SOON after Wonthaggi’s new Union Theatre opened in 1982, it hosted a performance by the Ballet Company, the regional touring arm of the Australian Ballet, made up of recent graduates.
Wendy Crellin, a Wonthaggi Borough councillor, was in the audience that day, along with her husband, John, and their three children. In fact they werethe audience.
Jordan Crugnale and Wendy Crellin in the auditorium of the Wonthaggi Community Arts Centre, AKA Union Theatre.
“The Ballet Company wouldn’t perform for fewer than six,” Wendy recalls, “so John went outside and roped in a couple of people and the show went on.”
She says the audience grew steadily on subsequent visits, and the town developed a warm relationship with the young dancers, hosting them for an afternoon tea before their annual performance.
But that was more than 30 years ago, and it’s decades since the ballet or any other prestigious touring arts company visited our part of the world.
As Bass Coast’s artistic stocks have fallen, those of our near neighbour, Baw Baw, have risen. With a shire population not much bigger than our own, the West Gippsland Arts Centre in Warragul will this year host more than 150 different shows, ranging from a Buddy Holly tribute show to ballet, from avant-garde theatre productions to Peppa Pig, from experimental local theatre to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Last month, the Ballet Company performed to two sold-out houses and held a master class for local dance students. Next week, Circus Oz will perform three shows there and hold circus workshops for local schools. Regional Arts Victoria will subsidise their visits, as they will do for many other shows that will visit Warragul this year, and carry on to Traralgon, Sale and Bairnsdale.
The Bass Coast Post recently asked Wendy Crellin, miner’s daughter, former councillor and grande dame of the arts in Wonthaggi, and current councillor Jordan Crugnale, who is also involved in the performing arts, why Bass Coast is missing out and whether anything can be done about it.
We met at the Wonthaggi Community Arts Centre, AKA the Union Theatre. While the shire has other venues – the Cowes Cultural Centre, the Wonthaggi Town Hall, even the Wonthaggi Workmen’s Club – the Union Theatre is the biggest and probably the only venue with the potential to revive the shire’s flagging cultural stocks.
In fact, it hasn’t aged too badly, the two arts enthusiasts agree. In patches, the carpet is wearing thin from decades of scuffing boots and enthusiastic stomping but the auditorium is still imposing, with comfortable seats and plenty of leg room for a seven-footer.
“Everything ages,” Wendy says, looking around, “but in its day this was quite something.” The theatre has been a big part of her life. She’s danced on the stage, many times, and sat in the audience many more. “It’s got such a history. It’s been a much-loved space.”
The first Union Theatre, built in 1924, hosted concerts, plays, recitals, union meetings, debates, even boxing matches, but by the 1970s it had fallen into disrepair and disuse. And then in 1980 the old Union Theatre burnt down. “A stroke of luck”, old-timers will tell you meaningfully.
Then mayor Jack Clancy went and lobbied the Arts Minister for a new theatre. “He sat in his office until he got the money,” Wendy says. And so Wonthaggi got its second theatre. Of course they called it the Union Theatre, and it’s been the centre of the town’s cultural life ever since it opened.
In the 1980s, then councillor Crellin used to attend regional arts meetings in Melbourne, along with long-time arts officer Jenny Churchill, to argue for funding and touring shows. “It always struck me that we were the poor relatives. Because we didn’t have a full-time performing arts manager to promote the arts centre, we couldn’t get those touring groups that went to other regional centres.”
She says the council of the time didn’t see the arts as a big part of Wonthaggi’s life and culture, but she thinks they had that wrong. “The miners sang, they had a band, they had debates, they recited. They were self-educated. Local theatre is really well supported here. The community supports their own.”
Wonthaggi Theatre Group’s musical director, Kirk Skinner, says the theatre has good bones. “It was very well designed. The auditorium is lovely and 418 seats is a good capacity. The acoustics are really good. If you’re playing a piano in the front part of the stage, you can hear it throughout the auditorium.
“It’s in need of some work – more wing space to accommodate larger shows, update the sound equipment and perhaps a fly tower – but I think it’s got amazing potential.”
Composer Larry Hill, director of the Bass Coast Chorale, is less enthusiastic about the acoustics (he says they could be improved by taking out a couple of rows of seats and extending the apron) but he’s also a fan of the auditorium.
Larry is also secretary of the Bass Coast Fine Film Group, which has 208 members from all over the shire and has helped to build a local appetite for cinema. “I think it’s a beautiful cinema,” he says. “That’s really important. But the theatre could be managed much more effectively and efficiently, and many more things could happen there.”
Bass Coast Mayor Neil Rankine says the council is doing a full review of the theatre, along with other performing spaces in the shire, and has identified a number of issues. The complicating factor – apart from money, of course – is that for many years, the council has been hoping that when the Wonthaggi Secondary College’s senior campus eventually moves to a larger site, the current school site will house a new arts and cultural precinct.
“In terms of the theatre’s long-term future, we don’t want to make a decision at this stage that that should be the major arts precinct for the town because when the school moves, we are hoping that will be the arts and cultural precinct.”
Meanwhile, as they look around the theatre, Wendy Crellin and Jordan Crugnale are excited about the possibilities. Wendy says that for years there’s been talk about covering the adjoining laneway and making it a café in in summer. (The manager of Warragul’s arts centre says opening a full-time café in the centre has made a huge difference by making it a gathering place for residents.)
Cr Crugnale says the hundreds who turned out to see TV star Justine Clarke at the opening of the Wonthaggi Library last December are proof of a local appetite for family-friendly music and theatre events, but there’s also an audience interested in more challenging theatre, music or dance of the kind subsidised by Regional Arts Victoria.
The arts centre potential goes well beyond the performing arts, she says. “Better programming could make it a creative hub for local artists, performance groups, clubs, writers, film makers and schools.
“We know that communities engaged in activities of a cultural nature – live performance, participatory programs, festivities and celebrations – are healthier, more engaged, have a stronger sense of pride of place and connection to their community.”
August 20, 2014
My father was working for the shire and he and his workmates spent the week before the Union Theatre burned down moving stuff out. Unfortunately all the Miners Union stuff was left. At daybreak, shire trucks and loaders went to work to make the still warm site safe. By the time investigators arrived from Melbourne, it was a warm vacant lot.
Frank Coldebella, Wonthaggi
August 20, 2014
What an interesting article. I hope the Union Theatre keeps on keeping on for a long time yet. It is doubtful if the attention given to personal space in the auditorium by its architects would be repeated today.
It has some great memories. John and Lyn Council and the whole of the Wonthaggi State School end of year musicals were a great experience for those kids in a real theatre.
Heather Tobias, Wonthaggi