New theatre chief opens to an empty house

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New Canberra Theatre director Alex Budd… “I would like there to be a ‘spring awakening’ of live theatre across Australia.” Photo: Holly Treadaway

The Canberra Theatre Centre will remain relatively becalmed, despite coronavirus restrictions easing and theatres permitted a limited form of reopening, new Canberra Theatre director Alex Budd tells arts editor HELEN MUSA

ALEX Budd, the new director of the Canberra Theatre, has barely sold a ticket since taking up the position in February. But he’s refunded thousands.

And even now, with the coronavirus restrictions easing and theatres permitted a limited form of reopening, progress at the theatre centre is likely to be slow.

“The lifting of restrictions is a great thing and it enables us to consider small scale activities which bring a limited audience back to our foyers and venues,” he says.

“The key issues for full-scale operation remain physical distancing, and broad support of arts companies and producers currently in urgent and desperate need of defibrillation.

“Much of our regular activity in The Playhouse and Canberra Theatre won’t return without their restoration coupled with enough seats to sell to make performances economically viable.”

Nevertheless, the livewire 45-year-old Budd seems buoyant and optimistic, having used the lockdown time to take stock, a chance few new directors ever have.

“If it weren’t so hideous, so disruptive and distressing to so many people, this period would be absolutely fascinating,” he says. 

“As a new person still finding my feet and getting to know the team, it was difficult to slam the script into reverse.”

Budd has come home again, after 22 years, directly from his role as executive producer, touring and commercial for Opera Australia, having left Canberra in 1998 to take up a lighting job with Graeme Murphy at Sydney Dance Company.

Born and bred in Canberra, the former voice student of the ANU School of Music knows this town well. He was part of the small, talented group of singers who founded Stopera chamber opera company in the 1990s, he worked at the Canberra Theatre as a lighting operator and designer under Alex Sciberras, absorbing the culture of the theatre centre he is now directing.

What a homecoming!

With wife Kate, Budd hit the ground running, rented a house and settled their three boys into his old alma mater, Canberra Grammar School.

Kate, who met Alex when they were both working at OA, had grown up in Melbourne so the move was emotionally challenging, but luckily a couple of years ago she had taken up a “very transferable” job in admin with WA Opera, working remotely.

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, Alex says: “We had just started to put roots down and to meet people through school.

“Canberra is a lovely social space and small enough to run into people you know.”

Budd started work at Canberra Theatre on February 3. All was well. “Spamalot” had started and the subscription season at the Playhouse and David Williamson’s “Family Values” was coming up in March. 

But by the week beginning March 9, news arrived that Broadway was closing and although they got through “Family Values,” by a grim Friday the 13th, Budd was talking to the Canberra Comedy Festival about closing its gala and on March 18 he announced, over-optimistically that the theatres would close for four weeks, later extended.

“The situation had a silver lining,” Budd says. 

“I needed to make a whole lot of important contacts in the ACT government and the crisis brought me close to people quickly.”

It’s since been a hive of activity, with six box office staff working around the clock on ticket refunds and postponements remotely from their kitchens. 

Other staff have been busy rescheduling productions. Technical and maintenance staff have been doing long overdue upgrades to the dressing rooms. The women’s bathrooms in the Canberra Theatre have been upgraded to include an ambulant toilet and the capital works program slated for next year has been moved forward to 2020. Communicating by email has meant a huge reduction in paper used.

“The baseline economics of running a theatre is selling tickets,” yes, it’s the old bums-on-seats measure, he says, and if they were to observe the social distancing regulation of the four-square-metre rule, they’d be lucky to get 220 people into the bigger theatre, which seats 1239. 

“Even if we could, that’s not the way I imagine enjoying an evening in the theatre,” he adds. 

As to the future, he describes it as “a crystal ball with about a dozen chambers”. 

He says: “In the long term I’m really optimistic that the experience of being in the room with the lights going out, with 1200 people you don’t know, sharing something, will be back soon.”

But theatre companies, he cautions, won’t all just switch the lights back on at the one time and some smaller venues may be able to open more quickly, since every space’s reliance on ticket sales is different.

“We should get through winter and I would like there to be a ‘spring awakening’ of live theatre across Australia – we are all in this together.”

 

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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