The little space that could – fortyfivedownstairs celebrates 10 years

Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs is celebrating its 10 year anniversary as a haven for emerging artists and independent theatre this weekend. We caught up with Co-Founder and Artistic Director Mary Lou Jelbart to discuss the last 10 years, the success of the enterprise and the upcoming Anniversary Showcase tomorrow night. 

Mary Lou Jelbart
Mary Lou Jelbart

10 years ago, fortyfivedownstairs was a closed-down contemporary art gallery which was, as Mary Lou Jelbart says, “too significant and too beautiful to disappear and become offices”.

Not content to see such a creative space go to waste, the former ABC Arts reviewer and journalist set about making the space available for independent emerging artists and performers to utilise in the centre of Melbourne.

“The impetus was to provide a space for emerging and mid career artists, (many of whom I had noticed were fairly unhappy with commercial galleries) and also to alternate with performance because I was on the board of a theatre company that wanted to perform here” Mary Lou Jelbart said.

So, on a summer evening 10 years ago, fortyfivedownstairs was officially launched as Melbourne’s newest arts venue. A gallery by day and theatre by night on one floor of a 19th Century rag trade building in Flinders Lane’s gallery precinct.

“The opportunity was there because the space was there. The landlord was sympathetic and kept hanging on to the space until we could get our act together, and we did!”, she said.

“It was as simple as that.”

Jelbart explained that the foundation of this enterprise wasn’t a spur of the moment decision, nor was it “brilliantly planned”. It was merely the right time, combined with a wonderful idea and a perfect opportunity.

“It was pretty naive really, you know” Jelbart admits. “I just thought ‘I’ll go ahead and do it’. But I was concerned because the rent was pretty high – that’s why the other galleries around the same time had closed.”

Thankfully, Jelbart’s co-founder and Chairman of fortyfivedownstairs, Julian Burnside, had the brilliant idea of applying for tax deductibility, giving them not for profit status.

“We did that, so we are not for profit. We then set about  finding enough people to write us out a cheque and commit to supporting us for two or three years, and in effect, that’s what happened”, Jelbart said.

After putting “one foot in front of the other”, the fortyfivedownstairs team found that “things just grew”.

“I never thought it would….I didn’t really think ahead”, Jelbart said, but one gets the impression that she was never going to let such a project fail.

She speaks of the arts and of artists as if they are her family. She is passionate about non-mainstream, independent theatre and believes that fortyfivedownstairs’ central location has broadened the reach of non-taxpayer funded work. Her enthusiasm and her belief in the work of independent artists is evident from the other end of the phone. It’s no wonder this venue has built a name for itself, with a leader like Jelbart at the helm.

As Artistic Director of fortyfivedownstairs, Jelbart is an unpaid member of the staff, which in a sense, makes her a patron of the arts, “which quite tickles me really”, she quipps.

Do Not Go Gentle - one of the many productions to perform at fortyfivedownstairs

The other dedicated staff, who Jelbart refers to as ‘family’ consist of three full time and three part-time employees, a casual front of house manager and many, many volunteers.

“We have to charge rent to the people who use the space, as I need to pay the people who make it all happen, who work incredibly hard”, she said.

“We have private support, yes, but charging the exhibitors and the production companies to hire the spaces is how we cover our rent and pay our workers. We are a small group – it does feel like a family. You need to be all on the same wavelength, and I think we are!”

Jelbart attributes some of the success of the venue to its location, several minutes from Flinders Street station on foot.

“Being centre of the city, which is one of the huge benefits of this particular venue. I think that’s something I just can’t emphasise enough.” , she said.

“People can reach us easily from both sides of the city, because you can get here so easily on a train or a tram. There’s no fuss and bother.”

“What I have found with theatre companies who perform at fortyfivedownstairs – they are saying ‘we are seeing people in the audience that we have never seen before’, and I love that”, she said.

Jelbart believes that fortyfivedownstairs feels like a safe space, with hugely flexible performance opportunities. Seating between 70 and 120 patrons (depending on design and set-up).

“We get a lot of people who have never been to a non-mainstream production before who are amazed when they come and they love it”, she said. “So we get a lot of repeat audience business, and that’s also a great advantage for companies presenting here.”

Part of the reality of support for the arts today is that fortyfivedownstairs doesn’t have any one company that regularly presents work, year after year.

“With the exception of Moira Finucane (Finucane and Smith) who presents The Burlesque Hour”, Jelbart explained “we find that sadly, funding is so uncertain that it’s so hard to get a show on”.

Do Not Go Gentle - one of the many productions to perform at fortyfivedownstairs

As a reviewer of 15 years, Jelbart admits she had no idea how difficult it was for artists to bring their work to an audience.

“I hadn’t realised how much investment there is before you can get the show to an audience. And as an independent artist, you never get paid for that. You know, the rehearsals the development, the writing”, she said.

We take it for granted that the tax payer will support mainstream STC, MTC  (even though they don’t get enough) but nobody thinks that they need to have funding for the smaller companies.

However, one of the advantages of not having tax payer funding is that fortyfivedownstairs retain their independence. They can produce their own works (which they do), supply a venue for companies which approach them, and bridge the gap between non-mainstream theatre and the mainstream world.

“But that’s why I can’t say if we will last another 10 years or not! It depends how strong I am!”, laughed Jelbart.

Over 20, 000 people attended shows at fortyfivedownstairs in 2011, which equates to a LOT of sell out seasons. Music theatre (Dean Bryant and Matthew Frank’s musical Prodigal found life in the theatrical space), cabaret and burlesque (Toni Lamond, Rhonda Burchmore, Michael Griffiths, Paul Capsis and Meow Meow have all performed at the venue, each raving about the friendliness of the staff and the atmosphere) music recitals, and plays are all part the of fortyfivedownstairs yearly program.

Tomorrow night, an Anniversary Showcase, featuring performances from Fiona Roake (performer), Faye Bendrups and Guillermo Anad (tango musicians), Michael Dalley (performer), Benn Bennett (cabaret performer), Henry Manetta (singer), the inimitable Moira Finucane (The Burlesque Hour) and more – all returning to the venue to celebrate a golden 10 years.

All the proceeds from the event will go to the performers, a gesture which befits the fortyfivedownstairs ethos.

“Artists are asked too often to donate their time for one cause or another, and they always do. So in this case we are paying them rather than the other way round”, said Jelbart.

“It’s the performers and the artists who are the real patrons of the arts. They are giving audiences a gift”, said Jelbart.

If you are in Melbourne tomorrow evening, make sure you head to the little space that could, to help celebrate 10 wonderful years of theatre.

In her modest, but direct manner Mary Lou Jelbart just about sums it up:

“I think we have made a difference”.

fortyfivedownstairs Anniversary Showcase

Date: Saturday, 25 February 2012

Time: 7:30pm (duration 180 minutes)

Tickets: $45 (includes complimentary drink on arrival)

Venue: fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne

Bookings: 03 9662 9966 or

Erin James

Erin James is's former Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

Erin James

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