Brett Sheehy has announced his final season for Melbourne Theatre Company, where he has served as Artistic Director since 2012. After giving notice in January that he would finish up after launching the 2022 season, he leaves the company this week. His successor Anne-Louise Sarks was appointed in April.
Sheehy’s final line-up features six Australian plays, among them three MTC NEXT STAGE commissions, and five plays from the UK and US. Five of the 11 productions were originally scheduled in 2020 but had to be postponed due to COVID restrictions. Virginia Gay’s highly anticipated Cyrano, which was shut down in August this year just three hours before opening night, having staged its previews, is also part of the season.
Sheehy tells Limelight that leaving MTC after a decade was not a difficult decision to make. “I always thought eight to ten years would be right. I think I even said when I got the job that there’s something wrong if I’m still here in ten years. And that’s just because, without being Pollyanna-ish about it, these jobs are such a gift and there are so many [people with] brilliant visions out there, and the idea of our opera, theatre, dance and orchestral companies being tied up with one artistic vision for a long, long time just seems wrong because we are owned by our audiences and by the cities we work in,” he says.
“I do think for the industry, we should all look at term limits, certainly on artistic directors for any of our flagship organisations, so that other visions can be known.”
During his tenure at MTC, Sheehy has expanded the amount of new Australian work being staged through the NEXT STAGE Writers’ Program, established the Women Directors’ Program, which grew to become MTC’s Women in Theatre Program, and introduced the NEON Festival of Independent Theatre.
“Any success I’ve had at MTC is because of the extraordinary support and talents of my co-CEO Virginia Lovett and the entire MTC team – a group of skilled artisans, theatre professionals and creative thinkers the likes of which I’ve never encountered before en masse in my career before,” he says.
He admits, however, that the challenges presented by COVID in his final 18 months with the company make his farewell “bittersweet”.
“I had been thinking in January last year [I’d stay] maybe another year, then COVID hit and I thought you can’t cut and run, so let’s get the company through this. When I was programming 2021, we knew that there would still be lockdowns, we knew the risks were huge, but even with all those restrictions, I thought ‘surely by mid-2021 it will be completely over and we will all be fully vaccinated’. Now here we are and we have cancelled three shows [Cyrano, Sunday and Jacky] in the past month, so it’s been pretty rough.”
That said, he believes that the 2022 season is exactly the kind of program he would like to leave with.
The carry-over productions from 2020 are The Heartbreak Choir, Fun Home, Girls & Boys, Sunshine Super Girl and the education production SLAP. BANG. KISS. Cyrano has also been rescheduled for 2022. (“The future of Jacky and Sunday will be decided by my successor,” says Sheehy.)
“When I was starting to look at those [carry-over] shows, and deciding which shows to build around them [for the 2022 season], I was trying to identify what is it about all of these works that makes them special, and then make sure that what is around them is the same,” says Sheehy.
“And it really was their contemporary relevance. Issues of identity crop up, issues of race crop up, [there’s] the issue of family violence in Girls & Boys, so I wanted all the other works to be as contemporary and as relevant to our times. So as you will notice there is no classic. Cyrano [adapted from Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac] is absolutely of now, COVID is written into the text, and it’s a contemporary rewriting in it being gender-flipped with Virginia playing Cyrano. So I thought let’s make this a really contemporary season that speaks to the times.”
The season begins in January with the Australian premiere of Touching the Void, David Greig’s stage adaptation of Joe Simpson’s real-life mountaineering memoir about climbing the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes with Simon Yates. Directed by MTC Associate Director Petra Kalive, the production will transport audiences to snow-capped peaks and glacial crevasses for a jaw-dropping adventure. The cast includes Lucy Durack, Karl Richmond and Joe Klocek.
The musical Fun Home by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron opens in February. Based on Alison Bechdel’s bestselling graphic novel, the co-production with Sydney Theatre Company was originally scheduled to open in Melbourne in 2020 then go to Sydney in 2021. Instead, due to the pandemic, Dean Bryant’s superb production premiered in Sydney instead, where it received a five-star review from Limelight. There will be some cast changes in Melbourne but Lucy Maunder, Adam Murphy and Emily Havea will reprise their roles.
Admissions by US playwright Joshua Harmon (Bad Jews) opens in March. The scorching satire explores privilege and power in the US education system. “Covering race, class and educational bias, this is a play guaranteed to make white liberals shift uneasily in their seats,” said Michael Billington in a four-star review for The Guardian when the play opened in London in 2019. Gary Abrahams directs a cast including Kat Stewart and William McKenna.
The Heartbreak Choir by Australian writer Aidan Fennessy has its world premiere in April/May. A funny, uplifting celebration of music, friendship and community, The Heartbreak Choir is set in a small country hamlet, where the local choir was always the heartbeat of the town, but a devastating event has split the community in two and now choir leader Barbara and her friends must start a new choir. And things aren’t easy. Directed by Peter Houghton, the cast includes William McInnes, Emily Milledge and Louise Siversen.
Opening in May, The Sound Inside by US writer Adam Rapp is a gripping mystery that The New York Times described as “a tragedy about fiction, both the kind we read and the kind we live…. it’s about writers: the kind of people who in weaving stories are often in danger of unraveling themselves.” Sarah Goodes directs a cast that includes Catherine McClements.
In June comes the world premiere of a new Australian musical called Come Rain or Come Shine. Adapted from Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story about music, memory and lifelong friendship, it is created by the team behind the award-winning musical Ladies in Black, with a book by Carolyn Burns and lyrics by Tim Finn and Simon Phillips. Phillips directs a cast including Simon Gleeson and Chris Ryan.
“Probably a year and a bit ago, Carolyn and Tim and Simon said ‘we’ve got this idea for a new boutique musical work’,” recalls Sheehy. “I read the Kazuo Ishiguro story and it was hysterically funny but also deeply moving. It finishes in a place of melancholy and these three people longing for something else in their lives, which I felt was so apt. One of the things COVID did was started us thinking about prioritising how much things really matter and [how much] material possessions really matter. Finally, love and family and home win out. So the story really appealed to me, and obviously to have those three artists creating the work was irresistible so it was a no-brainer. We presented a workshop of it in our Summer Series in the first half of this year, which was terrific for showing us where the humour was, where the melancholy was, and what we could lift and enhance in further developing the work, so I can’t wait to see that on stage.”
The second world premiere, Laurinda, opens in August. Based on Alice Pung’s award-winning novel, it has been adapted for the stage by writer and comedian Diana Nguyen. Directed by Petra Kalive, the cast includes Chi Nguyen, Jillian Nguyen and Ngoc Phan.
“Petra Kalive put me onto it. We haven’t done a major family show since Jasper Jones, which I adored, and Petra said read this and see what you think,” says Sheehy. “I read it and I loved it. It struck me as an Australian version of a cross between the films Mean Girls and Heathers. It was incredibly funny but also has these incredibly mean schoolgirls called the Cabinet, who are at the centre of the piece. The central character, Lucy Lam, is a Vietnamese-Australian. From 1975 onwards, when I was a young man, Vietnamese refugees were so welcomed in Australia. In fact, my mum worked in that space for about ten years and we would have Vietnamese people in our house a lot so the Vietnamese-Australian aspect of the work really appealed to me, plus its humour but also the way it deals with race and class. We try to pretend in Australia that we’re not classless but we damn well are, and the play explores that wonderfully.”
Virginia Gay’s production of Cyrano returns in September. In October comes Girls & Boys by UK playwright Dennis Kelly (Matilda the Musical). The devastating one-woman show, which will be directed by Kate Champion and star Nikki Shiels, charts the disintegration of a relationship.
Sunshine Super Girl, written and directed by Andrea James, opens in November. The heartwarming play about Wiradjuri Australian tennis legend Evonne Goolagong Cawley had its world premiere at Griffith Regional Theatre in October 2020 and a season at the 2021 Sydney Festival. The Performing Lines production had been scheduled to play in the MTC’s 2020 season but hits the court in 2022.
Completing the season is Dan Giovannoni’s new play SLAP. BANG. KISS. An MTC NEXT STAGE commission, it tracks three young people whose stories kickstart a series of events none of them could have anticipated. Exploring themes of activism, community and hope, director Katy Maudlin delivers a bold production for MTC’s Families and Education Program.
As theatre companies return to the stage, Sheehy believes that audiences need to be vaccinated unless they are exempt for medical reasons. “Federal and State Governments need to legislate really quickly and come up with a workable QR code system, which can immediately show someone’s vaccination status or indeed whether they have a medical exemption,” he says. “It should not be up to the front-line ushers or bar staff and so on to have to ‘police’ this, it should be government legislation and then we can all move forward the moment they do that, that’s what we’re waiting for.
“When it comes to your own staff, it is trickier. We have put together a vaccination review panel and we are going to meet with all of our teams and talk about the advantages of vaccination and encourage them to be vaccinated, but again in terms of workplace relations and Fair Work Australia etc. I think government needs to really step up and say this is what can be done legally and give every kind of business the opportunity if they so choose to encourage their staff to be vaccinated, or mandate vaccination.”
More information about the 2022 season can be found on the Melbourne Theatre Company website.