Theatres come and theatres go — it’s in the nature of the beast. In Brisbane, we’ve seen the demise of the heritage Princess Theatre in Woolloongabba, and the audience-friendly Suncorp Theatre in the city, and even the iconic La Boite Theatre has moved to flash new premises with the beloved round-house venue now a commercial enterprise.
But somehow the tiny Brisbane Arts Theatre on Petrie Terrace has kept struggling along, riding the waves of audience interest and, since its inception 77 years ago, providing a venue for some of the state’s finest actors to begin their careers.
It’s always been an amateur theatre, and for some years has been in the doldrums, to the extent that it’s now facing financial ruin. But as so often in arts communities, the industry workers have come to its aid and decided to make it viable again.
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The popular plays will still continue as main house productions, but the vision of new artistic director Ron Kelly is to make the theatre become once again a true community theatre, with professionals as well as amateurs combining to present great plays of the past as well as innovative productions of the present. Serious actors are being encouraged to audition, and many are seizing the opportunity for, with so few professional roles available, out-of-work actors are usually grateful of a chance to hone their skills and at least keep working, even if the pickings are small. It’s going to be profit-share, so there’s the chance of some money, and it’s better than wiping down tables and making coffee all day.
To this end, Kelly attracted one of Brisbane’s best known actor/directors, award-winning Carol Burns, to direct the recent season of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and the venue will also be made available to independent companies who cannot afford the high rentals of other theatre venues — even la Boite’s popular Indie theatre costs a minimum of $6000 up front.
So, for example, the brilliant ground-breaking Fractal Theatre of Brenna Lee-Cooney and Eugene Gilfedder (theatre-goers may remember Under Milkwood and The Secret Love Life of Ophelia in the Old Museum last year) will open there next week in a new version of Frankenstein. Lee-Cooney is adapting the script from Mary Shelley’s novel, and Gilfedder is writing new music, as well as appearing in the play, and they have gathered high-ranking professionals like Geoff Squires, Brian Lucas and Guy Webster to look after the technical side of the production. The production will feature mime, Butoh techniques and contemporary dance, and the actors, although mostly unknown, are all fully trained and seem to be ready to open with a storm on May 3.
When the chips are down, the workers will fight — the greatest example recently has been the determination of the literary community to set up their own award when new premier Campbell Newman, in one of his first decisions in office, axed the Queensland’s Premier’s Awards. It made Queensland the laughing stock of the country, and revived the long-standing south-of-the-border opinion that Queensland was a cultural desert, an opinion that had to be revised when the awards rose again, organised, judged and funded by the community itself.
And now it seems to be happening for the Brisbane Arts Theatre. With the enthusiastic participation of Brisbane’s most committed professionals and, with any luck, a whole new audience for a season of exciting new theatre, those grinning/scowling masks of Tragedy and Comedy that adorn its street frontage will keep on saluting the “thriving self-made theatre” that Sydney theatre critic Katharine Brisbane described it as in 1968.
The details: Frankenstein opens at the Brisbane Arts Theatre on May 3. Tickets and information on other shows at the venue website.