Show artwork for Open House Melbourne: Your questions answered


Open House Melbourne: Your questions answered

During Open House Melbourne last weekend, we threw open Southbank Theatre’s virtual doors for a behind-the-scenes tour with Theatre Operations Director Mark Wheeler, and then opened the floor to your questions.

Mark Wheeler’s tour took visitors to areas of the theatre you may be familiar with, as well as to areas usually unseen by the public. He even took us to a few spaces most MTC staff have never seen! Here, he answers some of the questions you submitted after the tour.

Q: What was the name of the artist who inspired all the geometric designs around the building?

Al Held. He was an American abstract expressionist painter, who was born in 1928 and died in 2005. His works that inspired the designs on the outside of Southbank Theatre and in the foyers were mainly painted in the late 60s and through the 1970s. You can find out more about Al Held at

Q: You said the front rows can be taken out and the floor dropped down to make an orchestra pit. Have you ever done this?

We have never had an orchestra in the pit. We sometimes do musicals that have a small orchestra but that is usually placed on the stage – we did this with Kiss of the Spider Woman in 2019 and with Ladies in Black in 2016.

Because we don’t do really big musicals, and the orchestra is usually small enough that it can fit on the stage, this allows us to keep the 59 seats in the front three rows and have a larger capacity for the audience. But sometimes we remove some or all of the front three rows if the design for a play requires the stage to extend forward into the auditorium. We did that in 2017 for Faith Healer and in 2018 for The Architect. For Faith Healer, we only had to take out some of the middle seats from those three rows, but for The Architect, we removed all the front two rows but the third row stayed in.

Q: When you walked through the dock, there was lots of writing on the walls. Can you explain what that is?

It’s a tradition in many Australian theatres for the actors to sign a wall somewhere backstage as a record of them being there at that time. With actors moving between shows and theatres so regularly, it’s a way for them to mark their connection with that particular show and venue when the season comes to an end. Often, the title and dates for a show will be written as a heading and then all the actors will sign or write a comment below that so their names are all together.

Southbank Theatre opened in January 2009 and have had more than 70 productions in the Sumner and more in the Lawler. So, there are now many hundreds of signatures and messages on the walls of the dock celebrating all these shows. As space has run out, actors are now going up in lifters to reach the higher walls.

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The writing on the wall in the dock. Photo: Timothy Grey

Q: On any given night, aside from the performers, how many other people are there working behind the scenes to make the show happen?

The size of the backstage crew varies depending on the scale of the production. For a larger show in the Sumner, 10 crew every night: two on the stage moving the sets and larger props, and operating automation (like revolves or stage lifts), as well as one person operating the flies, one person operating lights, one operating sound and another fitting and managing the microphones on the actors, one dresser helping cast change costumes between scenes, and three stage managers (one calling the show and two managing cast movement and props behind the scenes).

For a smaller show with less complex technical elements, it might only be six: one crew on stage, one for lighting, two for sound, no dresser and two stage management. The Lawler usually operates with just one technician.

Front of house, we have up to 13: a house supervisor, six house attendants in the Sumner and two more in the Lawler if that is operating, one bar supervisor and three bar attendants.

So, if both theatres are operating and the show in the Sumner requires a full crew, we might have 20+ people working behind the scenes as well as the actors on stage.

Q: Do the shows rehearse in the theatre before they begin performances on stage?

No, there is not enough space in the theatre to have all of MTC’s operations here. We have another building about 800 metres from the theatre and this is where we rehearse shows as well as build sets and manufacture costumes, and do all the administration work. There are three rehearsal rooms at HQ.

Part of the reason for rehearsing at HQ is that rehearsals usually take four to five weeks before a show is ready to be performed in front of an audience, and we can’t afford to have a show rehearse on stage as we’d then be missing having audiences in our theatre too much of the time. Usually, one show finishes on a Saturday night and its set is taken away while the set for the next show is brought in and assembled. Before the first previous performance the cast do have about three days of final rehearsals on the stage in the theatre, however. And the new show starts performances on the following Saturday.

Q: Are Southbank Theatre and the Recital Centre part of the same building? Weren’t they built at the same time?

Southbank Theatre and the Melbourne Recital Centre were built at the same time and were designed by the same Melbourne-based architects, ARM Architecture, but they are largely separate buildings (although we do share some power plant and air conditioning systems). The way each company operates is quite different so we decided it would be easier to have the buildings operate independently of each other.

The land on which both buildings now sit was owned by the University of Melbourne. MTC, which runs Southbank Theatre, is a department of the university but operates relatively autonomously. Half the land was sold to the state of Victoria to build the Recital Centre and the money from that sale helped pay for some of the cost of building Southbank Theatre.

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Southbank Theatre with the Recital Centre in the background. Photo: Benjamin Heally

Q: What are all the social distancing concerns that would need to be managed by performers and behind-the-scenes crew?

The COVID crisis has presented many and varied challenges for the theatre industry. All our spaces – from rehearsal rooms to foyers to stages – are going through a rigorous assessment to ensure they are COVID-safe for our staff, artists and audiences. The health of the community is paramount so our priority is coming back as safely as possible and as soon as possible.

Q: I enjoyed your tour of the Southbank theatres and would like to see it again. Will you be uploading it to YouTube? 

Absolutely. You can find the video on our YouTube now. 

Published on 30 July 2020

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