Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Transiting through the Cultures of Suburbia: How Theatreworks Discovered the Community of an Audience

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Transiting through the Cultures of Suburbia: How Theatreworks Discovered the Community of an Audience

Article excerpt


On 23 February 1981, an ensemble of recent graduates from the Victorian College of the Arts Drama School - Caz Howard, Peter Sommerfeld, Susie Fraser, Hannie Rayson and Peter Finlay - incorporated themselves as the 'Eastern Suburbs Community Theatre Company Limited', but the group was more colloquially known as 'TheatreWorks' and was re-incorporated as such in February 1986, after consolidating its move to the Acland Street Parish Hall in St Kilda. Right from the beginning, the company was

committed to exploring how a group of professional actors/theatre workers can best serve the people of the Eastern Suburbs by providing an accessible form of entertainment, educational and leisure activity, through the services of a community theatre.'

A few years later, these aims had evolved to include:

creating work which is pertinent to contemporary Australian lives, and which reflects the energies of urban life ... We aim to make our work both celebratory and disturbing. 'Celebratory' in that a sense of wonder and curiosity is embraced and reflected in all aspects of our work. 'Disturbing' in that we see our role ... as intervening against ... images disseminated in the mass culture, thereby opening up new channels of perception. We also seek to explore new actor-audience relationships and thereby to maximise the possibilities of the audience/participants both identifying with the work, and evaluating the broader issues at stake.2

The 'disturb' clause hints at an already uncertain relationship to the suburbs surrounding Burwood State College where the company had Its first office. Equally important is the open-ended nature of TheatreWorks' embrace of this new audience - who would also be the chief source material for the narratives of ordinary life to follow: stories and characters that could authentically exist inside a tram, a shopping centre, a riverboat, pub, family home or boarding house, all of which became sites of TheatreWorks productions. Accessibility, complicity, mobility and connectivity would become key elements in the company's performative style, especially as TheatreWorks pursued the exploration of its self-described 'location theatre' plays - works which would now be more commonly known as 'site-specific theatre'.3

In a text-centric critical discourse, not a great deal has been written about these plays given that the script was a relatively minor part of a process that encouraged improvisation and a good deal of physical business. Consequently, the public record has tended to overlook both the subtle management of social spaces, and the robust Interplay of fiction and reality that is going on in these works.41 argue that it requires a new critical approach to assess site-specific performance, and new criteria with which to interrogate its spatial manipulation. Such a tool kit would allow an appreciation of elements like the engagement of multiple senses, the relation of text to location, exploration of actor-audience relationships, and coordination and stage management of the fiction-reality interface.

Certainly nothing has been written about Melbourne's outbreak of site-specific theatre in the 1980s as a coherent body of work: the 'location theatre' sub-movement, as it were, within the larger 'Community Theatre' umbrella - which in itself was an integral part of the 'Next Wave' or 'Third Wave' of Australian theatre as described by Geoffrey Milne and others.5 Increasingly, a rich archive of audiovisual material is being produced and uncovered to counter the ephemerality of live performance - something with which to apply a new critique of these productions. TheatreWorks, for one, has left a useful record of its location plays in the University of Queensland's Fryer Library, including film, video and audio recordings of plays and workshops as well as photographs, manuscripts, company documents and other published and unpublished materials. …

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