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    THE WILD WEST OF MELBOURNE’S THEATRE NEEDS PURPOSE-BUILT VENUES

    Date:

    By Angela Buckingham

    It’s time we talked theatre and ‘The West’0. There’s this weird disconnect going on. 

    Great things are happening in the west and so many writers, directors, actors and producers call the west ‘home’ but their creativity is stifled due to a scarcity of affordable, purpose built spaces to foster audiences. The product of their work goes straight to the CBD because theatre venues are still clustered around the central business district making it difficult to create sustainable, local, independent theatre companies.

    This isn’t to say that there is no theatre happening in the west. An organisation like Western Edge blows that idea out of the water and their flagship production Lele was a highlight of last year’s Neighbourhood Festival. Rather it is true that people who are making theatre in our community need to be especially resourceful to bring entertainment to their audiences. They are making their work without the backing and audience awareness that established theatres bring. This is especially true with so many theatre practitioners in the west working in independent theatre.

    In the west, most theatre happens in other, non-theatre specific, venues with often exciting, fabulous results. A great example is the Werribee Mansion where Essence Theatre Productions regularly performs. These are intimate, accessible works where the audience feels like they can just reach out and touch the actors – because they are that close. This is theatre brought to life in an incredible historic building. Essence Theatre Productions have succeeded in attracting fabulous actors, to perform tight well-crafted stories in a beautiful space. Their two current shows are the historical drama The Dress, and the mystery What was that?. They are about to hit 20 years of production and the impressive record of 1000 shows so clearly their production formula works. It is a formidable achievement bringing entertainment to thousands of people. Still the Mansion is a venue for only a very particular style of play due to conservation of the Mansion. It is a historic building. Not a theatre. It is only open to very small audiences. There isn’t a fit for purpose affordable space in this part of town that independent theatres can access.

    Essence Theatre Productions’ work model is not the only option. The Shift Theatre, based in Footscray, just had an excellent season of the play Mystery in a Blimp, a high octane, absurdist comedy about the travails of independent theatre. Crowded with laughs, the show was electric, energetic and energising. The production made fantastic use of The Bluestone Church Arts Space. For two weeks this 150 year old building became a theatre. The production company, on top of producing the show, brought in the stage and the seating – the most basic elements of a theatre. They delivered great entertainment but is this model of theatre production sustainable? 

    How to create a sustainable theatre production model

    To independently produce professional high-quality theatre is always a challenge. On top of that challenge, to win an audience to a new, unknown venue requires even more work, money and some luck. Economists would say this is not a productive use of artists’ time and resources. In light of these realities, it is interesting that The Shift Theatre is taking their next show Garage Girls, inspired by the life of Alice Anderson – founder of Victoria’s first women-run garage, to La Mama in Carlton. Opening in July, the cast of five, will tread the boards across the river, over the bridge. 

    We know that running a venue takes a huge amount of investment, passionate people to steer the creative and commercial course of the theatre and then, of course, money. But successful theatres contribute to the communities that surround them by creating a sense of place, making an area desirable, investing in a diverse lifestyle, being a venue for community to come together and see itself reflected back and inspire greater creativity. This is exactly what has happened with the development and great success of the Footscray Arts Centre. It is now the centre of a vibrant arts precinct that champions exciting, diverse, and respected creative practice. 

    There are plans for a new theatre precinct in Footscray but we need community and government support to make this vision more than a plan and become a reality. Furthermore, we need a plan that makes local theatre accessible and affordable so that lots of people can make and enjoy theatre. An affordable, functional space will provide opportunities for artists and therefore build audiences. The west has the creative people to fuel great theatre – it just needs more affordable, purpose-built venues to show off that creativity. 

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