It is 10am on the morning after the Broadway premiere of the 2016 Sydney Theatre Company production of The Present, a modern adaptation of Chekhov’s Platonov, written by Andrew Upton and starring his wife Cate Blanchett, when they sweep into a bookshop-cum-coffee shop in midtown Manhattan to meet me. Blanchett has already taken her son to school; and after we meet, a car collects her to take her off for a day’s filming on Ocean’s Eight, a spin-off of the Ocean’s trilogy due for release this summer.
The pair shared the artistic directorship of Sydney Theatre Company, one of Australia’s leading resident theatre companies, from 2008 to 2013, before the reins were assumed by Upton alone as Blanchett pursued her film career and tended to their family (they had three children at the time; they now have a fourth). In 2015, Jonathan Church was appointed to succeed Upton; but in May 2016 it was announced that he was stepping down after just nine months in the post, and last November 30-year-old Kip Williams, an internal candidate whose entire directorial career has been under the auspices of the company, was appointed to replace him.
Today, Williams is also in New York to celebrate the company’s Broadway debut, and after a few minutes, he joins Blanchett, Upton and me.
“It’s amazing to be starting this job when we’re opening a show on Broadway,” Williams exclaims. Under Upton and Blanchett, the company had regularly travelled abroad, with regular appearances in London (Botho Strauss’ Big and Small (Gross und Klein) starring Blanchett played at the Barbican in 2012, and Upton’s production of Waiting for Godot with Blanchett’s current Broadway co-star Richard Roxburgh followed it to the Barbican in 2015) and in New York (Blanchett starred in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2009, and The Maids at City Centre in 2014, while Blanchett and Roxburgh took Uncle Vanya to Washington DC’s Kennedy Center in 2011).
So why has it taken until now to get to Broadway?
Upton answers: “You can’t run the company and make such a long-term commitment as Broadway needs outside of the country; you can’t even make a long-term commitment out of the state [New South Wales]. The company does 16 shows a year in four houses. So there’s a lot going on, and as artistic director, you have to be on top of that. But now that we’re free agents again, we can do it.”
That partly helps to explain the circumstances behind one of the elephants in the room, which is to do with Church’s all-too-brief tenure in charge of Sydney Theatre, which has never been fully explained. But Upton at least tries to address it: “He was another victim of distance – it’s just too far, you can’t commute that far.” And Blanchett adds: “I think a lot of people underestimate the complexity of the role from afar – there’s the physical scale of the company, but also the breadth of the work.”
She was a big part of the company’s own international reach. “International touring became a big thing for us. We were so proud of what was happening at Sydney Theatre Company that we wanted to get it out, and one of the most obvious ways was for me to be a part of that. So I ended up touring quite a lot.”
But she bowed out of the running of the company in 2013, leaving Upton solely in charge. “There were things that Andrew still wanted to motor through and the company wanted him to motor through,” she explains, before he picks up the theme.
“The job comes in three-year contracts. We knew we had to do more than one – you can’t do a lot in three years. You inherit a year, you start a year, and then you’re done. We always committed to six years. But then with the kids, it became too big a job.”
However, Blanchett returned as an actor to star in Upton’s adaptation of The Present. “It was part of my last season,” says Upton. “I didn’t know it existed, but [the late director] Howard Davies gave it to me when we were working together at the National on a series of Russian plays. We were going to do it there, but then Nick Hytner left and that Russian project came to an end. But then I thought there was something in it, and returned to it.”
Davies was finally due to tackle Platonov himself by directing Michael Frayn’s version Wild Honey, originally produced at the National, for the recent revival at Hampstead Theatre, but he died before it reached fruition and became the final show he worked on. It was taken over by Jonathan Kent, who had directed Platonov in David Hare’s version at the National last year. Today Upton pays particular tribute to Davies for the example he set in the way he ran a company: “He was a mentor really, particularly early on in the beginning of our relationship with STC. There was something so practical in his approach that allowed me as an artistic director to see that you need to engage openly and honestly with everyone.”
1. The company was founded in 1978. It initially led a peripatetic existence, producing 38 shows in five different venues, until it established a permanent home by converting the derelict 60-year-old Walsh Bay Wharf, a timber warehouse at Dawes Point in the Rocks area of Sydney, into a theatre, which first opened in 1985.
2. STC then performed at the Wharf as well as the Roslyn Packer Theatre (formerly Sydney Theatre) nearby, as well as at the Drama Theatre on the lower level of Sydney Opera House.
3. Actress Cate Blanchett and her writer/director husband Andrew Upton were appointed joint artistic directors in 2008; in 2013, Upton became sole artistic director, a position he held till 2015.
4. Chichester Festival Theatre director Jonathan Church was appointed to take over from Upton in 2016, but in May 2016 it was announced that he was stepping down from the role after nine months, stating that it had “not proved viable” alongside his other commitments, which included the prior formation of his own independent company Jonathan Church Productions.
5. In November 2016 it was announced that Australian theatre director Kip Williams would succeed Church: Ian Narev, STC chairman, commented: “Kip was appointed after an extensive process that included a review of potential international and Australian candidates, consultation with members of the artistic community and interviews with an impressive short list of theatremakers. Through our deliberations, we always returned to the notion of STC being an artist-led company with a distinctive heritage and voice. We believe Kip consistently makes some of the most exciting theatre in Australia, and many others in the industry share that view.”
That lesson seems to have been well-learned. Williams, who joined the company as an assistant director straight after his training at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, observed it first hand. “One of the interesting things I witnessed in watching Andrew and Cate running the company as a couple was that, rather than being an individual from which all orders emanated, there was a negotiation and conversation between two artists, and with that came an openness. I don’t know if all artistic directors approach a company with that sense of being open to conversation; some will seek to enforce their own identity, but the inspiring thing that their company had was that openness of conversation.”
For Upton, that conversation was essential to his vision. “If you’re a director like Kip is, there is always another play to put on, another way to investigate a play that is part of a director’s creative urge. For an actor or writer, like Cate and I, there’s a different urge; we knew that there were several shows we wanted to facilitate. And one of our big projects was to find that next generation of theatremakers and to give them a platform. Once that was done, we were done.”
They are duly delighted with Williams’ succession. “It is so lucky that the company has Kip,” says Blanchett. “He’s had such a long association with the company that he’s come from the inside out, he knows the company through and through, and has a real love for it as well as putting on extraordinary work himself.”
When Williams returns to Sydney, he will direct Upton’s new version of Three Sisters next. “I only just realised you’ll be gone,” says Blanchett to her husband. “I went to plan the family calendar the other day, and our assistant said Andrew’s going back to Sydney to do it – I’m the last person to find out what is going on.”
Williams won’t be announcing his own first season at the helm of the theatre till September. “I’ve got nine months to gestate the baby,” he quips. So Three Sisters is part of a programme that was partly put in place by Church and partly by an interim artistic team that was put in place after he left.
“Jonathan provided us with an extraordinary architecture for us for 2017. He was only here briefly, but he really made an impact,” he says. And now he notes he is inheriting quite a lot of work that is already in place: “There are still commissions from Cate and Andrew’s time here and there will also still be commissions that Jonathan put into play for a number of years. And when I eventually leave, the next artistic director will have my commissions, too.”
For now, he’s also got another capital project to realise, which will mean that in turn more international opportunities may arise: “A very exciting thing that is happening is that we are redeveloping our Wharf spaces, and the outcome will be that they will be much more compatible spaces to what’s available in London and New York. I’d love to bring the company to London more often.”
Just the night before he was talking to the Barbican’s head of theatre Toni Racklin, and is in ongoing dialogue with David Lan at the Young Vic. But he admits, “the connections to England are not quite strong enough, and it would be great to do more there”.