Creating a stir in Melbourne’s indie-theatre circles last weekend was the surprise closure—then relocation—of new writer’s theatre, MKA Richmond. The theatre opened with a launch party a couple of Thursdays ago, 28 October, and was all set for a one-off, month-long series of playreadings at its headquarters in Tanner Street, Richmond, when, two days into the program, officers from the City of Yarra’s planning and building departments showed up and shut them down, citing the increase in “foot traffic” caused by the success of their first playreading, this despite the fact that council Arts and Culture representatives had previously offered council support for the planned theatre, describing it as a great idea for the area.

The news has touched a raw nerve, typifying for many the creeping cultural desertification of inner-city suburbs as gentrification, abetted by local councils beholden to a wave of cashed-up ratepayers, continues to drive out grassroots arts venues. It was soon hot news, with Jon Bailey, Cameron Woodhead, Alison Croggon and Anne-Marie Peard all weighing in on the blogs. The council’s actions even riled prominent Sydney bloggers Diana Simmonds and Augusta Supple.

MKA Richmond’s artistic directors, Tobias Manderson-Galvin and Glyn Roberts have now announced that the remainder of the planned readings will, from Wednesday 10 November, be staged at a temporary space in the CBD, on Jane Bell Lane in the QV building, while they continue working to resolve the planning issues at their Richmond base. However, it appears that the real fight may not be with the planning department, but with several Tanner Street residents angry at the possible “disruption” caused by the boutique, forty-four seat venue.

Events leading up to the closure demonstrate the pitfalls of engaging in squabbles with petty officials over ambiguous building and planning laws, and of placing too much faith in the verbal assurances of council bureaucrats. Although the venue is zoned mixed commercial-residential (apart from residential flats, Tanner Street is also home to a commercial gallery, a music distribution company, a pub, architectural firms and a (licensed) brothel, among other businesses), MKA have not yet secured the necessary planning permits to open a commercial theatre, a “place of assembly” in planning parlance. According to Manderson-Galvin, they were expecting these to be granted in time for the opening of their official season early next year after earlier being given verbal encouragement to that effect by the planning and the building departments.

According to Manderson-Galvin, an officer from planning contacted MKA early last week, warning them that if they went ahead with the advertised playreadings they’d be illegally running a place of assembly. After taking legal advice to the effect that, as it was a one-off series separate to the planned official opening next year, they were arguably not in breach of the planning law, MKA decided to go ahead with the playreadings. Officers from planning, says Manderson-Galvin, appeared at first to accept this, but on Thursday, the day after the first night’s reading (a new play by award-winning Aussie ex-pat Ben Ellis), three council representatives, two from planning and one from building, turned up demanding entry to the property. Roberts and Manderson-Galvin, at that time in the middle of rehearsals, refused, citing the requirement that council officers provide at least two days notice before executing a notice of inspection, a requirement that can only be waived if, for instance, they suspect an illegal brothel is being run on the premises.

The officers, who were at that time themselves distracted by police raids conducted the day before at council headquarters, Richmond Townhall, turned stroppy, picking out minor building code infractions and claiming, according to Manderson-Galvin, that “no venue could ever operate here”. It was then that they also noted complaints about an increase in “foot traffic” caused by the theatre. Large fines were threatened and, by Friday, with the threat of additional massive fines, $2400 a day, minimum, MKA Richmond shutdown their Tanner Street base and went looking else where. Distressed by the deteriorating relationship with the planning office, they also withdrew their application to become a full-time place of assembly next year. The Richmond venue is currently being used for admin and workshopping.

Manderson-Galvin admits they may have been naïve when dealing with the local council, and may have underestimated the lack of communication between council departments, but the poor relationship which really seems to have undermined this ambitious bid to launch a new inner-city venue is the one with local residents, particularly those in the prestigious AKM building. Even before the readings commenced, residents were waging a campaign against the new theatre, with an anonymous flyer being circulated to residents by parties apparently hostile to venue owners, charging that MKA and venue owners misled both their own body corporate and the local council, charges rejected by MKA (detailed in a press release now posted on Jon Bailey’s blog). Further, council officers confirmed to MKA management that council involvement was prompted by persistent complaints from residents in the lead up to the launch.

However, the only complainant who has so far made themselves known to MKA is the chairperson of the body corporate at 28 Tanner Street, who sent an email to Manderson-Galvin “abhor[ing] the noise created by [MKA’s] paying guests”, curiously firing it off on Wednesday morning last week, hours before, that is, any of the readings had in fact taken place or any paying guests had shown up.

Since then, residents, who are possibly feeling less secure about their investment after an apartment in the iconic AKM Building failed to crack the anticipated seven-figure sum at auction last weekend, have been hitting back in blog comments sections across the web. Meanwhile, messages of support continue to pour in for MKA Richmond on Facebook, Twitter and at their website.

You can check out the re-launched series of playreadings at No Vacancy Gallery, shop 25-31 Jane Bell Lan, QV Melbourne from tomorrow night. A full updated program is available at the MKA Richmond website.

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