Sunday morning at the MTC ~ theatre notes

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday morning at the MTC

What was Little Alison doing this morning? No, she wasn't lounging in bed being fed hot toast and tea. (Sadly, this never happens, but as Wittgenstein pointed out, some things are better passed over in silence). She was in fact staring biliously at pink champagne and nibbling croissants among the hard hats at the official MTC launch of its new home.

Such events normally wouldn't tempt me out of my burrow, but I've been dying to get a peek at this space for months. And believe me, even as a building site, it's impressive. By August next year, when it officially opens, the MTC will have - in the shape of the justly named Sumner Theatre - arguably the most beautiful modern theatre in Australia, as well as the 160-seat Lawler Studio, a genuine black box studio space that has been a signal lack at the MTC.

The Sumner Theatre features an intimate 500-seat auditorium that sweeps up from the foot of the stage, with brilliant sight lines even from the back row. The height of the building is mitigated by some false balconies, and the walls will be decorated by an LED display that features quotes from famous plays - from Wilde to Beckett, Chekhov to Sartre, Lawler to Shakespeare.

But it's the other side of the stage that's impressive. It's designed to be wholly flexible, and it has practically everything that opens and closes. The fly tower is 20 metres high, with 64 flylines, and the entire stage floor is trapped. There are juliet (false) balconies either side of the stage that lead to the balcony areas above the auditorium, which can be used in productions. There's a retractable orchestra pit (in three sections) and a centre aisle can be created or removed at will.

And there's an adjustable proscenium that, aside from allowing designers and directors more control of the kind of stage they want to play with, will permit, for example, shows designed for the letterbox stage of the Sydney Opera House space to be moved in without the design problems faced by the Playhouse season of The Season at Sarsaparilla.

But, brilliant though all this architecture is (it certainly excites politicians - the launch featured the Victorian Minister for the Arts, Lynne Kosky, and the Minister for Major Projects, Theo Theophanous), it's what this space makes possible that strikes me as most exciting. This could be as significant for Melbourne theatre as the launch of the Malthouse out of the ashes of the Playbox. As artistic director Simon Phillips says, it opens MTC programming up to a range of new possibilities. They'll still be programming big shows at the Arts Centre Playhouse, but with these smaller spaces, they can take some risks.

"It opens everything up," said Phillips. "To date, it's been incredibly difficult to program smaller works, and there have been things we'd have liked to do, but couldn't because we didn't have the right space. Now we have a theatre in which 20th century drama can stand effortlessly, and with the studio we'll have an incubator space for new Australian work, and for edgier, more contemporary European-style work."

Moving MTC operations into the centre of the arts precinct - near the Victorian College of the Arts, the Malthouse, Chunky Move and ACCA, and just down the road from Federation Square - should mean more than a physical relocation. Phillips is hoping that the MTC will similarly situate itself in the centre of Melbourne's theatre ecology, rather than perching uncomfortably on top.

If the 2009 program demonstrates half the imagination that the actual building does, Melbourne theatre is in for a most interesting ride. And those who care about independent and experimental theatre should be as interested in how it goes as any MTC subscriber.

It's a no-brainer that a healthy independent theatre is essential to the health of our main stages, for where else are new energies to emerge? But equally, it's just as important for independent and small companies that our main stages are vital, creative places. The zero-sum thinking that complains about large companies swallowing money that ought to go elsewhere is short sighted: in culture, possibility creates possibility. And a great big possibility is soon going to open its doors. Like the man says, I'm excited.

Pictures: (top) architect's impression of the Sumner Theatre auditorium (bottom) live webcam image of the MTC theatre construction site.


Lee Bemrose said...

You've just reminded me of what a good looking city Melbourne is (Was there and impressed in January). I think I want to dump Sydney and move to Melbourne.

Anonymous said...

... and, apparently, Joanna Murray-Smith.

Anonymous said...

Good JOb! :)