It’s that time of year again, in which I go through the output of Bitten By Productions in the last twelve months and evaluate what went wrong, what went right, what we’ve learnt and what’s coming next. I’ve done this three times already; looking back at our first ten plays before a breakdown of our shows in 2017 and 2018 respectively. The value of these little pieces is really more for me than anyone else – I think it’s good to arrange your thoughts on the year gone before diving into the next – but if you are interested in the ongoing challenges inherent in running an independent theatre company, then read on.
It’s no secret that 2019 has been an incredible year for me, revolutionary in how rapidly and thoroughly my life changed. As such I’d be lying if I said that the two of my plays produced by Bitten By are really at the forefront of my thoughts as we reach the tail end, but both came with lessons both inspiring and sobering that are worth unpacking.
So, lets kick off with the play that in retrospect indicated the degree to which everything was about to change.
The Trial of Dorian Gray
The Trial of Dorian Gray is not my best script. I think on a text level it has a lot going for it; deeper and more thought provoking themes than most of my previous works, a take on a classic that I personally think is quite fresh and a twist that likely counts among my best. But it has problems too. Structurally it might have benefited from bigger, clearer turning points and the dialogue probably verged on repetitive and didactic. In development, it continued in the tradition of two handers I’d written like Heroes and Beyond Babylon; battles of wits between two characters building to a devastating final reveal. But two handers are difficult and while Heroes (a contender for the best play I’ve ever written) moves fast and regularly shifts the stakes and the audience’s understanding of what is going on, Dorian sat a little closer to Beyond Babylon, at times playing out largely as a lengthy philosophical debate that probably came off to some (or more) as pretentious. Hopefully engaging, but rarely surprising.
What’s not in dispute is that director Peter Blackburn and his team did an incredible job, in the process delivering Bitten By Productions’ most successful show ever.
I knew from the start that Pete was the right person to tackle this piece. From our first meeting his understanding of the text was evident. We hit it off brilliantly and so began one of the most gratifying development processes I’ve ever gone through. Lengthy phone conversations excitedly talking through ideas populated the months leading up to the show, as Pete and his incredible hand picked cast turned a talky script into something layered and sexually charged, employing projection to make the play both visually striking and utterly haunting.
Pete’s reputation in the Melbourne theatre scene also drew eyes. Major theatre and film figures came to see the show based purely on his involvement. Tickets sold fast and before we even opened our two-week run was sold out. We extended the show by another week only to sell out again. Word seemed to be spreading, despite the Midsumma season and faulty air conditioning meaning that audiences were contending with some truly oppressive heat. The riveting performances by James Biasetto and Ratidzo Mambo got huge amounts of well-deserved attention. Reviews weren’t uniformly positive, but the critics that loved it really loved it – and a lukewarm but ultimately favorable review from a famously harsh critic for The Age marked the first time in my career – and Bitten By’s – that a major newspaper had paid attention. That was a bit of a milestone.
‘Milestone’ feels like the right word for what Dorian ultimately represented. There was a sense that we’d moved up somehow, that we had put on a show that could and did contend with the best the Melbourne scene could offer. The fact that The Age didn’t tear us to shreds was in many ways testament to this. Beyond which, the lengthy philosophical debates the followed every performance and the generally excited responses indicated that this show had landed in a way we couldn’t have anticipated.
Coming at the very start of 2019, after a preceding year that creatively and personally had been a bit grim for me, Dorian felt somehow pre-emptive of things to come, a great start to a great year and, thanks to the work of Pete and his team, a new and glowing standard for Bitten By Productions that we would have to strive to match going forward.
Internally, we’ve had issues at Bitten By regarding planning ahead. The argument has been made that we should have every year’s season mapped out well in advance, with venues, dates and directors locked. In a perfect world this would be the case, but the world of independent theatre is far from perfect. People’s circumstances can change fast and drastically and it’s difficult to lock in a team a year in advance of a low-paying indie production. So, while we started the year thinking that it would be closed out with my Ned Kelly play Wild Colonial Boys and Kath Atkins’ comedy Eyes Wide Woke (more on this shortly), a few issues cropped up that changed the plan. I knew, for all that I was proud of Colonial Boys, there was something missing (that something being that it was a story more suited to the page than the stage) and Woke started to look more and more like a better fit for Midsumma than for Fringe, where we had looked at placing it.
So, instead we decided to follow 2018’s model of reviving a well-received earlier show of ours for a Fringe season at The Butterfly Club before following it with a regional tour. We Can Work It Out had hit big in both 2015 and 2018, so bringing The Critic back made sense.
The thing about indie theatre is that often you’ll have a small show that you’re really proud of but doesn’t get seen by that many people. As such, while I don’t love repeating myself, there’s something nice about giving a well-liked but underseen show a second chance. After the success of Dorian and We Can Work It Out, we were confident that a new production of The Critic could be a big success.
We didn’t quite follow the same model as WCWIO 2.0. For that show we had largely carried over the same cast as the 2015 iteration, but with a new director it quickly became evident that it was a whole new take on the material rather than a belated extension. So for The Critic we shed early any pretense that this was a straight revival. We approached Rose Flanagan, who had stolen the show as an actor in 2016, to direct and the decision was made to cast again from scratch.
Rose took to direction immediately and brilliantly. I was able to take a step back and let her handle just about everything. She assembled her cast, booked rehearsals and shaped the play in her own image, pulling it together with skill and confidence. It didn’t take long for all of us to get really excited about the potential of what this could be.
There were big, big limitations that only fully became clear as the season neared. The first was the 5:30 timeslot The Butterfly Club had given us. It hadn’t seemed a problem, until we looked at ticket sales and realised that, despite our best efforts, they weren’t inspiring. The play ran over predominantly weeknights and half an hour to get from work to the theatre is tight.
Then, of course, there was the Fringe factor. Festivals are always competitive and Fringe especially so, but every previous festival show of ours had been based on a known quantity (Moonlite, WCWIO, Dorian), allowing it to stand out. The Critic, despite a premise that had the potential to appeal to an audience of predominantly artists, didn’t quite have the built-in audience of a show about the Beatles.
So, despite the play itself being fantastic and getting heaps of laughs, audiences were slim. We did our best to plug and promote, but given the circumstances there was only so much we could do. Resignation to The Critic being another excellent but underseen production set in.
Then, proving that Dorian had elevated us to a new level, The Age reviewed us again. This time, it was unquestionably positive. And audiences for the last three shows ballooned. It wasn’t Moonlite or Dorian numbers, but it made a huge difference.
Further vindicating was the regional tour that followed our Fringe season. While audiences were still a little sparse, they actually increased from We Can Work It Out and the show was totally embraced by those who saw it. The regional tour took The Critic from breaking even to profit, which despite the challenges meant that it was no disappointment. Which is a relief because the work Rose and her cast put in absolutely deserved to be seen.
Still, it eradicated whatever hubris I’d carried over from Dorian. One play being a massive hit doesn’t mean the next will, especially when the former is based on a known quantity and the latter is not. It taught me that if we are going to tackle Fringe again, it will be with another property people know and recognise, or else some other factor to really make it stand out among the crowd. Because the Fringe crowd is really bloody big and even the best shows will battle to be seen.
For a few reasons 2018 marked our quietest year since 2015, with only two productions and only one of them being a new work. This in and of itself wasn’t the worst thing in the world; it gave both shows plenty of breathing room and avoided the mistakes of 2017, the year in which we packed three shows in before June then added a fourth near the end of the year when everybody was getting ready for the holidays, meaning that Springsteen and Dracula (known quantities) hit while Heroes and The Commune floundered. The Critic, thankfully, wasn’t in competition with any of our other plays, something that probably would have spread us too thin and killed it.
But I am hoping next year sees more than two shows take the stage. First up is Eyes Wide Woke, directed by 2019 MVP Kashmir Sinnamon (whose work as producer of The Critic kept that ship steady to the last). The first play from my former Movie Maintenance co-host Kath, it’s a very, very funny piece that will likely hit a bit too close to home for some in the audience. Already it seems to be making ears prick up, and I’m really excited to see how it goes.
Unconfirmed but likely following it around July or August is Three Eulogies For Tyson Miller, one of the most personal plays I’ve ever written and one that, availability permitting, will hopefully see me reteaming with Peter Blackburn. But Pete is rightfully very in demand, so we’ll see how we go.
Even more unconfirmed is another Fringe show. At the moment it’s looking like we will have a new play by a new writer based on a known quantity that, all going well, will take that spot. It’s a concept that is very cool and will absolutely appeal to a big audience, but it’s a long way from a sure thing.
Obviously plans are hard to make and harder to keep in a constantly shifting scene, but if this does end up being our slate then I think it’s a pretty exciting one. Kath’s work on Eyes Wide Woke and the ways in which it has energised our whole team is just proof of why we need to be constantly bringing in fresh voices and steering into uncharted territory wherever possible. 2019, thanks to the stellar input of new blood like Pete and Rose, made new horizons all the more possible and by the looks of it 2020 will see us vaulting them with ease.
Just some thoughts.