Settling into a new home in the Parkside and Eastwood Institute Building, Slingsby Theatre is celebrating the successes of 2017 and looking forward to an even bigger 2018 with new work as well as national and international tours.
“It’s been all sorts of things,” Slingsby Theatre’s artistic director Andy Packer says of the company’s new home. “A roller skating rink, a table tennis club, a library. It was really a community hub before the word ‘hub’ was used in that way.”
The space is large, but feels homely. It’s a theatre we’re standing in, with a black painted interior and bright red pressed metal flourish lining the stage’s proscenium arch. Slingsby’s been here a week by the time of this interview, so the minimal furniture and boxes throughout the space speak to the company having only just ‘moved house’. Noting the laneway thoroughfare by the theatre doors, Packer says some local stickybeaking has been going on as passersby stop to have a yarn.
Packer and his general manager/producer Stacey Baldwin say they want to make sure this space is still a part of the community.
“This space means that we can spend more of our time and energy making the work and bringing our audience into this space and sharing stories with them,” Packer says. “It [means] less time on the phone trying to find a rehearsal space and things [like that].”
The company has a jam-packed 20 weeks of performances lined up for 2018, its 11th year of action. From re-mounting The Tragical Life of Cheeseboy for the Fringe 10 years after its debut, to fully developing and premiering the cabaret performance Songs for those who’ve Come Across the Seas, and touring both Emil and the Detectives and The Young King abroad to the UK, Ireland and US (and potentially China and India), the Slingsby calendar is covered in ink.
Packer says of Cheeseboy’s return (complete with its original cast) that the company felt comfortable staging the popular children’s theatre piece once more after the success of recent shows. “For a long time that was the piece that defined us, but now that we’ve had this success with The Young King and with Emil, we don’t feel like we have that monkey on our back anymore and we can return to it and share it.”
Songs For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas will be the new addition to Slingsby’s stable this year. In a departure from the company’s pure theatrical form, the show will be a mostly-musical, cabaret-style performance, which Packer describes as “a bit like a children’s book that’s come to life through music and lyrics.” With a strong team of creative collaborators including Cam Goodall, Quincy Grant and Ailsa Paterson, Songs For Those… began development in December 2017, and will continue to grow in Slingsby’s new Parkside space before going out into the world.
“It’s designed to be able to go a whole range of theatres in North America and across Australia in small venues and large venues,” says Packer. “It’s 15 original songs in a sort of live concept album that are being written, based around a story.”
While Slingsby’s immediate future looks to be a bright one, this wasn’t the case a few years ago. When the Australia Council funding cuts were announced in 2016, there was much consternation that companies like Slingsby would be forced to shut up shop. Yet, rather than wilt under that pressure, Packer says he became more determined and the company enjoyed its “biggest year ever” in 2017, where it performed to more than 35,000 people across the world, won an international award, debuted new work and employed more than 200 artists in the process.
“We’ve weathered the cuts about as well as you could hope to, really,” he says. “Last year was a big year of change, because last year was our first year without Australia Council funding, it was Stacey’s first year and our first year without Jodi [Glass, Slingsby’s previous executive producer].
“The organisation’s been transformed over the past two years really, through that change of funding from the Australia Council, to finding a group of amazing donors who’ve given us an amazing amount of money – over $160,000 in the past two years,” he says. “Part of that journey has been getting us closer to our audience.”
The Tragical Life of Cheeseboy
The Pocket, Stirling Fringe – March 2, 9 & 10
Nairne Soldiers Memorial hall – March 13
Centre for the Performing Arts, St Mary’s College – March 16, 17