The New Farm venue, which will celebrate its 21st birthday this year, has just sold the millionth ticket since Stewart took over the reins as artistic director in 2013 and as he told InQueensland, it’s a milestone that feels “both meaningful and meaningless at the same time”.
“There is a moment you stop and reflect,” he said. “Twenty-one years is a long time for the Powerhouse to have been open and I feel like I’ve barely been there but I’ve been there for eight of them.
“Eleven years is a long time for the comedy festival but I’ve done eight of them, so there’s a weird moment where you sort of stop and start to think more about this city and the legacy of what came before but also what can come after.”
Despite the venue going from strength to strength under Stewart’s stewardship, he was also quick to downplay his role in the Powerhouse’s ongoing success, describing the million tickets sold in the past eight years as “just a funny, silly marker” and insisting it had more to do with “the success of the entire Powerhouse team”.
“I think anyone could have been in my shoes in that period and probably had similar success because people have a deep, genuine love for the place itself, and they would often prefer to see a show there than other ways they could see shows.”
Stewart said Brisbane Powerhouse initially looked set to hit that million-ticket milestone during last year’s Brisbane Comedy Festival, which was cut short in March due to social restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The final week of the Brisbane Comedy Festival is our biggest week of the year – we will do somewhere between a quarter and a third of all of our ticket sales for the year during the month of the Comedy Festival and we’ll do somewhere between a third and half of the comedy festival tickets in the last week.
“When we were heading into the festival, knowing how well that sells, I was thinking, this could really happen, and we got to the last week of the comedy festival and that’s when COVID hit.”
Stewart and the Powerhouse staff watched in horror as that milestone not only looked increasingly difficult to attain but actually became further out of reach as refunds were issued for cancelled shows.
“I won’t lie that there was a lot of that period for a month or so after COVID first hit that was pretty depressing,” he said.
“Our whole business is about bringing people together in social environments, it’s about social connections, so social distance doesn’t work in this field at all.
“It makes you sort of … I don’t know whether it’s question why you exist, but when that happened, we had no purpose, we were sort of rudderless.”
Stewart and his team quickly regrouped and through some forward-thinking and collaborative discussions with arts organisations including Circa, Queensland Ballet, Opera Queensland, Queensland Symphony Orchestra and QMusic, the venue announced the Lights On program, a series of intimate events last July and August aimed at getting the cultural sector moving again.
“I was chatting with [creative director] Yaron [Lifschitz] and we were having a red wine in the afternoon over Zoom and just chatting and I can’t even think of what I was talking about but clearly he was sick of listening and he said, ‘I just think at some stage you should start doing some shows again’.
“I said, well you know what there is literally nothing, now, ultimately, that stops me saying, ‘six weeks from now we’re starting with shows and we’re going to do some shows with [Circa]. And he went, well, if there’s nothing stopping us, then what’s stopping us?
Stewart might have taken a brief moment to reflect on the achievement of having played a part in selling one million tickets to events at the venue over the past eight years, but he now has his sights firmly set on ensuring Brisbane Powerhouse’s 21st birthday in May will be a celebration to remember.
“We feel more like a place that would celebrate a 21st and luckily we decided that early last year because I think if we were shooting for our 20th year that would have been very difficult.
“Now, it means, we will be reopened for our 21st birthday and there are a whole bunch of things we can do for that that will be really exciting.”
Although Stewart was remaining tight-lipped on who might be showing up to the party, he said the intention was to pay tribute the cultural legacy the Brisbane Powerhouse has helped create.
“What’s really interesting going back in the history is the opening performance at the Powerhouse in 2000 was by an 18-year-old Kate Miller-Heidke, and it was Circa when they were still called Rock and Roll Circus, and Yaron still had hair.
“The first band that performed there was George – so Katie Noonan was one of the very first performers to be on an actual Powerhouse stage and you look around and you realise that there is a real cultural history of this city that the building has been a part of and it’s funny and sort of humbling to know you’ve been able to play a small role in that.”
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