If you’ve ordered a grazing menu or drinks, they’ll be waiting in your booth. Entry to the venue will be staggered, and groups won’t share a booth with strangers. If you’re bringing your friends you book and pay for the booth. The smaller booth fits three people comfortably and the larger booths up to six, says Toulson.
The ambitious project was designed not just to keep people physically safe but to address the very real nervousness many will feel when it comes to returning to theatres. “I questioned myself: would you go back and sit in a theatre next to strangers or have someone coughing behind you?” says Toulson. “No, I wouldn’t. There are people that will be nervous for a long time after what’s happened.”
The venue has developed an app to handle bookings, brochures, in-booth dining and drinking. Between performances hospital-grade cleaning will take place. Even if greater restrictions returned, the venue will still be able to operate.
Then there are the shows. Theatre Works had nine slated for this year’s Melbourne Fringe, and so the first works presented in the Glasshouse in January will be a Fringe Replanted program. “We’ve got a blistering program for next year,” says Toulson.
It’s a radical turnaround for a venue that last year missed out on funding after the federal government gutted its investment in the arts. This year was also Theatre Works’ 40th birthday, and the venue’s team had to have a long, hard think about its future.
By March this year, the venue’s box office takings were the highest they’d ever been. Audience and artist participation were up by 500 per cent. Bar sales had already topped half of what was expected for the entire year.
“What we were doing was working,” says Toulson. “And then the rug was pulled out. [But] we were just really blessed to have done that research and realised we had to change who we were and not just be a producing house that kept rolling out shows.”
Previously the venue’s relationship with artists performing there had been a little like a Tinder date, says Toulson. “Everyone would apply, and we’d flip through and work out the ones we wanted to have this quick relationship with.”
During lockdown, there’s been time to build new development programs to foster longer-term ties. “In any one week we were working with up to a hundred artists on these programs, with regular developments, play readings, we were doing all these amazing things that we probably wouldn’t have had a chance to do had we continued down the path we were going.”
The Glasshouse initiative is another result of that long-term thinking. Even when restrictions are eased, the booths won’t be going anywhere fast. “We think the uniqueness of it is that it is very personalised. It’s about being in a little living room. It’s very voyeuristic because you can see your neighbours, but once we can allow more audiences in we’ll put seating in front of the booths.”
John Bailey is a contributor to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.