Work is over: End in sight for Melbourne Workers’ Theatre

After 25 years, Melbourne Workers’ Theatre will close its doors, leaving behind a legacy which will remain in Australian Theatre history for many years to come. 

Melbourne Workers' Theatre
The 2010 production of Yet to Ascertain The Nature of the Crime by Melbourne Workers’ Theatre. Andreas Litras, Greg Ulfan and Georgina Naidu. Image by Ponch Hawkes

At a special general meeting this month, the board of Melbourne Workers’ Theatre decided to end all of the political theatre company’s operations, despite being a well respected and significant company within Australia’s cultural landscape for 25 years.

Formed in 1987 by Patricia Cornelius, Steve Payne and Michael White, Melbourne Workers’ Theatre was born in a climate of aggression towards trade unions. Addressing this global aggression affected became part of the mission of the Melbourne Workers’ Theatre, as they posed the question: ‘What does it mean to be a trade unionist at this particular time under these particular attacks?’ Over the last 25 years, the company has explored the “fissures and cracks of Australian society in order to appeal to the sociological imagination of the audience through compelling, intelligent and beautifully realised performance events.”

“This hasn’t been an easy decision,” said Chair, Lena Cirillo.

“But since the loss of Australia Council funding in 2008 the Company has been in a vulnerable and perilous position. The subsequent loss of both Arts Victoria and City of Melbourne funding since then has ultimately made our position untenable”.

With modest beginnings – their original home of Melbourne Workers’ Theatre was a transportable shed at the Jolimont railway workshop in the heart of Melbourne. – the company was embedded within the union movement, creating theatrical performance pieces about workers’ issues and presenting them in work-places.

From the railway yard, they moved to theatre spaces, and having been recognised with many awards including Green Room Awards, the Queensland Premier’s Award and in 2005 the company won the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award for its contribution to Australian Theatre.

In response to the loss of Australia Council funding, Melbourne Workers’ Theatre underwent a major change in focus and direction. A new constitution, a new Board and a new Creative Producer saw the company create new and exciting partnerships which focused on telling both culturally and linguistically diverse documentary-style theatre.

Yet to Ascertain The Nature of the Crime, 2010. Image by Ponch Hawkes

The first work of these refocussed works was called Yet to Ascertain the Nature of the Crime, and performed in 2010 it won the company an Australian Writers Guild AWGIE Award.

More recently, the Company has been working on a radically different model for engaging a diverse creative team in The 24 Hour Experience; a highly unusual performance project bringing professional and non-professional artists together to create 24 new works to be performed on the hour every hour for a twenty-four period.

“Arts Centre Melbourne, various funding bodies and other industry partners have responded very positively to The 24 Hour Experience, providing their ongoing support,” said Creative Producer, GoÅNrkem Acaroğlu, “enabling it to continue as a stand-alone project into 2013.”

Unfortunately, even with the success of the 24 Hour Experience, the company cannot sustain itself without any real certainty of ongoing core funding.

“Clearly, the governing body of any organisation cannot responsibly continue to operate in such an environment,” said Lena Cirillo. “In the light of this, the Committee of Management was left with no alternative but to bring the Company to an end.”

In doing so, Lena Cirillo paid tribute to the many creative souls who have been associated with the Company over its 25 year history.

“We acknowledge those who have worked so hard and so passionately as part of Melbourne Workers’ Theatre since it began in 1987. It is our hope that, together, we will not only keep the memory of this great Company alive, but that we will continue the spirit of its mission in the many creative paths we tread. Certainly, the Company will be missed, but the legacy of its exceptional achievements will not be easily forgotten.”

Despite ceasing all operations at the end of July, the Melbourne Workers’ Theatre has still committed to providing the best opportunity for The 24 Hour Experience to continue as a stand-alone project.

From 2013, The 24 Hour Experience will be managed by Auspicious Arts as an independent program, supported by Arts Centre Melbourne, and supervised by Melbourne Workers’ Theatre’s outgoing Creative Director, GoÅNrkem Acaroğlu.

Anyone who’d like to say farewell to Melbourne Workers’ Theatre can join the Company at Bella Union Bar, Trades Hall, Corner of Lygon and Victoria Streets on Thursday, August 2 from 5.30pm.

If you wish to share your stories about this cultural institution, post them in the discussion box below. 

Erin James

Erin James is's former Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

Erin James

One thought on “Work is over: End in sight for Melbourne Workers’ Theatre

  • I was a board member of this fantastic company in the 90’s and what great work came out of it. I was in Canto Coro which did some amazing collaborative work with this co as well. I think it offered something for everyone and had great things to say…..I am in Scotland now and boy oh boy do we need some action like this to discuss what is going on with workers. It is horrendous. The workplace and systems to protect workers
    is a mindfield now…..but it goes to show that without real voice and action, there is such a stifling of outrage going on across the board. We gotta find some other ways to get the agenda out there…it is a sad loss, but the memories will live on for us all!


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