Sydney Theatre Company artistic direction: Robyn Nevin, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton
And it has no idea just how vital a contribution Robyn Nevin has made to the culture of the city in the last seven years.
The dirtiest remark made in the wake of the announcement of Nevin’s retirement as company Artistic Director -- quoting “a commentator who declined to be named” -- bizarrely wrote off her programming as “anglocentric and worthy.” The Sydney Morning Herald’s blog has also run a number of remarks hostile to Nevin and the STC since the blog began, a few months back.
Perhaps Nevin’s STC is a soft target because it has strong establishment support. But if its patrons are predominantly upper-middle class, upper-middle aged and upper-middle brow, the work the company puts on stage is anything but middling.
Behind the scenes, Nevin relies heavily on what she calls her “gorgeous talented babies.” Resident directors, designers and associates, many of whom are less than half her age. She invests in talent, young and old, wherever she finds it.
Yes, the STC’s productions are better resourced than the productions of any other state theatre company, but it is resourcing intended to achieve a vision -- “the practice of craft” -- not just to flaunt. In Nevin’s own words: “Rich resources are not essential to a rich evening in the theatre... I’ve never believed that.”
Nevin is the first to admit that she is conservative and had “no interest in radicalising [the] company” when she took it on. She used to speak of “the quiet progress of artistic practice.” She embodied it. Persistence, focus, determination.
In this day and age, her devotion to theatre as a stage art -- as something qualitatively different from film and television -- looks shockingly radical. In a world of mainstage mediocrity, Nevin is a champion of this most primal art form. While other major theatre companies serve up soapy bathwater, the STC serves up the baby. Live and kicking.
Lets look at some of Nevin’s crusades and achievements. She was absolutely committed to extending rehearsal periods from the Australian “standard” four weeks to five and even six where possible. That’s a big ask for a company obliged to raise one and a half million dollars annually at the box office.
Her quixotic dream, though, was to start an ensemble. A large (by Australian standards) squad of full-time actors. And she achieved that goal this year. And, already, she’s lined up some superstar directors to work with her ensemble: Théâtre de Complicité co-founder Annabel Arden and Cheek By Jowl’s Edward Dick will each direct the ensemble in 2007.
Of course, Nevin’s productions haven’t always been successful. Her Mother Courage (very Anglocentric that one!) was a qualified failure, brilliantly acted though it was.
And who can knock a flagship company for daring to engage Barrie Kosky for a marathon two-part orgy of Ovid? If this is conservatism, baptise me now.
Nevin, first and foremost, is a great actress. Not just one of the greats of her generation, but one of the greatest stage actors we’ve had the good fortune not to lose to Hollywood.
As a director, she’s competent. Nevin is a good motivator. She enables great performances. She has been obliged, under the terms of her contract, to direct two or more productions a year.
As an artistic director, however, she is irreplaceable. Not just a matchmaker of talent, Nevin is a hands-on CEO committed to Quality Assurance.
She rarely, if ever, goes for the cheap dollar -- the kind of pop-fare star-vehicle that the Melbourne Theatre Company is clawing its way back into the black with -- even if that would underwrite more risky productions.
But, admirably, Nevin does make the tough decisions. And it is these, I suspect, that have made her “the enemy” to certain sections of the theatre community.
What I do as an Artistic Director is make sure that my program is viable. That is an absolute responsibility that I take on. [General Manager] Rob [Brookman] and I work very closely together in achieving that outcome.The choice of Nevin’s successors -- Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton -- is an interesting one. Blanchett is, in her own way, a True Believer when it comes to theatre. Well, as true a believer as anyone born after 1956 can be, when television contracted the world thus... One doesn’t see her at the theatre as often as Geoffrey Rush, say, but then I probably don’t go out as often as Rush.
He’s very sensitive to the art. It’s the only way I could possibly work. I’m the boss. I am ultimately responsible. I’m answerable to the board. But we work closely together. There’s never been any need for me to say to Rob “this is the program that we’re doing... make the budget fit that.” I would never take the position.
It’s a pragmatic relationship at the ultimate moment of decision making. And it’s harrowing. Because the decisions to drop things sometimes that have become precious, significant and meaningful... can be heartbreaking...
You’re letting go of artists that you’ve, in your imagination, wholeheartedly embraced; artists whose vision excites you and leads you to believe that the company is about to take a great step forward... you have to just let go...
There are a lot of people who think -- understandably and inevitably so -- that the company is not including them. The hardest part of this job I think is, inevitably, there are artists out there who will not work with the company next year, and who did not work with the company last year...
Upton is a solid -- and occasionally brilliant -- writer for the stage. (I adored his Cyrano.) Together, they are well-connected in a very different way to Robyn Nevin. And, likewise, Blanchett’s glamour is radically different to Nevin’s.
Name and glamour are possibly more vital to the on-going success of any company than we may care to admit.
“I’m acutely aware,” Nevin told me, “of how difficult it can be to create a lively and vibrant theatre company... when it’s of this size and when -- I’m afraid I have to say it -- the financial resources are so limited.”
I suspect the in-coming husband and wife team is a shrewd choice. But I can’t pretend that I’m not anxious about the future of this extraordinary company.