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Theatre in a pandemic: Inside the reopened Giant Dwarf

New headquarters, programming and hygiene measures at 280 Cleveland Street’s home of experimental theatre.

It’s been a big year for Giant Dwarf. Early in the year, the theatre moved from its original Redfern home to the Surry Hills end of Cleveland Street… and then Covid-19 hit.

“It’s been a very uncertain time,” Operations manager Jess Gordon said. With limited shows on the horizon, the team made plans to change up programming. The theatre sought out up-and-coming artists from diverse backgrounds to create new works, with the support of a City of Sydney Covid-19 cultural sector resilience grant.

Come July, small theatres were able to open again under Covid-19 restrictions and Giant Dwarf was raring and ready to go.

Reduced capacity leads to experimental programming

In pre-pandemic times, Giant Dwarf’s new venue could seat 160 people. With physical distancing measures, that number has shrunk to just 45. So the theatre has taken a few steps to keep ticket sales up.

The first thing is increasing the number of shows – doubling them where possible. A new online streaming option is available for most live shows. It’s a professional set up with 6 cameras, each showing different angles, and a specialised technician controlling live vision switching for each stream. “Many of our staff come from a TV background so we had the technical knowledge to execute this quickly,” Jess said.

Tickets for streamed shows are deliberately made very affordable, starting from $10, with some events including $5 streaming tickets for Melbourne audiences. “It’s a nice alternative, particularly for those who have an autoimmune condition and can’t risk travelling in this climate,” Jess said. “You really do feel like you’re there.”

The theatre has also taken an experimental approach to the performances themselves, including a drag kings show, intimate music gigs showcasing local up and coming artists, and a trivia night hosted by founder Julian Morrow. “It’s a surprising outcome of Covid,” Jess said. “We’re really testing the boundaries.”

Extra hygiene measures protect customers, employees and performers

There are a few extra things to consider when setting up for a show in this new normal. Like all businesses in NSW, Giant Dwarf has to maintain strict hygiene and distancing measures as part of its Covid safety plan. That means extra tasks, like setting up individual microphones for each performer to maintain physical distancing on stage and disposable covers for microphones. And employees wear reusable face masks during their shifts. That’s not to mention the increased cleaning regime, which adds 30 minutes before and after each show. But the team is fully committed to the Covid safety measures.

“One staff member is in the TV industry and he was working on a production that has the first Covid safety unit, it was a world first,” Jess said. “He is constantly reminding us of all the little things.”

Having that knowledge has helped Giant Dwarf implement clever safety measures, including a pre-ordered drink system so audience members can stay in their seats to reduce crowding at the bar.

“So far we have felt really supported by audiences being really understanding with all the measures like limited occupancy and not loitering at the bar,” Jess said.

“We're working really hard to make it work while also being safe, so it really helps that the community is more or less happy to work with us. Once you get over the awkward, but new normal vibes, everyone has been having an awesome time, which helps us keep going.”

Buy a ticket – and stay home if you’re unwell

Whether you join the fun in person at the venue or buy a ticket to watch a livestream, you’re playing an important role in supporting our city’s creative communities. But there is one caveat: stay home if you’re feeling unwell. “You can exchange your ticket for a show at a later date, or for a live streaming ticket,” Jess said. “It is a brilliant way to watch it and be there, rather than risk the health and safety of others.”

Related story: Here are some things to know before you head out anywhere right now.

Giant Dwarf is a not-for-profit organisation. You can see what’s on and donate at its website.

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