Company company in trouble

Kookaburra, the producer of Company has got into trouble.  The company does not employ any understudies.  Last week, when one of the actors, who plays one Robert/Bobby’s girlfriends, fell ill (the term of art is “indisposed”), the show went on omitting the scenes crucially involving that actress without any announcement.  The whole show ran about 20 minutes short.

Apart from the short-changing of the audience, this was also also contrary to the terms on which Kookaburra was licenced to perform the work. It was an infringement of the right of the authors to have the show performed without unauthorized cuts and to be experienced by the audience and judged accordingly.

The decision to go ahead with the performance with these cuts was made by Peter Cousens, founder and managing director of Kookaburra, despite opposition from Gale Edwards, the director, and of cast members. It seems that fear of disappointing Alan Jones, who is a “benefactor” to the company and was due to attend the performance that night, may have played a Jonestown-type role. The Sydney Morning Herald has run a welter of stories about it and, to make things even worse, someone in the company has dobbed Cousens in to Stephen Sondheim. Despite the Australianism of the word, I find that deeply un-Australian.

Cousens, who initially denied ordering that the performance go ahead with the cuts, defended his decision on the ground that most of the audience would still rather see the show than not at all. Were it not for the authors’ rights (and, it must be said, the failure to make any announcement to give individual ticket-holders the choice), there is much to be said for this. Kookaburra is a not-for-profit company, and the economics of this production are pretty tight: there was only a three-week rehearsal period, and the run is not very long. Ticket prices have been kept low in comparison to the price-gouging engaged in by profit-seeking blockbusters like The Producers and Priscilla: the cheapest seats were $28 and most were $65 and $75, which is very reasonable for a show with a cast of 14 and an orchestra of (I think) 8 in a theatre with a capacity of about 800.

There has been a lot of criticism of the decision not to have understudies.  This is just a matter of risk assessment and expense. In some respects, it is a more honest approach than that taken in the blockbuster musicals, where understudies are routinely substituted for the headlining stars in mid-week performances with little if any advertisement.  However, if you don’t have understudies, you need to be prepared to cancel the performance if illness strikes, as happened the night I tried to get to see Keating, the Musical, and not to put too much pressure on artists to “soldier on.”

Cousens and Kookaburra have apologized. The price of their infraction is that they have been obliged to mount an additional, charity benefit performance, although I presume the artists will still be being paid. Given that Kookaburra itself is a quasi-charity, this seems a high price for them to pay.

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