Programs in tatters and audiences halved as Omicron hits Sydney shows

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Opera Australia cancelled its New Year’s Eve gala performance of La Boheme and its Thursday performance after recording positive COVID-19 cases in the company that morning.

Performing is now a day by day proposition, with the company spending $25,000 on rapid antigen tests every week.

“Nobody can run like this indefinitely, it’s unsustainable and exhausting,” chief executive Fiona Allan says. “If you could plan it would be easy; we could stand people down, we could let audiences know they could transfer their tickets but we are literally taking these things day by day. What’s the alternative? Do nothing at all? Going forward is the only direction of travel we can take.”

Amyl and the Sniffers open Sydney Festival 2022.

Amyl and the Sniffers open Sydney Festival 2022.

COVID-19 infections caused a two-week pause to rehearsals over Christmas to Bangarra’s artistic director Stephen Page’s farewell production of Wudjang, and then a three-day postponement to opening night.

Bangarra is committed to pushing ahead with Wudjang given the show has been years in development and the company’s commitment to Indigenous storytelling.

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The tension, however, has made for some sleepless nights, according to its executive director Lissa Twomey, and has required incredible commitment and discipline from the cast and crew to maintain bubbles and distance themselves from the outside world as much as possible.

Only a “miracle” has permitted Darlinghurst Theatre Company to stage all-singing, all-dancing A Chorus Line after some cast members contracted COVID-19.

Executive director Glenn Terry says dates had to be shifted at the last minute to allow for isolation and recovery time.

“Fortunately the Riverside was available and the festival was amenable to that. It’s all been shunted forward. It’s a bloody miracle.”

Box office ticket sales for the Parramatta season have been better than expected and Terry called for audiences to support the arts where they can. “Ordinarily, a show of this type would sell out like hotcakes with a limited season like that. In South Africa, the COVID-19 surge peaked quickly and fell away quickly, and I’m hoping that will happen for us here in time for our Sydney Opera House performances.”

There is a lot at stake for Darlinghurst Theatre Company and other independent theatres. “These shows for us fund our less commercial works and our day to day running,” Terry says. “We need them to do well.”

Tim Jones, the artistic and programming manager for the Seymour Centre, said he was constantly revising plans to keep performers and audiences safe. For its upcoming production of The Museum of Modern Love, an audience participatory element had been removed that was originally central to the creative vision.

Jacob Nash’s Future Dreaming was installed on Stargazer Lawn at Barangaroo.

Jacob Nash’s Future Dreaming was installed on Stargazer Lawn at Barangaroo.Credit:Rhett Wyman/SMH

Other elements had been reworked to maintain the strictest possible safety standards. To further instil audience confidence to buy tickets, the centre had strong COVID-related refund and exchange policies. “However, there is a strong trend that they are buying tickets later, much closer to the selected performance,” Jones says.

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Festival organisers have had the added problem of finding skilled technicians. Security and on-site medical staff are hard to find. “It’s incredibly hard to staff events at the moment,” says Brown, general manager of Mandala Social. “We have CEOs dusting off their jackets to stage-manage shows, that’s how difficult it’s got.”

He says there needs to be a greater understanding of the scales of risk of, for example, sitting in a theatre with a mask compared to watching a festival on top of an expressway.

Twomey says without a national interruption insurance scheme like the Commonwealth has extended to the screen sector, “we like many others in the music and performing arts industry face incredible uncertainty with so much disruption and decimation”.

Cancellation insurance has been introduced in Victoria but not in NSW, and the Federal Government remains resistant to a national scheme. An event saver fund, which promoters could draw on to compensate for losses has been announced by the NSW government.

A government spokesperson said details of the fund would be revealed soon and it would continue to work with the sector to explore “fit for purpose solutions” to help organisers cope with COVID-related cancellations and disruptions.

“The rest of the year looks better if national cancellation policy exists as it allows us to plan a pipeline of events,” Robinson says, “and that helps to boost confidence across the community.”

But Allan cautions that cancellation insurance may not be a panacea when lockdowns are not mandated. It may be about waiting the virus out and the return of international tourists.

Meanwhile, the hit musical Hamilton, which cancelled four shows from December 22 to January 2, is pushing on.

“To return to the theatre last Wednesday and a capacity audience and to continue to see people travelling from Melbourne, Dubbo and everywhere in between has been really heartening,” says Australian theatre producer Michael Cassell. “Given so many people were unable to see the show during lockdown, we are in a slightly different position than I would have expected given the current situation. It could have been very different.”

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