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Staging COVID-safe arts events outdoors

Sarah Neal, Executive Producer and Co-CEO at Malthouse Theatre, and Glyn Roberts, Artistic Director of the Castlemaine State Festival, share their experiences around creating new outdoors performance spaces.
Staging COVID-safe arts events outdoors Malthouse Theatre's Sarah Neal (image supplied) and Castlemaine State Festival's Glyn Roberts (photo credit: Julie Millowick).
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Richard Watts

Friday 7 May, 2021


Watch the full webinar

With conditions sometimes changing day by day as far as COVID-safe guidelines are concerned, the team at Castlemaine State Festival took a flexible approach to creating new outdoor stages for their program this year.

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‘Traditionally the festival doesn't do very much outdoors,’ said Artistic Director Glyn Roberts, speaking as part of a recent Recovery Roadmap Webinar co-produced by ArtsHub and Creative Victoria.

Given that the festival’s usual venues could not be used, Roberts and his team instead focused on creating pop-up venues in Castlemaine’s parks and gardens for this year’s festival, which ran from 19 March – 4 April on Dja Dja Wurrung country.

‘We had to create essentially spaces that were COVID-safe, but also COVID flexible … [so] everything was designed in a way that not only was it … socially distanced, but actually, it could be flexible and I guess, modulated to deal with growing restrictions,’ Roberts explained. ‘If restrictions increased, the area could be cut into different groups. And it could be foreseeable that we could be performing to four separate gatherings, as it were, of 100.’

Sarah Neal, Executive Producer and Co-CEO at Malthouse Theatre, also participated in the latest Recovery Roadmap Webinar.

She said that carefully considering the space the company had to work with – and the minimum numbers needed to make such staging work cost-effective – was an important part of establishing an outdoor stage in the Malthouse Courtyard earlier this year.

‘So with the outdoor space, the area that we have is about 600 square metres, and when we looked at mapping it and putting a stage in, we realised that for it to be able to work as a medium-sized venue, we really needed to get to a capacity of about 300 … It really seemed that minimum capacity was going to be required for it to be able to work,’ she said.

Programming was developed with partners from other parts of the live performance sector.

‘We needed to look at that being obviously value-aligned to what we do as a company and to our mission, but also look beyond theatre, which is not necessarily a great art form to put in this context, and to really look at different art forms that would complement and we’d be able to get on stage quite quickly,’ Neal explained.

Working through the COVID-controls for the Malthouse outdoor stage took some time, as did ensuring a diversity of programming that would appeal to a wide audience, but Neal said she was very happy with the outcome.

‘We worked with existing festivals such as YIRRAMBOI, the First Nations festival which is coming up; Midsumma, the LGBTQI festival; and also partnering with the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, which does a lot of ideas and discussions. So, it gave us a lot of a broad sweep of programming we felt would be of interest to our audience,’ she said.

For more insights and learnings about staging COVID-safe events outdoors, watch the webinar video, in which Roberts and Neal talk at length about their programming experiences and the challenges associated with creating stages outdoors.

The next Recovery Roadmap Webinar, co-presented by ArtsHub and Creative Victoria, will be held on 29 June.

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts