Sydney’s lockdown has forced prominent shows including Hamilton and Come From Away to stand down their casts and crews without pay for the duration, as Live Performance Australia continues their call for a business interruption fund to cover the performing arts.
While the Hamilton company can access their annual leave, even in advance of its accrual, the performers and crew of Come From Away are worse off, having used up their entitlements during three earlier lockdowns: in Melbourne in March 2020 and February 2021, and in Brisbane in March 2021.
The CEO of peak body Live Performance Australia (LPA), Evelyn Richardson, said this is exactly what the industry has been warning against. “The reality is that this will happen again and again,” she told Guardian Australia. “We’ve been lobbying federal and state governments since early last year for exactly this scenario, so that a producer can get access to insurance underwriting and some kind of reimbursement.”
Without it, large-scale productions and live music tours become an unacceptable risk for producers, Richardson says – adding that despite New South Wales government assurances that the issue would be addressed in the wake of the cancellation of Byron Bay’s Bluesfest in 2020, no commitment has been forthcoming.
“There has never been a more urgent time for this [commitment to be made],” said Richardson. “It’s getting harder and harder for producers to have the confidence to keep investing.”
‘It’s a traumatic position to be in’
Hamilton’s producer Michael Cassel is currently in New Zealand, where he has been overseeing the opening of the Auckland production of The Lion King. Cassel’s production company is also behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which resumed performances on 26 June after a four-week hiatus brought about by Melbourne’s recent Covid-19 outbreak.
He said both Hamilton and Harry Potter are governed by an enterprise bargaining agreement, negotiated late last year, which includes a stand down provision. “When we are unable to work due to the pandemic and any lockdown implemented by government, everybody is stood down for the term.”
“We are helping out and doing the best we can,” Cassel said. “Our salary bill is substantial and there is no way to pay it when the show is not performing. If we didn’t do this, we’d have to close the show altogether.”
While the federal government’s Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (Rise) fund did help a number of shows reopen, “it wasn’t a bottomless pit”, said Cassel.
“At the time we were applying for Rise funding, none of us knew how much money we might need in the future. Jobkeeper helped, but that’s no longer available. It is a traumatic position to be in.”
Come from Away producer Rodney Rigby said he’s very aware of the financial hardship of a stand down decision. “Such action is only taken to protect the longevity of our production and the long-term employment of our company. We have … supported our employees to the best of our capacity and will continue to do so wherever possible.”
‘The federal government must step up’
The lockdown continues to wreak havoc in the live performance sector more broadly. The remount season of Griffin theatre company’s Prima Facie at the Seymour Centre has been scratched, as has an upcoming production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, slated for the Old Fitzroy Theatre. All theatre in Sydney is paused until 9 July, when the lockdown period will be reviewed.
Any extension would put several major productions in jeopardy, including Opera Australia’s winter season, Sydney Theatre Company’s Triple X, Griffin Theatre’s premiere of Wherever She Wanders and Belvoir’s Miss Peony.
Director of Equity at the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance (MEAA), Michelle Rae, said actors, musicians and stage crews are still doing it tough. “Australian arts and entertainment workers continue to be devastated by Covid yet support from the federal government is almost non-existent.
Support for live performance workers should not be reliant on the good will of the employer, she added. “The federal government must step up and support this industry. Even without the continuing lockdowns, many venues are not at full capacity and therefore many arts and entertainment workers are still not earning a living. MEAA is calling on the government to extend vital income support for our industries.”
Producers and theatre companies in locked down areas are anxiously eyeing not just the date they will be allowed to reopen, but also the possible conditions under which it can occur, which may include the re-imposition of social distancing rules in theatres, and caps on audience numbers.
Tight margins in musical theatre demand high audience capacities. Even at 85%, most musicals would fall short of their break-even point. Fifty per cent caps would be financially disastrous for commercial operations such as Hamilton.
“We’re looking at all the scenarios,” Cassel said. “It’s not just one rule we have to factor in. It might be 50% audiences or 60%, or [distancing of] four square metres. It’s hard to know. We have to wait for the facts otherwise we are jumping at shadows.”
Hamilton broke all Australian box office records before the show opened in Sydney in March. It is still the only production of the blockbuster Broadway show playing in the world. Come From Away played to strong houses in Brisbane and Melbourne before opening in Sydney.