Despite only 10-12 per cent of its annual budget coming from government funding (none of it federal), the ensemble theatre company last year found itself “bursting at the seams”.
“We were doing all this INK [the company’s playwright development program] work, we had workshops, we were touring nationally and were starting our first international tour,” says Red Stitch’s artistic director, Ella Caldwell. “Our office was non-existent – I used to just sit in the foyer with my laptop.”
They also lost a long-term rehearsal space that had been donated in-kind and were paying for storage on top of that.
“We were rehearsing in any space that we could find for most of 2018 until this space come up,” says Symonds.
Red Stitch took over the Cromwell Road Theatre just over a year ago, initially to use just for rehearsals. But it was always in the back of their minds to one day maybe use it as a fully-fledged theatre, Caldwell says.
However, previous tenants Polyglot Theatre, having shifted to more installation-based and touring works, hadn’t staged an actual show at the venue for about a decade. There was a lot of work that needed to be done to bring the space back up to a standard for public use.
So they launched a fundraising campaign, with a $200,000 target. Through the goodwill of the community, some generous donors, a Creative Partnerships Australia initiative that matches private contributions dollar for dollar and “lots and lots of working bees”, the company made it happen.
Stage one of the renovations was to get the space OH&S compliant ahead of staging Ella Hickson’s intergenerational epic Oil, which opened last week to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The next stage is to make the venue wheelchair accessible.
The revamped theatre offers a bigger capacity than the Chapel Street space – up to 120, compared with 80 – and has fully flexible seating. The prospect of being able to fill those seats clearly delights Caldwell.
“We reach capacity [at Chapel Street] when a show’s sold out and … we hate having to turn people away,” she says – not least because the majority of the company’s income is from ticket sales.
“This venue is something to facilitate the growth of the company,” says Symonds.
The new theatre is in addition to the first, not replacing it, with the company aiming to stage a couple of shows there each year.
I think Ella’s amazing, what she manages to do with so little.
Philanthropist Maureen Wheeler
Philanthropist Maureen Wheeler was more than happy to help fund the company’s next steps, but says that the government can’t rely on philanthropy alone.
“It’s huge value for money … it’s worth every penny,” she says. “I think Ella’s amazing, what she manages to do with so little.
“Everything goes into opportunities for young Australians and we have to offer that. People can’t all start at MTC or Opera Australia. There’s got to be this pipeline [of smaller organisations] that feeds people in.
“[Red Stitch] has already proved itself – it’s won awards, it has the miles, it has the kudos, it has the credibility. Those are the things government should be incentivising.”
Red Stitch Actors Theatre launches its 2020 season at Trades Hall on Saturday, November 23, from 6.30pm, followed by its annual fundraising event, PLAYlist, starring Kat Stewart and featuring short plays by Joanna Murray-Smith and more. Oil is on at Cromwell Road Theatre, South Yarra, until December 15.
Hannah Francis is Arts Editor at The Age