The Open Stage

A summary of the process of creating the new Open Stage in 1973, a multi-purpose theatre, to become the "Drama Department's laboratory for Theatrical expression and experimentation"

Originally published in 1977

The name, The Open Stage, was retained when the Drama Department moved into the new Arts Centre on Swanston Street, Carlton, late in 1973; indeed, it was the inspiration for the planning of the theatre itself.

It should be stressed that, while the theatre space, together with the necessarily adjacent functional areas of switchboard, dressing rooms and workshop, had to fit physically into both the concept and area allowed in the architects plan for the whole building, The Open Stage was functionally rather than ‘architecturally’ designed. Its whole area had to be adaptable to any conceivable arrangement or placement of performing spaces and audience seating banks. In essence it was to be simply a rectangular boxlike space with a flat concrete floor, brick walls, and a ceiling with a configuration of five foot recessed squares which were identical with those in all ceilings of the Arts Centre building. No decoration was envisaged. Each performance itself (whether dramatic, musical or dance) was to provide the full life and embellishment of the theatre.

Given a basic, shoebox environment, several members of the Drama staff spent months of individual cogitation and collective idea bouncing about what should be done to make the theatre function practically as well as ideally in an audience-performer relationship. Daryl Wilkinson, Ron Danielson and Peter Ralph delved into memories of their past experiences in directing, lighting and designing plays and musicals in different types of performing areas (proscenium, thrust stage, traverse and “in-the-round”) and then overlaid the past with imaginative projections of what would be required of a technical and physical nature. Decisions had to be made quickly, for all plans of how to incorporate the many necessary elements into the structure had to be made before the theatre section was actually built.

Problems and ideas tumbled over themselves as first one aspect and then another seemed to demand complete attention at the expense of others. What kind of switchboard would best suit this particular space? What was the audience to sit on? One or more areas for the stage manager’s desk? Another level, other than the floor, for placing followspots, special effects or slide projectors and loud speakers? How to provide hidden access to all parts of the theatre for the actors during performance? What seemed to take precedence on Tuesday was usurped by something else on Thursday, and yet another concept over the weekend.

Then EUREKA ‘A solution’ There should be a major structural addition to the plain walls. A catwalk/balcony must be constructed along three walls not for audience seating, but for most of the needs just mentioned. Tracked curtains along the outer balcony edge would create a concealed access tunnel for the actors during a play, while the balcony floor could provide placement for electrical units and also, happily, provide a suitable and dramatic level for performers to use in some scenes, or from which to make an effective entrance or exit via a temporary stairway.

With fortunate timing, one of the staff observed movable seating units in the Northland Shopping Centre which seemed to provide a solution to the audience seating problem. The firm which made them was able to construct for The Open Stage six specially designed units or banks which consisted of three and four retractable tiers, on each tier of which was a row of collapsible seats. The units were designed to be 105 centimetres wide when the tiers were all retracted in a vertical line with the bottom level, and could therefore be stored under the wider balcony (behind the tracked curtains) when the central theatre space was to be used for art or sculptural displays, environmental staging, or productions having different seating requirements. If all units were used, this seating would accommodate 124 spectators.

Most complex of all the elements was the planning of electrical outlets for both lighting and sound, and the routing of the “spaghetti” all the wires that connected the individual power outlets with the theatre switchboard, In each of the recessed ceiling squares, except those on the two long walls, there were to be from one to three power points for lighting instruments which could be hung from metal bars permanently attached within the five foot ceiling square. Further points were needed along the walls above the balcony for standing spots or projectors. All these outlets (190 of them) required connection to matching inputs in the switchboard room.

For even greater versatility, a portable dimmer was added to the equipment. By plugging it in at any one of three widely separated outlets, it could lock in with the main switchboard (once the lighting instruments had been connected) and enable all light changes to be operated in conjunction with the stage managers desk. This desk also had three outlets near those for the dimmer. They connected the intercom system to the switchboard room and a telephone to the box off ice and foyer.

Special points for both microphones and speakers were installed on floor and balcony levels so that performances could be recorded on tape. Even more sophistication was added by special lines to the master recording room of the Music Department, and outlets for eight television cameras, thus the theatre can operate as a television studio. The thousands of metres of wires connecting all the various types of outlets to the switchboard room and the recording studio were to be hidden within special channels that had to be built into the walls and ceiling during the construction period.

Ideally there would have been a catwalk/add installed above the lighting outlets to allow for expeditious moving and plugging of the lighting instruments and spots, but this was impossible. The building design required a concrete ceiling and floor only 558 centimetres (18 feet) apart. Stalemate. Access to the overhead power points and instrument hanging bars required a better solution than the traditional stepladder. Search revealed that the same firm which manufactures the “cherry pickers” (that chariot-like shell perched on the end of a metal arm that is used to trim trees and repair tram lines and street lights) could make a hydraulic platform hoist which would work to perfection, with one person in the cherry picker to affix or adjust the instruments, and another on the floor to move the platform and hand up the lights. Like the seating banks the cherry picker platform could be wheeled under the balcony for concealment when not in use.

Because this was to be a teaching/learning space (as well as a performing one) for all the Drama Department’s programs and for students who were preparing to become teachers, it was desirable to give them every opportunity of experiencing in advance the myriad kinds of working spaces they might encounter in the thousands of schools throughout Australia. The new Open Stage was adaptable to all the ‘new’ styles of production, but what about those traditional stages and prosceniums that are found in many school auditoriums,and indeed in almost all commercial theatres? How could that idea be brought back into a free space concept without destroying the very freedom that was being sought? As Ron Danielson describes the solution, it came in a dream as a movable, or removable wall. The dream was then reinforced and brought to fruition by more cogitation and conferences which resulted in an ingenious and very flexible arrangement of vertical steel pipes secured by anchoring locks in floor and ceiling; to these pipes could be attached two rows of wooden panels, 9 by 4 feet. Each panel could be left out if desired to create doorways, windows, balconies, etc at any place in the wall, and of course, by removing the entire middle section and introducing platform/levels between the remaining side sections, a traditional proscenium stage effect was created.

This panelled structure, together with the black “tabs” curtains which open in the middle and travel to the outer limits of a specially suspended track) which were hung behind it, could serve to create a backstage area and also to conceal the only wall without a balcony. This concealment was sometimes necessary because the wall acted as a storage place for hanging pieces of metal scaffolding, a large air-exhaust, a sink and, on one side, a winched bar for hanging unused spotlights.

A stairwell in the north West corner of the theatre gives access to two fairly large dressing rooms. These rooms can be used for the teaching of makeup since they are well equipped with mirrors and two rows of lights above long communal dressing tables. The workshop is fully equipped for the construction of flats and other scenic units, props and rostrums. During the four years of operation a quantity of various sized, collapsible rostrums have been built by the theatre carpenter and now forms a basic stock for directors who wish to use different levels in their staging. They are sometimes used to elevate the audience in certain configurations, either in addition to, or instead of the regular seating banks. For example, there are sufficient rostrums to cover an area 30 feet square and 1 foot high; to cover an area 20 square feet 2 feet high; and a quantity of various sizes 3 feet and 4 feet high, as well as compatible step units to provide access to the top of the rostrums.
These, together with other pieces of scenery, furniture and props, go into storage after each show in a scene dock and prop room in an adjacent building. Likewise, all costumes which are made, or purchased, help to expand the already bulging costume racks in the costume room once a show is done. Many of the scenic units and costumes are later used in class projects in the large drama and movement studios (rooms 418 and 419) as well as in the theatre itself.

In a very real sense The Open Stage is the Drama Department’s laboratory for Theatrical expression and experimentation. The theoretical aspects of drama and stagecraft which are studied during classes in the theatre, as well as in the conventional classroom, must be experimented with, tested and expanded. The only way to accomplish this is to prepare a physical production of a play as an extension and fulfilment of the classroom preparation. Drama may be read by an individual anywhere, any time; but drama as “theatre” can exist only in performance by actors before an audience. However it must be pointed out that the acting by students is only the most immediate and visible of the numerous and inter related disciplines which together create the necessary magic in performance.

The student designers of scenery, costume and lighting (frequently one person may design both scenery and costumes) work together on colour schemes, textures, and coordinating style. Although students are usually involved in the construction and painting of scenery and the making of costumes, these efforts are guided and assisted by the permanent Open Stage carpenter and the part-time wardrobe mistresses. For similar reasons, but also because of the elements of danger in working with highly sophisticated electrical equipment and circuits, the full time electrical technician supervises all installations although students usually design the lighting plots and operate the switchboard.

Each production must work within a budgetary limit which is established for each production on the basis of conceptual requirements: i.e. the number and complexity of costumes and sets, rented lighting effects, and all other anticipated expenses for props, masks, materials etc. Much originality and imagination as possible in all facets of dramatic experimentation, for the very concept of drama in education requires a freedom to improvise with the techniques of using drama as a teaching method for interdisciplinary subjects (utilising dramatic concepts and stimuli) as well as with drama as a subject in its own right. Also, the student must be as well prepared as possible for confronting the multitudinous physical facilities for teaching/performing which will be encountered in schools throughout Australia in general and Victoria in particular.