Rebirth of the Alexander Theatre

The iconic Alexander Theatre is about to be transformed, after serving the University and community for almost a half-century. By Larissa Dubecki.

Alexander Theatre
Future vision: the Alexander Theatre as it will look after a multi-million-dollar renovation.

In form and function, the Alexander Theatre has been an iconoclastic part of Monash University life for the past 49 years. Its design has flummoxed even professional architects – the simple terms ‘modernism’, ‘high modernism’ or even ‘heroic modernism’ don’t  seem to quite capture the  striking, monolithic glory of the block-like edifice with its gently sloping walls tapering into the sky, created by architects Eggleston, MacDonald & Seacomb.

The lived history of the Alex, as it’s affectionately known, is as colourful as you’d expect of a building constructed in 1967. A crucible for the avant-garde theatre scene, it spawned the careers of dramaturges such as director Richard Murphet and playwright John Romeril. Acting luminaries  such as June Bronhill, Carillo  Gantner, Miranda Otto, Gina Reilly and Lorraine Bayly have trod its boards. In an event that became known as the Monash Seige, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser was forced to hide in the basement toilets to escape student protesters following the dismissal  of the Whitlam government.

Alexander Theatre

And now the second phase of the Alex’s life is about to begin. A multi-million-dollar restoration will take this dated yet futuristic building into the 21st century, where it will form the centre of a revitalised Monash Academy of Performing Arts precinct.

It’s no quick spit-and-polish job. The overhaul requires the Alex to be rebuilt to incorporate two new performance spaces and state-of-the-art facilities. Fully realised, the Ian Potter Centre for Performing Arts, as it’s to be known, will be a $45 million development  boasting the rebuilt Alexander Theatre,  a 130-seat Sound Gallery and a 200-seat Jazz Club. The project has been made possible thanks to a donation of $5 million from the Ian Potter Foundation and another $10 million from the Victorian Government.

Alexander Theatre
The revitalised Alexander Theatre will form part of a new performing arts precinct
that will include a sound gallery and a jazz club.

In many ways, the new design by Peter Elliott Architecture confirms the vision for the Alexander Theatre that was originally stymied by a lack of funds. Two grass-covered berms – artificial embankments – indicated on the original plans will flank the new Alex, serving as important storage  areas as well as aesthetically  pleasing landscaping that’s visually sympathetic to the plinths supporting the theatre.

“It’s an iconic building … with a pared-back approach the architects have interpreted in a modern way,” says architect Jocelyn Chiew, Monash University’s Manager of Campus Design, Quality and Planning. “(Originally) it was stripped back as far as it would go, which  prevented it being amenable. People  were forced to get changed in the hallways. In a way it’s a restoration of the original vision, and a much sleeker version of its original self.” Change rooms, storage areas and unloading areas, all overlooked in the original iteration, will  be added.

Alexander Theatre
The Alexander Theatre, built in 1967, has also hosted acting luminaries such as June Bronhill and Miranda Otto.

The window dressing will change, too. The cladding on the exterior of the building, which was once in asbestos tile and more recently plain concrete, will be replaced with high-tech glass-reinforced concrete tiles, which have a pale ceramic finish. Inside, the Alex will for the first time have a proper  foyer that encourages patrons to  mingle before and after performances, and a stage that can be raised and lowered, as well as an orchestra pit that can be covered when not needed. In addition, there will be enhanced accessibility for wheelchairs.

The new performing arts complex will also boast a fully programmable acoustic system. A digital approach to sound, it provides the optimal acoustics for each musical genre, with speakers and microphones built seamlessly into the space – a process known as ‘activated architecture’,  meaning the touch of an  iPad screen will transform acoustic energy, enabling optimum sound quality whether it’s a play, chamber concert or jazz ensemble. It’s this element that has Paul Grabowsky, Executive Director of the Monash Academy of Performing Arts, most excited. “It’s  going to be a very  exciting space for a number of reasons. The diverse nature of the spaces themselves, for one thing – plus, it’s such a radical proposition having this active architecture built into it, a fully programmable acoustic that allows you to change the nature of the  way the room sounds. We’ll be the first  in Australia to have it. “In the end, what we’ll have is a dynamic hub for the performing arts that provides great opportunities for students doing either music or theatre in performing arts courses, which are both growth areas for  the University.”

Alexander Theatre
Julia Blake (left) and Caroline Gillmer in a scene from Hotel Sorrento.

When the new MAPA cultural precinct opens at the end of 2018 it will be an Australian first, bringing high-impact technology to spaces visited by 250,000 patrons and performers each year. It will be an important cultural hub for Melbourne’s rapidly growing south-eastern corridor. In the meantime,  news of the project has  alumni reminiscing about the Alex in its former state.

It will be an important cultural hub for Melbourne’s rapidly growing south-eastern corridor.

David Bramble, a freelance set designer renowned for his work on children’s touring productions such as Sesame Street and Yo Gabba Gabba!, attributes the Alex to sparking his love of set design. Originally a performing arts undergraduate, he discovered his love of working behind the scenes under  the guidance of head mechanist  Peter Turley, a 30-year Alexander Theatre veteran. “I was doing music and drama, and just really enjoyed designing and building sets. I never thought this is what I’d be doing for a living,” he says. “One of the things I’ve taken  from the Alex workshop is always having classical  music playing. I’ve taken it into my current workshop. It makes you less frantic.” Catherine Andrews, the wife of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, worked as an usher and later buffet manager at the Alex when she was an arts undergraduate  living on campus at Mannix College. “In the  early weeks I decided I wanted to work in the theatre simply because I thought it would be fun. It was wonderful to be into theatre and performance and to get paid for it.”

Highlights included seeing Pamela Rabe perform Virginia Woolf in a one-woman A Room of One’s Own, and being star-struck by Reg Livermore. “I lived in that world for three years so blissfully,” she says. “Best job ever!”

More information: alexander-theatre.monash/project/