The MTC Theatre

The MTC Theatre

The stage, fly and wing configurations and the forethought in the backstage and front-of-house design makes the MTC Theatre one of the best drama facilities in the world.

After 15 years of planning, the much-anticipated new Melbourne Theatre, described as ‘a work of art for the performing arts’, opened on Southbank Boulevard Melbourne. The new performing home for Melbourne Theatre Company, the MTC Theatre houses two performance spaces: the Sumner Theatre, a state-of-the-art 500+ seat venue, and the flexible Lawler Studio for more small-scale and edgy work. The venue also contains a box office, two stunning foyer areas with bars, Script (a hundred seat licensed café with an outdoor seating area for another 36 people) and two VIP function rooms both with fabulous views over Southbank.

The new $55 million MTC Theatre project is the result of collaboration between the University of Melbourne and the Victoria Government, through Major Projects Victoria. The University has provided $20 million in cash to the project plus the land for the MTC Theatre, the Melbourne Recital Centre and the car park. In exchange for the land, the State Government has contributed $35 million to the project.


Designed by ARM (Ashton Raggart McDougall), the exterior of the building is an illusion of three dimensional white cubes and rectangles set against a black background that appears to shift as the viewer moves around the building. At night, lit by specially focused floodlights, the building bursts into life in a glowing display.

Other key contractors were the project managers Major Projects Victoria, the builders Bovis Lend Lease, and Jands Pty Ltd who took care of the technical equipment. Sub-contractors to Jands included Rutledge Engineering for the audio and video as well as Showtrek for major elements of the stage engineering.

We’ve all heard of theatres with poor sightlines, sound problems, bad access etc. but even before a site had been chosen MTC was determined to avoid these pitfalls. The comprehensive brief developed by MTC staff included requirements such as a modular stage floor, an adjustable proscenium and power flying, and of course, all the newest technical equipment in terms of lighting and sound. Fortunately Jands are renowned for their ability to supply a complete solution for these types of projects.


MTC_Theatre_7_webAlong with being called upon to supply all staging, lighting and audio, Jands manufactured and installed sixty-four Jands SP650 Servo high speed 650 kilogram capacity drum hoists driven by a Stage Technologies Nomad control system. A triple Serapid motorised stage lift was also installed as well as a complex ETC IES dimming system.

“Jands was the sole contractor for the technical equipment for the MTC; all stage engineering, lighting, power flying and related equipment passed through their Melbourne offices,” affirmed Craig Gamble who was the Theatre Development Manager. “Jands also managed their own sub contractors, such as, Adelaide’s Showtrek and Rutledge Engineering to ensure quality and scheduling was maintained.”

During the construction period Jands liaised with on site building teams to ensure cabling and structure was installed to meet theirs and the theatre company’s needs.

“The Jands’ team members worked closely with the theatre company’s team to ensure equipment was “fit for purpose”, added Craig. “They also provided ongoing commissioning of all areas of the theatre’s technical equipment - part of the contract but an area often ducked away from by some. Their commitment to the ongoing stages of the project is second to none.”

A lot of what has been done technically in this building was modelled on the Sydney Theatre for which Jands also provided a successful staging solution. As many of the MTC productions also play the Sydney Theatre it’s good to have some compatibility. In fact Craig believes that it would be foolish not to.

The Lawler Studio

The Lawler Studio, which will also operate as a rehearsal room or function space, has special features including a flown truss grid, full lighting and draping equipment, a modular seating system and the ability to be easily themed for functions or performances.

Jands delivered and installed, to MTC briefed requirements, an ASM chain motor flown truss grid; a difficult task as building services had restrained some of the clear air space required for this equipment which necessitated some delicate reworking in order to meet brief. They also supplied the dimmers and the drapes manufactured within Jands’ very own drape department in Sydney.

The room is painted red instead of a soul destroying black, and as mentioned above, features a flown grid made up of standard 500mm box truss made for Jands by Browns Welding in Melbourne.

MTC_Theatre_8_web“We have seven main chords and nine motors up there, so we have options to break this up as required. Power supply to the on board dimmers is from the ceiling, down to the truss and into or out of what we christened the ‘lobster pots’ into which the cable lays.” explained Craig.

The Sumner Theatre

The Sumner Theatre is undoubtedly Australia’s most technically advanced drama theatre. Featuring a single-raked seating plan without balcony that provides excellent sight lines to the stage from all seats (the latest in stage technologies), a fully adjustable proscenium arch, a modular stage floor suitable for heavy loads such as heavy elevated work platforms or forklifts, an ETC IES matrix dimming system with ETC EOS control and dressing rooms for up to 22 cast members.

The Sumner auditorium and stage have been engineered as a ‘single compartment occupancy’ which is a short phrase for a lot of big maths! The end result is that although the theatre is a traditional proscenium arch, it is not required to have a fire curtain or a drencher system. This has enabled the creation of a fully adjustable proscenium arch that can be fully closed or opened out to 16m wide x 9m high, or anywhere in between, fantastic for shaping the room to fit the show and further demonstrating the compatibility between the various venues MTC productions perform in.

In order to facilitate flexibility in production designs the stage floor was a priority and the MTC brief required a stage floor that was going to make it simple to put in traps and easily enable other under-stage activities. Instead of having to cut sections of the stage floor up, a completely modular floor was required.

Both the adjustable proscenium and the modular stage were designed by MTC and built by Showtek, who were sub contracted to Jands, who in turn supervised the delivery and integration with the building programme.

The Jands team were also responsible for the assembly and installation of the Stage Technologies power flying systems equipment, the relocatable ASM steel band hoists and all the required control and safety systems. As the room has no fire curtain, the flying system is actually specified from nearly three metres down stage of the setting line, but there’s no difficulty in control as it’s all part of the Stage Technologies control system.

There are sixty-four powered flying lines, sixty across stage lines at 200mm centres whose winches are in acoustically separated prompt and OP winch rooms and four panorama lines whose winches are within the fly tower.

“Each line set is capable of carrying 500 kilos evenly distributed at speeds up to 1.5 metres per second,” said Craig. “And they do so incredibly quietly.”

As well as the above, Jands were responsible for extensive work beneath the stage including coordination, assembling and installation of the forestage lift platforms and the Serapid lifting actuators, as well as all required control and safety systems. Craig reports that the Serapid system is the ideal product for this project, especially as the soil beneath the venue is the acidic Coote Island silt from the old Yarra river plains and the less excavation you do the better. A shallow pit housing the high precision Serapids meet all the project expectations.

“The way Serapid works is rather like your window winder at home, incredibly strong in one direction and quiet,” he said. “There are three lifts; a large middle one flanked by two smaller ones. Again referencing the Sydney Theatre, the centre stage lifts are the same size in each venue; this makes life a little easier for shows transferring between the two venues.”


Reeling in the heavens

Up in the giddy heights of the grid there are cable reelers lined up across the space. Craig reports that Jands’ Andrew Mathieson came up with the neat idea for moving these particularly cumbersome items around.

Andrew designed a simple frame that includes an over centre, cam lift arrangement that engages with and raises the reelers enough to allow crew to skate them across the grid steels. This saves a lot of nasty grunting in the grid (never a good thing) and makes life a little easier for all involved.

As well as installing the entire flying system up here, Jands also installed a number of rolling beams and BOMAC track systems in order to enable deployment of spot lines across the whole stage area.

“For spot lines we have six of the ASM 250TH steel band hoists which are fantastic,” added Craig. “Originally we had nine chain motors specified for use up here but changed it to these. They don’t have the working load of the chain motors, but for our show specific applications they’re a better fit. They’re faster, smoother and because the steel band rolls up like thread on a cotton reel they can be more accurate. We still use chain motors, in fact we have a number of other Jands supplied ASM chain motors elsewhere in the building for more general hoisting.”




Rather than distributed dimming the building features a separate dimmer room housing an ETC IES Matrix dimming system also installed by the Jands team.

“It’s a modular dimming system rather than a patch bay,” explained Craig. “In the theatre there are about 750 wired outlets and we specified a minimum of 460 dimmers. With the ETC IES Matrix system the 3K dimmers are in six units per block and the 5K dimmers are in four units per block; and you literally move blocks around. It’s not unlike the IT industry’s concept of a blade server. With the modules generally being a 6 dimmer block we actually purchased closer to 500 dimmers in order to achieve the full flexibility we were seeking.

“The advantage of the system is that if you have a show that’s heavy on floor electrics but is reasonably light on flown equipment, you can drag blocks of dimmers out and reallocate them as required. Obviously you turn the lights down first because you don’t want to go from 0 to 100 straight away, but you can hot swap the module. These also come in sine wave format which is what the Recital Centre next door has purchased as their noise criteria is more stringent than ours.”

Lighting Control

ETC’s new flagship theatre lighting consoles, a 4000ch Eos and a 2000ch Ion, were chosen as they are specifically designed to meet the requirements of a modern, networked theatre. Already proving popular with designers and operators in major venues worldwide, ETC was the obvious choice for Melbourne’s premier venue.

A Simple Yet Elegant Solution

Out in the auditorium more forethought is apparent. All services are easily accessible from above ceiling catwalks or easily lowered to the floor below.

“A really neat piece of gear is the Jands pile wind hand winch which, considering the complexity of the building and the amount of technical equipment in it, is an elegant, simple solution to getting the house lights down to be maintained or changed,” said Craig. “Obviously the last thing we wanted to do is to set up scaffolding in the auditorium or struggle with a cherry picker just to change the house lights. The Jands pile winders are the right gear in the right place. We’ve been lucky with this project in that we’ve been able to take the approach to do it once and do it properly. This is a neat piece of gear and there are a couple of other areas in the building where we’d use them if they could take a bit more cable”.

Listen, Adapt and Create

Craig reports that Jands listened attentively to the MTC’s requirements and were happy to adapt solutions and come up with new ideas along the way. For example, Jands readily added MTC required refinements, including open sockets in each circuit to their version of the comprehensive worklight system.

“We also nominated that all the E-stops (emergency stops used for the stage machinery) be illuminated so that you can see them clearly in show conditions. Jands replied that it was a great idea, so now it’s part of their spec,” said Craig. “There’s been a lot of development for both companies in this building.”

As respected theatre engineers, Jands are experts at defining a client’s needs and turning their brief into an engineering solution. “The Jands team was fantastic and really interested in doing a great job. None of the Jands boys were difficult to work with or failed to engage. They all had their specialties and they all enjoyed it.”

“I don’t know all the Jands folk who worked on the project by name but I’d like to thank them all. The ones who stick in my mind as having done great work on it are, in no particular order, Garry Rutter, David Hobbs, Chris Clegg, Andrew Mathieson, Simon Steinfurth, Robert Young, Peter Grisard, Patrick Coville and James Tucker who’s now head flyman at the MTC theatre.”

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