After the long dark, Melbourne Theatre Company steps back into the light

My interview with Nick Millar for The Age:

Transcript below:

It is almost a year since Lisette Drew suddenly had to leave her second home – the theatre where she was stage managing Melbourne Theatre Company’s Torch the Place.

“We didn’t even know it was our final performance,” she says. “We just left the whole stage as it was, set, props, everything. And then on the Monday we were told, we’re not going on. It was pretty heartbreaking.”

It feels like an age ago: that moment when the reality of the pandemic hit. The nervousness, the uncertainty going into that first lockdown.

“It feels like we haven’t been home for a year,” says Drew. “This has been a dark room for a long time.”

But now they’re back. Last week MTC returned to Southbank Theatre to rehearse its first main-stage show since the March 2020 pandemic shutdown – the Australian premiere of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, a drama about sex and power left over from last year’s unfinished season, but which couldn’t feel more timely.

“Alrighty, team, let’s get into it,” comes the excited call from the auditorium as the rehearsal begins and actors Dan Spielman and Izabella Yena take their positions.

A tech rehearsal is a long, tedious process where actors and the crew work out, in a sense, how to bring a performance into the light. It stops and starts. Lines are abruptly cut off as problems are solved. Actors are plunged into darkness mid-sentence. They wait, marking time, thumbing through props, humming, bantering and muttering until they’re needed again.

Mini-shutdowns, repeated, until at last it’s time to step into the light again and speak.

“It feels wonderful,” says Spielman. “It feels like the building has been quiet and appreciates activity.”

Yena agrees: when she performed Kerosene at Theatre Works in January, she sensed “the energy and the vibe out there [in the audience] is so loving, because everybody’s just happy to be here”.

A live audience gives energy to a performance, she says. “It’s just a different impact.”

To Spielman, a theatre is a cross between a home and a family. Being back feels like being embraced after a year without human contact.

“[During lockdown] I retreated into my shell quite happily,” he says. “Rehearsals have been really unrelenting for me, in a very exposing, public way. The contrast has been really big, personally. I found it emotional, to go from internal world to external energy so dramatically.

“All of us in Melbourne, I think, are carrying different levels of trauma about what happened.

“Being out in public, sharing a public moment is a pretty extreme version, a test of how we’re all going with that.”

Drew says the shutdown has left scars.

“I know a fair few people that have left the industry, which is so sad,” she says. “I was contemplating it myself, because there wasn’t the work, you know. I’m lucky to still be here, and MTC is kind of my family and they’ve always looked after me. It’s so great to keep going, to keep working.”

Sexual Misconduct director Petra Kalive says re-entering the theatre was a “quite emotional” moment.

“I walked in, it was very quiet and I found myself touching everything, it was hard to believe it was actually real and it was happening,” she says. “[A theatre] is a place to share stories … we’re going to come together and that’s going to be very powerful.”

There was a sense of excitement but also of adjustment.

“We were learning to talk to each other in real time again, with no Zoom delay. And that’s the same for the audience. We’re going to be in a real, embodied conversation with each other.”

Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes has preview performances from Monday night and opens on Thursday.

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