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A decade of drama

Brett Sheehy reflects on 10 years of courageous and compelling storytelling at Southbank Theatre.

By Sarah Corridon

Brett Sheehy reflects on 10 years of courageous and compelling storytelling at Southbank Theatre.  

When Brett Sheehy took up his post as Artistic Director of Melbourne Theatre Company in 2013, he fortuitously inherited a gleaming new theatre with the role. Developing the theatre to ensure it becomes the nexus between new Australian storytelling and Melbourne’s voracious theatre audiences, is at the heart of Sheehy’s vision for the Company.

Sheehy settled in Melbourne at the end of 2008, having spent the previous 17 years on the international arts festival circuit. ‘The only Melbourne Theatre Company I’ve ever known – as part of the cultural landscape of Melbourne that I’ve worked in – has been at Southbank Theatre,’ he says. To Sheehy, the iconic facade – resembling geometric white scaffolding – epitomises the home of MTC.

Some of the Company’s greatest theatrical triumphs have played out on Southbank Theatre’s Sumner stage, Sheehy says, including Simon Phillips’s four vastly different and carefully modulated adaptations of Shakespeare’s masterpieces – Richard III (2010), Hamlet (2011), Macbeth (2017) and Twelfth Night (2018). ‘Phillips gives these renaissance texts a freshness and a relevance unfound in most other Shakespeare productions around the world. They have been unequivocal highlights of the past decade.’

It is impossible to whittle down his list of favourites, Sheehy says, but highlights since the Sumner doors opened in 2009 include When the Rain Stops Falling, which he co-commissioned a year earlier as Artistic Director of Adelaide Festival; Switzerland, Neighbourhood Watch; the national blockbuster Ladies in Black; Jasper Jones; and The Architect. Simon Stone’s modern interpretation of The Cherry Orchard, Kip Williams’s Miss Julie, and Iain Sinclair’s recent A View from the Bridge also spring to mind as highlights.  

MTC JASPER JONES photo Jeff Busby 1127
The cast of Jasper Jones on stage at the Sumner Theatre

‘One of my all-time favourites,’ Sheehy declares, ‘which didn’t do that well in terms of box office results, was Birdland. I truly think that was one of the great productions Australia has seen. Sometimes I put my old festival director hat on and ask, ‘Is this astonishing enough that I would say to my colleagues in Johannesburg, in São Paulo, in Chicago and Shanghai, “you’ve got to take this show!”’ And I think Birdland fell into that category for me. It was that wonderful. And in terms of Australian plays, I think Jasper Jones and The Architect fit that bill as well. They’re wonderful, wonderful Australian works that deserve international lives beyond Southbank Theatre.’

MTC BIRDLAND photo Jeff Busby 1564
Mark Leonard Winter starring in MTC's production of Birdland by Simon Stephens

In 2012 when Sheehy first presented the Board with his vision for the company, he told them of his wish to change the name of the building from ‘MTC Theatre’ to ‘Southbank Theatre’.  'My reason was to mark it as a critical institution and heart of the bourgeoning Southbank precinct, and also to mark it as the people’s theatre, not just MTC’s,' he says. 'To stand as a gathering place for a whole community, not only MTC audiences or patrons.' Happily, the Board agreed, and MTC Theatre became Southbank Theatre. 

Sheehy’s past five seasons at the Company have been dedicated to telling a multiplicity of stories. ‘It’s about pulling together as many different voices and parts of the cultural landscape as we can,’ he says. Giving Australian plays a successful future, both interstate and internationally, is a cornerstone of Sheehy’s strategy at MTC, and was one of the motivations behind developing the NEXT STAGE Writers’ Program. ‘My greatest passion and vision for NEXT STAGE is to push back against the notion that plays have one run. We need to provide both the financial and time resources to enable this. The idea is that NEXT STAGE can develop work to a standard where it will receive a life beyond that very first production.’

Sheehy has also encouraged co-productions and cross-collaborations with sister companies in other artistic genres to ensure the longevity and prosperity of new work. In his time as Artistic Director, both Complexity of Belonging – a collaboration with contemporary dance company Chunky Move – and Other Desert Cities – a work utilising stage design from the internationally acclaimed visual artist Callum Morton – showcased MTC’s capacity to successfully mix disciplines and create powerful work that reaches a wider audience.

‘Collaborations are enormously important for the Company,’ Sheehy says. Three NEON Festivals of Independent Theatre, spearheaded by Sheehy from 2013 to 2015, saw the link between Melbourne’s independent theatre sector and its state theatre company reinforced by unprecedented support and resources. ‘The other possibility,’ Sheehy says, ‘is collaborating with commercial producers. I always have an eye on the most significant international work coming through.’ The ground-breaking success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time reiterated MTC’s unique relationship with London’s National Theatre. ‘Obviously, we talk to them about reciprocity and what works we are creating. Especially our NEXT STAGE works, which should have a life overseas just as the National’s work has a life here in Australia.’

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Artistic Director Brett Sheehy with NEXT STAGE writers Angus Cerini, Ellen van Neerven, 
Joanna Murray-Smith, Patricia Cornelius and Benjamin Law

When Sheehy travels overseas for research he is looking for more than just new voices. For nearly two decades on the festival circuit and as many as five international trips a year, Sheehy made a point of understanding each city’s creative hub. ‘From the Americas to Asia, Europe, Africa and everywhere in between, the one thing that has always struck me is the value and excitement generated by cultural precincts. The West End and Broadway are the most intense cultural precincts in the world. However, Melbourne has the opportunity to do something extraordinary with our precinct as well.’

As MTC grows and celebrates 10 years at Southbank Theatre, the precinct is growing too. The current redevelopment and investment in Southbank, notably the Southbank Boulevard renovation, the University of Melbourne’s new Conservatorium, as well as the recently announced construction of NGV Contemporary, will see a renewed focus on the arts in Australia’s famed cultural capital. In the same way Melbourne’s sports precinct has evolved in the last decade, Sheehy hopes to see the same public engagement with the city’s hive of cultural activity. ‘It is the old strategy of critical mass,’ he says, ‘and the cliché that if you build it, they will come.’ Between Southbank Theatre, The Australian Ballet, Opera Australia, Melbourne Recital Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, Malthouse Theatre, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and Arts Centre Melbourne, the precinct is ripe to connect with more prominent physical pathways. ‘We will all benefit from the improved, greener space; with more food and beverage options. And we’ll all enjoy having each other’s audiences remain in the precinct after their respective shows.’

It’s hard for Sheehy to summarise what Southbank Theatre means to him personally. But if he had to narrow it down, it would come back to his joy of live storytelling. ‘I’m thrilled by the prospect of the live experience and enhancing the live experience. That very human need to come together with members of our tribe, to hear and tell stories about ourselves and the world around us, will always be part of our DNA. So anything which enhances that community aspect – that bringing together of human beings as social animals to experience these stories together – is magical to me.’ 

Published on 19 March 2019