DRAMA IN THE COURTHOUSE! By Ailsa Brackley du Bois

Theatrical performance requires not only the inhabitance of physical space, but a functional and meaningful interaction with the space occupied. The performers and the location must co-exist simultaneously and combine successfully, to create a memorable theatrical event. Throughout the 19th Century, and much of the 20th Century, people largely assumed that a stage in a hall or a theatre was the ideal platform for theatrical expression. However, there’s been a long-growing counter-movement advocating the merits of performing anywhere but in a theatre, as exemplified by Queensland’s ‘Anywhere Theatre Festival’, amid a raft of similar events globally. There are countless outdoor and indoor spaces that could be considered as case studies. The purpose of this article is to consider how old Courthouses work as performance spaces for contemporary theatrical arts.

Old Courthouses in England, Ireland, and Wales, and Tolbooths’ in Scotland, have been utilised for site-specific ‘trial’ productions, as well as permanent theatrical purposes, for some time now. Closer to home, in Melbourne, we have the La Mama Courthouse Theatre (1887) and Geelong Courthouse Youth Arts (1938). Old Courthouses’ hold historic architectural charm, ambience galore, and from a spectator’s perspective an enchanting quality. They generally remain in their original state, or at least make visual references to their former life, via their location, stature, layout and built materials. Ultimately, the subliminal strength of Courthouses as theatrical venues is that we intuitively sense that they were once sites of serious and dramatic human interaction, in real life and with real effect.

The Warracknabeal Court House (1890), for instance, which is in the process of being transformed into a community arts space, began life as a court of petty sessions. Inevitably their records reveal that the court heard a range of cases detailing intimate aspects of changing social mores. Essentially, our 19th Century Courthouses survive as reminders that our early colonial settlements were troublesome places, requiring law and order to keep community members under control, and mindful of their actions, just as our society needs to do in the current day.

In Ballarat, we have the SMB Courthouse Theatre (1868) and the nearby Creswick Theatre Company in the Courthouse (1859). In 1988, the (then) University of Ballarat converted the Old Courthouse at SMB into a live performing arts venue. Some of the funds were provided by the Ballarat National Theatre (est. 1938), on the proviso that BNT could utilise the premises at times when the Arts Academy did not need it. It’s relevant to note that the Arts Academy is itself located in the former Courthouse building on Camp Street, meaning each old Courthouse in Ballarat is now a repurposed performing or creative arts facility. In the mid 1990s, the Creswick community decided to adapt their old Courthouse and dedicate it to theatrical productions.

Courthouse Theatre SMB

Creswick Courthouse Theatre

Thirty and twenty years down the track, respectively, do these spaces work? The short answer is yes, of course they do, given they have been in continuous use for this length of time. They work well from a visitor perspective, but how does it feel to operate as a practitioner within these antiquated spaces, which were designed for an entirely different purpose?

Bryce Ives, former Director of the Arts Academy at Federation University Australia, points out: “It’s important to bear in mind the reason these old buildings become available for artistic use. They’ve passed their used-by date, no longer function as they should, their original owners have moved on to better equipped premises, no one else wants them, and a lot of money needs to be spent on them – Money that the arts industries rarely have. It’s difficult. Yet, we take them on, because we need the space.”

Practical challenges such as compliance with contemporary health and safety needs are frequent concerns with old buildings. Providing access for less mobile patrons is another big issue, as wide ramps can’t always be easily or safely installed throughout old buildings. All Courthouses have different types of structural lay-out, and adaptive reuse on a shoestring or non-existent budget generally means kitting out the space with the bare necessities, rather than modifying anything. Therefore, some Courthouses may work better as theatrical spaces than others.

Actor Michael Croome, who played the lead role in Ballarat National Theatre’s recent 80th Anniversary Drama ‘Mr Bailey’s Minder’, says “Once you’re on the stage, from a performer’s perspective, it’s magical to be in an old Courthouse, but it’s all the other aspects behind the scenes that can be problematic. At the SMB Courthouse Theatre there is very little wing space, and just one room that must be cleared of University hardware to become a temporary combined green room and change room, for males and females simultaneously. The sound operator was squeezed into a cramped little space, left of stage with the production manager, while the lighting person had no space at all, and had to actually manage their function from an adjacent room, with no visibility over the performance! Ingress was also a problem, making it hard to bump in and out. There’s no storage space there for BNT, so we hold our flats and furniture across four different locations, mostly nowhere near the theatre. We cannot even fix anything to the walls – We’re not allowed to make any alterations at all. If some of these problems could be overcome, it would be amazing. None-the-less, many performance groups would feel all their Christmas’ had come at once, to be able to get hold of such a special space.”

Whether rehearsals can take place in such an environment can also be an issue when the space is shared between different organisations, as access can be tricky. In the Creswick Courthouse, in contrast, they do have greater control over the space they inhabit, as well as a back-stage room that serves as a wardrobe and communal changing room, and a large kitchen that functions as a green room, as I discovered when care-taker and thespian, Tim Drylie, kindly showed me through. However, unlike the SMB Courthouse Theatre, they have no fixed, raked seating. This means the cluster of old chairs and couches create the feeling of a private lounge-room or salon, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, one factor all unrestored old buildings with high ceilings have in common is that they’re dreadfully cold in Winter, and sometimes drafty, if the walls happen to be cracked, or the doors don’t fit properly. Clearly there is no small amount of practical drama involved in repurposing Courthouses for performance work, despite the immense character of these sturdy old buildings.

In terms of positive potential, however, Courthouses offer great scope for creative invention with plot and script. Associate Professor Mary-Rose McLaren, an experienced theatre practitioner, believes an exploration of the stories held in such spaces can be very powerful. She says “When a Courthouse is repurposed from one type of performative space to another it can be used as a metaphor for the power of activism and social justice. The ways in which we interact with buildings, heritage, guilt and freedom can reflect the dreams and nightmares upon which our culture is built.”

By embracing the profound philosophical dimension of built spaces such as the Courthouse, the functional dramas endured can largely fade into the backdrop, as both the audience and the actors share a unique and nuanced theatrical experience together. While purpose-built spaces are the ideal, drama in the Courthouse can be a uniquely rich experience in many ways.

Ailsa Brackley du Bois is the Creative Director of The Editorial Suite, specialising in arts, culture and heritage. She is also an interdisciplinary PhD student with Deakin University’s School of Communications and Creative Arts. Ailsa has an M.A. in Journalism (UTS), a 1stClass Honours degree and B.A. in Political History and Sociology (Flinders) and a Cert. Tourism Management (Adl). She has worked as a multi-arts Festival Director, a Marketing Lecturer, an Art Gallery Manager and spent 15 years as a Senior Educational Publisher. In terms of creative output, Ailsa is an active writer, photographer and public speaker. She chose Ballarat as her home in January 2005.