September 28, 2007

Cooking up Season Four

Filed under: Archive,Interviews


Adam Cook talks to Murray Bramwell about actors, audiences and his big ideas for the State Theatre Season for 2008.

From the time he first presented himself as a candidate for the job of Artistic Director Adam Cook made it clear that the pitch is very important. It doesn’t matter how good the season is if no-one turns up to the shows.

Three years later, and he is still enjoying playing Saatchi to his own Saatchi as, over coffee at the Festival Centre café, he presents the new improved brochure for 2008.The details have always mattered to Cook and he enthusiastically points out the latest features. The larger page format, the watermark on the cover, the sequencing and layout of the information, the impact of the photography, the signature avocado green, the slogan – to be used on flyers, ads, bus shelters – and so on.

“One of the things I’m most interested in is how you market a company, and a season. What are the points of difference that distinguish you. You need a lightness of tone, I like the manipulation of a well-known phrase – this year it was Excess All Areas. What’s the Big Idea ? has a kind of provocative front to it. It is meant to be a challenge. It came out of the plays I’ve chosen and what linked them – or could link them. It is a celebration of people who are bold thinkers. It is also about people’s resistance to new ideas… It is about pursuing a better life for yourself, which can be seen as an insolent idea.”

Over three seasons Cook has got to know his audience well. At first he was taken aback by the readiness of the foyer crowd to speak their minds, especially the negatives. When the letters arrived criticizing The Government Inspector and canceling subscriptions – “it really hurt. I burst into tears at the management meeting and said, maybe I’m not cut out for this. Now I just laugh. My self confidence has got higher.” And these days he has forged close ties with his subscribers – the “repeat offenders” as he later conspiratorially calls them at the Dunstan Playhouse launch.

As State Theatre celebrates thirty five years in operation, Cook (and general manager Noelene Buddle) can look to some solid achievements. The company just picked up a Ruby Award for Best Sustained Achievement. Its subscription levels are healthy and high, and this year’s Hamlet yielded the second best box office ever. But, even though those two facts are significant – there is a troubling discrepancy between them. Cook’s Hamlet, featuring the talented Cameron Goodall as the emo-Dane, drew 22% of its audience from the under-30 cohort, but it is a much older group of regulars on which the company really depends.

The subscribers, many of them women, are the faithful audience who need to be attended to – just as it was for previous ADs, John Gaden, Simon Phillips and Rosalba Clemente. Displease the punters – as some past directors did – and the walls of the Playhouse really start to rattle. Adam Cook knows this. He is looking forward to the Dunstan’s refit, the regulars are wanting better passenger comfort, and, as they become more fragile, the safety of access is more of an issue. Cook has also been running focus groups about repertoire and, while they are cautious ( “they didn’t like Frozen, Doubt has been difficult for them”) they say they are ready for something more challenging.

Which brings us to Adam Cook’s new season. He has described it as the closest yet to his wish-list, although he alludes to the ever-present constraints of actor availability and escalating costs. As Cook cheerfully quips of State’s General Manager – “I give her my dream and she crushes it – oh sorry, Noelene – crunches it.”

It is a strong list for next year and includes brave choices – opening with the Brink co-production, When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell, whose Holy Day was among State’s most successful commissions. This premiere work, with the theme of global warming, will feature in the Adelaide Festival, directed by Chris Drummond and designed by celebrated visual artist, Hossein Valamanesh.

There are two other Australian works next year. The Female of the Species by Joanna Murray Smith is a comedy of ideas about a famous feminist, Margot Mason, who bears more than passing resemblance to that other alliterative culture-Boudica, Germaine Greer. It features Amanda Muggleton (who provided a star turn at the season launch) and will be directed by Catherine Fitzgerald. Also on hand for the launch was Robyn Archer who returns to the Festival Centre precinct, not as performer or director, but as the writer of a newly commissioned work, Architektin, based on the extraordinary life of Vienna’s first woman architect Margrete Schutte Lihotsky. Designer of user-friendly domestic space – including the Frankfurt Kitchen – her long life spanned the history of the 20th century and Archer, who met Lihotsky in the early 90s, is developing the script for direction by Adam Cook and design by Mary Moore.

The production of The Real Thing in November will mark the end of Michael Hill’s excellent two year term as Associate Director. In 2008 Geordie Brookman takes up the job and he has two shows under his command – Henrik’s Ibsen’s fascinating and outspoken play, Ghosts (about inherited illnesses and, even more debilitating, inherited ideas) and Attempts on Her Life by Martin Crimp. Subtitled “17 Scenarios for the Theatre” and featuring Cam Goodall and Lizzy Falkland, Adam Cook offers this as a “structurally challenging” work, “firing a warning shot across the bows of recent theatre.” Cook himself will also direct Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange – “ an acerbic comedy about sanity, normality and race relations” – and, to conclude the year, Martin McDonagh’s black comedy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, featuring Don Barker, Paul Blackwell, Carmel Johnson and this year’s newcomers, Patrick Graham and Jamie Harding.

There is confidence in Adam Cook as he outlines the program, his latest juggle between the wished-for and the workable, and, as his easy manner at the launch indicates, he is enjoying his closer contact with the audience. “They say to me: ‘We have come through thick and thin over the years. There have been times when we haven’t liked the plays, but we’ve booked for all of them.’ I love that kind of appetite. They don’t say – ‘that looks boring, I won’t go to that.’”

“Cooking up Season Four” The Adelaide Review, No. 326, September 28, 2007, p.24.

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