I recently interviewed the critically acclaimed star of both the Edinburgh and Adelaide Fringes, Guy Masterson, about his coming return to Adelaide to give performances of his acclaimed production of Animal Farm, and to find out what compels him to keep coming back.
BL: Guy, this is your ninth season in Adelaide. What prompts you to keep coming back?
GM: Well, it’s gotta be the weather! There is nowhere else I’d rather be during February than in Adelaide – plying my trade, of course. But, if I just wanted the sunshine, I’d want to be on a beach in the Maldives!
BL: You were first introduced to us at the Adelaide Festival, not the Fringe, with a very big hit that is still talked about over here, 12 Angry Men, starring all those comedians. You had quite a hand in that production, didn’t you?
GM: Yes. Actually it was my idea first to put on the play, and then a kind of happy accident that I did it with comedians. I just happened to be talking to one about it being one of my favourite films, in the infamous Assembly bar in Edinburgh, and you can’t tell a comedian anything without him blabbing. Within minutes, practically all the major comedians in the bar that night (and I mean major) were queuing up to tell me which Juror they wanted to play! I could have cast it three times over by the end of the night! It eventually took two years to put it on and, by then, many of them simply weren’t available, or got cold feet, but the cast I ended up with was amazing, including Bill Bailey, Phil Nichol. and Jeff Green. But, I actually didn’t think of it as some kind of “masterstroke” casting it with comedians, until the press latched on to the idea in the run up to Edinburgh. I checked the sales just before we went up and, to our amazement, it had nearly sold out! Then, after we opened and the reviews broke, you simply couldn’t get a ticket for it. I even had to stump up £2500 to buy tickets for my own show, so that my friends and family and important industry people could catch it! Of course, those comedians that bailed out on me ended up regretting it! And then we were invited to the Adelaide, Perth and Wellington Festivals.
BL: But Bill Bailey didn’t come with the show did he?
GM: No. Sadly Bill had other commitments, so the easiest thing to do was for me to replace him for the trip. Much easier than recasting and redirecting it. Some of the lads whispered to me during rehearsals that I would never be as good as Bill, but I didn’t care. I was travelling with my show to Australia and it was a dream come true. I remember opening at The Maj in Perth during a 40+ heatwave and the air-con in the theatre was on the blink. You can imagine how hot it was with over 1200 people crammed in there. That was my first performance! Hot stuff! And, all the laughs that Bill used to get in the show, I got too, so I must have been doing something right. Not that it was a comedy of course, but there were moments…
BL: It was pretty hot in Adelaide when you got here, too. You played at the Scott Theatre didn’t you?
GM: Yes. Apparently we couldn’t get Her Majesty’s Theatre, near the Central Market, so playing at the Scott to 800 or so after playing at the Maj in Perth and the Opera House in Wellington was a little less daunting! Still very hot mind you.
BL: What do you think the comedians brought to the show that actors couldn’t?
GM: Apart from an audience of people who might never have been to see a play before, nothing much. They were actually all really good actors in their own right, but they also had a following in the comedy world that came to see them in a play they might never have even thought of going to before. I think that this became part of the phenomenon. I was very proud of that, especially as it was not pre-meditated.
BL: So that was a big success for you, but you obviously liked Adelaide so much that you wanted to come back.
GM: We had a ball! Obviously, being in the hit show of the Adelaide Festival, where you are spoiled rotten, staying at the Hilton and all that, and with the Pound so strong against the Dollar, there was no holding us back. And with a cast of comedians, we never stopped laughing. It was great! Plus, just around the corner from the hotel was Gaucho’s, the Argentinian steak house, which served the best steaks in the World as far as we were concerned, for a fraction of what we would pay in London. Suffice to say, we loved them, and they loved us! We had our closing tour party there and nearly drank the place dry. Every time I’ve been back since, I’ve had my celebratory meal there and am always treated like a celeb!
BL: You came back in 2006 with Under Milk Wood, another unforgettable performance, but in the Fringe.
GM: Yes. I worked with Adelaide’s top producers APA, who’d produced 12 Angry Men over there. They put me on for nine performances at the, now demolished Union Hall as part of the Adelaide Fringe.
BL: How was it performing in the Fringe, and not the Festival?
GM: Different!!! This time it was not the Hilton, although I was very comfortable. Comfort is very important when you travel around the world. You really need a bolt-hole. Plus, I was sharing the risk with APA, which meant that it wasn’t just a question of my going out, doing the gig, and banking the pay-packet. This time, I was aware of every ticket sale and all the expenditure. With only nine performances to cover air fares, hotel, spending money, plus theatre rental and publicity, etc., it was always going to be tight!
BL: Did you make money?
GM: A little. Not a lot. I would have done better had I stayed a bit longer, but I couldn’t as I had a tour of Holland pre-booked. But I did play to pretty full houses. Packed them in at the end. The most important thing was that I had followed up 12 Angry Men with another hit show, and on my own terms. Before, I was really known as the director. This time, I was the performer. It set up the next few years for me.
BL: What do you mean by “Set up the next few years”?
GM: Well, many of the same audience that loved 12 Angry Men came to see Under Milk Wood and this cemented my name in their consciousness. It meant that I could come back with another show in future festivals and get them all back again. That means a lot when it comes to the success of a production. That’s when reputation starts to pay.
BL: And you did come back again.
GM: Yes. I returned in 2007 with another Dylan Thomas piece, Fern Hill, but I also brought over a production of my adaptation of Animal Farm starring Gary Shelford, who had been over the previous year with Angry Young Man. Also, there was another production that had my name on it even though I wasn’t producing it; Playing Burton with Josh Richards, which I had directed. All the shows won a lot of critical acclaim and my own shows sold out. So I was very happy.
BL: That was in what we call the ‘Off Year”. When the Adelaide Festival was not on.
GM: Yes. At this point, the Festival was only taking place every two years, which seemed like a really good thing. It meant that the Festival could have the focus one year and the Fringe the next. From my point of view, it also meant that the theatre audience was not split between the two in the off year.
BL: That’s an interesting point. Did you notice a split?
GM: Yes. Definitely. I was here for the Festival of 2004 in then the Fringe in 2006. I noticed that Fringe theatre audiences were significantly smaller than the Festival. That is to be expected of course, with the difference in profile and marketing etc. But in 2007, I was here without the Festival and all those people had nothing else to see but Fringe. It was good. They all came to see me!
BL: But you then came back again in 2008 when the Festival was on.
GM: Yes. That was the first time I really felt the difference. It was an incredibly hot festival. 14 days over 40 degrees, even though the authorities would not admit to that! And my shows were showing in a “Fringe Managed Venue”, The Balfours Bakery, and believe me, it felt like a bakery! No air con! They couldn’t afford it, until we all started keeling over. Plus, it was a new venue and it took time for the audience to discover it.
BL: And you didn’t do as well?
GM: No, not at all. Audiences were well below my expectation and my budget. I think I must have had heightened expectations because of my previous successes, so I budgeted with higher projected sales than I should have done. I was presenting my new comedy, American Poodle, along with two Edinburgh hits Goering’s Defence and Follow Me. After a strong first week, I was actually shocked at how low Fringe audiences got once the Festival kicked in. We had gone from selling reasonably well, to selling to a handful. I couldn’t understand it. I actually performed to four punters once! That was a shock! Thankfully, I had an insurance policy in Under Milk Wood, which I put on for two performances at the Royalty Theatre. They sold out completely, so whatever I lost putting the other shows on at Balfours, I made back at the Royalty, so I was okay.
BL: You talk in terms of making and losing. Is this normal?
GM: Well, fundamentally, I am a producer. This means that whatever I put on stage has to make a profit or I go broke! I make my living in the margin between what it costs to put a show on stage and what I get through the box office, pure and simple. There are not magic potions! No short cuts.
BL: So, anything that affects the audience attendance really matters to you.
GM: Yes. Sadly, I can’t live my life in the ideal world of the artist who just goes on stage and hopes to give a good performance and takes their cheque. Good or bad, I have to concern myself with every aspect of putting the shows on, including the weather, floods or drought, recession, political upheaval, forest fires or even ecological disasters in Japan! All of these have affected our ticket buyers over the years. We producers feel them all.
BL: So being a theatre producer is not just putting on plays!
GM: I wish it were. It would be far less stressful!
BL: Did you learn from that season?
GM: Yes. A lot. With Under Milk Wood selling out the Royalty, it showed me that there was an audience for my classic work, but not necessarily for my more experimental work. No matter if it was a hit in Edinburgh, the audience would only come out in droves if it was a title they knew, like Under Milk Wood. But not American Poodle.
BL: But the reviews were fantastic!
GM: Yes… but contrary to expectation, reviews don’t really make a huge difference. Sadly. Of course it is always great to get the critical acclaim, but Adelaide people will really only part with their money on the Fringe
when they are really sure of what they are going to get.
BL: In 2009 there was no Adelaide Festival.
GM: Yes, and we felt that. In a good way. I put on Oleanna and scheduled a single performance of Animal Farm at the Royalty, for my security if Oleanna failed. It worked. In the end, both shows sold out their runs. Oleanna was, of course, aided by the fact that my co-star was a beautiful, young Flinders graduate, Joanne Hartstone! A lot of family and friends came to the show because of her. Plus, she was damned good, and we had a lot of fun. That was at the Queens Theatre. Totally inappropriate for the show, but we made it work.
BL: I saw both your shows that year. Good crits again!
GM: Yes. Can’t complain!
BL: But Animal Farm was a tour de force.
GM: It has been said.
BL: Nearly two hours on stage by yourself.
GM: Yes. It is gruelling, especially in your heat.
BL: But what a story!
GM: Yes. Animal Farm is pretty exceptional. I suppose that’s its enduring appeal. It’s taught in schools. It’s one of the most famous books in the world. And it’s a pretty straightforward story to tell. It is very compelling and, ultimately, very entertaining. All I have to do is to bring it to life… and keep the audience’s attention.
BL: Which you do very well.
GM: Thank you. Well, I’ve been doing this lark a long time. I’ve learned the tricks! I think I must have given over 5000 solo performances over 23 years now!
BL: That is quite a career!
GM: I suppose. If you’d have asked me 18 years ago if I’d still be doing Animal Farm after 18 years, I’d have laughed at you.
BL: Before we get on to Animal Farm properly, let me ask you about CIT – The Centre for International Theatre.
GM: Ah yes, CIT. I thought about CIT for the first time during a chance encounter with Dush Kumar at Higher Ground in 2009 after a performance of Oleanna. I had been talking to Joanne (Hartstone) about setting up a venue in town where we could bring lots of Edinburgh hits to the Adelaide Fringe, combine costs, and give them a safe place to perform without the huge risk associated with such a big trip. Dush suggested Higher Ground as the venue and, after seeing the spaces, I thought it was perfect. We could put on three shows a night in two spaces, and matinees on weekends. Plus, it had a restaurant, a nice bar, it was near to some night life. It could be a mini Assembly Rooms in Adelaide! In hindsight, I should have done more research.
BL: And you did it. You moved into Higher Ground.
GM: Yes, for 2010, Jo and I took over the place and I put on a season of eight shows, including Austen’s Women and Scaramouche Jones. I brought back Under Milk Wood for some security, of course! And we also put on The Event, which won the Best Performance Award, and Weights, Bully, and my all time favourite The Sociable Plover, a great play but possibly the most non-commercial title on the Fringe!
BL: What do you mean “non-commercial”?
GM: Well, non-commercial in the sense that no-one knows what it is without explanation, unlike Austen’s Women for example. Too many people were put off seeing it because they had no clue what the title meant… I should have changed it to “Twitch” or “The Twitcher”, as I had suggested to the writer when we did it in Edinburgh, but the writer was having none of it!
BL: Another very important factor, then?
GM: Yes. Title is vital! The easiest ones are those that have already been established, like famous books or adaptations of films, like Animal Farm and 12 Angry Men. They already have cache. Even Scaramouche Jones had a little cache, having already hit in Sydney and Melbourne some years earlier with Pete Postlethwaite. But The Sociable Plover? Not a hope!
BL: You mean no one came?
GM: Not enough people came, even though I was in it. So, even my “cache” (that I had built up over the years) and the phenomenal reviews couldn’t overcome the title, but it was a wonderful play and those that saw it loved it.
BL: But CIT was established?
GM: I thought it was. We had just about broken-even with our first season, in as much as we took enough through ticket sales not to have lost money overall. This was helped hugely by a grant from the British Council that covered our air fares and all our artistes were put up by local theatre lovers. That really made the difference.
BL: “Local theatre lovers’?
GM: Yes… Over my five previous seasons I had made lots of friends, many of whom had spare rooms. I simply asked them if they might like to host an artiste for the duration of the Fringe, and hey jumped at the opportunity. They gave our artistes a wonderful home with all the comforts and cooked meals while they were here. In exchange, they got tickets to all our shows and we all formed a big happy family! It was wonderful. The artistes loved the experience.
BL: But if you did not have those hosts, you would have lost money?
GM: Yes, no doubt. It would have been very unlikely that we could have covered the real costs of bringing eight shows from the UK and the US through ticket sales in the first year while having to pay for accommodation. The hosting saved us thousands, and the British Council grant enabled us to break even. I say break-even, but I personally didn’t get paid a penny for my performances, so I suppose I helped cover the costs. But at least I didn’t lose. Ultimately, I was responsible for all of it.
BL: Wow! So, that was a big risk for you. Could ticket sales ever have covered it?
GM: Yes. If we’d have sold about 10% more tickets at full price we’d have been fine. The potential of the whole project was huge. If we’d have sold all the tickets, I’d have been a rich man!
BL: 10% more sales doesn’t sound like a lot.
GM: It’s not really. It’s only 10 more tickets in a 100 seat venue. But over 144 performances it adds up. Very often, it is a very small percentage difference between loss and profit. So if we’d have dragged about eight people off the street to every show every night, we could have covered all the costs!
BL: So you came back in 2011 with even more shows, despite the risk?
GM: Yes… I felt that our first year had gone so well that the risk was worth it. Plus, I could fix the things we got wrong the first year. The thing was that I felt that Adelaide audiences really craved powerful small-scale international theatre, the kind that you rarely find in the Festival. I also felt that audiences would trust my name and my selection of plays enough to buy enough tickets to cover the costs.
BL: Did they?
GM: Sadly, no! At least, not enough. But, again we were critically acclaimed. If the Advertiser was anything to go by, out of a possible 45 stars we got 42 for 9 shows. That’s pretty good going. Plus, this time, I tried to insure against any losses by putting on two of my biggest ever Edinburgh hits, Shylock and Adolf, at the Royalty, my reasoning being that their ticket sales would underwrite the six shows at Higher Ground.
BL: It didn’t work?
GM: No. The shows at the Royalty did not sell as expected and, again, we were beset by all kinds of factors beyond our control; drought, fires in Victoria and NSW, Tsunami and Earthquakes in Japan, recession. More importantly, I realised for the first time that just not enough people were coming to the West End of Adelaide.
BL: What do you mean?
GM: Simply that not enough punters were venturing to the West End to see theatre at night. Especially to a theatre near Hindley Street, as Higher Ground was. The kind of punter that we were attracting, the middle-class theatre lover as opposed to the average comedy and cabaret audience or even students, seemed to have a problem venturing over to that part of town, at least, not in enough numbers to make our project viable.
BL: Were there not other theatre lovers out there?
GM: I’m sure they were, but by virtue of the fact that we were an international troupe with all the costs associated with getting the shows over there, our ticket prices were possibly slightly toward the higher end of the Fringe ticket scale. Even though we offered discounts for students and other fringe artistes, the average Fringe theatre punter might have found us too expensive. So we were up against some inherent resistance. Proximity and cost!
BL: And you could not overcome these problems?
GM: It was difficult without a huge investment in marketing. We simply did not have that kind of budget. As it was, we ended up losing about $50,000. Well, I ended up losing it. This said, I always understood the risk.
BL: You mean you lost all that money?
GM: Yes. Part of the deal I was offering was that all the artistes would have no personal financial risk. I would cover their air fares, and wages and their accommodation. This meant my shouldering all of the risk. So when CIT lost money, I lost money.
BL: Ouch! That must have hurt!
GM: It did, but luckily enough I had a very lucrative beer commercial contract that I knew would cover it. So even when I knew we were losing money, I was not overly worried.
BL: But, it was not that way last year…
GM: No. Last year was a disaster for me.
GM: Because we lost the same amount of money and I didn’t have a beer commercial!
BL: What went wrong?
GM: Essentially, we faced the same problems as the previous year plus the impact of the Adelaide Festival. It was really strong.
BL: But, having lost such a large amount of money the previous year, why did you come back?
GM: Because I genuinely thought we learned the lessons of 2011. We’d listened to our audience and fixed a few things regarding our scheduling. And we addressed marketing issues with a greater pro-activity even though we had no bigger budget. For me, it was really important to give a third season and get over the hump, the most important thing being to present a quality season with a greater variety of shows… which we did.
BL: Yes, all the shows were terrific.
GM: Thank you. Again we got a very high critical return. But audiences stayed really low throughout the fringe, especially after the Festival kicked in.
BL: What can you put this down to?
GM: Well, really the same combination of factors that blighted our first two seasons. The prime ones being our proximity to Hindley Street. Ultimately, we were in the West End and our demographic really didn’t like going over there after 8pm, despite the quality of the shows, and the split audience. As most Festival shows took place from 7.30 onwards, our theatre audience remained primarily loyal to them and not us. They would fit us in on a gap in their Festival schedule, rather than make us the priority.
BL: But Scaramouche Jones came back and sold out.
GM: Yes, which again illustrates the power of having a title that Adelaideans know. They are more prepared to see something again that they have seen and loved the year before, or on the word of mouth of their friends who’d told them not to miss it. So Scaramouche did strong business. But, my new show, The Half, and David Calvitto’s new show, Imperial Fizz failed catastrophically.
BL: But you are really well known in town and David won the Best Performer award for The Event in 2010!
GM: I know. And this just highlights how infuriatingly fickle audiences can be! I assumed that my show, at least, would do alright, particularly if it got strong reviews, which it did, simply because I had a strong track record. But the show came in way under break-even. As for Imperial Fizz, Well, I was shocked that such a clever piece of work that should appeal perfectly to our demographic, performed by two outstanding actors with sensational reviews, could fare so badly. But then again, we also presented a superb authentic production of Driving Miss Daisy from Kansas City which could not find an audience at all. On the other hand my two bonus performances of Under Milk Wood sold out completely as did Joanne Hartstone’s Misery! Strength of title again.
BL: So you decided not to put on CIT this year, at least, not in the same way.
GM: No, I simply could not afford the risk. Since taking that loss, I have just been through a very tough year, paying it off. Last year, I was certain that, having addressed some of the issues of the previous year, we’d get over the hump, but we didn’t. Accepting the fact that Adelaide has a discerning demographic of theatre lovers whose first priority is the Festival, now, with the Festival going head to head with the Fringe annually, I just don’t think it’s possible for CIT to survive in the current form. The numbers just don’t stack up.
BL: That’s unfortunate.
GM: Yes. I tried to make something special by bringing a co-operative of fine international artistes to the Fringe to offer something additional for the theatre audience, but without their ticket purchases, we can’t function. We simply don’t have the resources to compete with the Festival or indeed the Garden!
BL: Did the Garden affect you as well?
GM: It’s hard to determine if there is a direct correlation between their success and our failure. But I would say that in the minds of the majority of Adelaideans, The Fringe IS The Garden and if you are not there, you don’t really exist! That said, you won’t get much theatre down there. Not real theatre anyhow.
BL: So, given how difficult it has been over the past three years, why are you back?
GM: Because I’m a hard nut to crack! Horribly stubborn! Some would say stupid! Part of me does not want to let my good relationship with Adelaide pass into history. So I thought if I come back with a proven title, a show that everyone knows, and I only give two performances of it, I can make a little splash, remind people that I’m still here, and not lose money doing it!
BL: Can you make money with only two performances?
GM: I can just about cover my costs of doing the shows here, but I am also doing two schools performances in Port Pirie and St Aloysius and then I head to Sydney for two lucrative performances at the Seymour Centre so, all in all, the trip will be rewarding.
BL: But you are back in the West End, at AC Arts. Will the proximity to Hindley Street hurt you?
GM: It might have an affect on some of my potential audience, but with only 440 seats to sell, that might not become a factor. If I can’t shift 440 seats for Animal Farm, I’m in the wrong business!
BL: Do you think you will be back with CIT? Perhaps in another guise?
GM: I always thought that if I got the machine rolling properly with a good business template, we would be able to attract sponsorship and grants to help offset the costs and the risk, thereby enabling us to continue. Unfortunately, I lost too much to enable me to continue the project. This said, we did put together a fantastic team who still fully believe in CIT and, who knows, collectively, we might be able to raise the phoenix from the ashes.
BL: Well, I for one, certainly hope so. Adelaide has lost something wonderful. Finally then, what do you think is the prognosis for International theatre in the Fringe?
GM: Truthfully? Difficult. Without local support it is really hard to make ends meet. Without grants from home to cover air fares etc, it is really difficult to balance the books. And all this is apart from what it actually costs to put on the shows over there and to find an audience. There is really no point in throwing money down the drain just to have the experience of performing internationally. It only compromises your future. It is no fun to pay off a huge debt from a failed gamble. You might as well have a holiday instead!
BL: Can the Fringe help?
GM: I don’t think so. The Fringe, as a body, cannot be seen to favour one art-form over another, but if it really wants to call itself an International Arts Fringe, International theatre really needs to feature in it. But it is really difficult to close the circle on it. The fact is it needs help from somewhere. And I’ve run out of resources!
BL: Will you be back?
GM: If I sell out my two shows this year, definitely. If not, I will think about it. I have a family to feed!
BL: Thank you, and all the best for this year’s performances.
Venue: AC Arts, 39 Light Square, Adelaide
Performances: 6:30pm Sat 23 and Sun 24 Feb
Tickets: All tickets $33
Bookings: Fringetix at adelaidefringe.com.au or 1300 621 255