Townsvillians, be warned: the last-minute booking movement in Townsville is slowly changing. No longer should you expect to walk up to the ticket desk the night of a performance and be able to pick any seat you like. No more are innovative new ideas falling flat on their face. A range of incredibly talented local organisations and individuals are challenging us to start booking in advance and support events we want to continue – or risk missing out on shows completely.
It’s a reputation that not many Townsville performance groups can claim: every one of Theatre iNQ’s productions for 2017 has sold out weeks in advance.
From the mysterious and thought-provoking Frankenstein in the old Townsville West State School building, the fun and fantastical Alice in Wonderland in Anderson Gardens, to the infamous annual Shakespeare Under the Stars (this year showcasing a take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream), the independent professional theatre collective has turned traditional performance on its head, with all pieces given an original adaptation by Director Terri Brabon.
“This year was a massive gamble for us: we didn’t know how it was going to go, we broke all the rules in terms of how we normally produce things and what we normally sell as our season,” Terri said.
“I’m not even thinking remotely about a show in a theatre for a long time – everything I’m thinking is something different. And we’ve loved it too! Not just scenically, or because it’s been good business, but because it’s challenging for us and new skills of our team have come to the fore.”
Staging shows in new locations has been challenging not just in terms of blocking and set realisation, but guessing audience sizes well in advance.
“It’s a catch-22 of having enough space for people, but then as a producer knowing Townsville notoriously doesn’t book – so holding your breath in terms of sales, and wondering if anyone will actually come. The problem now is that in some ways we have under-budgeted for how many shows could sell out; so by doing niche events like Frankenstein where it is exclusive, once they do sell out you have these angry people asking why they can’t fit in.
“People should look at it like an Ed Sheeran concert: you don’t get to go if you wait to book until the day before it’s on. You don’t get people the day before asking why they can’t squeeze in to Ed’s show: they know that when it’s sold out, it’s sold out. With local shows though, there just doesn’t seem to be that understanding or realisation that you should start booking earlier.”
While audience capacity for Theatre iNQ shows has been limited this year, with just 80 per performance at Frankenstein, Terri said the experience that came with the smaller numbers was just as important.
“These intimate performances have a different special quality than arenas or thousand-seater theatres, because when you’re part of these smaller ones you feel part of the performance itself – you’re not removed from it, you have a role to play in the event because there is only a small amount of you; you and the cast are doing something together.
“There’s something about the work you have to preserve. With Alice in Wonderland, if you overcrowd it you have issues with sight lines, noise projection, and we’d start getting hordes of people who can’t see or hear. I’d rather have a smaller amount of people who go away having had a wonderful experience.
“I’m really pleased that for whatever reason, Theatre iNQ is getting a reputation that you must book. It’s much more comforting to know that your show is selling, and it’s taken us a while to build that up. In some ways, you can only build that up when people do miss out. You have to train the audience so if they are angry or devastated that they missed out, they book earlier next time.”
The Secret Feast is a monthly pop-up dining experience celebrating local produce in unpredictable and quirky Townsville locations, with a guest list comprised of only those fast enough to RSVP. An address is sent out 12 hours before each event, with the menu and venue setup not revealed until guests arrive. It’s a recipe that has proven successful, with events sold out three months in advance.
Secret Feast Co-Founders Heidi Hatherell and Ashlee Ede said Townsville’s support for events now would determine what the city is offered in the future.
“The Townsville population generally buy tickets extremely late, even right down to the day of an event. That can be really crippling for businesses who invest a lot into them,” Heidi said.
“We’re different because we don’t reveal our event location or anything until 12 hours beforehand, so can cancel, change the venue or have an entirely different menu without too much drama. But for a lot of other groups, they’ve put in a lot of rehearsal time and spent a lot of money on their event, so if people haven’t booked tickets early it is a massive gamble and risk just to put it on.
“If Townsville books earlier and gets behind awesome events in the region, then we’re going to see more of them – because if promoters see there’s support there, they know that putting events on here isn’t such a gamble.
“Our first event booked out in a week, and then our August event booked out in three days – we’re extremely lucky, and really thankful to Townsville for getting behind the concept.”
Mastermind in the kitchen, Ashlee said the event was a great way to showcase both unique locations and incredible NQ-grown produce.
“If we’re shopping at one of the big guys for everything, we get good FlyBuys points but it’s not necessarily the best produce available. That’s what we want: the best produce, and if it hasn’t travelled far it’s more likely to be good,” Ashlee said.
“That’s why Coral Trout was the feature at our first event, to support up here. And then that’s why our second one was at Otto’s, we used everything down to butter and salt from Otto’s – apart from our Bugs which were from NQ Marina Fresh Seafood anyway. We just try and keep it local to support local, because I think it all gets a bit lost if it’s not from up here.”
The Secret Feast is testament to the fact that unique ideas will grow legs: stop assuming that you’ll be able to grab a ticket closer to the date, because for a lot of events, that’s no longer the case.
While the Secret Feast excels at showcasing Townsville locations, another local institution with sell-out shows finds it hard to be supported by venues in the first place.
The VaVoom Room is Townsville’s newest dance studio, with the studio’s Burlesque Instructors previously venue-hopping to host their classes. The company now has a place to call home and performs to massive crowds at the Sovereign Hotel every few weeks – however when it comes to organising headliner shows, VaVoom Room Owner Vivienne Starr said most other venues refused to get on board.
“I think the marketing in Townsville is difficult: when we talk to people about our classes, some people think Burlesque is just stripping and don’t want to be a stripper. They don’t know the difference,” said Vivienne.
“For our last headliner show, we were trying to find a venue, and I was turned down by four places – they said they didn’t want that kind of stuff there. But it’s because none of them were willing to comprehend what Burlesque was. In the end, I walked into the Herbert and asked if I could hire their function space and they were all for it.
“We advertised the tickets and they sold out in 10 days. There’s a demand there, people want to see Burlesque. But then you have women thinking it’s stripping or that they don’t have the right body for it, or the venues themselves who aren’t willing to host our events because they associate it with stripping too.
“Burlesque incorporates all different styles of dance under its umbrella. It is whatever people want it to be, but by definition means to jest: so is a performance with a little comedy in it and the art of the tease. You’re not taking all your clothes off: you’re just teasing that you may take them off when in reality you won’t.”
Despite the unfair stereotype associated with the performance style, the VaVoom Room’s Burlesque performances are selling out – audiences are on board, but local venues still need to be convinced.
Celebrating 32 years in 2017 and selling out shows in Australia’s capital cities as well as internationally, many metropolitan crowds are surprised to hear that a prestigious institution such as Dancenorth is based in Townsville. Just as surprising is the lack of recognition the professional dance company receives locally.
Dancenorth Artistic Director Kyle Page says one reason maintaining audiences can be a challenge is the complex and broad definition of what contemporary dance is.
“Dancenorth has been in Townsville for over 30 years now, so there’s a long legacy of amazing choreographers who have worked here – but I think one of the challenges with contemporary dance that you may not find in other performance art forms is that each choreographer is so distinct and unique and very different from each other so there’s not one single umbrella that can distinguish one contemporary dance from others,” said Kyle.
“When choreographers come and go from a company, they either bring with them or leave behind a loyal following of audience members who then need to re-learn the style of the incoming choreographer. I think we’re in that phase at the moment.”
On top of the baton passing from choreographers, another issue faced locally is a lot of people don’t know what Dancenorth is.
“I think there’s a big misconception where lots of people think Dancenorth is a school – but we are a fully-fledged professional dance company. I think we need to shift some perceptions around that, and that feels as though it’s starting to happen.
“We can go down to Sydney Festival and sell out three shows to capacity, have a sell-out season in Melbourne, tour internationally and sell out in Japan; we’re going to the US later this year, Canada and Europe next year … so the conversation around Dancenorth is that it’s a company in demand that does sell tickets before a season opens or before we land on the ground.
“I’d really like to see Dancenorth recognised more locally: we’re a flagship company touted as one of the most desirable contemporary dance companies touring Australia and the world, so would like Townsville to recognise that and come along for the journey.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to show the world that you don’t need to be located in an urban metropolitan centre to be making amazing art that is cutting-edge. We want to allow people through engagement with contemporary dance to imagine and reshape the way they think about and engage in the world.”
In 2013, Townsville Choral Society’s The Sound of Music had sold 2,000 tickets a fortnight before the show opened. It was a record unheard of by the group at the time. But this year, they have hit an even higher note, surpassing that figure for Wicked two months before curtains up.
Choral Society Vice President Claire Davies said fostering a sell-out culture within the theatre community has helped drive audiences to book earlier.
“Since The Sound of Music we’ve had a few shows: people booked early for Mary Poppins and Grease, and Annie sold out, so having short-run shows that do sell out drives people to book earlier next time. They remember they couldn’t get tickets,” said Claire.
“People react to being part of a sold-out crowd too. When you look around and there’s not a seat free, you feel part of something that not everyone got to have – like going to a sold-out footy game or concert. You feel like one of the elite, one of a special group there for that particular experience.”
Many may envisage musical theatre as a dog-eat-dog industry; but the local companies wouldn’t survive without each other’s successes.
“The general public doesn’t know there’s two musical theatre companies, they just see musical after musical being put on – so apart from maybe registering which one is which when they go to a website or Facebook page for information, the average person doesn’t know. We live and die together.
“The more successful NQOMT is and the more successful the Choral Society is, the more people will come to musical theatre. And after NQOMT’s show, we’ll be the next one coming in! It’s the same with them – if we epically fail, and people get turned off that theatre experience once, they won’t come again and it affects the next show. Everyone just wants the best for the theatre community: the larger the audience, the more we can offer.”
One challenge looming is the closure of the Civic Theatre for scheduled upgrades over the first half of 2018.
“We’re performing outside the Civic Theatre during that time and I’m sure NQOMT is too. I think if we didn’t do anything while it was closed, it could be problematic because people do get out of a habit. Both companies are doing their best to ensure that doesn’t happen, and have something in that gap to keep people engaged.
“The Choral Society used to be known as the very conservative group, pumping out The Sound of Music every few years – but now we’ve done Spring Awakening and Rent, and we’re doing We Will Rock You as an arena spectacular next year, so I think we’re getting very good at mixing the new and edgy with traditional favourites people still justifiably enjoy.”
With performances that rival touring professional productions, both the Townsville Choral Society and NQOMT are delivering show-stopping performances using nothing but local talent, leaving little wonder as to why tickets are being snapped up fast.
There are, of course, understandable alibis: changing work rosters, financial uncertainty. But these don’t apply to everyone. There is a collection of ‘buy at the door’ locals who, while they support local events, do so at the last minute. It’s a dangerous gamble not only for the organisations putting on the events, but the audience members as well: it is equally likely that the event will either already be sold out, or cancelled completely through lack of ticket sales earlier. If you want to see it; get in early and support it, or risk missing out.