Friday, November 5, 2010

MKA Richmond closure (sort of)

When I first heard about the opening of new theatre/playwriting hub MKA Richmond I thought it sounded like the kind of ambitious venture on the young, drunk or mildly deranged would attempt to pull off, but I checked out the opening the other week and was impressed to see an ambition being realised in a pretty professional way. Lots of industry support, nice venue, plenty of credibility, not a lot of naivety. One of those so-crazy-it-just-might-work things. The first gambit was a month of new play readings, a different one each night, and the season sounds like it kicked off well with sellout performances.

I've just received word that after only two days, the council has told MKA to shut down. A couple of local residents complained about increased foot traffic in the street (it's a 44-seater, so that's odd). The MKA folks have already found an alternate space to carry out the rest of the month's shows - in the QV complex - and the Richmond space will continue to operate as a kind of lab for development.

The full release is reproduced below:


Melbourne’s only new writing theatre as of Thursday November 4 is at the behest of City of Yarra bureaucratic red tape. Despite the intrinsic role of local government to support the values and beliefs held by the community through a rich cultural program, City of Yarra has opted to close the door on a promising creative venture that is set to benefit not only its constituents, but artists nationwide.

MKA Richmond, an intimate 44-seat theatre, from the outset offered itself as a gift to the artists of Australia. Artistic Director Tobias Manderson-Galvin said in his inaugural message “MKA Richmond will support the growth and development of Australian playwrights and dramaturgical practice as never before. Our company is committed to developing and producing extraordinary Australian theatre from new and established playwrights, and we will be persistent in our mission to have these voices heard here and abroad”. MKA was established primarily to foster a burgeoning community of playwrights in Melbourne, a contribution to the local theatre scene that not only has been lacking to date, but that many have been crying out for.

It is therefore most surprising that complaints from two nearby residents about additional pedestrian traffic in the area would lead to the closure of such a valuable artistic enterprise. MKA’s neighbours on Tanner Street include a hairdressing salon, a commercial gallery, the Cricketers Arms pub, a design studio, a brothel, and local residents. In this mixed-zoning area, it is inconceivable that a small writers theatre should be under attack.

Preliminary discussions with City of Yarra Statutory Planning Office together with the Arts and Cultural Services Office were extremely positive, insisting that MKA Richmond would be waived usual requisites such as the want for additional car spaces, due to its convenient proximity to the major public transport thoroughfares of Richmond Railway Station and Swan Street trams.

Co-founders Tobias Manderson-Galvin and Glyn Roberts were assured by the Council that they were a 'rubber-stamp away' from a gaining a permit to operate the space as a permanent professional theatre. Body Corporate of 24 Tanner Street similarly expressed its support for MKA Richmond and, additionally, their delight in the presence of a new cultural hub within the building. These meetings instilled in MKA the substantial confidence to warrant forging ahead with a short month long season of rehearsed readings in its pre-built theatre space and licensed bar.

Like Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre in the 1980s (now Belvoir St Theatre), the inability to secure the venue’s longevity initially disrupted artistic practice. However, through a wave of support from the likes of Patrick White, David Williamson, Peter Carey and Max Gillies, the future of the prestigious company, which continues to operate out of the same building today, was secured.

Yet unlike Nimrod, MKA Richmond’s pressures come not from the threat of demolition, but from the City of Yarra’s lack of support for a plentiful arts precinct in Richmond. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights serves as a pertinent reference under these circumstances, for Article 27 stipulates, “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”. The trampling of a promising professional theatre operation in a densely urban locale is in clear breach of the basic human right to experience culture within the community.

On the same day that MKA Richmond’s Tanner Street home was silenced, the company was overwhelmed by tenders for the housing of MKA OPEN SEASON in alternate venues.

MKA will be temporarily transferring to a new location in Jane Bell Lane QV: MKA Melbourne. OPEN SEASON will perform the remainder of the rehearsed readings in this new venue, while MKA Richmond will continue to operate as the home of Melbourne’s new writing theatre.

If you feel inclined to rally against the City of Yarra’s decision, we welcome written gestures of support in any shape or form to All messages would be sincerely appreciated.


Cameron Woodhead said...

Thanks for alerting us to this John. I've just posted about it over at my blog. It's a disgraceful decision, though not as bad as other things suspected of happening at Richmond Town Hall this week ...

Anne-Marie said...

me too

Anonymous said...

In response to your article, there are some facts that need to be highlighted and I appreciate the right to reply.

MKA Richmond, a 44-seat live theatre is comparable in capacity to La Mama Theatre - a two-storey freestanding building in a commercial locality – however built very simply in the living room of somebody’s apartment!

The AKM building is a beautiful building converted into 35 residential apartments. The planning of this building was done with a residential occupancy in mind; with limited parking and waste management facilities. The internal walls were built to contain normal residential noise. Any potential business would need to suit its residential locality.

The facts are simply this:

- Nobody is opposing a new theatre group in Richmond – after all the arts provide a social benefit. What is being opposed is the appropriateness of this venue. Why not start a theatre group on the right foundations, with a venue that can accommodate the needs and potential of Melbourne’s talented theatrical society whilst respecting the surrounding resident’s right to quiet enjoyment?

- The stage was built without consultation with the City of Yarra, AKM Body Corporate or surrounding residents. In contrast, the entire process undertaken by MKA management was done so deceptively and deliberately to avoid detection by the Body Corporate and operated in complete disregard to the City of Yarra planning scheme and the requisite approval process.

- The east wall of Unit 2/24 Tanner Street is shared with a residential apartment occupied by a family with two young children. The immediate neighbours include families, professionals and elderly residents. Those who attended the launch and performances to watch the band, DJ and theatrical performances would have been oblivious to there being a family with two young children on the other side of the thin internal wall trying to maintain some normality while the noise filtered through clearly. In fact the noise was clearly audible in the top floors of the AKM building.

- Surrounding residents have already endured three years of littering, loitering, inappropriate behaviour, excessive noise levels and inconsiderate use of communal areas from the existing occupant of Unit 2/24 Tanner Street. The owners freely acknowledge this…now they want to turn the apartment into a theatre operating five times a week?

For those residents of Tanner Street who have not been afforded a million dollar apartment by their parents, who work hard to have a nice home, are they not entitled to some peace and quiet?

richardwatts said...

Interesting comments, Anonymous, and thanks for sharing them with us.

In light of this comment in the media release...

"Co-founders Tobias Manderson-Galvin and Glyn Roberts were assured by the Council they were a 'rubber-stamp away' from a gaining a permit to operate the space as a permanent professional theatre."

...I did wonder if Toby & Glyn had jumped the gun somewhat; and also whether the arrival of two police cars at MKA on the launch night might have influenced Council's decision.

Kerith said...

re. Anon and your final sentence, in future please direct all queries regarding your problems with the purchase of a property by four adults to the family you have mentioned. I sincerely hope we can come to some resolution without any more personal attacks. Let us stick to the issues and facts at hand! Much more interesting :)

Anonymous said...

I used to jam with friends in the attic of the AKM building in the mid 1980s, we would play all night, nobody complained, although i remember being a bit disappointed with our 3 hour rendition of "My Sharona"

Unknown said...

Dear Annonymous/ Tanner Street,

First of all I want to say I'm relatively unbiased in this as I don't really know anyone personally involved in this dispute.

What I noticed from your posts here and is that your issue doesn't seem to be with the use of the venue as a theatre space but with the tenant themselves.

I quote:

- Surrounding residents have already endured three years of littering, loitering, inappropriate behaviour, excessive noise levels and inconsiderate use of communal areas from the existing occupant of Unit 2/24 Tanner Street. The owners freely acknowledge this…now they want to turn the apartment into a theatre operating five times a week?

Loitering and inappropriate behavior? You really take issue with the tenant existing in and around their place of residence? We're talking about a community of some of the most talented playwrites and performers in this country, not a bunch of junkies, criminals and baby-snatchers. As as been previously stated there are in the vicinity large sports grounds, pubs, clubs and brothels. Are you honestly suggesting you feel more threatened by this previous group than by the latter? I don't believe you are or in good conscience could pretend to be.

As for the claim of ongoing excessive noise and inappropriate behavior, what this suggests to me is that the use of this space as a theatre venue would be roughly equivalent to it's use as a residential property. You seem to have some kind of personal vendetta against the owner stemming from your inability to deal with even normal residential use. You seem to want the tenant evicted from the premises but lacking the reason or justification for doing so are content to disrupt and antagonise him and his life. What I'm trying to say is this: you clearly take issue with the residential use rather than the professional use so please state it as such. To do any less and entirely dishonest and calculated.

I call upon you to retract your complaints. People have parties and people play music. People are allowed to exist in and around their place of residence free from antagonism and persecution. That he has acknowledged this and apologised for this (I'm reading here between the lines of your comment) indicates that there is goodwill and an ability to talk through some of these issues without this needless escalation. To ask for venue to be sound-proofed would as Cameron has said be completely reasonable given that it was done in a polite manner.

As I have already said I don't know anyone personally involved in this dispute but I know a little of the community of extremely talented and professional adults and independent theatre makers seeking to do something outside of the constrains of large and established funding bodies and and theatre organisations. This is the kind of thing that grows, and that one day becomes extremely important to the development of a great city such as ours. What is more it reflects very well on your suburb and building. So again I call for goodwill, understanding and maturity from you and any others who have made complaints. A proper resolution cannot be found without it.

Also please have some regard for the fact that government departments are inevitably somewhat schizophrenic (which is to say fractured in identity) - as one person in an organisation may give verbal approval while others within it would be loath to do so. The deceit and subterfuge you allude to is most likely the result of a misunderstanding rather than any kind of concerted effort against you.

Please Annonymous/ Tanner Street, exercise some maturity in this matter.

Christian L. said...

Having run a tiny theatre without any council or other approvals myself, I feel for MKA Richmond. There's always so much to do without having to deal with these kinds of issues. Having said that, the comments from Anonymous / Tanner St are also hard to dismiss.

Putting this situation to one side, isn't the bigger issue here one about property values and the re-zoning of previous mixed or industrial use land? There is a significant long term danger in Melbourne that without enough easily and cheaply accessible spaces (not necessarily pre-designated arts spaces) in combination with rising living costs that mean artists need to work longer in their paid jobs, that the critical mass of creative activity in this city might start to dwindle.

Artists above all need time and space. And particularly different, new, other, odd, flexible, resonant, cheap, accessible space. This is what Melbourne has always had in contrast to say Sydney, or London nowadays. Is this a problem that needs addressing?, or will our critical mass of artists just adjust their practices?

Anonymous said...

Isn't it always the way? It's the hip, young things making art and theatre on budgets of nothing that create interest in the area. The yuppies move in because the hip, young things have made it a fun place to live, and no sooner have said yuppies received delivery of their modular Italian furniture than they demand the hip, young things be gone.

"... Residents of Tanner Street who have not been afforded a million dollar apartment by their parents, who work hard to have a nice home..." speaks more to this phenomena and a certain degree of lifestyle envy than to any genuine "noise" problem raised by a theatre smaller than the average innercity house party, a mere 500 metres away from the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Anonymous said...

"- The stage was built without consultation with the City of Yarra, AKM Body Corporate or surrounding residents."

This seems at odds with claims made by the MKA team. Clearly someone is misleading the public. And, given the council's actions, it would seem to be MKA. That's not cool.

Attacking the MKA team ad hominem because of how they live in their apartment is definitely not cool either.

There is understandably a lot of heat under collars on both sides of the fence. Nevertheless, this whole episode particularly highlights two issues:

(1) the incomprehensibly huge amounts of wrangling and expense involved in creating a legitimate theatre space (balancing needs from OH&S to accessibility, from councils to neighbours, from artists to audiences)

(2) a lack of professional rigour when it comes to the banal realities of the theatre world (no matter how circuitous and unjust the system)... there is no excuse for opening a space before it is approved by council. would a bar open before it had a licence? it gives independent artists a bad name without cause.

Please, if the system of council approvals/planning is killing the arts, put energy into fixing it. Lobby and harangue. Protest and demand. Deliberately undermining or merely negligently ignoring the system and then crying foul just wastes everyone's time.