By Arne Sjostedt
In the words of cast member Steve Rodgers, online series Liberty St offers viewers the opportunity to take a night off from deciding what to watch on the big streaming platforms, “and just watch this.”
It’s a familiar story among the artistic community. The cancellation of shows, the loss of livelihood among people involved in fields that rely on audiences to generate income. Of course it is only one facet of the broader impact COVID-19 has had on so many in the workforce, but no less a real one that has left its own brand of victims.
Born out of happenstance and the restrictive circumstances of the early lockdown period in Sydney, in a welcome opportunity for people to ply their trade and regain a sense of connection and purpose, Liberty St came together quickly. An eight part scripted series, co-director of Sydney ensemble The Corinthian Food Store collective, Canberra-bred writer, actor and director Duncan Ragg says that the support he received to make work that reflected this unique time and place was phenomenal.
“It is very difficult to get the right crew together at the right time because everyone is very busy. And I can’t deny that it was a beautiful thing that everyone was available and wanting to work,” says Ragg.
And the quality of star talent alone is testament to how important this project has been to those involved.
With people like (Hugo Weaving’s son) Harry Greenwood, regular The Project guest, actor and comic Susie Youssef, Logie Award nominee Sara West, Charles Wu, Canberra born Catherine Van Davies and local dramaturge and actor Gin Savage, the series tells eight separate but connected stories through the lens of cinematographer Emma Paine.
“Everyone was in such a slump I think. As actors it was a really difficult time. It was for everyone, but for us it was not only the cancellation of all work, but the idea that most people wouldn’t be working for the next year minimum, straight away,” says Ragg, who audiences will remember from his recent stint playing Benedick in Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Available to access through The Corinthian Food Store’s own web platform, in the sort of gift that keeps on giving, ultimately it is the audience of Liberty St that gets the greatest benefit.
Set in a COVID-19 world, but not strictly about the pandemic, “The talent speaks for itself,” Ragg says. “The performances they have given are just extraordinary because everyone was living it, and that sense pervades every shot because we are in it. You’ve got the camera person sitting two or three paces away wearing a face mask and everyone else hanging far back.”
Working under tight social distancing restrictions, the crew set themselves a rule for the writing that they could only have one person in the room at any one time. “You could only have a camera person in a room, and a sound person. That was it, with the regulations we had.”
Fresh from their successful show This, This is Mine, which took theatre into people’s homes, making it all look so good on set was collective artistic associate Isabella Andronos.
“She designed each room from scratch, where we could clean each room and shoot in a separate part, and have other rooms in each house that we could use as a breakout area, so that we’d never be having more than three people in a room,” Ragg says.
The idea for the series first hit Ragg when the apartment building he was living in was flagged for demolition. After which, the majority of tenants decided to move.
“I was sitting outside and I was looking at all these empty apartments, and our apartment, and I had this idea to have bunch of stories set in here. And we could use these as empty spaces.”
Almost as if fate had stepped in to make the project happen, another of the many casualties of the pandemic, writer Jessica Marshall, who has written for and worked in the script department for shows like The Wrong Girl, Playing for Keeps, Bad Mothers, and Informer 3838, called Ragg in desperate need to gain some much needed diversion from her own set of bad news.
“She was now sleeping on her mum’s floor in rural Victoria because she had sold off all her stuff. She was supposed to go to LA. She had just got her Green Card, she had this writing thing. It was sort of the gig of her life. She had been wanting to move to the States for the last four years and suddenly everything was falling through. And she said, ‘Can we write something about love please?’
And I was like, ‘I can’t tell you how perfect timing this is.’”
Attempting to deliver what he described as “small little easter eggs for the audience,” in the hope of creating something that would make people feel better during this time, “We wanted to make sure these stories felt like they were all about connection,” Ragg says.
Not wanting to hold up access to this work through long production processes or tricky distribution deals, to keep the work feeling relevant and connected to what people are going through during this time, the collective has made Liberty St available to access through their own website from now until Saturday 19 September.