MTC is Australia’s oldest professional theatre company, yet the Southbank Theatre is its first permanent performance home and headquarters.
Before we started work on Southbank Theatre, we visited a long list of venues in Australia and overseas to research theatre design. They included the Royal Court Theatre, Hampstead and Steppenwolf. Among other things, we learned that those that reflected the existing culture of the institution they were designed for were much more successful than those that tried to impose a new culture. Our interior design for the Sumner Theatre closely reflects MTC’s personality—one of a company occupying other people’s venues, making the best of the spaces available to them. It communicates the working theatre: the walls are plasterboard, the floors timber. It is prosaic, not grand. But still extraordinary.
Southbank Theatre has two main venues: the Sumner Theatre and the Lawler Studio.
The Sumner Theatre (named for MTC’s first artistic director, John Sumner) seats 500. It is a single-rake house with a proscenium arch and no balcony, which creates the very best sight lines from the audience to the stage. The stage, fly and wing configuration make it arguably one of the best drama facilities in the world. The proscenium and Juliet balconies are adjustable. The orchestra pit can be raised to stalls level for extra seating. There is a full theatrical grid on the ceiling and the space can be configured as a black box performance venue.
The Lawler Studio is a full rehearsal hall. It can also be used for functions and small performances to audiences of up to 150.
The MTC’s façade is a matrix of glowing tubes in angular box shapes that seem to hover around the black box of the building. It relates to the Arts Centre Melbourne spire but is more graphic. It is like an illusionist painting in that it blurs our two- and three-dimensional perception.
The boxes repeat inside as if we had shone a giant theatre light onto the façade to cast a shadow of itself on the interior walls. There are lounges, bars and a café plus a function room and a large meeting room.
The Sumner Theatre wall panels are perforated with quotes chosen by MTC. They are backlit with LEDs that can change colour to match the content of the performance.