And there’s cause for hope. The good news is that Melbourne’s cultural calendar is less of the wasteland it became in 2020. There will be a Comedy Festival. We’ll see the debut of RISING, the new festival created from the merging of the Melbourne International Arts Festival and White Night. Bands are already playing gigs, theatres are announcing seasons, and DJs are spinning vinyl.
But this year will also be one of transition and, in many cases, transformation. Melbourne Town Hall’s rabbit warren of small rooms and narrow corridors mean that the Comedy Festival won’t occupy its traditional hub, and travel restrictions mean local talent will take prominence over international guests.
The closing of borders had a silver lining for RISING, affording the festival “the opportunity of having so many of our greatest artists grounded and actually fully available to make work at this rapid speed”, says co-artistic director Hannah Fox. But altered circumstances have led the festival’s many artists to think outside their usual routine. Performers who usually create 90-minute theatre experiences are creating five-hour durational works. The festival runs for 12 days, but there will be shows that extend for eight months. Car parks are lending their assistance as venues, as are rivers.
Comedian and broadcaster Sammy J recently had his first taste of live theatre since lockdown when he hosted a show at The Athenaeum. “I hadn’t anticipated how nervous I would be beforehand. There was a genuine sense of ‘can I still actually do this?’”
But isn’t that most of us? One of the challenges in reinvigorating Melbourne’s arts and entertainment comes from audience members themselves. “We’ve really had to consider the stamina of audiences,” Fox says. “That’s shifted – 2am now feels super late in a way it didn’t a year ago.”
“A lot of my friends are really happy to be out, but it seems as though we get exhausted a bit quicker,” says Melbourne DJ MzRizk. “That will take time before we have our regular stamina for going out all night and being able to stay up until three or four in the morning chatting, visiting one of Melbourne’s late night food haunts, talking about our evening.”
There’s also the lingering anxiety many will feel when it comes to returning to public spaces. “Everyone’s reverted to village life,” Fox says. Comedy Festival director Susan Provan says “there are people who are not going to feel comfortable about going out into crowds, even socially distanced crowds at 75 per cent capacity audiences. There are people who won’t want to come into the city.”
The Comedy Festival’s placement in the cooler months of autumn make outdoor venues less of an option, but Provan says seated theatres are in fact more manageable. “You know exactly who’s in there if you do the QR code scanning, you know exactly what seat they’re sitting on, you know who was sitting near them; there’s no reason you can’t wear a mask in a theatre safely distanced from people around you.”
By contrast, consider the plight of the DJ. “My whole career’s built on not socially distancing!” laughs MzRizk. Returning to work was an uncanny experience, she says – “it was weird DJing to seated people” – but on the weekend of our interview she had seven gigs booked.
Finucane has long promoted what she calls ‘’radical hospitality’’, in which audiences don’t just feel invited to a work but are made to feel special throughout. She thinks this might be key to earning the trust of people still unsure about leaving the house. “I feel like people want to be cherished. When people talk about feeling safe, part of that is feeling taken care of.”
I’d love to go into the offices of certain politicians and remove every piece of artwork, every book, get rid of their Netflix subscription.
For Fox, another important element is that audiences feel a sense of agency and spontaneity during RISING. “If the experience we’re providing feels too regimented, people will revert to hanging out in the park, you know?”
Sammy J is all about the logistics of COVID-safe entertainment. “I’m big on visual aids to enforce distancing. The more novelty props and bright tape on floor, the better. Failing that, a COVID-safety tiger prowling venues making sure people were keeping their distance might work.”
We probably won’t see moon shuttles and big cat bouncers become new features of Melbourne post-lockdown, but some ideas hint that we don’t have to go back to business as usual.
Sammy J’s suggestion sounds perfectly reasonable: “Weekly music concerts on the Fed Square stage, with a rotating mix of bands, comedians and physical performers. Not just as a one-off ‘we’re back!’ special event, but baked into the city’s weekly rhythm so locals and tourists alike could enjoy consistent entertainment all year round.”
MzRizk says that an overly bureaucratic permit system means many of our shared spaces languish. “If I was mayor of Melbourne I would definitely be a lot more welcoming and make it a lot easier to create events within spaces, whether it be in front of the Museum, going to Treasury Gardens … Maybe even on the Flinders Street Station steps, someone playing really good beats with a few breakdancers.”
For Finucane, the time is ripe to finally open up the legendary ballroom above Flinders Street Station. “I would open the ballroom and give it to the people of Melbourne. It’s big. Nobody knows what’s up there, but people talk about it and it’s like a myth. I would open that mythical space, a Phoenix space, and have all kinds of people offering all kinds of dances from the fireworks that is Melbourne’s cultural richness. At a very low price, seven days a week.”
Fox would like to see a creative version of an Olympic Village, transforming a cluster of the many empty shops or offices into a busy residential hub for artists. “To really take up residence for a decent duration, where there’s all of those things that happen in between events. That idea really appeals not just for being a great experience for artists but also from a city really visibly seeing the impact of that. The model around the world has been free artist studio space and trying to reinvigorate cities that way, and it generally works.”
Of course, big ideas often require a helping hand, and the Federal Government noticeably ignored the plight of artists in 2020. Susan Provan has a novel solution. “I’d love to go into the offices of certain politicians and remove every piece of artwork, every book, get rid of their Netflix subscription, shut down their television. That is the arts.”
Finucane and Fox both talk of “rewilding” the city, installing rooftop gardens and letting nature take over defunct public space. Finucane has a particular vision in mind: a Garden of Truth, carrying the stories of Australia’s First Peoples.
“I was thinking about some of the truths I never knew as a kid about our country. About the genocide of First Nations people, about the incredible history of the oldest living people in the world, and I thought I would love to sit here in a Garden of Truth, where I could listen to hard truths, but also listen to beautiful truths.”
These could be written, piped through speakers or available via an app – Finucane says she’s not the person to decide since she isn’t a First Nations person herself. “But I’ve had the privilege of hearing so many truths and one of the ways that Melbourne must recover is to sit down and listen to the truth. That will be part of our spiritual recovery.”
Hope, hospitality and recovery: the themes swirling around the city’s culture are echoed in the projects proposed when RISING announced its call to artists last year. “I’ve definitely noticed a real generosity in the work, and wanting to involve a lot of people in gentle ways. That’s a recurring theme,” Fox says. And while the year might not see Jurassic creatures roaming the CBD, there’s plenty that will lure Melburnians back to the city, yet to be announced.
According to one of the voices quoted in this story, that includes one near-mythic site “that all Melburnians have been dying to get into for a long time”. Watch this space.
John Bailey is a contributor to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.