2004-2009: A new Century, a new company.

Posted Jan 01, 2004

By the mid-2000s Australian theatre had undergone several transformational shifts, with changes in Artistic Directorship at key companies across the country, and the establishment of the Major Performing Arts (MPA) Framework. In the Melbourne theatre scene, there had been a similar changing of the tides, with the increased presence and activity of emerging independent theatre makers, working in new small-scale venues distributed throughout the inner cities. With the re-evaluation of Playbox’s exclusive focus on new Australian playwriting, the Board looked to its new Artistic Director Michael Kantor as someone who might shake up the company’s mission and revamp its image. 

Kantor had been a part of the Melbourne theatre community since his studies at Melbourne University. He was an actor in Barrie Kosky’s company Treason of Images through the 1980s, and his influential Gilgul Theatre during the 1990s. A graduate from L'Ecole de Phillipe Gaulier, Kantor led his own independent theatre company, Mene Mene and began directing for companies across the country, including Playbox. 

Kantor’s aesthetic and artistic interests were far broader than Playbox’s existing remit, and he made clear his intention to significantly expand on the kinds of work the company would present moving forward. As a director Kantor’s aesthetic was seen to be strongly influenced by contemporary European performance, which was believed to be more attuned to the taste of a younger theatre audience around the country keen to see more experimental works and risky programming decisions. The emphasis on Australian playwriting was abandoned in favour of a more inclusive view of Australian performance. Katrina Strikland wrote in The Australian: 

'…a new regime aims to revive an ion of Australian theatre by abandoning its nationalistic agenda… It was difficult to see Michael Kantor over the sea of heads in the shed next to Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. Close to 500 people had turned up to hear the new Artistic Director outline his vision for the company formerly known as Playbox. … Gone is Playbox’s 14-year commitment to producing all new Australian plays. In comes Malthouse and a pledge to produce contemporary Australian theatre…. Under Kantor, the Malthouse will continue to stage new local plays, but also imaginative interpretations of the classics, new international drama and multi form works.' 

This upheaval caused much consternation amongst the playwriting community, particularly in Melbourne, but it allowed for more devised works, and an increased presence of contemporary dance, musical theatre, and opera. The company also shifted away from Playbox’s engagement with the Asia Pacific region, but increased its commitment to providing space for First Nations work. 

Michael Kantor
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Michael Kantor

Executive Producer Stephen Armstrong remembers: 

'I’d been working in state theatres for ten years by then, so I had been the new work development person and the spotter, if you like, for Sydney Theatre Company, and for Queensland Theatre Company, and I had a budget, I had capacity. So it meant that I didn’t think in terms of ‘well we can’t afford that’ or ‘we shouldn’t be spending our money in that way, we should be supporting the local’. There were so many other ways that you could support the local. And in fact all that work that we did, that had an international focus, was paid for by those presenters. It’s like, we raised a lot of money, which all went to Australian artists, but in the old days the only artists that counted were playwrights and actors.  

We saw anyone who made theatre, including the writer, and the composer, and the sound designer, and the lighting designer, we saw all of those people as beneficiaries of the new model. And they were getting paid by international presenters. So all the work we did in Edinburgh, we either had a contribution to the remount (like of Barrie Kosky’s work), or they co-commissioned the actual piece, like Optimism. So that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars that all went to Australian artists and enabled our audiences to see work that was properly supported. 

Not content to simply revolutionise the company’s programming policies, Kantor proposed the development of a four seasons subscription model, allowing for greater flexibility and responsiveness in programming. He also proposed further development of The Kiln Room, Bar and Foyer conversion at an estimated $150,000 and the development of the third theatre in the Malthouse Tower at an estimated cost of $150,000. Finally, and most significantly, Kantor proposed the total rebranding of the company to reflect the changes in policy and better identify the company with the iconic venue, renaming Playbox as ‘Malthouse Theatre’.  

Talking with Johnathon Marshall in the Age, Kantor explained that; 

'What I like about the name ‘Malthouse’ is that it refers to a melting point with the aim of intoxication. It’s about a confluence of elements: malt, water, barley—or sound, text and image, in the case of theatre. So it’s about collaborative forces coming together to create something which is seductive, which is ultimately transformative (like alcohol) and which allows for a multi-disciplinary approach to what you put on in a theatre … The previous name, Playbox, enshrined the centrality of plays in everything we did,' and said that the new Malthouse would be a 'theatre of the senses.' 

This once more ignited resentments in the playwright community, reacting to Kantor’s comments that the ‘play’ in Playbox no longer represented the scope of the company’s ambitions, and signaling that his tenure as Artistic Director would be one driven by immediate and contemporary artistic and aesthetic concerns more than commitment to legacy policies.   

Until this time, the Merlyn had been painted blue. Armstrong remembers that, 'the decision to paint the Merlyn black was hugely controversial. And the decision to remove the commissioned oil paintings, from the auditorium: hugely controversial. We basically said, it is beholden on us to provide a neutral space for an artist, and blue is not neutral. And works of art on the wall are not neutral, so they’re going. That was really offensive (to some), but it just spoke to the degree to which, like the upstairs exclusive dining area, for the judges and the senior left wing policy makers, it was so bourgeois. It was devastating … when we did all that. I get no pleasure from it but I would do it again.' 

In a speech reported by Raymond Gill, Kantor laid out his vision for the company, saying 'Theatre is a collaborative act,…the communion between writer, director, designer, composer and performer must be enshrined in our working practice —theatre is apprehended through all of the senses. Theatre is contradictory. Theatre can amuse, shock, clarify, confuse, seduce and horrify— simultaneously.'  

He also discussed his plans for the Tower Theatre program, which would allow the company to pick up an independent company’s show that had been successful in a smaller venue. 'This will address the problem of where do these smaller companies go to find a larger audience and means we can access a new audience because there are many people who have rejected the larger subscription companies because of ticket prices, or a lack of interest in their work…' The speed and flexibility of Kantor’s vision for the company reflected the early days of the company as it was under Carrillo Gantner, with a broad strategy of programming the best new work and an ability to quickly represent successful new works seen interstate or in smaller local venues.  In an interview with The Age, playwright and former Artistic Associate and Literary Manager at Playbox, Michael Gurr described the changes, saying 'I think there is a lot of excitement and anticipation about what Michael is planning… Companies must evolve—they can't sit still forever.' 

Armstrong joined the team as Executive Producer, and Catherine Jones as Associate Producer and Business Manager. With an all-new administration in place, Jill Smith announced that she would leave the company after more than 25 years to take up a position in the office of the Premier.  

Armstrong recalls that 'The model was that Michael and I would co-curate the building. And that Michael would be the director, of two to four major works, a year, and that would basically take him out of the daily conversation, the daily focus of running the organisation. Which then meant that there was an assumption that as executive producer that I was not only able to program, but to have a duty of care, for guest productions particularly, and for all of the commissions, and the new work development.' 

Journal of the Plague Year (2005)
Journal of the Plague Year (2005)
Journal of the Plague Year (2005)
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Journal of the Plague Year (2005)

Journal of the Plague Year (2005)

Journal of the Plague Year (2005)

Kantor opened his first season as Artistic Director in April 2005 with The Journal of the Plague Year, an adaptation by Tom Wright of the book by Daniel Defoe, performed in repertory with Patrick White’s The Ham Funeral. In the same week, the company presented Black Medea, a landmark work written and directed by Wesley Enoch, at Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney, which then opened in the Beckett in May.   

During May, the complete refit of the Tower room began, converting it into an 80 to 100 seat theatre with flexible seating rostra, a lighting grid, black walls, and ceiling. The $200,000 renovation was funded through private philanthropy, with a major contribution of $150,000 from the Dara Foundation. This third theatre opened in July, remounting The Black Swan of Trespass by Lally Katz, (produced by independent theatre company Stuck Pigs Squealing), as well as Telefunken by Stuart Orr, and Love by Patricia Cornelius

Of the Tower program, Armstrong remembers that; 

'it seemed to us that if we were able to give the Tower, as a development, making and presenting space, in one thing, to a group of contemporary artists, then we took the imperative to program the space away because it was being occupied, and that was always a really important question, well, what’s happening in the space, and you can’t just keep putting shows on. One, there aren’t enough, and two you can’t afford to take the risk. And three its not really helpful, to just pump things through. You have to find a way to support artists, in really fundamental ways. And the capacity of that space, while it was limited obviously, technically, it was pretty generous.  And those technical capacities were available to the artists, from the minute they stepped in there.' 

2005 was a year of critical successes for Kantor, with his collaboration with Chunky Move, Tense Dave, touring America, a remount of his earlier Playbox production of Babes in the Wood opening to much acclaim from critics and audiences alike, and the highly successful Boulevard Delirium, written specifically for performer Paul Capsis, created in collaboration with Barrie Kosky

In 2006, the Malthouse presented a range of artistically significant works, including It Just Stopped by Stephen SewellEldorado by Marius von Mayenburg directed by Benedict Andrews, and Honour Bound, a new work by Nigel Jamieson that focused on the imprisonment of David Hicks in Guantanamo Bay for his attendance at the terrorist group Al Qaeda's Al Farouq training camp in Afghanistan. Once again, this year some of the most popular works in the seasons were produced by independent companies in the Tower, including Construction of the Human Heart and The Yellow Wallpaper, adapted from the Charlotte Perkins Gilman short story, by Anita Hegh and Peter Evans

The independent works that were brought into the Malthouse were a sign that the company saw itself as very much part of the Melbourne theatre community. Armstrong says, 'When I was at Malthouse, I went to independent theatre productions five nights a week. So when people would say, oh look at this lighting designer, I’d seen three of their productions. So I felt like I was part of it, I didn’t feel like it was something I had to work at or embrace like it was a separate thing.' 

Despite its critical successes and the major overhaul, the following years program – divided into three seasonal programs – was plagued by financial issues. Audience attendance across the seasons fell from 56,047 in the previous year to 31,286 in 2006. By September the company faced serious budgeting issues in drafting the 2007 budget in particular the need to address a shortfall of $450,000 to avoid a reduced artistic program. The board noted the need for the Artistic Director to find $450,000 between now and the next board meeting to deliver the proposed program of eight mainstage productions. In response Kantor outlined the challenges of budgeting 2007 and confirmed that the short fall had been met by philanthropic funds sought and confirmed from private corporate investments but indicated that this was not a solution that would be available to the company beyond 2007.

Ham Funeral (2005)
Black Medea (2005)
The Black Swan of Trespass (2005)
Telefunken (2005)
Love (2005)
Babes in the Wood (2003)
Boulevard Delirium (2005)
It Just Stopped (2006)
Eldorado (2006)
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Ham Funeral (2005)

Black Medea (2005)

The Black Swan of Trespass (2005)

Telefunken (2005)

Love (2005)

Babes in the Wood (2003)

Boulevard Delirium (2005)

It Just Stopped (2006)

Eldorado (2006)

The 2007 season would demonstrate how a balance of high profile collaborations coupled with a resistance to managerial parsimony could prove successful both financially and artistically. Several key works had a major impact: the immersive installation work, Black, by resident designer Anna Tregloan, the coproduction with Company B Belvoir of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the KingSleeping Beauty: This is Not a Lullaby, a new musical theatre work featuring the music of David Bowie, Nick Cave and Elvis Costello, and The Tell-Tale Heart, adapted, and directed by Barrie Kosky, as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. This is Not a Lullaby featured the theatrical stage debut of Australian singer, Renee Geyer, and Exit the King, starring Geoffrey Rush, played to 100% capacity houses across its seasons, and was produced in 2009 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York,playing to over 100,000 patrons and winning Rush a Tony Award for Best Actor. 

Kantor’s 2008 season opened with a new adaptation of Moliere’s Tartuffe by Louise Fox. The production was to be directed by Kantor, but the Artistic Director had to step down from the show due to illness, one day before rehearsals began. Kantor’s Assistant Director Matthew Lutton stepped up into the role of director, marking his first time directing for The Malthouse. In April, Venus and Adonis opened, adapted and directed by Marion Potts, her first major work for the company.  

The Tower would emerge as an important space for independent theatre in Melbourne. It hosted a three-month long residency for the independent company, The Black Lung, which resulted in two shows, a remount of their earlier fringe work Avast I, and a new work Avast II: The Welshman Cometh which both opened in November. 

The Tower, along with the regular community engagement and talks series Things on Sunday, were critical elements of the Malthouse’s role in supporting independent artists by remounting and representing their work as well as giving the space over for independent residencies. Armstrong recalls: 'we had to stop thinking that because it’d been seen in Melbourne it wasn’t appropriate for us to do.' 

In the Tower, Malthouse presented the independent productions of I Love You, Bro, by Adam Cass, performed by Ash Flanders and directed by Yvonne Virsik, and Africa by company-in-residence My Darling Patricia, Moth by emerging playwright Declan Greene, and the critically acclaimed production of Seneca’s Thyestes, presented by resident company The Hayloft Project, directed by Simon Stone, which won the Melbourne Fringe award for Best Production. 

Malthouse also launched Project Greenlight, a concerted effort to assess and implement change towards ecological sustainability in venue management and theatre production. Initially this would be achieved through purchasing carbon off-sets funded through a mandatory and visible surcharge on all patron tickets, and the company achieved a carbon positive status for its 2008 program.   

In 2009, Malthouse presented Kantor's production of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck with music composed by Nick Cave, Warren Ellis and Peter Farnan, which was also the theatrical stage debut of Australian rock musician Tim Rogers. Kantor’s production of Optimism, an adaption of Voltaire’s Candide by Tom Wright, produced with the Sydney Theatre Company also opened this year and toured to the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. Australian comedian Frank Woodley won the Herald Angel Award in Edinburgh for his performance as Candide. The production took in more than $1.5 million in box office across its three seasons. You can read more about Kantor’s production of Optimism and how it spoke to the cultural moment here. 

Furious Mattress (2010)
The Threepenny Opera (2010)
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Furious Mattress (2010)

The Threepenny Opera (2010)

From the beginning of his tenure as Artistic Director, Kantor made a significant impact on the company and the wider theatre community. His aesthetic as a director marked a landmark shift in the works presented by Malthouse, with his productions of The Ham Funeral, Babes in the WoodJournal of the Plague Year, The Odyssey and Optimism firmly stamped his artistic vision on the company, bringing its approach to theatre making into the new century. Beyond this however, his changes to programming policy regarding new works, partnering with a wide range of companies interstate, opening the company up to other performing arts disciplines, and providing space for local independent companies, have had lasting impacts on Malthouse, and made a significant contribution to the changing landscape of Australian theatre. 

In 2009 Kantor announced that he would be stepping down  at the end of 2010, and Marion Potts was selected as the new Artistic Director. Kantor’s final season included Furious Mattress, by Melissa Reeves, and a co-production of The Threepenny Opera with Victorian Opera, which sold out almost its entire season before opening, and involved 19 artists on stage and the largest support crew assembled for a single production by the company to date. 

In early 2010, a devastating hailstorm passed through Melbourne and caused extensive damage to the theatres, administration offices and production infrastructure. The Front of House and production crews working on the day of the storm managed the safety of over five hundred patrons in a 'live building' and were commended by the board for their swift action to contain the flood damage.

Kantor left the Malthouse at the end of 2010, and both Stephen Armstrong and Catherine Jones followed suit. Kantor returned to freelance directing, including his first feature film The Boy Castaways, starring Tim Rogers, Paul Capsis, Megan Washington and Mark Leonard Winter in 2015, and the Australian production of the David Bowie Musical Lazarus for The Production Company in 2019. He has returned to The Malthouse occasionally to direct works such as Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (2016), and The Shadow King (2013), for which Kantor won the Helpmann Award for Direction.