Arriving at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre to observe some auditions for Pippin, I register via a QR code, and enter the foyer where various auditionees are warming up.

The foyer has been marked up in different sections so that they each have their own area where they can stretch and limber up, while maintaining social distancing. There’s plenty of space and they all look happy as they work out.

This production of Pippin, directed by Diane Paulus, was first performed on Broadway in 2013 and has a circus-themed setting so the ensemble requires acrobats as well as singers and dancers. Some of the musical theatre performers in lead roles also have to pull off the odd circus trick.

Sasha Allen as the Leading Player in the US national tour of Pippin. Photo © Terry Shapiro

The sets and costumes have been in Australia since the Broadway production closed in January 2015, and so were ready and waiting when John Frost and Suzanne Jones decided to produce a musical, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with the support of Foundation Theatres.

Previewing from 24 November, Pippin will be the first commercial musical to open in Australia since theatres were shuttered so a lot is riding on it, with Frozen scheduled to open in Sydney in December, and Hamilton in March 2021.

Today is the recall for the female ensemble. Earlier in the week, auditions were held for the acrobats at Aerialize, a circus training and performance centre in Canterbury where similar protocols were in place.

At the Lyric, auditionees move from the foyer into the theatre and then out again in a single direction to maximise social distancing, explains publicist Ian Phipps.

The auditions take place on stage, with the fire curtain down. Normally for a musical like this, the international creative team will come over for the final auditions, but because of the COVID lockdown this hasn’t been possible. Instead, the Australian creatives are recommending performers and sending videos of their auditions to Paulus and the American team for approval. The Americans have also been involved with Zoom auditions for the leading players.

Chatting with producer Suzanne Jones on the side of the stage as the dancers wait for the audition to begin, she says that it has taken a great deal of organisation to ensure that the proper safety protocols are in place. “But all of the auditionees who have come in have been totally fine about it. We haven’t had anyone push back and say ‘why are we doing it?’ They have all been very compliant,” she says.

Jones agrees that it’s unusual for auditions to happen in the theatre where the show will be staged. “It’s thanks to Stephen Found and Foundation Theatres for letting us. There are meant to be shows in here; we were meant to be doing 9 to 5,” she says. But with all shows cancelled, the theatre was unexpectedly empty.

“We are trying to bring the show in as economically as possible and we have got all this space so we thought we might as well use it,” says Graeme Kearns, Managing Director of Foundation Theatres, in an interview in the upstairs foyer after the dance call.

“You’d be surprised how many people have called me saying ‘that’s a great idea, can we do auditions in the theatre?’ And I’ve had to say, actually no, because we go from auditions straight into bump in straight into rehearsals [so the theatre will be full].”

Auditions on stage for the Pippin female ensemble. Photograph supplied

The producers of Pippin and the managers of the venue have both been in regular contact with the NSW Department of Health, and both have an epidemiologist on retainer to ensure best practice.

“We have developed a COVID Safety plan in conjunction with Live Performance Australia who [have] worked with the theatre industry to develop a series of base line protocols. We have taken those protocols and we have developed them specific to our venues,” says Kearns.

“We have worked with one of Australia’s leading epidemiologists to review our COVID Safety plan. It will change a lot between now and when we have people into the theatre. Our advice is that temperature checking is ineffective but we will have a lot of queueing and distancing in the foyers. Ideally in the auditorium itself we would like to do the shows without social distancing but if we have to do that we will consider that at the time.”

The decision right now is that audience members will need to wear a mask. “But you may not have to do it by the time you get to December. With our COVID Safety plan we’ve got a series of measures that take us from A to Z – but we may only need to go to M by the time we get to December. And January will be different again, and so will March, and so will next June,” says Kearns.

“The safety plans and the hygiene plans that we use will change on NSW Health advice and [depending on] what’s happening in the world of COVID-19 in the community. Our job is to play our part in ensuring that the entire community is kept as safe as possible, within our power.”

Asked if they hope to sell all the seats in the theatre, Kearns says: “To be honest we  probably won’t at first. We will probably have a little bit of room in the house to be able to manipulate, so we will leave it a little bit of space so we’ve got some options. But we want to do without social distancing as much as we can. Part of the great experience of the theatre when you are in the auditorium is that closeness and intimacy. If you lose that you do lose a lot of the experience. And what we’ve learned in doing all the planning and consultation over the last three or four months is that the dangerous point is when you are coming into the theatre and coming out so it’s how the foyers are managed.”

The bars will probably be open “but right now you have to sit down when you drink. So we might sell you a drink and send you to the auditorium right away.” Overseeing queues at the bathrooms is a challenge, admits Kearns, so the interval will probably be longer to accommodate this.

Musicals have been running at theatres in Seoul for several months now. Asked if he has consulted theatre managers there, Kearns says: “I have spoken to the GBW [Entertainment] guys who are running that and they are using a series of measures, some of which we’ll be using –misting the theatre for instance between each performance, disinfecting the auditorium, and placing a high value on hygiene and cleaning. These things will be with us for a long time, they aren’t going anywhere. I think people are getting used to masks. Sitting in the auditorium facing the same direction is actually, we’re told, not as dangerous as coming in and out of the theatre. Initially it will be a bit frustrating but we are expecting that people will understand. We are about to make magic for you on the stage, and it might be a little less convenient [in the foyer] for a while.”

The cast of the US tour of Pippin. Photograph © Terry Shapiro

Kearns says that they are presenting Pippin “for a lot of good reasons. One of them is to really test out how this works, so Pippin is the test case for a whole lot of shows that are opening here in December and next year. I think it will be fine over time. We are putting a lot of time and effort into it.”

As to what they will do if a member of the audience, or a member of the cast or crew contracts the virus, Kearns says: “Our COVID plan separates the production from the audience. The way we have designed it so far is that anyone who interacts with the audience – ushers, bar staff and so forth – they are in Bubble B, and anyone who is in the production is in Bubble A. So if we get a case [of the coronavirus] among the audience we lose all the people who were working that day and the audience will be advised, but we don’t lose the show because the people in Bubble A weren’t close contacts of the people in Bubble B. If something happens in the production we may have to close the show for a little while.”

Kearns admits that there’s a huge amount involved to ensure that everyone is safe, but with transmission numbers so low in NSW right now, and restrictions gradually being relaxed, he feels that opening Pippin is an important thing to do.

“Theatre goers want to come again, and theatre workers want to get back and make their magic so we have got to play our part in trying to put that together again. We can’t wait until all this [COVID-19] is over because we have got an enormous number of people who rely on this for their livelihood.”

Jones says that over 700 people registered to audition and that the performers they have seen are incredibly excited that the theatre is opening again. She points out that Pippin will create hundreds of jobs.

“The public see the stars and the cast, but it’s like an iceberg. There is the front of house staff, the bar staff… This theatre seats 2000 people so if we do eight shows a week that’s 16,000 people potentially [a week] that will come in to the area and go to the local restaurants and bars and stay in hotels. I see theatre as this fantastic opportunity to build for businesses all over the place. So if we as producers put the show on… we can bring the people so they can do all the stuff we need them to do for the economy.”

Jones points to the fact that companies like Belvoir, Sydney Theatre Company, Griffin Theatre Company and State Theatre Company South Australia have all opened their doors, albeit it to reduced, socially distanced audiences – and have been selling out.

“I think little bit by little bit, if we start with the smaller production houses and smaller audiences, slowly people will work out ways where they feel they can have the experience safely – and that will build I think across all of the entertainment mediums,” she says.

“We are the first people to run auditions of this magnitude; we are the first people to go into rehearsal of this magnitude. We are working closely with Live Performance Australia and the Department of Health and an epidemiologist to make sure that we are doing all the right things, so that people can stay safe and we can all have a glass of champagne on opening night.”

Pippin runs at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney from 24 November


Supported by the City of Sydney

Read our new magazine online