Last Friday, 10 September, Melbourne Theatre Company Executive Director and Co-CEO Virginia Lovett announced that the world premiere of Anthony Weigh’s play Sunday, about Heide Museum of Modern Art founder Sunday Reed, scheduled to open in September, had been cancelled due to the ongoing COVID lockdown.

MTC The Southbank Theatre

The Southbank Theatre. Photo courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company

This followed the announcement from the previous week that Virginia Gay’s new play Cyrano, adapted from Edmond Rostand’s classic Cyrano de Bergerac – which had been shut down on opening night after three previews – would not return to the stage, at least not this year.

Melbourne Theatre Company has cancelled 168 performances in 2021, and is projecting a box office loss of $6 million on top of the $13 million it lost in 2020.

Today comes news that MTC will receive $5 million from the Federal Government’s COVID-19 Arts Sustainability Fund to support its ongoing viability. Speaking to ABC radio, Lovett said that it felt like the company had been “caught in a rip” and “had been thrown a lifeline”.

Federal Minister for the Arts, Paul Fletcher, said that MTC employs around 600 artists and industry professionals.

“The Melbourne Theatre Company is home to some of Australia’s best live storytelling – but under current health orders they cannot hold performances or even rehearse upcoming shows. No performances means no revenue – and that in turn meant MTC’s sustainability was at risk,” he said.

“The MTC is a systemically important arts company, and its situation closely fits the criteria for the Sustainability Fund.”

“As the vaccine rollout continues at a strong pace, it is important that our arts and entertainment sector will be primed to restart when permitted to do so,” said the Minister.

More than $30 million has now been allocated from the $50 million Sustainability Fund to support 13 leading arts organisations, including Opera Australia ($10 million), Sydney Theatre Company ($2 million), Queensland Ballet ($1.9 million) and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra ($3 million). Over $19 million remains in the Fund, which is accepting applications until 31 May 2022, subject to allocation of funds.

In a statement announcing the cancellation of Sunday, Lovett said, “In many ways 2021 is proving to be harder than last year and the financial impact is acute.”

“We tried everything we could to continue with Sunday; absolutely everything… No stone was left unturned but with multiple requests for exemptions to rehearse in person under strict COVID-safe plans denied and no confidence that future requests will be considered in the short term, unfortunately it left no alternate decision.”

Sunday was due to be filmed for MTC Digital Theatre but this will no longer be possible either.

Lovett said that MTC is pursuing the possibility of presenting Sunday, Cyrano and Jacky (which was also cancelled) in a future season. The company hopes to be able to stage Simon Phillips’ production of As You Like It with music by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall in November/December. Brett Sheehy will announce his 2022 program – his final season as MTC Artistic Director – on 29 September.

On 9 September – which was meant to have been the closing night of Cyrano – Virginia Gay appeared on Q+A on ABC TV and performed a monologue from the play – a beautiful, moving piece of writing that captured the incandescent joy of being in love and sharing the simple, wonderful things in life (in a COVID free world) with your loved one. The monologue showed just how much audiences have lost by not being able to see the play, and drew an emotional response from TV viewers and subsequently on social media.

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