Arts audience 'came to the rescue' of much-loved city theatre
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Arts audience 'came to the rescue' of much-loved city theatre

In March, as the pandemic hit and Melbourne entered its long arts shutdown, the treasurer of independent theatre and gallery fortyfivedownstairs delivered some bad news to the board.

"He said we responsibly couldn't continue," says artistic director Mary Lou Jelbart. "We didn't have enough funds to be able to get through, and we should be contemplating closure."

Party time: fortyfivedownstairs will host Clare Bartholomew and Daniel Tobias's new play next year.

Party time: fortyfivedownstairs will host Clare Bartholomew and Daniel Tobias's new play next year.Credit:Andrew Wuttke

All sources of income from events, productions and visitors were instantly gone. Rent and salary obligations continued.

"We had enough in the bank for a few months but could have been in a difficult legal situation."

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It would have been a shattering loss, not just for the venue but the wider arts community. Fortyfive has hosted award-winning shows and been used for major arts festivals – as well as more than one creative industry wedding.

This week fortyfivedownstairs is announcing not only its reopening, but an exciting season of theatre for early 2021.

RUNT is at fortyfivedownstairs in 2021

RUNT is at fortyfivedownstairs in 2021Credit:Pier Carthew

"Our audience came to the rescue," says Jelbart.

Supporters, philanthropists and some cash from the state government, City of Melbourne and Australia Council kept them afloat in the dark months of 2020. They all had to work "like demons" on fundraising but "it was enough".

"And now, getting back is almost more frightening. What is the audience reaction going to be?"

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Rather than reimagine everything, they have simply picked up where they left off. The first exhibition in the gallery in January is the one that shut down a week after it was installed in March. The productions will be, mostly, those they had hoped to stage this year.

"We're going to be like the Sleeping Beauty, get up as if nothing happened in between, then the party begins," says Jelbart.

Live music starts on January 14 with a season of recitals. Theatre begins in January with Burn This by Lanford Wilson.

In February the Die Roten Punkte pair Clare Bartholomew and Daniel Tobias stage a "murderously funny farce" titled The Anniversary, about the golden wedding anniversary of a couple who literally want to kill each other – led by acclaimed director Peter Houghton. And Nicci Wilks presents her new one-woman play RUNT about a small, undernourished woman who determines to take on the world.

In March Elizabeth Walley's The Trauma Project examines the writer's reaction to witnessing a real-life homicide.

Beyond that, Jelbart is waiting to see what will be possible, and what they can afford.

Jelbart says she is still, as always, looking to support "sheer, raw talent".

"We've had amazing things happen at fortyfive, and I feel very strongly that some great actors don't get enough work," she says. "What brings people back to fortyfive – and La Mama – is the fact you have this really strong emotional experience. It's theatre that speaks to the heart, as well as the head."

Bartholomew says the COVID-19 pause, while devastating for her and Tobias' plans and income, had given them time to polish their work.

"Often the time you spend writing a show can be too short," she says. "[The break] has given us fresh eyes on the work. When the phone starts ringing again, and the diary fills up, I would really like to keep focusing on one thing at a time more wholeheartedly."

Says Tobias: "When we are able to tour again it will be amazing – we will possibly have three new, separate shows we can tour, we have so much material ready to go and we've been writing so much".

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