‘I may have to move you,’ a member of the production crew says to me. I’m sitting in The Loft at QUT Kelvin Grove, notepad and pen in hand, waiting for the cast of Love and Money to take the stage. In the corner, angled to the left of where I’m sitting, is a large flatscreen with a Zoom meeting projected on the television. Mirrored in the inset is the stage, a theatre-in-the-round set up where a long, rectangular platform commands attention. On top of this sits a raised podium, narrower in width, matching the lightbox that hovers above.
While the crew–and occasionally a cast member or two–bustle around the room preparing, a small child appears on the other end of the Zoom conference and gurgles into the microphone before being scooped up by their mother and taken, along with the laptop, into another room. Later I find out that this was the director, Kat Henry, ‘zooming’ into the dress rehearsal 1,800kms away in Melbourne. The crew member comes back.
‘Yeah, I’m really sorry, I’m going to have to move you.’ Around us, the stage manager and other members of the production crew are measuring out the (now standard) one-point-five metres between chairs, marking out the seating for a minimised and socially distanced audience. I bundle up the notepad, which is balanced on my lap, and leap out of the chair.
‘Not a problem,’ I reply, shrinking myself against the wall, trying to become as little a nuisance as possible. ‘I’ll move wherever you need me to move.’
The global pandemic saw a shift in the way many industries conducted their work, if they had the luxury to. One of my friends, a civil engineer, was able to simply shift their workplace from the office to their home. Another friend, like myself, works in hospitality and was shut down for several weeks. The people I know who work in the Performing Arts found themselves out of pocket and out of work as shows they had lined up were postponed or straight up cancelled, leaving them with no income for the indefinite future. I witnessed many of them struggling, both financially and mentally.
Even now, after several months of enduring and persisting in a world where Covid-19 is a prevalent concern, it’s still a precarious future for sectors such as the Arts. It’s a terrifying prospect, especially for young, burgeoning artists who have spent the past three or four years studying and perfecting their craft in drama, acting and stage production. At a time when they’re working on their showcase performances, a crucial element in their transitions from students to professionals, they’re having to find themselves adjusting and adapting at the same time.
That’s why, due to audience capacity restrictions, I’m sitting in on the dress rehearsals for QUT’s productions of Love and Money, and Dinner, a collaboration between the students of Acting, Drama, and Technical Production. For many of the students, this is the first time they’ve extensively worked and interacted with each other in the space, finalising their blocking and lighting and performances and sound over the three days of dress rehearsals before opening. I’m witnessing them at the mid-point.
Written by Dennis Kelly, Love and Money was first staged in 2006 and, despite being over a decade old, is still irreverent for audiences today. In the opening scene, one of the main characters, David–a widower–confesses to his most recent paramour that he allowed his wife to die in order to collect life insurance to pay off their accrued debts. More insidiously, he admits that when he came home to find her overdosed on prescription medicine, he helped her along, for lack of a better phrase. Given the current climate, where many governments are arguing the benefits of keeping the ‘economy open’ despite the potential cost of human life (I’m looking directly at you, America), it strikes a discerning chord. Ultimately, the play addresses the concept of capitalism and the effect it has on relationships; the relationships we have with our own personal goals and desires, and how that affects our connections with others. In a moment of desperation, David tries to bargain himself out of employment he feels is beneath him, based on the fact that he has a university degree. He is rebuffed with a clear and decisive ‘You’ve got a degree in English Literature.’ (Author’s note: Aha–ouch).
The cast, when given their respective moments, all excel in their performances. I know that I’m watching a dress rehearsal, but it is delivered in such a polished and perfected way that I never feel as though I’m watching a dress rehearsal. In a tense moment where David confronts his wife, Jess, about her shopping addiction, I found myself physically reeling back in my chair. The stage design is minimalist in the best way, using audio and visual elements to their best effect, enhancing the performances of the actors rather than overshadowing.
When I come back into The Loft, the stage has completely transformed. In place of the podium, a catwalk of sorts where the earlier actors used in a variety of ways, is now a lavish autumnal tableau, with rich burgundies and glittering golds dressing the table, and antler table pieces for extra extravagance. The lightbox above projects images of antler wreaths, mirroring the ones below. It’s clear that this is a world in which money is trivial.
In Dinner, written by Moira Buffini and first staged in 2002, Paige is hosting a dinner party to celebrate the release of a book written by her husband, Lars. When the dinner party is interrupted by a stranger seeking help, what follows is a three-course serving of philosophical discussion with a side of psychologically tortuous mind games and contradictions. If the subtext of the dialogue about class disparity and privilege is missed, there’s a soundtrack to help drive it home to the audience; Joy Division, David Bowie, and The Clash play at intervals, and there’s a surrealist moment where Common People by Pulp blasts over the speakers while the cast dance around the banquet. Jarring and out of place in a setting where the third movement from Keyboard Suite in D Minor by Handel seems more appropriate.
Whereas Love and Money was allowed more room for the individual actors to have their sole moments in the spotlight, Dinner is more of an ensemble piece. But the cast complement each other well, making the banter between each other seem natural. Even the Butler, who has a (mostly) non-speaking role, holds an imposing if silent presence. Sitting there, I feel voyeuristic in a sense, existing in the periphery much like the Butler, a situation in the manner of Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey; blessed enough to witness it, but not privileged enough to partake. Although there were a few more gaffs and stumbles than in Love and Money, it wasn’t enough to detract from the performance as a whole. And, as mentioned earlier, it was still just a dress rehearsal; the perfect time to iron out these nerve-induced wrinkles.
Even though 2020 has been a bit of a train wreck in many regards, it has been reassuring to watch the ways in which people adapt to significant changes. Before Covid-19, attempting to stage live theatre while separated from others might have seemed a bit incredulous. But, assisted by technology and sheer determination, the students at QUT have succeeded in this, and based on the performances of Love and Money, and Dinner, the students involved in these productions have a very exciting and promising future ahead of them.
Sophie is a Meanjin/Brisbane-based writer in her final year of a BFA in Creative Writing. She writes both fiction and nonfiction, ranging from literary pieces to pop culture commentaries, and has previously been published in QUT Glass. Sophie is currently working on her first novel, a YA coming-of-age story.