Imagine this. A summer night in Melbourne spent by the river among the trees, watching ancient Greek classics.
Let’s clarify the scenario a bit. You have a choice of comedy, tragedy, or both, and plays are performed in English and Modern Greek.
Why not talk practical too? Tickets are affordable – after all, you’re in an outdoor theater – and it doesn’t matter how far you’re seated from the stage.
You can see from above and the acoustics are excellent; even a whisper on stage can be heard all the way to your back seat. These ancient Greeks knew a thing or two when building amphitheaters.
If that seems like too much to ask even in multicultural Melbourne in 2022, you’re probably unfamiliar with the history of the Fairfield Amphitheatre.
Theater made its most recent return to this open-air hall in February this year, with the premiere of a play by the Greek Community Creative Drama and Art Center.
This was the first event to take place at the Fairfield Amphitheater since it was granted heritage protection, following community mobilization for the cause.
READ MORE: Fairfield Amphitheater benefits from heritage protection
But the bilingual theater scenario described above is real. It happened in the 80s in Melbourne under the name of “Epidavros Summer Festival”.
The idea was floated by the Stork Theatre’s artistic director, Helen Madden, then a Monash University graduate and mother of three.
“I came out of college excited about ancient Greek theater, and I thought, well, I’m going to put on ancient Greek theater,” says Helen Madden. Neos Cosmos.
“But there was no room for that in Melbourne. And this time there were occasional token performances of ancient tragedies in major companies.
Token meaning “only in English, in theater palaces, which were exclusive, expensive and intimidating.”
The opposite of what Madden had learned ancient Greek theater was supposed to be: popular, festive, non-exclusive. And she wanted to recreate that.
The concept was to make it inviting to the public, a bit like “going on a picnic” and affordable. A bilingual festival format was chosen with two consecutive plays per day.
When launched in 1983, the festival featured Euripides’ Medea in Modern Greek followed by Aristophanes’ popular comedy Lysistrata in English.
The following year, the bilingual program was reversed.
No subtitles for the Greek piece though.
“It was beyond our budget,” Madden recalled with a laugh.
“Everyone was asking, ‘Would the English-speaking audience be sitting in front of a Modern Greek play?
” They did it. Because it was a magical night. People knew there was something special that hadn’t happened in Melbourne before.
At the heart of the initiative was the vision of the Epidavros theater group, supported by members of the Greek community and a progressive Northcote council to establish a theatrical tradition different from the cultural status quo of the time.
“Our goal was to re-establish ancient Greek theater as popular theater.”
“We were in Northcote, where a third of the population was still made up of Greek migrants. And many of them were women, who didn’t speak English yet. So we knew that if we wanted to succeed, we had to put on a play in Modern Greek. And that was their culture anyway.
The vision was endorsed by Melina Mercouri, then Greek Minister of Culture.
While visiting Melbourne in 1983, Madden met Mercouri.
Inevitably, the conversation first turned to Medea’s performance that year at the Fairfield Amphitheatre, a role the Greek actress herself had played at the Ancient Greek Theater of Epidaurus a few years earlier.
“She said, ‘Tell me about Medea. What was the interpretation of this idea? How did you do? What was the feeling in the audience? “recalls Madden.
“And she explained how one of her main policies as Minister of Culture was to bring the great works of Greek art to rural and regional areas of mainland Greece and the islands. Allowing all Greeks to participate in their culture and that she saw what we were doing in Melbourne and Northcote was a model of how that could work in the Greek diaspora.
Madden says they shared a common understanding with Mercouri that ancient Greek theater was “the most democratic form of theater when done in this traditional way”.
“Because it makes it accessible to people who otherwise wouldn’t go to the theater.”
In 1985, the success of the Festival led the council to seek funds to build a permanent amphitheater on the site, replacing the retractable scaffolding.
Support from the state and federal government was strong, as well as support from the Greek government.
The result? a 500-seat theater modeled on the original one in Epidaurus, Greece.
Including a dedicated box office and changing rooms, the Fairfield Amphitheater would remain Victoria’s only professional outdoor theater venue and ancient Greek amphitheater.
Madden got its first five-year season, followed by commercial sponsorship programs that established the venue as a vibrant community center through the mid-1990s.
But following the transfer of supervision to the new town of Yarra, the amphitheater gradually fell into disuse.
This was partly due to the knowledge of the importance of the space lost after the Northcote council merged into Yarra, according to Madden.
ALSO: Homer’s ‘Iliad’, a triumph at the Fairfield Amphitheater
The problem, she says, comes down to the venue’s treatment as “a theater for hire” that prevents the full season availability necessary for entertainment companies to run their programs.
“A person can call and book for, say, a Saturday night next year.
“But if a professional company comes in, music, theatre, opera, whatever and sees that Saturday night booked in the middle of a season, they leave. This militates against the success of a professional performing arts venue. So someone needs to program.
When asked if she would raise her hand again for this, Madden smiled.
“He needs someone young with a new vision. And there are so many artists in Melbourne who can do this work.
She is nonetheless determined to continue advocating for the theater to regain its former glory.
“There is a major push now. The Greek community, the performing arts and theater communities and the wider Melbourne community are coming together and we are considering sending a delegation to Yarra council and asking them what their vision for the space is.
In Madden’s more than 100-page submission to the Victorian Heritage Council last year supporting the granting of protected status to the Fairfield Amphitheatre, much of the supporting material was reviews of plays in the Australian press. General public.
Some performances, such as a version of Euripides’ Bacchae by famed Greek director Theodoros Terzopoulos, left a visible mark even years later.
It was brought from Athens for the Greek Festival of the Antipodes in 1987 and premiered at the Fairfield Amphitheatre, before being presented at the Athenaeum.
“These extraordinary performances remain etched in my memory.[…] Terzopoulos was the first artist to show me how powerful theater can be,” wrote critic Alison Croggon in a 2010 piece for the Australian.
The cover, says Madden, was “enthusiastic” for ancient Greek classics in an amphitheatre, which had been described by one reviewer as Melbourne’s “best kept secret” (Melburnian, 1986).
“It always is, but why should it be so?
“When he’s kept such a fabulous goal. It could attract people from across the state to shows that are inexpensive, open, friendly, informal, and inviting. This is how theater should be.