I haven’t missed the bus; I’ve missed where it takes me.
During the lifestyle shift of Covid-19, as work moved into the home and theatres went dark, I’ve missed the routine, several times of week, of crossing Sydney via public transport routes in my work as a theatre critic. I’ve always liked the poetry of it, like the city itself is taking me to bear witness to its stories. I’ve missed plays but I haven’t missed buses. No overcrowded rides. No unreliable timetables. No hackles-raising glimpses of guy in Maga hat on the 422.
Buses could wait. Until they couldn’t.
Sydney Theatre Buses, co-created by multidisciplinary artists Antoinette Barbouttis and Alexander Berlage and presented by An Assorted Few, Ban Shakespeare and Green Door Theatre Companies, who are donating any profit to the Actors Benevolent Fund, has found a way – improbably, invaluably – to bring theatre magic back to Sydney. Armed with hand sanitiser, masks and gloves, a small and appropriately socially distanced audience clambers onto an old school bus. Then the show begins.
We wind a path through Kings Cross, Darlinghurst and Surry Hills, and even over the bridge into Kirribilli, visiting closed theatres for a tour that’s part history, part critical commentary, all joy. There’s an activity worksheet for you to fill out on this excursion – what does NIDA stand for? Draw a glass box! And a hilariously terrible, somehow oddly touching, paper bag snack. There are singalongs and vodka cruisers.
The actor hosts craft their own personas; they fill the bus with stories and laughter, a much-needed community experience. Chika Ikogwe is an ageless Nigerian auntie (she’ll tell you about the absolutely real time, in 1921, when she sang at the Sydney Opera House) and her wit is dazzling. On this ride she developed a long-running bit with two child passengers, and her off-the-cuff patter was sharp enough to be startling. One joke, about a specific theatre and an EzyMart, was a spontaneous masterpiece I’ll never forget. I hadn’t laughed that much in months.
On the second bus run of the night, Lucia Mastrantone was our host – or was she Tiger Swallows, real-estate agent and founder of self-help group Swallow Your Dreams? (The third host is Simon Burke). Under Mastrantone’s charge, the bus lingers in front of theatres and auctions them to the audience for props. A syndicate of dinosaurs and My Little Ponies own Belvoir St Theatre now. Hopefully they won’t replace it with luxury apartments.
Individual runs are similar in structure, but hosts make the shows their own. Both hosts I saw found room for adoration and cynicism in equal measure; they shared stories of milestones in Sydney theatre history alongside criticisms of all-white production teams and baked-in discrimination.
At one point, we stop (at a designated bus stop, of course) to pick up special guests. On the two trips I took, they were rising star Megan Wilding – she formed an unmissable, chemistry-sparking double act with Ikogwe – and Sydney leading man Ben Gerrard, who danced shirtless in the aisle as we crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The trips are only 90 minutes; happily, they feel longer. A scene from Don’s Party, by David Williamson, is ironically performed (“I’m tuning in the television!”). We learn theatre backstory and trivia. Burn For You plays loud and forlorn, part of a rolling soundtrack controlled by Berlage that’s equal parts ironic and uplifting. We rolled out onto the road to Paul Mac’s 2001 hit, Just The Thing, which hit its electropop peak as that iconic, tacky Kings Cross Coca-Cola sign filled up our windows. Then and there, with music and movement and laughter, 15 strangers became a collective. Sydney was alive again. It was like I could breathe again.
Sydney Theatre Buses is both an elegy for the industry and a joyful refusal to accept that death. Our theatres give us necessary art, but they are only buildings. Stories as a means to human connection can happen anywhere; a proscenium can be constructed on a bus. On that bus we’re given space to grieve, but also the gift of literal and figurative momentum – look at what we can still make! Look how alive we still are! We’re even given hints for the future: there are parts of the industry we must leave behind when we return.
And then, there is a moment of grace: that unforgettable instant in a work of theatre that takes your chest and cracks it open, where the feelings rush out and the light streams in.
We arrive at the Old Fitz Hotel and walk inside its tiny theatre. We stand 1.5 metres apart. A single naked lightbulb illuminates the space just enough for us to see Jess Spies perched there in costume. In character. And for just a few minutes we are in a theatre, and there is a story, and we are hearing it together, masked and gloved and hungry for experience. It swells in your chest.
And then the light goes out.