Edifice complexes and heritage values too often a pain in the arts
Geelong’s Old Courthouse has been transformed into an arts hub. Photo: Sarah Hayes
Governments love to recycle historic buildings as multi-purpose arts venues, but this can result in creative white elephants and financial black holes.
LAST month, Geelong's Old Courthouse, home of the Back to Back company and a youth arts ''hub'', was opened with more gubernatorial and civic splendour than could comfortably squeeze into its refurbished 128-seat theatre. The transformation of the century-old building is a triumph of all-of-government co-operation. ''What was once a place of confrontation and incarceration is now a place of freedom and creative expression,'' extolled Premier Ted Baillieu, ever-optimistic about the outcomes of modern art.
With a price tag in excess of $6.5 million the conversion was sweated over four long years. Just as well it works then. A quick tour confirms this: sensible relationship between gallery, cafe and theatre; ease of access and egress; equipment that is simple to use (the seating retracts at the touch of a button). Plain, elegant, well appointed. When I stand on stage and think 'this works', what I mean, as a director, is 'this is somewhere I can do work'. And that's the point. That our venues, in adding to the glory of the cultural precincts of which they are now unfailingly a part, should not forget their main job: to be a site for the making of art.
Chapel Off Chapel, Prahran. Photo: John Woudstra
The conversion of existing buildings is a largely successful aspect of our theatre architecture. Australian history is full of quirky adaptations but in the last 50 years the trend has really taken off. Viv Fraser's award-winning makeovers of Belvoir Street and Wharf theatres are celebrated examples. Closer to home, the Mill, the Pram, the Church, and the Organ Factory were all venues whose name flags their original use. La Mama is the great survivor, purchasing its shirt factory home in 2008 for $1.7 million.
But there are duds. Gasworks Theatre, part of Port Phillip's Gasworks Arts Park development, is the most egregious. Not far behind are North Melbourne's Meat Market and Chapel Off Chapel. The reasons these venues don't fully work are complicated but not unfathomable. Gasworks, off the tram and train grid, is hard to get to, expensive to hire and has poor acoustics. The Meat Market has a cavernous performance space, right for only certain types of shows. Chapel Off Chapel is more contained but is again expensive and has no coherent program identity. Local council involvement in the development of these venues brought money and commitment, but also conflicting agendas and muddled philosophy of use.
The most common mistake is burdening a building with too many expectations. ''Multipurpose = no purpose'' is the quip doing the rounds of capital works committees. Councils are naturally responsive to diverse community needs. Professional use of a theatre, however, is often at odds with these. Flexibility is confused with adaptability. The latter refers to a space's ability to cater for different types of activity - dance, music, theatre, even sport. Flexibility, on the other hand, is what most artists want - the ability to change configuration and technical specifications quickly and cheaply. They don't care whether a venue can host synchronised swimming. They care whether it is right for them.
Gasworks Theatre, Albert Park. Photo: John Woudstra
When the desire to save buildings trumps thinking about their future use it is practitioners who carry the can. Accessibility and ease of use are ground-level values. Those who have stood on a wobbly ladder bolting a 500-watt Profile to a broomstick appreciate the importance of retractable lighting bars. It is details like these that get lost in the rush to renovate. Or the equipment is there but no one has considered its upkeep. Or ruinous insurance premiums. Or heritage overlays. All of which adds to bottom lines and makes such venues as restrictive as established ones.
Expense is a major issue. In recent years a focus on marketing and audience development has emphasised theatre's revenue generation side over its cost management. In a saturated market, however, where many shows are artist subsidised, cost is a significant barrier to entry. Most conversions are 100-200 seats, auditoriums appropriate for so-called $30-a-ticket theatre. Again, anyone who has engaged in the glum trimming of ''fat'' from a small company budget knows the importance of low overheads.
The bricks-and-mortar aspect of conversions is less important than their management and operation. One can stand any venue, however arctic and disproportioned, if one knows what it stands for.
La Mama is a Melbourne treasure. Photo: John Woudstra
What makes La Mama a Melbourne treasure is not its historic architecture but its historic mandate - its single-minded pursuit of Australian drama over 45 years. It is this that turns its iconic house into a creative home.
A smart move by Courthouse ARTS was putting Geelong-based playwright Ross Mueller in charge of programming. The key question for any management is where its industry knowledge is contained. This is best achieved by appointing people who know how theatre is made. Twenty years ago Melbourne had a number of smaller-scale independent producers. They were not plaster saints. They would sell your false teeth on the open market if you were unwise enough to leave them in their bathroom. But they performed their function.
Today, lively ratbaggery threatens to give way to glossy orthodoxy. The notion of an ''alternative'' theatre went out with roneos and Terylene trousers, but as a result these renovations, designed to challenge expectations, seem strangely tamed. They cry out to be invested with a rebarbative spirit, a f***-you creativity. Their personas, however, are high-end aspirational. Don't unconventional buildings demand unconventional approaches to running them?
Julian Meyrick is a theatre director and Honorary Fellow at La Trobe University.