An Historic Treasure

Her Majesty’s Theatre

The story of “The Maj” nearly ended a little over a decade ago, however. For, in 2000, this irreplaceable building was saved from being turned into a car park. Mike Walsh purchased Her Majesty’s Theatre at the turn of the 21st century to save it from being destroyed and converted into a car park. “He prevented what I think would have been a catastrophe,” remarks General Manager Mark Rowe. “He’s done a great service to the city of Melbourne, and to the state of Victoria, by keeping the theatre alive.”

Mr Walsh not only saved the old building, he also spent years repairing it. In fact, the theatre’s painstaking restorations are one of the key features that set the Melbourne venue apart. “Mike Walsh is really passionate about it,” Mr Rowe says. He wanted to “get it back to its former glory.”

Mr Walsh’s efforts have succeeded and the theatre’s dramatic interior is an attraction in itself. The Art Moderne style is a nostalgic display of geometrical shapes, stylized natural forms and symmetrical utilitarian design, with detailed features fashioned of chrome, stainless steel, and inlaid wood. The team tries to continue the Art Moderne theme throughout the business, even printing their opening night cards in the same eye-catching style.

Her Majesty’s Theatre also employs an archivist to maintain accurate records, past and present, and it is the only venue of its kind to do so. “She is the link between the theatre and anyone who is interested in the history of Her Majesty,” Mr Rowe explains. The archivist also gives backstage tours, which are particularly popular with the elderly. “They all comment that the theatre feels very much the same as it was when they came as a child with their parents. And they get a great thrill out of that. They say how wonderful it is that it has been kept as they remember it.”

Preserving the past takes concerted effort. “A lot of money, patience, and energy goes into maintaining the building,” Mr Rowe reports. “[It] is a constant job here.” The most extensive work was completed during a two year period after Mr Walsh purchased the theatre, before it was reopened. The day to day demands of an old, heritage listed building remain intense, however.

The building’s upkeep requires regular meetings and consultations with various governmental bodies. Everything from maintaining occupational health and safety conditions to preserving the original façade must be considered, and routine government inspections are constantly uncovering new areas in need of attention. Currently, the team is in the process of updating the building’s fire compliance, a feat that includes adding new fire doors and making adjustments to under-stair cupboards. “When this building was built, a lot of those laws didn’t exist,” Mr Rowe points out. “It’s a constant challenge.” The team works closely with Heritage Victoria to maintain the site’s heritage listed status. Any changes in the structure or appearance of the building must be reported and approved to ensure that the historical features remain intact.

Once repairs are approved, getting work completed inside the busy venue brings its own complications. Renovation work disrupts business, and therefore income, so it must be timed carefully. “It is a constant scheduling challenge to make sure we can do what we need to do as directed by various government bodies,” Mr Rowe says. For example, “We can’t just fix the veranda out front in the middle of a season because people need to stand there.” Instead, the team must find a full two weeks when nothing is playing. “We are still waiting to do that, actually,” he laughs.

Constant attention to detail has created a welcoming venue for both audience and cast. Lovely foyers, comfortable seating, and The MAJ Café & Bar all foster a pleasant experience. But, “the big claim to fame for this theatre is that there is a great relationship between what is happening onstage and the audience,” Mr Rowe reports. “It’s very intimate.”

In fact, the theatre is widely acknowledged throughout the industry for the unique intimacy experienced between actors and patrons there. “The relationship is fantastic. And performers love performing on this stage for that very reason,” Mr Rowe describes. “They feel a real connection with the audience and I think it works both ways. There is a real sense of being connected to what’s happening [rather than] feeling separated from [performers].”

Although it is intimate, Her Majesty’s Theatre is not small. With 1,700 seats, it is actually a mid-sized theatre. “We sit in the middle,” Mr Rowe explains. The theatre is large enough to generate adequate income, but a bit too small for some of the larger, grander shows. King Kong and the Lion King, for example, simply aren’t suitable. Mary Poppins, on the other hand, is ideal. “[Mary Poppins’ producers] picked this venue because of the number of seats. It fitted very well here and was a huge success.”

Her Majesty’s Theatre also has function rooms available for rent. These rooms include a full service bar and are perfect for a private, pre-show dinner or for enjoying drinks and hors d’oeuvre during intermission.

Over one hundred musicals have been performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Not surprisingly, many people associate the venue as one exclusively for musicals, but Mr Rowe says that this is a myth that he would like to dispel. While the theatre certainly hosts more musicals than any other genre, it also welcomes many other performances, including operas, ballets, and concerts. “I think of us as a performing arts centre,” Mr Rowe remarks. “Victorian Opera is doing a lot of work with us.” And, as for ballets, “we continue to grab those up.” Smaller ‘filler’ shows are also popular between large musical numbers. Tribute concerts to Michael Jackson and Queen are two recent successful examples.

“I would like to see more plays,” Mr Rowe admits, “but the problem is that producers just aren’t producing plays on this scale at the moment.” The reason is largely economical – musicals traditionally sell more tickets. Her Majesty’s opening performance in 2002 was the play The Hollow Crown and the team would like to welcome another one back soon. For now, however, business is booming – much of it from musicals. “We like musicals because they tend to run longer [so] we are booked out for longer.” Her Majesty is so popular, in fact, that it is almost completely booked through the end of 2015.

The team has worked hard to bring “the Maj” back from the brink of destruction and preserve a Melbourne treasure. To maintain Her Majesty’s renowned reputation, Mr Rowe says that the team will continue to provide competitive rental rates, maintain the theatre “in all its glory,” and stay in touch with producers “so they do not forget we are here.” Perhaps most importantly, the team wants to be sure that every patron has an unforgettable experience. “We realize that the public is our bread and butter and we do everything we can to make [their] experience a memorable one.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

June 21, 2018, 1:15 AM AEST