THE BACKSPACE THEATRE
The Backspace Theatre has a unique place in Tasmania’s theatre history. It has served many purposes for nearly 40 years: a rehearsal space, black box theatre, cabaret and improvisation venue, professional theatre and a space for training and theatre development. Often at the cutting edge and in contrast to the mainstage, the Backspace has supported a new culture of performance practice in Tasmania and stimulated audiences ready for a new style of theatre. In its day, the Backspace provided some of the more thought provoking theatre seen in Hobart.
Owned by the Tasmanian Government and operated by the Theatre Royal it was initially a bare vault of concrete. Under varying leases and support arrangements with the Theatre Royal and its staff, and in collaboration with hardworking, often volunteer theatre makers, it evolved over time as a flexible and adaptable theatre space. It became a focus for learning and experimentation for emerging theatre practitioners and a venue for productions that were not suitable for the mainstage.
Three factors combined to set it apart: technical help from committed Theatre Royal staff, access to a low cost space and an exceptional capacity to connect people to theatre.
At its heart, the Backspace was about access to the tools of theatre making. Small independent companies struggling financially, were supported to create and present innovative work. Surviving independently, with minimal funding, was a challenge in the Tasmanian environment. Audience numbers for new theatre styles were limited and small local companies were increasing in number.
The Backspace was a good example of the constructive use of ‘found’ space. It was never designed as a theatre and it worked poorly as a venue in many ways. Concrete floors, difficult stair access, low ceilings and cramped dressing rooms were just some of the drawbacks. However, it survived because it functioned most powerfully as a social, as well as a performance space.
There was not another space like it in Hobart where the relationship between the audience and the actor was so intimate. The flexible seating arrangements and the bespoke, beautifully crafted bar were incorporated into the performance space and configured to heighten the connection between audience and performance.
In later years, the Backspace was reconfigured to provide for a more formal theatre program but it is remembered most passionately today as an edgy venue where there was flexibility for theatre makers to imagine, create and perform.
Substantial shifts are taking place in Tasmania’s cultural life with growing expectations from both performers and audiences for a more culturally confident and diverse theatre program. The new Hedberg complex will provide an accessible purpose built studio theatre consistent with contemporary standards in theatre design. Hopefully, it will draw energy and inspiration from the early days of the Backspace to create a vibrant but sustainable theatre culture.
The Friends of the Theatre Royal have documented the history of the Backspace. This has involved a consideration of formal and personal records. The experiences and perceptions of those directly involved in the creation and evolution of the Backspace have also been recorded and provide an invaluable contribution to the telling of its history.