Derham Groves

The Doll Theatre Project

The Doll Theatre Project

Derham Groves

The first cohort of students to do the new Bachelor of Environments degree at the University of Melbourne completed the course in semester two of last year, 2010. “Architectural Design Studio 4: Fire,” which I coordinated, was the Architecture Major students’ final design subject. The task of the 183 students who did it was to design a theatre exclusively for performances of Ray Lawler’s three classic Australian plays: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955), Kid Stakes (1975) and Other Times (1976), known as the “doll trilogy.”

The idea of designing a theatre specifically for Ray Lawler’s doll trilogy came to me after reading an article about Agatha Christie’s amazingly enduring play, The Mousetrap, which has been running continuously in the West End of London since 1952 (until 1974 at the New Ambassadors Theatre, and since then at St. Martins Theatre). In addition, there are a number of composer-specific/playwright-specific theatres around the world, including the Bayreuth Festival Theatre in Bayreuth, Germany, where only the operas of Richard Wagner are performed, the Globe Theatre in London, where only the plays of William Shakespeare are presented, and the Wrestling School in London, where only the works of Howard Barker are staged.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is the best known and arguably the most important play of Ray Lawler’s doll trilogy. While it was written first, it actually takes place after Kid Stakes and Other Times. The story running through the three plays unfolds over a period of seventeen years—from 1945 to 1953—in a boarding house in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton.

The structure of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is relatively simple, but its plot is complex, revolving around the lives of the Queensland cane-cutters, “Roo” and Barney, and their girlfriends, the Melbourne barmaids, Olive, Nancy and (later) Pearl.  Each year the men spend five months—the cane-cutting off-season—living with the women in Carlton.  But this arrangement is upset when Nancy marries and the sceptical Pearl replaces her.  Summer of the Seventeenth Doll addresses some complex and universal themes, including resistance to change, the search for happiness, the loss of idealism, and the concept of Australian male-centric mateship.

When Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was written, Australian society was in a state of flux.  The country led by Prime Minister Robert Menzies (1894-1978) was experiencing a post-war economic boom, and an aggressive (pro-white European) immigration program was in place to quickly boost the workforce.  As a result, the traditional Anglo-centric make-up of the population began to change, along with the accepted view of what it meant to be an Australian (migrants, especially Greeks and Italians, were called “New Australians”).  At the same time, Australian artists like Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) and Arthur Boyd (1920-1999) and writers such as Patrick White (1912-1990) and Frank Hardy (1917-1994) started to be noticed; people anticipated that the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games would put Australia on the map; and the imminent introduction of television threatened to change almost every aspect of Australian family life.  It was in this context that Ray Lawler wrote Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1955.

The opening night of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll marked a turning point in Australian theatre history.  For decades, foreign plays and actors had dominated Australian theatres, but all of a sudden an Australian audience was presented with an Australian story, told in vernacular language and familiar accents, using local urban—as opposed to bush—references.  Unlike so many Australian plays that preceded it, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was not a shallow appeal to patriotism or stereotypes, but instead it dealt with universal concerns in an Australian context, which presented Australians on stage in a realistic manner for almost the first time.

All of the students doing Architectural Design Studio 4 were required to read Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Since a large number of them had never seen a live theatre performance before, we arranged for the students to attend the Union House Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd (1973) at Melbourne University’s Union Theatre—the theatre where Summer of the Seventeenth Doll premiered in 1955—which happened to be on at the time.

Each student designing the doll theatre also had to analyse the design of one of 30 selected overseas theatres, which included, for example, the Gutherie Theatre (2006) in the USA, designed by Jean Nouvel and Architectural Alliance; the Casa de Musica (2004) in Portugal, designed by OMA; and the National Theatre (1960-1981) in Brazil, designed by Oscar Niemeyer; and give a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation about it in class. The students also attended a series of lectures related to the design of the doll theatre, which included a lecture by Keith Streames, the architect who designed the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, on the basics of theatre design; a backstage tour of the Union Theatre at the University of Melbourne; a lecture by Peter Bickle from the architectural firm, ARM, which designed the Melbourne Theatre Company’s new MTC Theatre in Melbourne; and a screening of Season of Passion, the 1959 Hollywood movie based on Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, which starred Ernest Borgnine as “Roo,” Anne Baxter (Frank Lloyd Wright’s granddaughter!) as Olive, John Mills as Barney, and Angela Lansbury as Pearl. (This is not Ray Lawler’s favourite film, to say the least. To this day, he has never seen it!)

Carlton is an integral part of the doll trilogy. (Indeed, one reason for Ray Lawler’s dislike of Season of Passion is because the film producers set it in Sydney rather than Carlton.) Therefore, the site chosen for the doll theatre was on the corner of Faraday and Rathdowne streets in Carlton. The idea was to clear the site of its existing buildings (the houses at numbers 111 and 113 Faraday Street and the Silver Top Taxi depot next door at 52-54 Rathdowne Street) and start from scratch.

Keith Streames, Ray Lawler and myself developed the design brief for the doll theatre. Ideally, the form and space of the building needed to allow for a wide range of staging formats.  For example, one production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll might require the focus of the action to be on the stage, while another production of the play by a different director might call for the actors to spill out into the auditorium, the foyer or even outside. The doll theatre had three distinct zones that the Architecture Major students had to consider in their designs.

The first zone was the theatre space, which comprised a 250-seat auditorium that had a raking floor to provide the audience with good views of the stage; a 9-metre wide by 9-metre deep stage; two side wings to the stage, each 4 metres wide, with a “prompt corner” at the left hand edge of the stage; a 10-metre “tall space” over the stage; an overhead lighting bar, 6 metres above the stage; and a 3-metre wide by 3-metre deep control room equipped for two technicians, located towards the rear of the auditorium.

The second zone was the back-of-house, which comprised four dressing rooms—two 15 square metres in area and two 20 square metres in area—adjacent to the stage and at the same floor level as it; a rehearsal or “warm-up” room, 50 square meters in area; sufficient toilets and showers for the performers and the back-of-house staff; a technicians’ office/storeroom/workshop, 50 square metres in area; a loading dock, which was adjacent to the stage and had direct access to outside of the theatre; a carpentry storeroom/workshop, 50 square metres, that was adjacent to the loading dock; a wardrobe room, 20 square metres in area, where costumes were cleaned, repaired and stored; an office, 16 square metres in area, for the theatre director; and an open-plan office, 20 square metres in area, for a touring theatre company.

Finally, the third zone was the front of house, which comprised a foyer, 180 square metres in area; a café and bar, as large as possible, which ideally could be opened when the theatre was closed; a box or ticket office; and an open-plan office for five administrative staff, 60 square metres in area; and sufficient public toilets for the theatre and café.

The doll theatre definitely challenged the students’ abilities, as it was meant to do; however they did an excellent job and produced some interesting and provocative buildings. At the end of the 12-week project, I sent a few of the doll theatre designs to Ray Lawler to look at (even though he lives in Elwood, throughout the project we communicated with each other via “old fashioned” letters). He was both impressed and surprised by them. “Dear Dr. Groves,” Lawler wrote. “Thank you for allowing me to see the wide and interesting range of ideas that have come forward in response to the doll theatre concept.  I am impressed.  I had wondered if a space devoted solely to productions of the Trilogy might have curbed the imagination, but the students haven’t let it stymie them, and have used it as a springboard for all sorts of variations.  And their ability to present these with such clarity by means of modern technology amazes me—I am of a generation that relied for theatrical visualisation in terms of sketches and a model of the set.  I marvel, too, when you write that this is only the third building these students have designed—would you congratulate them for me? … Warmest regards Ray Lawler.”

Sparks showcases a large number of the students’ doll theatre designs—in glorious black and white—which might otherwise have been “lost.” It is an excellent record of the work that the Architecture Major students did in Architectural Design Studio 4: Fire in 2010, as well as being a very useful resource for those students who have yet to tackle the subject. My sincere thanks go to the playwright, Ray Lawler; Peter Bickle from ARM; Tom Gutteridge, the Artistic Director of the Union House Theatre; Katie Frank from the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning; of course, the Architecture Major students in 2010; and my dedicated team of design tutors in 2010—Larry Cirillo; Kirsten Day; Phuong Quoc Dinh; Peter Hogg; Lee-Ann Joy; Jason Pickord; Ann Rado; Toby Reed; Mikel Roman; Ilana Rubenstein; Keith Streames; Chris Walker; and Taras Wolfe. Last but not least, my special thanks go to Tim Chandler from the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning for putting Sparks together.

Here is a sample:

Fiorn Lee

Francis Atkinson

Annie Harrison

Alison Dane

Marwin Hasim

Jas Johnston

Choong Chong

Cathrina Lee

Sarah Skillington

Quinland Yip

Filip Dans

Slavco Jovanoski

Natalie Ma

The stars of Season of Passion, the 1959 film version of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

Anne Baxter, who played Olive, and Ernest Borgnine, who played ‘Roo’

Anne Baxter, who played Olive

John Mills, who played Barney, and Angela Lansbury, who played Pearl

Ethel Gabriel, who played Emma

Vincent Ball, who played Johnnie, and Janette Craig, who played Bubba