Monday night’s live performance of The Lucas Betrayal and the simultaneous release of the radio play adaptation officially marked the 20th Bitten By Productions show. Seven years, twenty shows. Looking at the collage image I made yesterday of all our cast shots, it’s kind of staggering. It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was stumbling on stage, about to collapse with nervousness, to deliver the first line of our first production, Reunion. Which was, somewhat fittingly, ‘who the fuck thought this would be a good idea?’
Enough people to reach this point, apparently. And while not every show was an outright winner and the journey has been far from a smooth one, it’s hard not to feel a sense of pride at the milestone. Most independent theatre companies don’t get past one show. Some manage a couple before fizzling out. But I can say with absolute confidence that it’s the rare company on our small-scale level who, without any external funding, hit twenty shows.
There’s an argument to be made that the designation of twenty shows isn’t quite correct. After all, two of those shows were remounts of earlier productions, but I would rebut that the second iterations of both We Can Work It Out and The Critic were so vastly different to their previous incarnations that it would be doing the cast, directors and shows themselves a massive disservice to claim they were in any way the same production as the earlier one. Also The Lucas Betrayal, at least as it currently stands, is a staged reading and radio play – not a full season. But such has been the response to that show that we’re in the early stages of changing that, so very soon The Lucas Betrayal will absolutely have earned its place in that collage, if it hadn’t already.
So where does this leave us? An independent company, twenty shows and many more lessons in? In some ways, not much has changed. In other ways, the company couldn’t be more different to what it was in 2013. And while I’m not about to go through what worked and didn’t about each individual show (I’ve done that before), it’s worth considering how far we’ve come from humble beginnings.
When I wrote (and directed and produced and starred in) Reunion seven years ago, I wasn’t looking to start a company. I wasn’t looking to do anything other than tell a story that meant a lot to me. And with nobody seemingly taking that story very seriously, I figured I might as well take the experience I’d gained from my central involvement in two youth theatre companies and use it to produce a show all my own.
Understand; it really wasn’t a vanity thing. It couldn’t have been, given how cripplingly insecure I was about corralling friends into helping make something that I was pretty sure mattered only to me. I didn’t write Reunion as a star vehicle for my limited acting prowess. I performed in it because I couldn’t find anyone else to take that role. And even referring to myself as the director of the play feels a bit rich, given my ‘direction’ largely consisted of trying not to upset anyone and hoping that none of the cast hated the script that much.
I think the key moment in that production came towards the end. After one rehearsal Finn, who played my character’s sardonic best mate and who had the most professional theatre experience of any of us, flicked through the script and blithely asked me why anyone should care about our characters.
I think I literally answered ‘they shouldn’t’ because the question cut to the core of my worries about the play and I didn’t have a proper response. That worry stayed with me up until the week before we opened. Then, on a long train ride, I sat and I re-read the script. And as I did something weird happened. I remembered why I wanted to tell this story and why I thought it might matter to more than just me. This play, about a particular kind of painful, gnawing longing for a time when you thought you were happier, was not depicting an isolated experience. I believed that others would understand and so I told my cast exactly why I thought people should care. Because maybe they’d see themselves in the characters and maybe they’d know then they weren’t alone. And while that potential remained a maybe, to me it was reason enough to give it a shot.
Whether or not it worked, I don’t know. Reunion was no insightful masterpiece. The staging was clumsy, the dialogue was variable, the characters slight and the quality of the jokes mixed. But in the grand scheme of things none of that really matters. What matters is the feeling I had standing in the empty theatre after the final show. The feeling that we had managed to pull this off meaning it wasn’t so crazy to think about doing it again.
Over the following years, despite most of the shows being written by me, our output was fairly diverse. There was the post-apocalyptic noir of the Babylon Trilogy. There was the fast talking no-budget comedy stylings of We Can Work It Out, The Critic and The Lucas Conundrum – plays I considered a sort of thematic trilogy until I stuffed it all up by writing a direct sequel to Conundrum. There were outliers like the deeply melancholic (and deeply personal) Regression, the two-person psychological thriller Heroes, the fractured biopic Springsteen, the dark drama of The Commune, the philosophical back-and-forth of The Trial of Dorian Gray and our one and (so far) only musical Moonlite. Then of course there were the plays that weren’t mine, the ones that in some ways I’m the most proud of because they represent my dream for Bitten By; a company that can provide a platform for emerging writers to tell their stories with the help and support of an experienced team. I still hope that in time the likes of Dracula: Last Voyage of the Demeter, Dead Air and Eyes Wide Woke become the norm for us; interesting and diverse works by different writers.
And naturally there was A Good German, the catastrophic failure of an attempt to tell a story about The Holocaust that I won’t dwell on because I’ve written about it way too much, but bears mentioning because there it remains the work that I’ve learned the most from, precisely because of what an utter mess it was.
German remains indicative of a fundamental truth I’ve come to understand over the years of this company, which is that you always learn more from your failures than your successes. And while no other failure was as complete as that of A Good German, there were plenty of smaller ones that marred otherwise strong shows. Bad casting choices that caused problems both on and off stage. Scripts that needed more development to truly find their potential. Problematic venues that compromised shows for any number of reasons – from poor soundproofing to dodgy air conditioning to shocking organisation. Communication issues making things harder than they had to be.
I don’t need to trawl through specifics or dredge up past dramas but broadly speaking they matter because they become learning experiences that, hopefully, make it just a little easier to not do the same thing again. There has not been a single show of ours that didn’t have some kind of problem behind the scenes (or during them) but frankly that’s the nature of the beast. What I firmly believe is that with every passing show we’ve learned a little more and gotten a little better. Being twenty shows deep and still having incredible people wanting to work with us suggests that we’re not totally on the wrong track.
One of the really staggering things about looking at that collage was seeing in one place an indication of how many inspiring people we’ve worked with over the past seven years. And that photo can’t even encapsulate them all, because to make even the smallest play happen requires behind the scenes efforts that those cast photos just can’t capture. To think back to Reunion and then to consider the teams we’ve managed to assemble on plays since is discombobulating. I won’t name names because there are so many of them, and so many of them I want to celebrate but don’t have room for.
What I do have room for, though, is the people who make up our central committee. The people who are Bitten By Productions. It started with Justin Anderson and Ashley Tardy, back when we sank beers after a shift at the old theatre restaurant Dracula’s and mused aloud about starting a production company. The three of us used Reunion as a starting point before stumbling through a succession of shows that weren’t all great but allowed us to meet several wonderful people we’ve worked with every since. A few joined and left the committee in the intervening years, but Kashmir Sinnamon and Alicia Beckhurst stayed the distance, moving from appearing in our shows to helping see them realised, in the process bringing our company to a place where the term ‘well oiled machine’ wasn’t entirely off base. Together, the five of us have built this little idea into something that has lasted and looks to keep doing so, something that has entertained thousands and slowly established a reputation and a lasting place in the Melbourne theatre scene.
There will always be stuff to learn from and areas to improve. That much is inevitable, especially when you’re talking about a bunch of creatives trying to run something like a functioning business. But looking at The Lucas Betrayal the other night, performed in a swanky venue with a cast of four enviable actors and an audience who came out to have a laugh with us despite the constant current fearmongering surrounding a certain virus, it was hard not to think about how different everything is now to the nervous, uncertain days of Reunion. And, knowing what we’ve got up our sleeve for the next year and beyond, it’s hard not to imagine with excitement just how different things could look around the corner.
Writing words about writing words.