Interview: Ross Mollison ~ theatre notes

Monday, August 10, 2009

Interview: Ross Mollison

"The one rule of producing," says Ross Mollison, "is that nobody knows nothing. The things that you least expect to be successful can be your biggest successes. And vice versa, of course."

Mollison speaks from experience. He is one of Australia's most successful international producers, those invisible hands who keep the financial wheels turning beneath the wonky juggernaut of live entertainment. Producing, Mollison is at pains to say, is not the same as presenting, an activity with which it is often confused; presenters buy in work that is already successful from other places. (Mollison does both, as well a running a successful marketing consultancy). Producers are the people who put it together, who match the venues to the shows, collate the dates, add up the sums and cross their fingers that the gamble will work.

As Guardian critic Lyn Gardner said recently, "commercial" can be a dirty word in the theatre. "We are still quite squeamish about the idea of people who not only have a demonstrable passion for the arts, but who are also capable of seeing the arts as a business like any other," she says. "That squeamishness is daft; after all, way back in a golden age of new writing, the careers of Shakespeare, Marlowe and their contemporaries relied entirely on the entrepreneurial flair of theatre owners." Quite. And she points out that in the current climate of financial gloom, "we have as much need of organisational energy, corporate skills, original ideas and a willingness to take risks as we do of creative energy". Mollison is one of those people.

There was some acknowledgment of the crucial cultural role producers can play last year, when Malthouse Executive Producer Stephen Armstrong was awarded the Kenneth Myer Medallion for Outstanding Achievement in the Performing Arts - the first producer to be given this recognition. Mollison himself is no stranger to awards - he was nominated for a Tony this year for the spectacularly successful Broadway season of Slava's Snow Show, which is returning to Melbourne at the Athenaeum this week.

He is of the breed that merits the term "impresario". "It means you're part economist, part psychic," he says. "A successful show is confluence of producing savvy, the right show in the right venue at the right time with the right publicity." It's that savvy that saw him bringing Puppetry of the Penis to Australia when no other producers would touch it, with box offices chinging in delight with takings that amounted, worldwide, to something like $100 million. It was the savvy that took Tap Dogs to the top, and has been the driving force between countless shows worldwide.

And it's a savvy which understands that the line between high art and popular art isn't nearly as clearly drawn as some would have it, and that shows come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. In Australia, Mollison hooks up with subsidised producers. In New York, he works closely with Vallejo Gantner, who runs the PS122 space, a mecca for New York's alternative theatre. It was their collaboration that led to the Speigeltent show La Clique, a Melbourne Festival favourite, heading to New York with Paul Capsis, retitled Absinthe. And then coming back to the Melbourne Tennis Centre during the Australian Open.

Producing successfully is, he says, a matter of giving a show the "correct airing". Some shows - he suggests the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - do better in the plush subsidised spaces of the Arts Centre. Others, like Casey Bennetto's hit musical Keating!, can be developed from fringe status to out-and-out commercial smash. "That began in the Trades Hall playing to 200 people and graduated to the Sydney Opera House. It basically paid off Belvoir St's national debt."

Mollison laments that there isn't a small commercial theatre in Melbourne - like the old Russell St Theatre, which still sits moribund and dark next to the Forum - which allows small commercial shows to be mounted in the middle of the city. It's a striking thought - there hasn't been such a space since the Universal Theatre closed in Fitzroy. A commercial venture, the Universal was home to many legendary productions, including the first production of Handspan's Cho Cho San, which subsequently toured Australia and China, Anthill's memorable Peer Gynt, starring Robert Menzies, and Billie Whitelaw's tour of Australia with her performances of Beckett's short play, notably the brilliant Rockaby. He's right: it would be fabulous to have a space like that now. But would it work?

"You have to be open to anything," he says. "Particularly now." What he means is that now producers work in an uncertain environment where phenomena like Facebook and Twitter - not to mention the Global Financial Crash - have changed the rules. "It's interesting these days. Nothing works any more. You put a full page ad in the newspaper, nothing happens. Maybe 60 tickets sold in a day. Two years ago, that would have been 300 tickets. Five years ago, 1000 tickets. People make decisions at the last minute. And that makes it hard."

He compares producers to developers. "Developers over-develop everything," he says. "Shopping centres are the thing, so they build shopping centres. And after a while everyone goes broke, because no one wants shopping centres any more, so they start doing cinemas. And they keep building cinemas until they start going broke..." You sense that Mollison isn't that kind of developer: he's sitting in the high chair, looking over the horizon for the next thing. And as far as he's concerned, the next thing is circus.

Musicals, he says, have had their day. "I think the market is sceptical of musicals," he said. "On Broadway there's Wicked, Mamma Mia, Shrek, Avenue Q... it goes on and on. Sometimes you have to say, well, that's where I think the market is going. I think circus is really exciting - you look at Circus Oz, their last show was a real step in an exciting direction. Or Circa, the Queensland company." Or the young performers featuring in this year's upcoming Fringe Festival, aggressively jamming together circus and theatre.

And, of course, the multi-awarded, critically applauded Slava's Snow Show, which features an ensemble led by Russia's most distinguished clown, Slava. "What this show taught me was the importance of emotion in presenting work," says Mollison. "I think a lot of New Genre [circus] forgets about emotion, and the clowning is poor, lousy. And a lot of producers don't care about clowns. But clowning is what gives circus meaning." He nods towards Circus Oz again, and names as exemplary clowns Derek Scott, Bill Irwin and Geoffrey Rush.

"I love this show," Mollison says of Slava's Snow Show (and the thing is, you believe him). "Clowns are born, not made, and Slava is one of those born clowns. He was basically a rock star in Russia, a television star, when Brezhnev was still in charge. He created all these characters - Assisai, Blue Canary - and the authorities didn't know if he's subversive or not, so they let him be. Then he went to the Edinburgh Festival, and his show was picked up and went around the world." The rest is, as they say, history.

That was in the early noughties, and now Slava's Snow Show has played to literally millions of people around the world. It's back in Melbourne for a second run as part of an Australian tour, opening August 12 at the Athenaeum.

Picture: Slava's Snow Show, with colours mangled by blogger. I will keep attempting to upload an image that doesn't come out in the negative. But kind of interesting, eh?


Casey Bennetto said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Casey Bennetto said...

Nice interview! Just a quick clarification (not even a correction, really, but the opportunity to have this on record is a good one). Keating! did go from the Old Council Chambers in Trades Hall (which actually seats 100) to the Sydney Opera House, but I don't know if you'd call it a 'graduation' as the SOH was the show's second season. It was pre-Belvoir, and had nothing to do with the marvellous work Mr Armfield and co put into the show - indeed, Neil first *saw* the show at that run, which was played by the original cast, the Drowsy Drivers. It had everything to do with the courage and commitment of Cath Woodfield, who produced all of those early runs out of her own pocket.

Full disclosure: she's myyy wife nowww! (spoken in Papa Lazarou voice)

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for the clarification Casey - just another reminder that one should doubel check everything. Especially the things that you don't.

No wonder you married her...

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Anon. I've removed your comment because whether it's true or not, I am legally responsible for comments here and not prepared to wear lawsuits.