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A man with short brown hair wearing a dark button-down shirt stares directly at the viewer. They are standing backstage in a theatre
Photograph: Mark Gambino

Future Shapers: Matthew Lutton, who wants to make the arts more accessible

Malthouse's artistic director is pushing for performances that are free from physical, cultural and economic barriers

Nicola Dowse
Written by
Nicola Dowse

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in this Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe), Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability VictoriaPat Nourse (creative director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits, who is in a separate business partnership with Tamasein Holyman) and Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoriato help us identify the people and organisations changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In the arts, one such person is Matthew Lutton, artistic director and co-CEO of Malthouse Theatre

The world of theatre is changing – at least according to Matthew Lutton. “There’s a change happening in theatre companies themselves having to acknowledge that you can’t just make one type of theatre. Because one type of theatre generates one type of audience,” he says. Appointed in 2015 as Malthouse’s youngest artistic director (as well as the youngest director of any theatre company in Australia at the time), Lutton has carved a career marked by an embrace of change.

At Malthouse that means forging theatre that is equal parts “provocation and entertainment”, with a vision that doesn’t so much step outside the square, as it is yanked off the stage with a vaudeville hook. “We embrace the idea of an eclectic, theatrical spectrum and that there's many different types of theatre. Hence, we use many different spaces for the outdoors, indoors and different art forms, ”Lutton says. Malthouse isn’t just offering a show where you sit down and enjoy two acts and an interval – it’s about theatre, music, dance and immersive performances. “These are all the wide variety of types of theatre experiences that can be created, and that we can offer them all in one place.”

The poster child for that eclectic approach right now is of course Because the Night, the immersive choose-your-own-adventure where the audience wanders freely throughout a labyrinthine set while a Hamlet-inspired performance takes place around them (it runs till late September and will be followed by five new shows, including a collaboration with choreographer Stephanie Lake). While similar performances have occurred overseas (notably Punch Drunk’s Sleep No More), Because the Night stands out as the first performance of its kind in Australia. “That's a very different type of theatre to one where you [passively] witness,” says Lutton. “There's an audience that are really energised by the idea of choice.”

While the show’s format bends the rules of theatre, it’s also an incredibly accessible performance. And the issue of accessibility in the arts is one that is becoming increasingly pertinent – not just in terms of physical access, but in terms of social, economic and cultural access. “We're a very cultural city. But I think we can have more,” says Lutton. “I think we can see a city [where] its cultural offerings are more culturally diverse. I think we can see a more decolonised layer of culture being very present in our city. I also think it would be amazing if we became a city that's known for accessibility – meaning that people can see culture, no matter their economic background or socio-political background.”

Already there are signs that Melbourne is shifting in terms of its cultural landscape. The city is seeing the first shoots of a new wave of writers in Melbourne, and it’s a wave that’s “quite a shift from what we’re used to. “There is certainly a sense of a new wave of voices that I think are very different to the playwriting we saw even 15 years ago,” Lutton says. “It's very different to the morality that writers were basing their plays on in the 20th century. It's very often very political, sometimes very angry, but uses a lot of humor and satire.”

Creating a more accessible arts industry, however, does mean that our major creative players are going to have to start paving the way. “I think a lot of the time the shift needs to occur within institutions,” Lutton says. “And institutions by their nature often take their time and it's often difficult and painful to shift. Institutions have to lean into the pain and make the change. There is a lot of talk about how we can remove the barriers for people that are not able to afford certain types of live performance. Or for audience members that find the physical spaces uninviting or a barrier in themselves, or don't feel like the work is speaking to them, and doesn't involve their lived experiences.”

“I think all those things are part of a complex fabric of things that need to change.”

Read about more of our Future Shapers

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