Theatre Works History – a brief retrospective
‘WE ARE ARTISTS WHO BELIEVE IN THEATRE AS A POSITIVE FORCE IN OUR SOCIETY.’
– From Theatre Works statement 1981
Theatre Works has a rich and innovative history spanning three decades.
Theatre Works is one of the last remaining alternative theatre companies described as part of the Australia’s Next Wave movement. Like some of its contemporaries, Theatre Works was formed in 1980 by a group of students (including Peter Finlay, Susie Fraser, Carolyn Howard, Hannie Rayson and Peter Sommerfeld) graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts’ Drama School and operated as an ensemble of actors, writers and directors concerned with producing work that both ‘celebrated and disturbed’ suburban audiences. The idea was to take live performance out of dedicated theatre buildings and produce it closer to the places where people lived and worked.
The company went on producing shows in smaller venues in the Eastern suburbs and became famous for its location theatre, especially for the tram series that started with Storming Mont Albert By Tram in 1982. In 1985 Theatre Works found a home in the heritage-listed Parish Hall, part of the historic Church Square complex in St Kilda, and it marked the beginning of its deep relationship with the bayside community.
In its first decade, Theatre Works produced more than 30 original plays – all of which promoted community theatre while developing new Australian drama. The first years were marked by works devised for and with various communities, and included discussions on gender equality, unemployment, multiculturalism, abortion and youth.
In the 1990’s Theatre Works explored different aesthetics and languages in a quest to present theatre as storytelling, transitioning from a cooperative to a fullyfledged theatre company. During the years under the artistic leadership of Robert Draffin, the company produced and presented adaptations and re-interpretations of classics such as Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Shakespeare’s Pericles and Titus Andronicus.
Changes in funding models from federal to state level in the mid ‘90s affected the arts sector as a whole but increased cuts to the performing arts changed the landscape of the theatre industry across the country.
Many small to medium theatre companies faced financial hardship and were forced to close. Theatre Works decided to foster and present innovative new works across a range of art forms and genres, and to accomplish this vision, it opened its Parish Theatre as a venue for independent artists and the local community, going on to support artists in residence including Born In A Taxi and critically acclaimed Rawcus, an integrated ensemble of artists of all abilities, and providing a platform where creative partnerships were forged.
In the 2000’s, considering the lack of resources available for the independent sector, Theatre Works intensified its presence as a centre for the production and presentation of works by emerging and established independent artists and small companies. Following the direction of the Board’s Artistic Subcommittee, the company established its Selected Works program. Strengthened by General Manager Angela Pamic, the program presented new works by both emerging and established theatre-makers. During this decade Theatre Works fostered the development of artists working across different sections of the performing arts. Artists including The Hayloft Project, Nicola Gunn and Gravity and Other Myths continue to have increasingly strong reputations nationally and overseas.
From 2011-2016, under the direction of Creative Producer Daniel Clarke, Theatre Works continued to present and produce new works, foster artist development, as well as present international artists including Nilaja Sun (US) and Bryony Kimmings (UK) and professional development initiatives including the Directors Lab: Melbourne. In 2015 Daniel received the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award Facilitator Prize for his contribution to independent theatre.
In March 2016, award-winning director John Sheedy joined Theatre Works as Creative Director. Former Artistic Director of Perth’s Barking Gecko Theatre Company, John has worked with Australia’s leading companies including Opera Australia and Sydney Theatre Company. John’s appointment marks the beginning of a new stage in Theatre Works’ evolution. In 2017 the company shifts towards a co-producing model with a strong focus on new Australian work and creating pathways to ensure the longevity of artists’ careers.
Theatre Works has gone through many changes but remained in the vanguard of contemporary, quality Australian theatre – always true to its core belief in the power of theatre to affect social change.