Ralph Myers, artistic director of Belvoir St Theatre; Sam Strong, artistic director of Griffin Theatre Company; Simon Stone, Belvoir St resident writer/director; Lally Katz, playwright
The theatre set remains, on average, stubbornly old, but a new generation of wunderkinds is dominating main stages and setting a new course for theatre in Australia.
These 35-and-unders – including directors like Simon Stone, writers like Lally Katz and company chiefs like Ralph Myers and Sam Strong -- are contributing to the age gulf between those making theatre and those watching it.
We're calling them theatre's young turks and together they take the No. 8 spot on the arts and culture power list.
The Power Index chatted with all four 35-and-unders, who veritably spit creative juices. They share not only youth but a remarkably relaxed understanding of their meteorically rising influence in the cultural space. They are artists seemingly without excessive ego yet with searingly-bright ambition.
Brenna Hobson basks in the "extraordinarily talented" people she works with as Belvoir St's general manager in Sydney. "There has very clearly been a shift in the past three years, it's been quite quick," she says.
"After the explosion of energy in the '70s we had a group of artists, baby boomers, who were very successful and really drove the industry but then stayed in those positions. So I think the generations older than your Ralphs and your Simons and your Sams found themselves quite frustrated ... shut out of some of the key artistic roles.
"And now that we have had a shift it's been some of the younger ones that have taken it on. We've almost skipped a generation."
Belvior, a couple of blocks up the hill from News Limited's headquarters in Sydney's Surry Hills, is a creative hub. It turned over $10 million last year with record subscriptions -- thanks largely to the efforts of new artistic director Ralph Myers, who took over from Neil Armfield for last year's season.
Myers didn't just steady the ship; he steamed ahead with a season that included the hugely successful The Wild Duck and a celebrated remount of Summer Of The 17th Doll. Audiences -- and Sydney's notoriously fickle critics -- loved it.
The epitome of a bearded hipster with a relaxed charm, NIDA-trained Myers married his parents' livings (architect and art teacher) to become an in-demand freelance set artist. Many eyebrows were raised when a set designer -- rather than an actor or director -- was chosen to replace Armfield, but Myers has proved the doubters wrong.
"I think the thing about Ralph is that he's a real person of the theatre," says Hobson. "And if you look back through history ... the best theatre artists that we have really immersed themselves in theatre.
"Ralph has spent more time in rehearsal rooms ... than most directors. He's worked intimately with the Neil Armfields, the Benedict Andrews, the Barrie Koskys, he really has worked with the best across several generations. And so he just has the most extraordinary understanding of theatre and an extraordinary generosity towards other artists."
People say the same of Sam Strong (perhaps because the stubble and glasses make them look so similar). At Griffin Theatre, from an intimate Darlinghurst space that has given birth to some of the best Australian drama of the past decade, Strong has the job he's always wanted. He chucked in a career as a barrister -- "the first love was always theatre" -- to emerge as a leading director and dramaturge (script doctor).
"When you come through a career on the independent scene you become very good at multi-tasking," he tells The Power Index down the phone from Sydney Theatre Company's Wharf complex, amid final rehearsals for a production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, starring Pamela Rabe and Hugo Weaving.
"I always wanted to be an artistic director. I made no secret of that."
That it's happened at such acceleration doesn't make him giddy, a sentiment shared by all our young turks. "You sort of absorb the speed of your own career and you don't feel like it's moving very quickly," Strong says.
Lally Katz remains happily ensconced in Melbourne's arty inner-northern suburbs, the city she has made a theatrical home since her family moved from New Jersey as a kid (at "eight and three-quarters", she corrects). But we spoke to her -- the fervid Jersey brogue remains thick; the ebullience infectious -- from Sydney, on tour to see a friend's show. Her reputation for a heartfelt brand of magical realism had preceded her.
Katz's output in the independent scene has been prolific. But last year it really clicked: three main-stage shows at Belvoir, the Melbourne Theatre Company (Return To Earth) and Malthouse Theatre (A Golem Story) gave Shakespeare a run for his money as the most-performed playwright.
Myers says nobody has a stronger work ethic: "She works tirelessly. She's extraordinary." She furiously rewrites scripts to exacting personal standards and insists on being in the rehearsal room ("like a soccer mom," she says, "a champion of the play"). She brazenly told theatre doyen Robyn Nevin she was writing a play for her and she had to be in it -- the star turn in Neighbourhood Watch won them both plaudits.
"It's always life and death," Katz says. "It's a hormonal thing, a chemical thing. If I don't do this I'm going to die. Everything I've done I've put high stakes [on it]."
And the critics? "Bad reviews break my heart. I'm sick for months. And low audiences break my heart too. Both of those things are devastating."
She credits the mentoring of peers and supportive wiser heads like Michael Kantor, who directed Golem, but acknowledges it was the determination to self-make theatre on whatever scale was possible -- not wait for an opportunity -- that forged her path.
Simon Stone's story is similar. His Hayloft Project, a collective of Melbourne-based artists, tread the boards of fringe spaces with attention-grabbing shows like the radical Thyestes (a remount in January became a Sydney Festival smash) to force their way onto bigger stages.
"One's instinct is having an outlet," he says, echoing Katz. "Purge all the things that are clogging up your system. As an artist in the theatre often it takes too long for that purging to happen. So people become imaginatively constipated. Shit out more work."
Stone looks like his 27 years -- he just doesn't act like one. Never has; it started when he was a kid, he says, trying to woo "significantly older" women. The interest in theatre developed because he felt "alienated from every other pursuit and from every other group".
"I had talent in one area," he says. "But it was more having interest in the field to replace the need for genius, prodigy, because it was just incessant love and excessive consumption. That's the only thing that sets me apart."
Age wasn't a barrier because he ran so hard to catch up; "making sure I've had a modicum of the experience that a lot of the people in the industry had".
That, and playing with texts from Ibsen, Seneca, Brecht and, later this year, directing a new production of Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman, that are ageless. Fairfax critic Cameron Woodhead calls Stone "one of our most vivid and nuanced interpreters for the stage".
His is a beautiful mind; a scheduled 20-minute chat becomes a thoughtful, fiercely intelligent, hour-long lecture on his breathtaking career and the nuances of theatre scenes in Sydney ("exhilarating", "a sense of radicalness") and Melbourne ("Sydney is just more socially progressive, more adventurous, more desperate for a good time"). Perhaps one musing encapsulates the drive: it's a desire, he says, to "experience life in all the complexities".
And when he says it's all about the art -- dismissing notions of rising personal power and influence in theatre circles as "fleeting" -- it's hard not to believe him.
"Our generation doesn't take for granted that people will come and see what we make," he says. "There's no sense of duty to go to the theatre on a Friday night. This is why I make it: because I believe something happens in that dark, magical space. It's actually the most powerful antidote."