MTC Brief History and New Theatres

It won’t be long now before the Melbourne Theatre Company will unveil it’s new theatres down the road in Sturt Street, Southbank, in the same complex as the new Melbourne Recital Centre.

The Melbourne Theatre Company is Australia’s oldest professional theatre company and in terms of programming, arguably one of the most conservative. The MTC’s origins date back to 1953 when the company was founded as the Union Theatre Repertory Company at the Union Theatre, University of Melbourne. It’s first director was John Sumner, an Englishman who arrived at the university the year before to head up the Union Theatre (that had no theatre!) and its first play was Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, directed by Sumner himself.

“The Doll’, as it is affectionately known, has since gone on to be an Australian classic and arguably this country’s most celebrated stage play. This literary masterpiece about two cane cutters who travel from Queensland to Melbourne annually to meet their girls in the summer lay-off season, is remembered as being responsible for the beginning of a new era in Australian theatre, where local audiences no longer cringed at Australian-produced works over their imported British counterparts.

Back in 1997, I recall doing an assignment in a Financial Management unit in my Graduate Diploma in Arts and Entertainment Management course on the financial woes of the MTC. At that time, they were reportedly $4 million in debt, with parent company The University of Melbourne struggling to salvage them. I titled my essay “Now Is The Winter of Our Discontent” 🙂

The MTC’s problems all began 30 years earlier, as far back as the late 1960’s when the initial plans were conceived for a new central arts centre in the heart of Melbourne. My research indicated that Sumner argued a 500-seat theatre was the best arrangement at the new arts centre for the MTC. But it was not to be.

As the new Victorian Arts Centre (today simply known as The Arts Centre) suffered numerous delays, the MTC found a range of temporary homes at various inner city Melbourne theatres until moving into The Playhouse at the Victorian Arts Centre as the new tenants in 1984.

But there were several problems with this new lease arrangement. The biggest one was that Sumner’s vision for the right-sized theatre was never realised. The Playhouse accommodated 884 seats, well over the 500 recommended by the man who knew best. As a result, the MTC now struggled to make profits.

From memory, my research discovered (and it is all a matter of public record in MTC Annual Reports) that the lease for The Playhouse in the mid 80s was around $16,000 a week. It was, after all, the newest theatre in town, in the fanciest performing arts venue built in generations. The MTC argued for a change in the lease arrangement based on audience numbers, citing the flat weekly rate as unfair if they only had an average house of 450 a night, for example. To make matters worse, all the bars, catering and car parking were contracted out to external companies, so the MTC could only generate a profit on ticket sales, sponsorship and donations. It seems Sumner was right, after all.

As the MTC recovered financially and grew, it expanded its operations by using the 376-seat (Fairfax) Studio built in 1991 in a nearby foyer area for additional, more experimental works. At different times throughout the 90’s there were talks from the Kennett government of a new MTC theatre somewhere along the Southbank precinct, but nothing eventuated.

Meanwhile, the use of the Studio meant the MTC could now close down the old Russell Street Theatre in 1994, a somewhat cramped venue it had been using since 1966. It was not until 2002 that the Bracks state government announced a joint partnership between the MTC and itself for a new theatre (the bulk of the funds coming from the government).

It is with some pleasure that I read the MTC will soon own additional operations in its new theatre, such as the catering. There will be a new MTC Cafe, with seating for 100 people and another sixty in an outside area. Theatre companies often find it so difficult to make substantial profits these days (never mind being in the middle of a world economic downturn), little things like making money off bar sales every night can make a huge difference (have you seen the queue to the bar in your theatre foyer recently!).

The MTC’s two new theatres will appropriately be named the Sumner Theatre and the Lawler Studio (by the way, Lawler was to become the Union Theatre Repertory Company’s second director, succeeding Sumner briefly in the late 50s, then handing the job over to Wal Cherry, only to see Sumner take over the helm again from about 1960 to 1988).

The Lawler Studio will now be used for additional experimental works in a variety of non-fixed configurations. It is absent as a listed venue on the MTC 2009 mainstream season, with the intention of using this 150-seat venue for play readings and small scale studio works. In contrast, the larger Sumner Theatre will hold several of the MTC’s new season plays and has an expandable and contractible proscenium with floor traps for an orchestra pit and a seating capacity of, you guessed it, exactly 500 seats…

Melbourne Theatre Company

2 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    The Studio, as the Fairfax was originally known, opened in 1984 at the same time as the Playhouse and the rest of the theatres building. The seating was flexible until the refurbishment.

  2. Michael says:

    Justin, Thanks for this trip back in time. The theatre looks fantastic. I am sure that somthing on at MTC will make the Drama or Theatre studies list for 2009 so we can take the students.

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