland, who Rachel Healey tells me is an impressive performer. Valentine’s cultural archaeology of recent but forgotten history focuses on eight inmates of the Girls Training School (1908-80) using documented recollections in a reunion setting. The success of Casey Bennetto’s Keating! has landed him another Company B opportunity, Real Estate. Keating! is reviewed on page 47 and is touring Canberra, Wollongong and WA for the Perth International Arts Festival.

Last but not least, theres’ a fascinating choice in Benedict Andrews as director for Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Catherine McClements as Martha. As always with Andrews we can expect a distinctive and revealing approach to the play. (There’s no mention who is to play George. The most recent George of Broadway and the West End has been the wonderful American clown Bill Irwin, working with Kathleen Turner.) Albee’s acerbic account of a ruthless playing with truth is domestically self-contained but resonates nonetheless with the wider world of political spin and historical distortion, of secrets true and false. In an age hostile to nuance and the demands of compassion the play delivers, above all, painful complexities.

Company B’s 2007 program admirably sets out to dissolve distances—between us and our local history, the Middle East, the political and religious roots of our culture, and our creativity and capacity for compassion.
Company B, Belvoir St Theatre, <a

www.belvoir.com.au

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 14

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2006