Q&A/What to SEE

What to SEE: CinemaStage

27 October 2021

West Australian company Theatre 180 has been charming audiences with a new approach to storytelling that marries live performance to the silver screen.

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Theatre 180 has a long history of striving to take their stories to as broad an audience as possible.

The company began life 28 years ago, as Agelink Theatre. Focusing on oral history, Agelink collected stories – mainly from seniors – and presented these as theatre. That focus on stories carries through to the present; with the motto “Great Stories, Well Told”, Theatre 180 believes that everyone has a story and everyone’s story is valid.

And their bold new way of telling those stories – CinemaStage – is ensuring that they reach a more diverse audience than ever before, by transplanting live performance into a cinema setting.

Nina Levy talked to the company’s Artistic Director Stuart Halusz to learn more about Theatre 180 and the CinemaStage concept.

Nina Levy: What is the story behind the name Theatre 180?

Stuart Halusz: Theatre 180 takes its name from having a 180 degree perspective on life – from the buoyancy of youth to the wisdom of age. When you run up and down the 180 degree arc you end up with a full circle – the circle of life, and all that it encompasses.

Nina Levy: How did Agelink Theatre evolve into Theatre 180?

Stuart Halusz

Stuart Halusz: Three years ago the team was looking for a succession plan, and the opportunity came up for us to build on the foundation of Agelink. We kept Agelink as a foundation pillar (continuing our oral history work), alongside our other pillars of Mainstage Productions (including CinemaStage and Regional Touring) and Education.

Regional touring is vitally important to us, and we strive to take our stories to as wide an audience as possible, predominately through our agile CinemaStage productions which play in regional and outer-metro cinemas as well as touring smaller country towns not normally on the touring circuit.

NL: Those CinemaStage productions see you transplant live theatre into a cinema setting. Where did that idea come from?

SH: In 2018 Theatre 180 actors and producers Rebecca Davis and Michelle Fornasier were producing Mimma: A Musical of War and Friendship for Ron Siemiginowski, who owns and runs regional cinema chain Orana Cinemas, in Albany, Busselton, Kalgoorlie and Geraldton. Following a conversation with Bec, where Ron mooted the idea of activating his cinemas with live performance, we tossed around various ideas before Bec landed on the concept of shifting our production of AB Facey’s iconic Australian biography A Fortunate Life, then in development phase, into presenting live theatre in cinemas.

And so a new genre CinemaStage was born.

With Ron as our Angel Investor and financial backer, we embarked on the journey of solving the many challenges faced when combining the immediacy of theatre with the visual impact of cinema.

NL: And what are the challenges of directing in a cinema, rather than a conventional theatre?

SH: The first challenge is the scale and size of the screen. It dominates the space and commands attention, so we knew very quickly that for this to work we would need to fill the screen with images for the entire length of the play. It could never go blank.

Nor could it take over the action on stage, and we discovered a constant and delicate balance of where we wanted the audience focus to shift to.

Cinemas rely on darkness, so the screen can ping, whereas theatre relies on throwing light onto actors, so we had another challenge, of balancing the light on stage.

Lastly, the actors never leave the stage. All changes are effected in front of the audience, shifting character with the change of a hat, a vocal shift or physicality (in A Fortunate Life the three actors play 89 characters). They play up and down in age, cross-gender, sometimes even animals.

Epic tales told in an epic way: Morgan Dukes in ‘Sydney II: Lost and Found Photo: Stewart Thorpe Photography

NL: What does this format allow you to do that you wouldn’t be able to achieve in a either conventional theatre or cinema?

SH: The format allows us to tell epic tales in an epic way, and ask our audience to suspend their disbelief in a way that only theatre can do, in a cinema environment where they’re used to just relaxing back into a comfy cinema chair and letting the movie wash over them.

In Sydney II: Lost and Found the actors also interact with characters on the screen, and both productions feature storylines over different time periods. The latter idea is certainly no stranger to cinema, but generally it is covered by the detailed work in design and aesthetic.

Not only do we not have the million-dollar budgets of cinema, but we also don’t have the need – the power of a live actor on stage, immersed in a great story, will always grab an audience in a physical and immediate way, urging them to use their imagination and fill in the gaps to complete the story elements for themselves. This is an incredibly powerful force in theatre and is why theatre has survived over the centuries and come out the back of many a pandemic.

A woman dressed as a man holds a large gun up to two men. They are dressed in trousers, shirts and braces that suggest a scene from the early 20th century. The backdrop is of West Australian bush; a huge gum tree is in the foreground.
Benj D’Addario, Rebecca Davis, Michael Abercromby in ‘A Fortunate Life’

NL: What made you choose A Fortunate Life and Sydney II Lost and Found to present in this format?
A Fortunate Life has long been on my list of stories to tell. Bert Facey’s story is remarkable, inspiring and a rollicking great yarn, yet also an everyman story. In many ways it encapsulates the pioneering spirit of Western Australian agriculturalists and exposes the ingenuity and hard work that has made our state great.

We knew it would be a success as it’s such a popular book, over one million copies sold and still on the schools’ syllabus. We wanted a story which could help society, particularly young people, reflect on the resilience, courage, hope and fortitude of our forebears, to discover more about where we’ve come from in order to dream about where we might go, as a society, looking forward.

The story of the sinking of Sydney II by the Kormoran has featured briefly in a couple of our plays in the past, and when Jenny heard Director of the Finding Sydney Foundation, Ted Graham, speaking about their decades-long search for the wrecks of the two ships, she immediately felt we needed to tell this epic story, given the 80th Anniversary of the battle is in 2021, and that the CinemaStage platform allows us to tell epic stories in an epic way.

NL: What are the logistical advantages to the live-theatre-in-cinema concept?

SH: These CinemaStage shows are designed to be agile and tourable. We can bump in to a cinema in under five hours, with a stage, lights, sound, minimal set, props and costumes, plug into the cinema projector and FOH (front of house) sound system and away we go.

We bump out in under two hours, and can then be on the road and travelling to the next town or set up for a few days or weeks, depending on demand. We travel with a touring projector and screen when we play in country towns with no cinema or theatre, setting up in the Town Hall, the heart of their community.

Playing in cinemas also allows us to attract a different audience, people who may not be familiar or even comfortable going into the city to one of the big theatres there, but who are very comfortable and used to going to their local cinema. They love the ease of it, the access to parking, the fact they can go to the candy bar and take their purchases into the cinema.

They also love the uniqueness of the genre and the surprises that brings. Many people don’t quite know what to expect, and find they are delighted at being treated to a story which is delivered in such a new and inspiring way: part-theatre, part-cinema, and all-encompassing.

SYDNEY II: LOST AND FOUND continues its tour:

Ace Cinema, Midland: 29 October – 3 November 2021
Grand Cinema, Warwick: 6-10 November 2021
Orana Cinema, Geraldton: 13-21 November 2021

AB FACEY’S A FORTUNATE LIFE will return to Grand Cinema Joondalup: 27-28 November, 4-5 December.

For more info/bookings head to the Theatre 180 website.

Pictured top is Myles Pollard in ‘Sydney II: Lost and Found. Photo: Stewart Thorpe Photography

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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