In Memory of Carolyn, a Theatre.

In Memory of Carolyn, a Theatre.

Grief can be a surprising animal. After Andrew and Mary Beale tragically lost their daughter in an horrific car accident, they built a community theatre and gallery. $600,000 later Carolyn Theatre in Cororooke – in south-western Victoria - bears their baby’s name, and is a throbbing success. Lucy Graham travelled to Cororooke to meet the philanthropist behind the project.

Travelling over undulating hills, past cattle and lush pasture north-west of Colac, Red Rock Arts Gallery and Theatre is the first building to greet the traveller in Cororooke. With a population of 383 this pretty township seems an unlikely place for a theatre, yet this small dairy centre boasts an art gallery too.

Andrew Beale, the philanthropic force behind the town’s newest facility, is a striking figure and nothing like I expected. Wearing a hat (that I learn he’s rarely without), the local dairy farmer’s big-hearted eyes look out over a rampant beard.

Friend and fellow project designer, Kelvin Harman of Power Stage, says Andrew, who lives ‘just down the road’, is a guy who refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer.

‘Andrew bought the church and rang me,’ recalls Harman. ‘Initially I came down here to tell him to forget it, until I realised how serious he was. He knew he’d have to spend a lot of money and I thought, count me in. It’s a really fabulous project and good fun.’

After purchasing the disused Uniting Church in July 2011, Beale’s vision, persistence and work ethic saw the facility ready for opening just five months later. Touring the significant extension, renovation and fit-out, it is salient to recognise how much was achieved in such a small time frame.

A generous extension links the old church, circa 1903, with the old hall. The church has been transformed into a ravishing art gallery, and the hall into the Carolyn Theatre, with tiered seating, state of the art technology, projection facilities, disabled access, and an 80-seat capacity.

‘Andrew doesn’t take “no” for an answer, from the council, from anybody,’ laughs Harmen. ‘He just kept going. He decided to get a bobcat in and start digging holes, and the council would say, You cant do that, and he’d say, Well its my block I can dig a hole. And then he’d say, Its my hole I’m gonna fill it with concrete. Most of us wait for planning approval, but Andrew had it half-built before council came around and said yes it’s ok.’

One suspects Beale’s drive was at least in part due to the personal circumstances surrounding the project. After the tragic death of 18 month-old daughter Carolyn (pictured left) in a car accident in 2007, the Beale family had determined the theatre would be dedicated to her memory.

‘We were travelling back from a school concert over in Angelsea, and got cleaned up by a car coming through an intersection,’ says Beale. ‘We sort of sat on our bums for a while trying to recover. There were five of us in the car and all of us were admitted to hospital with multiple fractures.’

‘Once we got up and going again I [asked] a real estate agent in town to keep his eye out for a place [for the theatre]. There was one that came up out at Beeac, but I wasn’t really happy about where it was situated. There was nothing in Colac. Then just by chance this came up and it was the best of anything, the way it lent itself being made into a theatre.’

Hurdles included heritage considerations and council approval and registration of the changed of use of building. The facilities and amenities were updated to meet fire and health and safety requirements, and provision made for wheelchair access. But Beale has only warm things to say about the Otway Shire Council.

‘I think the community and council could see it was a worthwhile project and didn’t put a lot of blockages up there,’ he says. ‘They supported the project the whole way.’

And the community support continues. The not-for-profit project is run entirely by volunteers across four management arms.

Beale, a father of nine, dreamt up the concept after his life-long involvement in the local amateur group the Colac Players, who’ve planned to stage their next production at the Carolyn Theatre rather than the usual Colac Performing Arts Centre.

‘I enjoy art, and my kids are involved in music and art,’ Beale explains. ‘It was just something I felt was lacking in this area – a community facility that was affordable and accessible.’

During construction Beale was full-time on site, seeing a ‘bevy of tradies’ come and go. His warmest words of thanks are directed towards Kelvin Harman, with whom he worked closely. But Harman’s involvement extends well beyond his business interest in staging and tiered seating.

‘We did a lot of work on the acoustics of the building, and rendered the whole thing, which has kept it live but taken the echo out,’ explains Harman. ‘It’s beautiful for music recitals now. Its all state of the art - computer lighting, lighting desk, full audio system, full talkback backstage and down the wings, and projection.’

A higher-than-usual ceiling in the original hall left ample space for rigging, and width enough for wings. On stage are eight entry points, and the provision of white or black back-drop. A digital projector enables the screening of films and projected images.

‘If you take the curtains out you can fit an eight meter box set in here,’ says Harman, ‘the same size as you can on the Playhouse stage in Melbourne.’

‘We had good consultants, Geelong based MultiTek. They really got behind the project, helped us out with price, and they did the fit out and all the hard-wired stuff.’

‘The whole time we planned on dedicating the building to Carolyn,’ says Beale.

Backstage is generous, with change rooms, a technical room, professional lighting system with 48 channels, showers, toilets, and a meeting/green room.

Performers and patrons alike are voting with their feet. In the nine months since opening, 2,000 visitors have attended eight productions and Carolyn Theatre now hosts a newly formed film society, drawing members from 30 – 40 kilometres around.

The Uniting Church is ‘ecstatic’ about what has happened to the old church, and patrons include those who’ve been visiting these buildings since childhood.

Currently exhibiting on the theme of the volcanic plains, a delightful gallery space is the other half of the complex. Only open on weekends, it also boasts 2,000 visitors in nine months and provides artist development opportunities.

‘A week before this gallery opened, Andrew decided it needed something. A chandelier! And then he and I put it up,’ gasps Harman. ‘I’ve never had a more stressful day. I’ve never been so scared in all my life.’

Red Rock Arts Gallery and Carolyn Theatre is clearly a source of pride for the whole community, and successfully supports local arts. But the community’s embrace is only possible because of Beale’s graciousness. His heart and soul have created a community hub, yet he’s not totally invested in it.

‘He basically built this and delivered it to the community,’ says Harman. ‘Now he’s on the committee, and he doesn’t agree with everything they’re doing. It’s not his now, but he’s still part of it. ‘

More from Kelvin Harman of Power Stage