Union House tour (accessible)
Welcome to the Union House Theatre Complex, home of Union House Theatre and for many years a centre of innovation in the performing arts in Australia. This tour highlights the rich history of creative interaction between students and professional theatre makers at the University, as well as some interesting features of the building itself.
You can explore the building by hovering over the navigational drawer at the top left of the page. Click on your chosen location to see a 360-degree view of the space. You can also navigate between locations by clicking the arrows at the bottom left of the screen. By clicking the icons embedded throughout the tour you will be given information about the history of Union House and its significance as a performing arts venue.
The images included in this tour are drawn from a number of sources, including the Rowden White Library archives, which you can explore in more depth at the Theatre and Dance Platform, University of Melbourne.
History of Union House
The first building on the site now occupied by Union House was the National Museum of Victoria, built in 1863. This “barn-like” structure later became the home of the Student Representative Council and in 1938 it was improved and extended with the addition of a large west wing. The east wing was remodelled to contain a 500 seat theatre.
In the 1950s, with the student population skyrocketing, it was felt that major renovations were needed. Eventually, in 1968, the site was completely redeveloped to its current modernist design. All that now remains of the original Gothic Revival architecture of the National Museum are some exterior buttresses and the ogival, or pointed window, at the northern end of the east elevation by the stage door entrance to the theatre.
In 2019, work began on a new student precinct at the corner of Grattan and Swanston Streets. The future of Union House remains uncertain, although plans for its demolition have been submitted.
Theatre at the University
The University of Melbourne can boast a significance in the history of the performing arts in Australia unrivalled by any other university.
In the 1950s, it launched the Melbourne Theatre Company, the country's first - and now largest - professional theatre company. It was an important venue for the performance of the wave of new Australian plays written in the 1960s and 1970s. Through the 1980s and 1990s it was a hotbed of experimental performance-making. And the list of those who got their start in student theatre at the University is a veritable who’s who of Australian stage and screen.
Today the performing arts remain a vital part of campus life. Student theatre groups continue to flourish, and college productions remain overwhelming popular. Union House Theatre, the theatre department of the University of Melbourne Student Union, supports an extensive program of masterclasses and special events, and continues to offer students the experience of working in a professional theatre environment.
Union House roof
Hidden above the Union Theatre, above the grid deck and fly gallery, the old timber trusses of Frederick McCoy’s natural history museum can still be found. There was an attempt to preserve the shell of this museum as part of the 1968 redevelopment, but it was ultimately dismantled to make possible a larger basement area. All that remains of the National Museum of Victoria are these trusses and a section of the exterior shell at the northern end of the building's east elevation.
Union Theatre was the first properly equipped theatre built on University grounds, created as part of the 1938 extensions. It was fitted with machinery and furniture donated from the old Garrick Theatre near the Princes Bridge, and its first manager was the energetic Des Connor, also formerly of the Garrick.
During the forties, the Union was a key venue in the ‘little theatre’ movement in Melbourne, hosting important modern drama premieres by companies like the Dolia Ribosh Company and Irene Mitchell's Little Theatre Guild. It also hosted tours by international artists such as American modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn and Irina Barinova and the Ballets Russes. And, of course, it supported productions by University colleges, the Student Representative Council and the growing number of dramatic clubs.
In 1953, the Union Repertory Theatre Company took up residence. The auditorium floor was carpeted and tiered to allow for improved sight lines, the windows were removed and new seats were installed. But more work was still needed and less than a decade later, in 1968, the theatre was again remodelled as part of the Union House renovations.
Colleges and clubs
The first theatrical productions at the University of Melbourne were staged by its colleges, often on improvised stages in common rooms, chapels and dining halls.
One of the most active colleges from the period before the First World War was Queens College, which staged commencement week plays from the early 1890s. Its extensive archives include cast photographs from as early as 1897.
Today, almost all the residential colleges have or have had drama groups, with the most active being Trinity, Ormond and Queens. And although they now tend to prefer crowd-pleasing musicals and variety theatre, there have been many more ambitious performances.
The other major groups to use the Union Theatre were student dramatic societies. Large clubs like the Tin Alley Players, the Marlowe Society and the Melbourne University Dramatic Club flourished in the period immediately following the Second World War as student numbers swelled.
Today dramatic clubs are less prominent - and more short-lived - but they remain a vital part of the campus performing arts culture.
Union Theatre Repertory Company
In 1953, the Union Theatre Repertory Company was created and took up residence in the Union Theatre. English director and manager John Sumner had taken over management of the theatre after Des Connor died suddenly in 1951 and was appointed artistic director.
The UTRC, which was Australia’s first professional repertory company, crammed as many as 15 new productions into six-month seasons that dominated the Union Theatre for the next decade and a half. Despite financial ups and downs, it proved a great success.
Playwrights who had their work staged at the Union Theatre during this period include Ray Lawler, Patrick White, Vance Palmer, Malcolm Robertson, Peter Batey and Reg Livermore. Meanwhile, actors who worked with the company include Zoe Caldwell, Patricia Kennedy, June Jago, Alan Hopgood, Patricia Connelly, Neil Fitzpatrick, Robin Ramsay, George Ogilvie, Frank Thring, Reg Livermore, Elspeth Ballantyne and, Patsy King.
In 1968, shortly after leaving the Union Theatre for the Russell Street Theatre, the UTRC changed its name to the Melbourne Theatre Company, which now has the largest subscriber base of any theatre in the country.
Revues at the Union
Revues have a long history at the University of Melbourne and many of the country's best-loved entertainers cut their comedic teeth in campus sketches and burlesques. A popular early revue was the Dental Follies, a burlesque of the Tivoli Follies organised by the Dental Students Society, which began during the University's wartime Red Cross Carnival and was performed in Melba Hall. (Their motto was - "We pull laughs better than we pull teeth".) Other early revues were performed by the Medical Medleys, the Legal Lyrics and the Science Revue Company. In the 1930s, the SRC sponsored a hugely popular annual revue which was held in one of the large downtown commercial venues. After World War Two, however, the Union and Architecture Theatres became the twin centres of undergraduate sketch and variety theatre that stimulated the growth of the Melbourne Comedy scene. Popular annual events included the Law Revue, the Engineering Revue, the Architecture Revue and, of course, the SRC revue.
The Guild Theatre, which sits above the Union Theatre and is accessible via the first floor of Union House, was created as part of the 1968 renovations. It’s a small black box-style theatre seating 100 people and was established in response to changing theatre practices in the late sixties.
Much like the 90-seat Jerwood Theatre Upstairs on top of the Royal Court in London, which was opened in 1969, the Guild promoted more radical and experimental work and the kind of theatre that benefited from a more intimate studio staging. It also functioned as a rehearsal space and an important venue promoting student theatre and dance.
Dance at the University
In 1946, the emergence of an Australian ballet culture was promoted by the Ballet Guild, and they presented annual seasons in the Union Theatre; which was also home to modern dance concerts curated by émigré artists during the 1950s.
The creation of the Guild Theatre (named after the Union Theatre's first head mechanist Jimmy Guild) in 1968 coincided with a renewed focus on dance in Australia. While Australian modern dance pioneer Margaret Lasica and her Modern Dance Ensemble continued to perform in the Union Theatre through the 1970s, others such as Bob Thorneycroft and Joe Bolza and Australian Dance Theatre used the smaller but more flexible Guild Theatre space. By the 1980s, student groups such as Guild Dance were regular occupants; indeed, dance became so popular that, in the 1990s, the Union introduced the position of Director of Dance.
From the beginning, the Guild Theatre was a hub for politically challenging and aesthetically innovative productions. It hosted the work of local companies like the Australian Performing Group and Nindethana, as well as touring shows like Rex Cramphorn’s stripped-back The Tempest in 1972, the Popular Theatre Troupe’s agit-prop production of White Man's Mission and English company Prospect Theatre's Endgame. In the 1980s, the Guild became the crucible for a generation of bold young directors, many of them students at the University, including Barrie Kosky, Bruce Gladwin, Ewa Czajor and Michael Kantor.
Getting their start
The Guild Theatre remains a place where young performance makers can make a start on a long career. In 1984, Joanna Murray-Smith premiered her first full-length play Ghost Trains at the Guild Theatre, co-written with her husband Ray Gill.
Today, Murray-Smith is one of Australia’s best-known playwrights, with a substantial international reputation. Other contemporary playwrights who launched their careers at the Guild include Angus Cerini, Lally Katz, Ben Ellis, Declan Greene and Jean Tong among many others.
Des Connor Room
The Des Connor Room is a studio rehearsal room above the Union Theatre in Union House. The entrance is outside Union House underneath the remaining arch window from the original National Museum of Victoria building. Available for late night and week-end bookings and at no charge for workshops, rehearsals, readings and auditions, it has nurtured theatrical experimentation by University of Melbourne students. It is also used as a fringe theatre venue.
Workshops and rehearsals
Combat training with professional fight director Lyndall Grant for Macbeth + macdeath : a coda (2016). Video courtesy of Union House Theatre.
The Des Connor Room has also been an important venue for performing arts workshops, offering a space where students can learn new skills with professionals. Malcolm Robertson of the MTC was the first, in 1968, to lead a workshop in the Des. Since then the room has hosted Tai Chi classes with William Zappa, voice training wit Nancy Black, a course in Laban Theatre Analysis with David Kendall and choreography with Nanette Hassall, to name just a few.
Innovations and explorations
Although the Des Connor Room is usually reserved for rehearsals and workshops, it is occasionally used as a venue for comedy shows, fringe events and other unconventional performances. In 1989, for example, Theatre Ensemble staged an innovative production of Hamlet directed by ABC radio personality Michael Cathcart. With a cast that included Cate Blanchett, the production featured a set made of movable wooden boxes, planks and cylinders, with masks made by Princes' Hill High School students.
Theatre Studies in the Des
As well as a place for practical experimentation, the Des Connor Room was also the site of the first formal theatre studies course held by the University of Melbourne. In 1975, James McCaughey, then a senior lecturer in classics, directed the first Interdepartmental Drama Course, first in Old Engineering labs and then in the Des Connor Room. Students who would later go on to have careers in the performing arts include Hannie Rayson, Suzanne Chaundy, Peter King and Jill Buckler.