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There is a growing and welcome trend in Melbourne theatre. The sort that doesn’t occur by accident. Independent theatre is gaining traction with mainstream audiences, taking out major awards and getting a larger slice of the pie. A deliberate attempt is being made to fertilise the playing field, and it seems to be working.

All theatre in Australia exists on a knife’s edge, propped up by the public’s goodwill, the producers’ dedication and the artists’ sheer guts and passion. It may be a truism of all artistic endeavours, but it is especially true of theatre: no one is in it for the money. Just as well, because there is almost none to go around.

Most companies who pay their actors and technicians rely on some form of government grant, which they are often required to reapply for every year. Production costs, theatre hire and marketing budgets all ensure a hefty outlay and a minuscule profit margin. If they are lucky enough to secure a single venue for a season or two, companies may build up a loyal audience. But even the most loyal audiences can’t guarantee financial security. Not on $30 tickets.

The history of mid-level theatre companies in Melbourne is a potholed and piecemeal one. Anthill was probably the greatest: a vibrant émigré theatre dedicated to a classical but forward-looking program, run by the formidable Jean-Pierre Mignon. It was treasured by its audiences and adored by critics, yet it closed its doors in the mid-nineties due to lack of funding and exhaustion. Which came first is now impossible to determine.

David Pledger’s company Not Yet It’s Difficult gave the city some of its most searing political work, used multimedia and performance spaces innovatively, and felt genuinely subversive. It sat alongside Melbourne Workers Theatre and the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project, more overtly political companies, as an important local proponent of agitprop. All three companies struggled to maintain their rage and have largely, if sadly, been forgotten.

Some of the other companies from that time limp on, with possibly gammy legs but heads still held high. Ranters Theatre, Chamber Made Opera, Black Lung – these are all stayers in the industry, but they are alive through sheer force of will. Many of the new kids on the block will surely tread the same path, gamely carrying on when their problems become insurmountable. Most will fold, leaving their artists jobbing and underpaid.

But there is reason to be hopeful, even in this climate.

Collaboration has seemingly trumped competition, and audiences are the beneficiaries. Major flagship companies are reaching out to the smaller independents, providing support, resources and even exposure on their main stages. The Melbourne Theatre Company has solidified its NEON Festival of Independent Theatre to great acclaim and sold-out shows. Malthouse is in its third year of Helium, a year-round elevation of smaller companies into the mainstream. Together, these two programs represent a shot of adrenaline into the arm of independent theatre in Melbourne. The ripple effects will be felt for years to come.

I don’t believe that the directors of the major companies during the nineties were meaner or more insular than their contemporary counterparts, but it is true that the theatrical landscape under Kennett favoured a tent pole mentality. Big shows and loud successes would ‘inevitably trickle down’ to the smaller companies, providing a magic fountain from which everyone could drink.

As with most laissez-faire market theories, the touted benefits for the smaller players failed to materialise. The largest companies survived (barely) and the rest perished. For anyone who was around in the nineties, it felt like a pretty barren environment to be working in.

As if in response to this, theatre in Melbourne has rallied itself to its own cause. At the moment there is, to my mind, an almost unprecedented level of activity coming from mid-level and independent theatre companies. The subversive and the experimental currently sit alongside the more conventional and mainstream; a litmus test for health in the industry.

Some of these smaller companies have ties to particular venues, but most find themselves having to shop around from production to production, a situation that can leave a company rudderless. It can also stymie an audience, who often associate a company with a venue even when that association is temporary or spurious. Mockingbird Theatre’s recent production of The Judas Kiss was their first at Theatre Works, and it suffered from a sense of disassociation. Their return to the Brunswick Mechanics Institute will no doubt be a relief to audience and company alike.

Venues are vital in this respect, functioning as a brand or seal in the mind of the public. Red Stitch Actors Theatre originally performed out of an abandoned office block in St Kilda – not as romantic as it sounds – before transferring to their permanent home a few blocks away. This move was undeniably a coming of age. Now, to see a Red Stitch play is to go to the Red Stitch Theatre. It’s a distinction most other mid-level companies would kill for.

This is the true value of endeavours like Helium and NEON. Certainly, they gather enviable resources for the independents, utilising formidable marketing budgets and technical expertise, but more than anything they give them a venue. As Malthouse’s Associate Producer Josh Wright says, they offer ‘a testing ground – a space for experimentation and daring’.

By selecting a handful of often obscure and fledgling artists and giving them uninterrupted freedom to create, a main stage outfit like Malthouse provides smaller companies with something they would struggle to find elsewhere. It generates ‘an opportunity for artists to make the work they want to make and for audiences to see it’. Wright is adamant that the sole curatorial purpose is to show ‘a diversity of talent, ideas, [and] art forms’, and to produce something that will ‘excite audiences’ assumptions about what theatre is or what it can be’.

Once the main stage companies have tested these newcomers out, though, is there a temptation to simply pinch them for their own productions? Simon Stone had a great success with The Hayloft Project’s Thyestes at Malthouse’s Tower Theatre before rapidly rising to star director of Malthouse’s The Wild Duck and this year’s The Government Inspector. So is Helium simply functioning as a glorified stud farm for new talent?

According to Wright, this kind of thinking is inherently flawed. His belief is that artists should be encouraged to move between platforms, that ‘it’s important to note that mainstream … work is not the pinnacle of artistic practice’. It’s almost a countercultural statement. ‘Not all artists want to work in the mainstream or on main stages. Most professional artists work both as “independent” and “main stage” artists at some point in their careers.’

There can be no doubt, though, that the hunger for experimentation and daring also satisfies a marketing imperative for the larger companies. Audiences, like the rest of the country, are aging and theatre will need to look to the young iconoclasts if it’s to maintain its relevance. Breeding grounds like Helium and NEON provide a spotlight for the kind of talent that will take the medium in new and culturally significant directions.

That’s not to say we should treat these moves by the majors with mistrust. Any cynicism about marketing ploys or branding exercises seems pretty churlish when the numbers are considered. MTC invested $500,000 in NEON’s first year – $300,000 in cash and $200,000 in kind – ‘with no curatorial control or artistic input, and no box office recoupment’. That’s so cool it needs clarification: the companies who took part made whatever kind of show they wanted, kept their own box office takings, and MTC covered all the production costs.

MTC’s Artistic Director Brett Sheehy believes the major companies gain a great deal as a result of this type of collaboration. The returns are  not just feel-good, philanthropic ones either.

MTC has been able to forensically explore how the independent sector works and seen what its strengths and challenges are, we’ve learnt as a company how to be more fluid and open, we’ve had the opportunity to observe at close quarters a new group of passionate artists realising their unique visions – exposure to all these things would benefit any arts organisation.

This cross-pollination of expertise and inspiration is clearly great for theatre makers, but what about the audiences? Will the same people who trundled out to see the gossamer-thin production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives race out for Story of O? Sheehy believes that the categorisation of audiences as conservative or radical is a false dichotomy. For him, ‘the biggest obstacle to cross-pollination … is ticket prices.’

It’s a solid point that has been informed by his many years directing major festivals. Audiences of all ages and demographics have consistently flocked to festival events, ‘and that was always due to financial access and low ticket prices’. By structuring NEON as a festival, with its own internal engine of enthusiasm and public support, Sheehy would now ‘love to see Melbourne embrace it and take ownership of it at every level’.


MTC and Malthouse are generously offering their venues as springboards for the independent sector, but some venues create an indelible mark on a city without an association with a specific company. Two of the most significant in Melbourne are fortyfivedownstairs in the CBD and Theatre Works in St Kilda. More than theatres for hire, both embrace the idea of venue as umbrella and dynamo. Both are also experiencing something of a renaissance.

fortyfivedownstairs is one of the great, somewhat unexpected success stories of recent times. A somewhat awkward space (deep underground, contending with a wall of opaque glass and various support columns) it makes for a challenging performance area. It’s also hard to spot from the street. And yet it’s the kind of idiosyncratic venue that audiences and practitioners remember fondly. It has soul, and its difficulties are the kind artists love to surmount.

Anyone who saw Moira Finucane’s The Burlesque Hour or the recent KaBooM will appreciate the potential for staging innovation at fortyfivedownstairs. It isn’t a blank slate – which is what makes it tricky – but it has the ability to transform itself, like a combination of cave and magic box.

Mary Lou Jelbart has been this venue’s passionate doyen from the start – a formidable presence inside the building and a vital one behind it. An enthusiast in every sense, she’s the impresario at the centre and indispensable to the theatre’s success. She loves the place too, ‘a fabulous room … the sense of history the battered paint conveys … incredibly flexible and versatile’.

While she baulks at the word curator, she has more than a casual hand in the selection of each season. Patricia Cornelius’s Savages was Jelbart’s baby, coming off the extraordinary Do Not Go Gentle…, and the reward was a massive win at this year’s Green Room Awards. She is a strong supporter of new Australian work, ‘and if it’s international, it needs to be a good play, something that I’m aware is too tough, or perhaps not commercial enough, for the mainstream companies’.

While determined to increase the number of shows they produce, fortyfivedownstairs often creates works simply by bringing particular artists and audiences together. Café Scheherazade came about by bringing Thérèse Radic and Bagryana Popov into each other’s orbit, and became one of the venue’s biggest hits. It’s a variation on the goals that unite Helium and NEON – aligning artists, audiences and venues in the service of original art.

Theatre Works has been around for many years, originally functioning solely as a venue for other companies’ productions. It has the unenviable aspect of a church hall, but it has also been witness to some excellent theatre. It was, however, in danger of falling into irrelevance before Daniel Clarke was employed as creative producer.

Taking a strong curatorial approach to his role, Clarke has quickly transformed the venue into a vibrant theatre destination. The space has its own difficulties, but under the venue’s Australia Council funding, artists ‘thrillingly transformed the Theatre Works space; diversifying the experience for the audience’. Clarke called 2013 ‘another year of growth for Theatre Works as it continued to develop its national reputation as an artistic hub of excellence’, and judging by the work seen there recently, it’s pretty hard to argue.

Theatre Works and fortyfivedownstairs aren’t the only venues injecting life into the independent scene. North Melbourne’s Meat Market has been flush with activity of late, churning out edgy, progressive material. A cavernous space with great flexibility, it’s been used for musical performances, experimental theatre and art installations, sometimes all at once. The directors of Meat Market are thoroughly committed to expanding the reach of theatre in Melbourne and providing a focus for artists from the northern and western suburbs.

These relatively new developments sit alongside the stalwarts of the industry, such as La Mama and Brunswick Mechanics Institute. The sheer proliferation of venues suggests a healthy future for the sector but complacency can easily lead to stagnation in theatre, and artists will move to more vibrant cities if you kill their high.

Support from the major companies has been gratefully received by the artists who have taken part, but it’s naive to think that is the end of the story. Once their season is done, the independents must go back to their meagre resources and paltry budgets, scrounging for audiences and funds. That’s not to say they’ve lost anything from the experience. Massive exposure can propel a company onto larger stages. The Hayloft Project and Sisters Grimm are far more famous for having taken part in Helium and NEON respectively, and will benefit from it for years to come.

Personally, I’d like to see more radical, even revolutionary, staging from the independents. Melbourne has no equivalent to the scale of Peter Brook’s extraordinary Théâtre Des Bouffes du Nord, which operates out of a crumbling old ruin of a building in Paris, or The Donmar Warehouse in London, a venue so intimate you should carry protection. Last year, I caught Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in New York, a non-linear fugue on themes from Macbeth that had the audiences masked and scurrying over five floors of an abandoned hotel they’d renamed the McKittrick Hotel, in a sly reference to Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Melbourne seems the ideal city for something this playfully twisted and lunar, but such a lateral approach to venue has yet to emerge. Maybe new spaces have to be discovered first, or old ones transformed.

Of course, the best way to promote this idea is to promote the next wave of theatre makers, which is precisely why audiences should get behind the independents and the flagship companies backing them. All progress can be reversed, and so the future of mid-level and independent theatre can’t be assumed. It needs to be embraced as a necessary aspect of Melbourne’s cultural life, and sought out wherever it is playing.

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