Creating the State Theatre Stage Drop Curtain

Graham Bennett, Paul Kathner, Ross Turner, Kevin Pierce and Peter Petit painting the State Theatre curtain at Scenic Studios, Melbourne, 1984, Victorian Arts Centre Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

One items in our collection about which the Research Centre has received multiple enquiries this year is the Drop Curtain on the State Theatre stage.  I’m sure not many people realise that the curtain itself is an official museum object, catalogued into the Australian Performing Arts Collection!  Actually, it’s quite possibly the hardest working object we have, as it is never in storage and always takes pride of place, working nightly on stage.

Early design ideas for the curtain included using a method of embroidery and applique, (think Bayeux Tapestry) or even hand-weaving the entire curtain into a giant actual tapestry! As an artwork it would have been majestic indeed but may have dated over time. The medium of tapestry also was not going to work as a stage curtain which needs to be heavy for the correct drape but also requires the flexibility to fold and move quickly, easily and repeatedly.
John Truscott commissioned Graham Bennett to design the curtain in 1984. Bennett also designed and painted the beautiful celling of the Vic Restaurant. Next time you are in there, look up and admire his work.

The Design
Graham Bennett’s design features a representation of a lyrebird’s fanned tail as the centrepiece where the two halves of the curtain meet. A clustered spray of native flora comprising fern leaves, gum leaves and wattle flowers are painted on the far right and left lower sides; an exact mirror image of each other.  Above each of these, a smaller Victorian Coat of Arms is presented, on each top corner of the curtain.  In this insignia the female figures of Peace and Prosperity stand either side of the Southern Cross and a Kangaroo holding a crown.  The figure of Peace on the left, holds an olive branch and Prosperity on the right, has a cornucopia by her side.  They stand on a grassy mount with the State motto ‘Peace and Prosperity’ at the base of the figures. Depicting the Coat of Arms at a smaller size emphasises height of the curtain and allows the native flora and fauna motifs to dominate the eye.  Four ribbons draw all the elements of the curtain together. They hang vertically from the crests at each side and are laced through the bouquets.  Large golden curls of ribbon then work their way along the bottom section of the curtain becoming entwined in the lyrebird motif.

Painting the enormous curtain, Victorian Arts Centre Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

The Creation
The finished curtain is made of dense red upholstery velvet from Windsor Fabrics.  There was much interest in the curtain when our social media page posted some information on it and everyone asked “How did they get it looking so glimmery?”  In fact the surface was painted in multiple layers of “impasto”, a technique whereby the brushstrokes are thick and visible. Each layer was dried before adding the next, so that the result is a thick buildup of shimmering paint that glistens under the spotlights. The other secret about the paint itself is that there is gold leaf mixed through it.  When lit, the light bounces off the colour of the paint and the metallic gold particles, bringing out all the more brilliance to the piece.

The curtain cost $90,000 and was the gift of the then State Bank of Victoria. It took three months to create at Scenic Studios and the team who worked on it included Graham Bennett, Paul Kathner, Ross Turner, Kevin Pierce and Peter Petit.

By Claudia Funder, Collections Coordinator, Research Centre

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