A campaign is underway to secure heritage protection for Melbourne’s iconic ancient Greek-inspired amphitheater on the banks of the Yarra in Fairfield. It follows recent threats to the teaching of the Greek language at the University of La Trobe.
Readers will experience the Fairfield Amphitheater through the involvement of the local Greek community in its creation many years ago, as well as an impressive location for many performances of classical Greek theater and writing during many years.
The campaign was sparked by steps taken by Yarra City Council to redevelop the changing rooms in the amphitheater (also known as the pavilion) for use by the neighboring rowing club. The changing rooms, the ticket office and the amphitheater form an integrated whole, the amphitheater complex. With 350 seats, the arena complex is, in the words of the Yarra City Council itself, “an impressive venue for outdoor performances.”
In response, Stork Theater and Friends of the Amphitheater launched a campaign to seek Victorian heritage protection for the amphitheater complex. The Victorian Heritage Council – the Victorian authority responsible for granting heritage protection – will hold its hearing on the matter on October 12, with a decision due within the following month.
Stork Theater has submitted a submission as part of this process and launched a petition, which has so far garnered over 1,700 signatures. Details of the petition are listed below and copies of the submission can be obtained from MS Helen Madden, Stork Theater Artistic Director and Campaign Coordinator, contact details below.
The Stork Theater has a special connection with the Amphitheater. The origins of the Amphitheater stem from Mrs. Helen Madden’s idea to bring open-air theater to Melbourne with a bilingual summer theater festival. As a result, she was able to develop the concept of the Epidavros Summer Festival in 1982, in collaboration with the Northcote City Council and members of the local Greek community. The bank of the Yarra River in Fairfield was an obvious location for such a theater.
The theater started out as a temporary theater, complete with pop-up scaffolding, for the bilingual festival held there during the summers of 1983 and 1984. Each evening a comedy and a tragedy, one performed in English and the other in modern Greek. In 1983, Euripides ‘Medea was staged in Modern Greek, directed by Nick Skiadopoulos, with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata in English, directed by Garry Down. In 1984, Aristophanes’ comedy Ecclesiasouzi was performed in modern Greek, directed by Thannassis Papastergiou. The performances reflected the ancient Greek practice of staging open-air theater as popular entertainment.
With funding from the Australian government, the amphitheater complex we enjoy today was built in 1985, designed by Edmond & Corrigan Architects, with its blue stones salvaged from the gutters and lanes of Northcote. Former Deputy Prime Minister and local MP, the Hon. Brian Howe, a champion of the theater, became the first chairman of the board of directors of the Fairfield Amphitheater. Since then, the amphitheater has seen many performances – from the Playbox Theater performance of Antigone by Sophocles in 1986 and Les Bacchantes by Euripides by Attis Theater in 1987, to the sold-out performance of Stork reading the Homer’s Iliad in March 2021, in the presence of our own Greek Consul General in Melbourne, Mr. Emmanuel Kakavelakis.
Unfortunately, before the decision of the Heritage Council, the departmental body responsible for heritage – Heritage Victoria – overwhelmingly recommended not to protect. Ms Madden stressed that this decision made no sense, given that it was based on erroneous comparisons with concert halls and the failure to take into account the importance of the site.
“The only real comparison to the Fairfield Amphitheater is the WA Quarry Amphitheater, which received Heritage Protection in 2019. Doesn’t our precious Amphitheater also deserve state-level protection ? Incredibly, Fairfield Amphitheater is the only ancient Greek-style theater in Victoria, with a remarkable cultural and bilingual history. Despite these factors, Heritage Victoria mistakenly describes our amphitheater as having only local significance, as “simply” a multicultural place and “rough” construction. This is not true and ignores the importance of our amphitheater to Victoria and its close connection to the community, ”Ms. Madden said.
In launching the campaign to preserve the amphitheater, Madden added that not only should it be preserved as part of our cultural and architectural heritage, but it could also be an opportunity to realize the original vision of offering it to companies. Victoria Theater to become their home.
“At a time when our local arts community is facing enormous stress from the current COVID pandemic, it would be wonderful if the Fairfield Amphitheater Complex received state-level protection and became a home for companies. local theaters, as was originally planned, ”she said.
Ms Madden sends an urgent appeal to support the Melbourne Greek Community’s campaign to save the Fairfield Amphitheater as one of the theatrical cultural gems of Melbourne and Australia.
“Fairfield Amphitheater is Victoria’s only professional outdoor theater and our only ancient Greek style theater. It’s amazing. Like the famous Epidaurus amphitheater in Greece, it shares this unique acoustic phenomenon whereby a person whispering from the epicenter of the stage can be heard down to the back row, ”Ms. Madden said.
She urged the Hellenic and Philhellene community in Melbourne to join the campaign. Ms Madden said she hoped the location of the amphitheater in Melbourne, with its large and vibrant Hellenic community and role in the creation of the amphitheater, would be another important reason that authorities take into account to support the protection of its heritage.
This is clearly a campaign worthy of the support of the Greek community in Melbourne. This will not only help protect an important part of Melbourne’s architectural and theatrical heritage in the future, but it will also protect this important physical reminder of how the Melbourne Greek community came together with the local Philhellenes to create this magnificent theater in the first place. The amphitheater is an excellent complement to the success of Melbourne’s Antipodes Festival and other cultural programs of the Greek community.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the 1941 Greek Campaign, when Australians and Greeks came together to defend Greece in times of war. Australians and Hellenes are now invited to come together again to support another worthy cause of preserving this important local icon celebrating our common cultural heritage.
* This important campaign should also be of interest to all those who joined the campaign to save the teaching of Greek at the University of La Trobe. Ms. Madden can be contacted by email – [email protected] – or on her mobile 0417 589 987.
Readers interested in supporting this important campaign can do so by:
- Signature of the community petition – https://www.change.org/ProtectFairfieldAmphithéâtre
- Contact the Victorian Minister of Creative Industries, the Honorable Danny Pearson MP – email [email protected]
- Contact the Victorian Minister of Planning, the Honorable Richard Wynne MP – email [email protected]
- Contact their local deputy (state and federal); and
- If they reside in Yarra Town, contact their local Yarra City Councilor. Contact details for Yarra advisers are available at the following link: https://www.yarracity.vic.gov.au/about-us/council-people/councillors.
* Jim Claven is a trained historian and freelance writer. A former classical studies student at Monash University in Melbourne, he has previously reviewed the readings of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad by the Stork Theater. He can be contacted at [email protected]