And two of its big 2020 productions have been rescued and even rewritten: a #MeToo era Australian premiere of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes about a student-teacher relationship, and the world premiere of romantic thriller Berlin.
Sheehy says the rest of the 2021 season will be announced in March, once there’s a clearer picture of how the pandemic is being beaten back.
“We couldn’t even take the risk on rehearsing anything in November or December,” he says. “We thought: what can we do that requires limited rehearsal period, reduced costs, but still bringing an audience in?
“We desperately wanted to get out there, to be on stage with something – and also to test our own COVID-19 protocols and get the audience used to coming back to the theatre.”
Hence the summer series: also an invaluable opportunity for writers and directors to get early feedback.
Three are MTC commissions: The Well, an adaptation from the Elizabeth Jolley novel by Melbourne playwright Louris van de Geer, The Black Woman of Gippsland by Andrea James, exploring Victorian colonial history through a 150-year-old mystery, and Beating the Blues, a musical in development by Carolyn Burns, Tim Finn and Simon Phillips.
The latter is their first collaboration since the smash-hit Ladies in Black in 2015. Details are still under wraps: but the sneak peek performance will see all three accompanied by a piano onstage, reading and performing tunes from the show.
There’s Cybec Electric, an annual series of play readings from emerging writers, which this year has been upscaled to a bigger theatre. And Well That Happened is the company’s nod to the apocalyptic year that was, “in as least a depressing way as possible while telling real stories”, says Sheehy.
Director Dean Bryant assembled a cast of musical theatre stars including Eddie Perfect and Esther Hannaford and asked them to chat about the year that was: the result is funny, sad, and features the occasional song.
The two mainstage productions were partly chosen for their small casts, and because their sets are already built, so they are easy to swing back into action, says Sheehy (Berlin had just begun rehearsals when the first lockdown hit in March).
“But they are also a great microcosm of what we do,” he said. “These stories are relevant to people in Melbourne, in Australia in the 21st century.”
Indeed, you don’t need to look too far (ahem, Canberra), to see #MeToo issues alive and unwell.
“As the world opens [from the pandemic] up all those issues will surface again,” Sheehy says. Both playwrights have been “writing and writing” in lockdown, he says, and “what ends up on our stage will be as fresh as if written the day before”.
But, despite the good news, Sheehy warns the pandemic left scars on the industry.
“There are some eminent artists, some actors in particular … who had decided to let it all go and move on to something else,” he says, declining to name names. “We won’t be able to tell until we see the whole landscape up and running, to see where the gaps are. But it really was such a blow.”
Co-CEO Virginia Lovett said the “level of anxiety and uncertainty for artists in the community has been so high”, as well as in behind-the-scenes jobs.
“They may say, ‘why risk this again?’”
But, she said, she hoped MTC’s announcement, along with others from Malthouse and more, will be a “message to the sector, and the community, that their work is valued and their careers are valued”.
- For more information and to book tickets go to mtc.com.au
Nick Miller is Arts Editor of The Age. He was previously The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald’s European correspondent.