Emily: Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.
Andrew: Bloody pleasure.
Emily: Why do you think that the Old Fitz is so successful right now?
Andrew: I think the Fitz has always been successful, I just think it’s had ebbs and flows like all theatre companies have. I think that we have benefited at the Fitz because there’s been a shift in the independent scene in a couple of independent theatre spaces that in the last four, five, six, seven years have gone and not remained as places that people can go to. So I think there was a wide open market that Red Line Productions was sort of able to drive at. I think the word of mouth as a result of putting first class practitioners in a space that charges half the price of a ticket as a major has meant that people can come here for a completely eclectic experience at a pub and then come into a space and be spat on, and be completely immersed with every show, whether they love or hate it, into another world for a while. I think that’s the trick of it. I sort of think of it as a resurgence of the Fitz because this place has a pedigree that I’m still trying to do justice to.
Emily: As Artistic Director, what was the impetus for you to create Red Line and to become the AD here.
Andrew: So I studied at Steppenwolf in Chicago. It’s a city that is very artist-driven. There are lot of theatres very similar to the Fitz, and there are a lot of actors that although yes they have to do jobs that they hate, they also have their own theatre companies and their own projects that they are working on, not as a hobby but as something quite real and tangible that they can achieve. When I was in Chicago I was 23 and I was really leaving Sydney having not really established anything of a theatre company or anything of myself as an actor. Whilst I was there I was inspired to do that and I felt like they empowered me and gave me the tools to do that. So Red Line Productions was born, its namesake – and when I say this to people it’s really obvious that I’ve been to Chicago – but the Red Line is a train line in Chicago. So that’s what inspired me. I just wanted to spend my effort having control of a theatre company, I really love that and I love collaborating with people. I really like not having to wait. I sold wine for a long time and all those sort of jobs and I’m really happy they’re not part of it anymore for me. So I’m really happy to work 80 hours a week for my own company than work 40 hours a week for someone else.
Andrew: I don’t hate any of those jobs, I’ve had wonderful jobs selling OHS DVDs and selling wine and all those sort of things! But day to day is a completely mixed bag of things that happen – I have a business partner who’s also the ED of the company, her name’s Vanessa. So we do everything from email campaigns for our New Fitz program, negotiating play licenses, picking up props, talking to agents about actors we might want, taking care of our insurance, or organising a working bee to deal with the shit that we’ve accumulated under the seating bank over 2 and a half years. It’s just a total mixed bag day to day. When it gets to May I sort of set myself on fire again and I get to program for the next year, but in the time leading up to that it’s basically supporting the show that’s in here, by doing anything that needs to be done – and that’s a fulltime job.
Emily: What experience did you have beforehand that made you feel equipped for this job? Or did you just start doing it and learn along the way?
Andrew: Taking the Fitz solidified a few years of things for me, so outside of going to Chicago which was just actor training I worked for 3 years at an actors agency, and they were wonderful because they gave me the tools and the leeway to produce cabaret and do artist booking for events and those sort of things. That was when I was in my early 20s. I came back from Chicago and produced a couple of things on my own – still as Red Line but it wasn’t solidified. Red Line wouldn’t exist without Vanessa, it needed the team to do it, it couldn’t just be solo.
Emily: I feel like lots of young people want to be actors and they think, ‘Okay I can go to acting school, get an agent, whatever’ or if they want to be a production designer there are similar avenues. Maybe I’m not aware of it but I feel like there isn’t that same path for artistic direction. Does a path exist?
Andrew: I don’t think it’s something that you necessarily plan for, it’s just something that happens. I’m really excited that Eamon is the AD at Belvoir and he’s going to be there for many years and is doing an extraordinary job. He trained as an actor, he found himself in a role at Belvoir and then found himself as AD. It just kind of finds you – do you know what I mean? I’m sure there are people who plan to do it – there are lots of artistic directors in Sydney, heaps of them, they’ve all got their little theatre companies. Maybe unlike us they don’t have a venue, but they produce a play, two plays, three plays a year in different venues. They have an artistic vision. I think if you grow into it, it becomes less of a selfish experience. It becomes less about you being a trained actor, which is me saying ‘well I’m going to be in everything’ - it’s not actually about me, it’s about the most important people, the audience. Anyone can pick a show, but a good AD is able to justify all their choices, be humble in their choices. The one thing we’ve got going for us and another reason why we’ve become successful is our ambition – our ambition isn’t really debated, other things are, but our ambition is so solid. We do big shows here, we’re not scared of doing huge casts, and those things, because the business we work in is either based on a professional model, or a non-professional model.
Emily: What do you mean by that?
Andrew: There’s an actor pay scale. That actor pay scale is about $1190 a week. It’s lovely when you get those jobs, but the way that the industry is structured at the moment is that rate is the same for an 100 seat theatre, or a 700 seat theatre. The rules are the same for me, as they are for Cameron Mackintosh who is a billion dollar producer. I do think we need to change that – and that’s a longer conversation – because I think we need to scale the wages to size. Because of that at the moment, we’re able to go balls to the wall and do big, rich plays.
Andrew: Just in terms of lessons that I’ve learned. So the first six, seven months I flipped the season – from getting the Fitz to actually having the Fitz – was about 4 weeks from, ‘yes you’re having the Fitz’, to launching the season.
Andrew: It was really quick yeah! I was on the phone to the first people that I knew I trusted and all those sorts of things. Wasn’t even something I was aware of at the time, and I don’t think nor could it have been, but I managed unconsciously to line up show after show after show about angry young men in living rooms yelling at women. It wasn’t intentional but they were things like Men by Brendan Cowell, Orphan by Lyle Kessler – but I think what I did do was make this place very white. And I made this place very masculine. I’m blessed now with time to arrange things to have those things very consciously in mind. That’s all learning.
Emily: I think that happens often when people are under time pressure because you don’t take the time to consider the unconscious bias that we all have.
Andrew: It was about learning quickly how to do this when we were given a platform – we didn’t even simmer before we were boiling, it was just straight in, everyone was interested and everyone was keen. So it’s an experience in learning and it’s an experience in always aiming to be better, as everyone needs to do.
Emily: I do remember the shift when I would come to the Fitz when I was at school, and at some point the theatre began to change – and at the time I had no idea what was really going on in the theatre scene but I remember the change. And I think it was at the point when Red Line took over the Fitz from SITCO.
Andrew: I mean, that was ruthless. That was brutally taken away from them.
Emily: How did that all come about? How do you get control of the theatre in the first place?
Andrew: The pub owns the whole thing, so this is a lease. I was looking for a place to set up Red Line and have a home, and sort of execute the ambition that has now come to fruition, which is big audiences and leading practitioners etc. When I was looking for a place I became very aware of things that were happening here by the management at that time that were unethical and their treatment of actors was far less than the professional standard that people need to be treated with. I had done shows here with Tamarama Rock Surfers when they were here, and so I knew the owner very well. Once the knowledge that I had accumulated got to a point, it was kind of, ‘enough’s enough, this needs to change’. Sydney needed a professional off-Broadway theatre, ‘here’s my offer, let’s come in and run it’. So it’s not a nice thing to have done to people, I don’t feel good about it, and I certainly have people that have worked here during that time who I love and respect greatly – in fact I would probably say, every actor or designer who worked here during that time I love and respect. But my feeling was that a change needed to be made for the better, and we were the people to do that, and they are now in another venue. I haven’t been down there but I’m glad to see so many opportunities to be given to so many people, and perhaps it was the right thing for them and it was the right thing definitely to happen for us.
Emily: As an artist, what makes you feel satisfied with the work you make?
Andrew: Are you talking about me as an actor or me as an AD?
Emily: Potentially both. Either!
Andrew: Maybe they’re both the same. The way that I measure success here is the collaboration. I actually don’t give a fuck about whether someone writes a positive or negative review, and I don’t really care because the traction isn’t that much now. I love the commentary but –
Emily: It’s not like a critic pans a show and it becomes a flop.
Andrew: Yeah. For me, there are two things. There’s a producer hat, which shows success when this place is full. Then the other hat is that when all of the people working here are able to sit down and have a meal together.
Emily: That’s really cool.
Andrew: What you need to do is create a home, so I think of this as a helipad where people can stop off. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing that group of people – because if you accept the given circumstances that the director is first-class, the design crew and everyone is first-class, then you’ve got the actors and the stage crew that have to be here every night to do the show, those people need to work in a community. I want to see them on stage being completely fearless, being honest with each other, and there is nothing more satisfying than seeing them sitting outside of here together as a family. When you’re in a theatre that is a small place where you earn very few dollars but the artistic reward is high, there’s no time for dickheads and there’s no time for ego. It’s just getting up and doing it, and it’s community and love and collaboration.
Andrew: The most immediate big goal is that we have a brand new Louis Nowra commission, so Louis – who was out the front when you were out there then –
Emily: Was he?
Andrew: Yeah! So Louis and I for 18 months have been talking about him doing a play here. He hasn’t written a play since 2006 so This Much is True which is on in July is a huge show for us, it’s our first commission, it’s an expensive enterprise to be in. [Toby] Schmitz is coming back to direct it and it’s also a play very close to home because the lead characters are the locals at the pub.
Emily: Literally this pub?
Emily: No way. That’s really beautiful.
Andrew: Actors will play those roles. And it’s a solidification of a trilogy, which is Cosi and Summer of the Aliens. So it’s a significant thing to be a part of. So that’s an immediate thing. National touring is something that we’re talking about, transferring to bigger theatres from here is something we’re talking about. Our first production that goes to a 400 seater will be in January 2018 – stay tuned. Then there’s a returning home scenario which is taking things over to Chicago and beyond, touring or building a show over there. Ultimately I guess it would be great to buy the pub and just have the whole building, and be able to make it a bigger theatre, have it be profitable for the actors, make it an enterprise.
Emily: How realistic do you think that is?
Andrew: I don’t know. Dream big.
Emily: What’s happened during your journey with the Fitz that’s made you the most emotional?
Andrew: When Taylor Ferguson jumped into Belleville, I watched her first and second night and I was a mess.
Emily: She did a beautiful job.
Andrew: She did a wonderful job. I had called her 1 o’clock in the morning and I said ‘can you be here tomorrow and start rehearsing at 11?’ The director came and we cancelled a couple of shows, and I think it took her 48 hours, she did it with the book in her hand, and she was so extraordinary that I was just like a Dad who was so proud of their kid who just made their first 100 in cricket. Those things are more important to me than whether the Sydney Morning Herald liked the stuff we were doing on a particular show. It’s that sort of fearlessness to do that when you otherwise would have had 7 weeks to rehearse – that fearlessness is why we exist as artists. ‘Fuck it’ is sort of the Old Fitz mantra. So written back stage is, ‘Fuck it. Fail forward. Better to be an arsehole than chicken shit.’