Monday, 16 June 2014

Indie Theatres of Melbourne 1: Red Stitch

Kate Cole in Grounded. Photo by Jodie Hutchinson.
One of the great attractions of Melbourne, for visitors and locals alike, is its lively theatre scene.

Most theatre-going tourists in Melbourne will see a stage performance in one of two locales.

The Arts Centre in Southbank, south of the Yarra River, is the home of the state-subsidised Melbourne Theatre Company, and also hosts opera, dance and the odd musical.

Nearby are the Southbank Theatre and the Malthouse Theatre, two more venues hosting quality theatre.

In the eastern half of the central business district (CBD), there are a number of privately owned theatres remaining from the 19th and early 20th centuries, some of them former cinemas.

They include Her Majesty's, the Princess, the Comedy and the Regent. These magnificent West End-style venues host big commercial productions, particularly musical theatre.

They're all great places, on both sides of the river. However, there's another layer that many visitors have no awareness of - Melbourne's vibrant independent theatre companies and venues.

Via a series of occasional posts, I'm going to profile some of these. First up is Red Stitch.

Red Stitch Actors Theatre was founded in 2002, during a lean time for Melbourne theatre. Many mid-sized companies and venues had disappeared, making it difficult for professional actors to find work outside the large theatres and companies.

One solution was the creation of a company with an ensemble approach and its own dedicated theatre. At first this was a space on Inkerman Street in St Kilda. At this venue, Narrelle Harris and I reviewed various early Red Stitch plays for our theatre website Stage Left, including Brilliant Traces.

As you can see from Narrelle's review, that production began unforgettably as actor Kate Cole plunged through the door of a set representing a snowbound Alaskan cabin, wearing a full wedding dress.

Last weekend, and 12 years later, we're at Red Stitch's second venue (and longtime home) in St Kilda East, again watching Kate Cole on stage. This time she's alone, wearing a US air force pilot's uniform, and standing within a simple grey set which resembles a concrete bunker.

It's the Australian premiere of Grounded, a one-woman play in which Cole portrays an American fighter pilot. After giving birth to a daughter, she's reassigned from overseas combat flights to remotely flying a drone from a desert base in Nevada.

It's a fascinating situation, and Cole's larger-than-life onstage persona is perfect for wringing every drop of tension from the set-up. Going into battle every day then clocking off to return to her suburban Las Vegas home every night, the contrasts between the two worlds start to wear away at the character's commitment and sanity.

This strange new tech-born conflict is beautifully portrayed by Cole, in a nonstop 80-minute performance which seems much shorter as we're pulled back and forth between disgust and sympathy.

Red Stitch's tiny venue, a renovated former scout hall behind a church, is perfect for this sort of theatre - even the most distant audience member is only ten metres or so from the actor, enveloped in the world of the character on stage.

Grounded continues to 12 July 2014 and is much recommended; you can find details and make bookings by clicking here.

For more information about Red Stitch, visit its website.