New Australian writing takes the lead in Sam Strong’s inaugural season as Artistic Director.

Sam Strong’s first year as Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre (newly rebranded to drop the “Company” from the name) will see the world premieres of two ground-breaking Australian works, award-winning theatre from the USA and UK and the return of one of Queensland Theatre’s most popular pieces of Australian musical theatre.

The season is a diverse one, but it represents Strong’s ideas about the future direction of the company and its role in Queensland and the nation as a whole. “One of the things that ties the season together,” says Strong “is that it shows us to ourselves in the various contexts in which we find ourselves. Whether that’s the workplace in a play like Noises Off, the family in plays like My Name is Jimi and Once in Royal David’s City, the marriage in a play like Scenes from a Marriage or the new romance, in a play like Constellations.

Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director Sam Strong

“Another theme that I was keen to draw out was the idea of sharing the best of Queensland with the rest of the country,” says Strong. “And the flipside of that is we want to bring the best of the rest back to Brisbane. So whether that’s great artists from interstate or the best plays from around the world, we want to make sure Brisbane and Queensland audiences can see the best work from their own backyard and beyond.”

Queensland Theatre’s 2017 season will open with Ladies in Black

The season will officially open in January with an encore season of one of the most successful pieces of new Australian musical theatre in recent years, the Helpmann Award-winning Ladies in Black, which has enjoyed sell-out seasons in both Brisbane and Melbourne. According to Strong, there are two good reasons for giving it another run: “The first is just sheer demand for its return and such an appetite for tickets that we’re very keen to bring it back,” he says. “The second is that it fits really neatly in what we want to be doing more of as a company in the future.”

“We’ll do return seasons in Brisbane and Melbourne,” he says, “but we’ll also have a chance to take it to Canberra and importantly to Sydney – which is the city in which its set. It’s also just a beautifully joyous show, one of those rare shows that I think you can watch as many times as you want and you won’t tire of it. So when you’re fortunate enough as a theatre company to create a work that people want to watch over and over again, then you have an obligation to give them the opportunity.”

Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Flick

Then in February, Queensland Theatre will revive Red Stitch Actors Theatre’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Flick. “I saw the Red Stitch version in its original season in a site-specific basement in Melbourne and it was such a beautiful experience I knew that at some point I wanted to give audiences a chance to have the experience that I had,” says Strong. “It’s also for us part of a bigger discussion about how we take a national view of career pathways and nurturing the work of artists. By programming The Flick we’re saying to the small-to-medium and independent sector around the whole country, ‘If you create a great work of art, then it will potentially find a home at Queensland Theatre at some point in the future.’”

March will see Constellations, by British playwright Nick Payne, toured across Queensland. “We decided to tour Constellations because it’s very much a next generation work – it depicts a kind of Gen X, Gen Y, love story,” says Strong. “It’s a work that on the one hand is quite simple – it’s got two people playing out a variety of situations – but it’s also incredibly juicy in its combination of science and romance. It’s also an example of one of the best plays from around the world that Queensland audiences haven’t yet had a chance to see.”

Michael Gow’s One in Royal David’s City

Strong will make his own directorial debut as Artistic Director in April with Once in Royal David’s City – the latest work by Queensland Theatre’s former Artistic Director Michael Gow, which will be a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company.

“I thought long and hard about what my directorial debut for the company would be,” says Strong. “I really loved the idea of making my directorial debut as Artistic Director with the most recent play by a former Artistic Director who also happens to be one of our greatest playwrights, but it’s a work that Queensland hasn’t had the opportunity to see. And even more than that, Once in Royal David’s City is a play I’ve wanted to direct for years, ever since I read a very early first draft of it. So I thought it was a very appropriate choice for the first show that I’ll direct.”

Strong will follow that up with English playwright Michael Frayn’s 1982 meta-farce Noises Off, which Strong describes as “a Swiss watch of comic construction.” Frayn’s play focuses on the behind-the-scenes drama of a play within the play. “I think it is justifiably described as one of the funniest plays ever written,” says Strong. “As well as being a backstage farce, I think it’s actually a kind of quintessential workplace comedy, in that it explores what happens when you put human beings in an environment together and it shows how people unravel when they’re attempting to do something as a group. It’s about as perfect an act of comic construction and playwriting as you can get.” Noises Off will be a co-production with Strong’s former home, the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Michele Lee’s Rice

The first world premiere of the season will be Michele Lee’s Rice, which won the 2016-2017 Queensland Premier’s Drama Award. “Rice is an almost perfect combination of a whole lot of different elements,” says Strong. “It’s written by a Melbourne-based playwright, it depicts the story of a Indian-Australian executive and a Chinese-Australian cleaner, it will have its world premiere in Brisbane and it’s co-produced with Griffin Theatre in Sydney – so it embodies Queensland Theatre’s engagement with the rest of the country.”

“It’s a beautiful theatrical work in which two actors play not just their core characters but a whole variety of roles,” he says. “It manages to be both very insightful about contemporary Australian society and very funny at the same time.”

The world premiere of My Name is Jimi

Cairns will see the world premiere of My Name is Jimi in July before it moves to Brisbane. “One of the things we’re most proud of about My Name is Jimi,” says Strong, “is that we’re putting a Torres Strait Islander story on stage and that we’re world premiering that story in Cairns. One of the things we’ve been very keen to do with Queensland Theatre – and we’ve done it through our National Artistic Team but also through our programming in the future – is put the next generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories on stage. And in this case we’re delighted to have Jimi’s story. It’s a very personal family story, with multiple generations of the Bani family on stage, but it’s also a great combination of a whole different range of styles – from intimate theatrical story telling, to live-feed video, to music, to traditional dance, to a bit of stand-up. It’s a really delicious cocktail of elements.”

And in addition to Bani being “one of the loveliest people in the world,” Strong provides one more reason to go and see the show: “Jimi Bani is probably one of the most charismatic people you can see on stage, and if nothing else, My Name is Jimi is a great excuse to spend 90 minutes in his company as he tells his stories – that’s worth the price of admission alone!”

Leading Aboriginal artist and commentator Nakkiah Lui will make her directing debut in a Queensland exclusive of African-American playwright Brandon Jacob-Jenkins’ An Octaroon. “What’s really exciting about Octaroon is that smash-up between Nakkiah Lui, who is at the forefront of how we talk about racial identity in Australia, with someone who is at the forefront of how race is talked about in North America, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins,” explains Strong. “It’s also a great combination of wonderful local performers like Colin Smith with great actors from around the country like Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens. And we’re pretty happy to be partnering with our friends at Brisbane Festival. I think it’s true of the Queensland arts scene that organisations up here are more inclined to partner and come together than is the case around the rest of the country and our partnership on An Octaroon with Brisbane Festival is a case in point.”

Marta Dusseldorp and Ben Winspear in Scenes from a Marriage

The 2017 season will finish with Joanna Murray-Smith’s adaptation of the Ingmar Bergman classic Scenes from a Marriage, directed by Queensland Theatre’s Associate Artistic Director Paige Rattray. “Some people might think it’s a slightly unconventional choice to end the season in that it’s certainly not a Christmas pantomime,” says Strong. “It’s a very unflinching autopsy of a marriage.”

Strong describes Scenes from a Marriage as a kind of passion project. “It’s a combination of Joanna Murray-Smith’s passion for the Bergmann original, Paige Rattray’s passion for Joanna’s version and then the passion of Marta Dusseldorp and Ben Winspear and the rest of the cast to tackle this material. So I think as an Artistic Director when you’re fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of that level of passion, you don’t have much choice but to programme it and make sure that excitement reaches the stage.”

Tickets for Queensland Theatre’s Subscription Season are now one sale. Single tickets are on sale November 14


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