1976-1979: Beginnings

By Robert Reid

Posted Jan 01, 1976

Malthouse Theatre is one of Australia’s most recognised and celebrated major theatre companies.  Launched in 1976, it has a tumultuous and involved history, surviving fire, flood, and a pandemic, all while producing innovative new Australian work and collaborating with artists around the world. From its beginnings in a converted Police Drill Hall, Malthouse has grown into one of the most important theatre companies in the country, and launched the careers of some of its best known and beloved actors, directors, designers and playwrights. 

Melbourne theatre in the mid 1970’s was dominated by two major companies: the Australian Performing Group (APG) and Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC). MTC had been established in the 1950s as an adjunct of the University of Melbourne, and was responsible for rejuvenating the theatre community in the shadow of the massive commercial entity, J.C. Williamsons. And from the late 1960s, a group of young, radical, and experimental theatre makers had banded together in an old Pram Factory in Carlton to form the APG, putting a greater focus on new Australian work and the expanded possibilities of performance. 

In 1973, a young Carrillo Gantner took on the role of General Manager of MTC, under founding Artistic Director John Sumner. Sumner was a generation older, with a very firm set of expectations and standards regarding what theatre should be, and how it should and shouldn’t be made, and this soon clashed with Gantner’s more progressive approach. Tensions ultimately led Gantner to leave the MTC in 1975, and he banded together with two founding members of the APG, actor Graeme Blundell and theatre critic Garrie Hutchinson, to begin the process of establishing a new third major company. 

Hutchison described the environment for theatre makers at the time, telling The Age: 

'The situation seems to be set up so that nothing can change …Two established drama companies are sucking up a lot of the public subsidy available, and the Australia Council has a funding policy where new companies can’t get money unless they have a track record…Subsidy should be able to respond quickly to the needs of the profession, rather than setting up monoliths and supporting their existence forever… It does seem ridiculous that public servants on the administrative and funding side of the arts earn an enormous amount more than the people they’re supposed to be helping.'

The APG at this time was at the height of its popularity, and was producing a wide range of new works at their venue, the Pram Factory, which was known as much for its radical theatre as it was for its uncomfortable seating. The company was also beginning a period of transition away from the constant participation of its founding members – many of whom were moving into film and television. Blundell himself was becoming a nationally recognised figure and together, he, Gantner and Hutchinson held a discussion with representatives of the theatre community—including David Williamson, Malcolm Robertson, Bruce Miles, Peter Oyston, John Wood, and others—regarding the potential for a third theatre in Melbourne to be positioned somewhere between the perceived conservatism of the MTC and the poor theatre aesthetic and militant anarchy of the APG. 

Carillo Gantner, Garrie Hutchinson and Graeme Blundell. Photo by Rennie Ellis
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Carillo Gantner, Garrie Hutchinson and Graeme Blundell. Photo by Rennie Ellis

These discussions lead Gantner, Blundell and Hutchison to form the Hoopla! Theatre Foundation and launch with a two-play season at the end of 1976.  

The new company’s objectives were first articulated in 1977 as being: 

  • to promote and encourage either directly or indirectly the knowledge, understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of drama, opera, ballet, music and all other theatrical artists and performing arts and the arts generally. 
  • To establish means of ascertaining and satisfying the needs of the community in relation to the theatre, the theatrical arts, the performing arts, the arts generally and entertainment generally.  
  • To establish and conduct schools, lecture courses, seminars, and other educational activities in relation to the theatre, the theatrical arts, the performing arts, and the arts generally. 

On December 15 1976 the new company premiered Chidley, by Alma De Groen, in the newly converted Grant Street Theatre, which had formerly been the Police Drill Hall, and was intended for use by the newly opened Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) Drama School. In January of the next year, Hoopla! presented The Golden Oldies by Dorothy Hewitt, and in June presented a production of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Peter Oyston with acting students from VCA staged at the Alexander Theatre at Monash University’s Clayton Campus. 

In the meantime, Gantner was in search of a permanent home for Hoopla! in the Melbourne Central Business District, holding discussions with the Victorian State Government that eventually led to the company’s relocation to the old Playbox Theatre at 55 Exhibition Street. Formerly Kelvin Hall, the building had been taken over by commercial theatre producers Kenn Brodziak and Harry M Miller, who had converted it into a 324 seat 'pocket proscenium' theatre in 1969. 

In June 1977, Hoopla! Theatre Foundation moved into the Playbox Theatre with an assistance grant of $6000 from the Victorian Ministry for the Arts and began refurbishments, turning the original theatre into the Playbox Downstairs Theatre, and opening a new, smaller experimental space known as the Playbox Upstairs Theatre. 

On moving into the Playbox, Hoopla! Restated its vision and goals in more detail, outlining in their application to the Australia Council how the company’s management of the venue would: 

  • offer production and development opportunities to a wider range of playwrights than is currently available in Melbourne. 

  • provide productions of important new overseas material by writers acclaimed overseas but whose work is rarely performed in Australia 

  • provide an attractive city outlet for productions by other fringe, subsidised or educational theatre that warrant greater public exposure (but which would not be suitable for a ‘major’ commercial theatre)

  • offer a suitable Melbourne venue for productions from interstate. Pathetically few of even the best productions from other states are seen in Melbourne (and vice versa)

  • initiate opportunities for Australian writers of stature who do not currently write for the live theatre

  • make possible in conjunction with other organisations a broad range of performing arts activities including contemporary opera, music, dance and children’s activities which would benefit from the physical, administrative and technical framework provided.

  • bridge the gap between commercial and non-commercial areas by using the venue as a try out house, and with appropriate product as a mixing ground to attract new audiences to live theatre without merely satisfying preconceived expectations.

  • bring the Playbox Theatres alive ‘around the clock’ by introducing lunch time theatre, late night shows and other scheduling innovations for Melbourne audiences. 

It is in this document that the company’s first clear vision statement is articulated by Gantner: 'to make the improbable inevitable.' 

On July 2nd 1977 Hoopla! opened the Playbox Downstairs Theatre with production from Sydney, Nimrod Theatre Company’s The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin by Steve J Spears. This was the company’s first major success in terms of audience and critical response, and demonstrated one the key strengths of the new company: its agility. In contrast to the restrictions that programming a year-long season ahead of time imposed on the MTC and the chaotic development and communal management structures of the APG, Hoopla! had demonstrated its ability to be responsive, rapidly programming and presenting successful new works in partnership with interstate companies. 

The 1978 Hoopla! season included such popular works as Ron Blair’s The Christian Brothers (a Nimrod production) and Bulsh!, a collection of tall tales told in conversational style by three actors. They also presented their first interstate production,  Oh/Let Me In by local playwright Ted Neilsen, at the Adelaide Festival Centre. 

The following year, the company took the first steps in its long-standing interest in partnership with theatres and cultural institutions in the Asia Pacific region when Gantner lead the first group of Australian theatre professionals (actors, directors, administrators, and academics) to visit China during January. This year the company also hosted performances by the The Fukien Puppet Theatre of China. 

In 1980, the company officially changed its name, retiring the Hoopla! Theatre Foundation in May, and adopting the name of their Exhibition Street home, ‘Playbox’. This year the company also introduced subscriber booking for the first time. 

Dr . Robert Reid is an independent playwright, theatre historian, immersive performance designer and critic. They were the artistic director of independent theatre company Theatre in Decay and immersive performance and game company, Pop Up Playground.  Dr . Rob's plays have been performed by the MTC and Black Swan, and their immersive works have been presented by the MSO, SLV, City of Melbourne, Bell Shakespeare and the Melbourne Football Club. Dr. Rob has a PhD in Australian Theatre History, was a co-founder and co-editor of WitnessPerformance.com and now runs the YouTube channel, Television is Furniture presenting reviews, history and analysis of contemporary Australian theatre.