From the Reading Room: A Delicate Balance

It’s hard to believe, but we’re now in the thick of putting together the brochure for our 62nd year. Season 2015 is shaping up to be another brilliant year of theatre, and we’re looking forward to sharing all the details with you in just seven more weeks. In the meantime, Paul Galloway took a moment to reflect the programming of our very first season.

Sixty years ago, in the middle of the Union Theatre Repertory Company’s first season, the manager John Sumner scheduled The Young Elizabeth, a drama about the troubled ascension of Elizabeth I. To be frank, the play was a bit of a dog (‘Prithee, sir, what portend these bells? – ‘By your leave, Ma’am, the Queen, your sister, is dead.’ – ‘Dead?’– ‘Yes … Your Majesty!’ was the stylistic gist), but he wanted to capitalise on the visit by another young Elizabeth, newly ascended and then on her first tour of Australia. The theory he formed was that the cheering throng on Swanston Street, somewhat dissatisfied by the fleeting glimpse of Queen and Consort in their open-topped Daimler and wanting more, would assuage their appetite for regal pomp by catching the next tram up to the Union Theatre. The theory was wrong. The crowd dispersed to their respective suburbs and only 1,677 paying customers, at the low end of the attendance range for that season, ventured out to the Union.

John Sumner was not the first theatre manager to jump on a bandwagon mistaking it for a gravy train, but it was a salutary lesson to learn early. Indeed, of all the lessons of that first season few could be more central and basic to the job of repertory theatre manager than learning that predicting public taste called for as much luck as calculation. Taking a gamble is the very essence of show biz and there are no sure bets. That’s what makes theatrical impresarios such figures of daring. (As Cameron Mackintosh said to Andrew Lloyd Webber: ‘You mean, it’s a plotless song cycle based on verses by TS Eliot, set on a rubbish dump, with the singers dressed as cats? Let me get my chequebook!’)

Sumner’s own daring in pulling together that first season was considerable, complicated by the fact that he wasn’t just looking for hits, he was also looking for art. The Company was a Melbourne University enterprise and, from the first, the aim was to educate and enculturate the Melbourne public with high-quality drama. Thus, in his mind, Sumner divided his repertoire into two categories, ‘risks’ to engage the adventurous-minded theatre-goer and ‘potboilers’ to draw the general public. The two audiences have never been mutually exclusive, of course – everyone enjoys stepping up a gear or two to engage with a high-minded work, and you’d have to be extraordinarily snobbish to claim that the common taste never includes you. But the first type of play requires a little effort, which inevitably converts into a smaller house, which must be subsidised by the second type.

Broadly speaking, Sumner’s ‘risks’ in the first season were arty or serious plays, new plays by unknown writers and plays by Frenchmen. The ‘potboilers’ consisted of known plays by known talents (Shaw, Coward, Rattigan and Wilde), anything set in an English drawing room and anything in period costume – some were all three. Sumner had the advantage of not having to announce plays more than few weeks in advance, which allowed him to balance things as he went along. Furthermore, the University Board had stumped up £1,500 as a guarantee against loss, but as with any tightrope artist Sumner walked his fine line as if the safety net wasn’t there.

The first season made wobbly progress. Sumner took his first risk with the opening show, Jean Anouilh’s Colombe, a delicate French pastry served slightly chilled with fashionable irony. With a large cast, lots of frocks and a daring Parisian insouciance towards sexual matters (read as ‘sophistication’ in those days) the play wasn’t devoid of popular appeal. Yet it wasn’t an easy play to stage nor a completely carefree night at the theatre. But Sumner felt that with his first play he needed to make a clear statement of intent. ‘It gave us a chance to show size and presentation,’ he wrote in his memoir Recollections at Play, ‘qualities I hoped might capture the imagination and excite an audience too long fed on small-scale staging.’ He reckoned on a financial loss, knowing that he would pick up the tab with the second show, Noël Coward’s perennial favourite Blithe Spirit.

His estimation proved correct about Colombe (only 1,753 tickets sold) and wrong about Blithe Spirit (a lousy 1,592). No doubt, as in marketing departments today, many post-hoc and unfalsifiable theories were floated around the Union to explain why Coward’s warhorse failed to pull the box-office out of the mire: Noël Coward was old hat; people had seen the movie; the football finals were on; poor word-of-mouth (the oldest chestnut in the bowl); the weather was too hot; or wet; or cold; or something. In the face of failure any plausible explanation becomes a comfort. Yet, ultimately, who ever knows why? And who knew why, a few months later, The Lady’s Not for Burning, a new play by the then unknown Christopher Fry, a drama written in verse and set in a dungeon before an execution (even Cameron Mackintosh would have baulked at that), lit up the public imagination. The Union Theatre was packed to the back rows. Extra performances were arranged and almost eight thousand people paid to see the show. The week before it opened the Company had a deficit of £1,450, fearfully close to the University guarantee of £1,500; the week after, the Company was breaking even.

Breaking even was all Sumner wanted from that first season and by season’s end he was grateful for a modest profit. It was a close run thing, but it has always been a close run thing. The hair-raising course of this Company’s inaugural season has been repeated in practically every season for the past sixty years. Each year a repertoire is chosen that prudence and keen judgement declares will balance artistic integrity with the demands of box-office, then it’s cross the fingers and away we go.

MTC’s 2015 Season will be launched on Thursday 4 September.

The From the Reading Room series is written by MTC Publications Coordinator Paul Galloway.

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