Matrix Theatre is one of Australia’s leading independent theatre companies. Formed in 1994 by Michael Futcher and Helen Howard, this multi-award-winning company has established a national reputation for presenting high-quality, vibrantly innovative new works which have been inspired by true-life stories, and the best of world literature.
Over its history, Matrix has consistently pushed stylistic boundaries and tackled a wide range of themes and subject matter. Its inaugural production in 1994, was an absorbingly contrasted pair of psychological two-handers: Lunch by Steven Berkoff, and The Woods by David Mamet. Both were performed by Michael and Helen above a night club in Woolloongabba, on a budget of less than $200, and firmly established the company as a viable alternative to the existing mainstream fare.
A year later, inspired by Theatre de Complicite’s marvellous ensemble work, the company embarked on an ambitious two-production open-air experiment, working with large ensemble casts, live musicians and braving the winter elements at Mt Coot-tha Botanical Gardens. The first of these productions, “The King and the Corpse!” was devised by the ensemble, improvising from a handful of Sanskrit tales, and written up every night by Michael and Helen. From first rehearsal to opening night, the process took an exhilarating six weeks, and guaranteed a wider audience for the company as flocks of new theatregoers happily rugged up against the cold, armed with wine and picnics, to experience theatre at its most elemental, within the tranquil surroundings of the gardens. Such was the success of the show John Kotzas immediately booked it for the inaugural Brisbane Festival, where it was performed in the Royal Circle of Palms at the City Botanical Gardens, in September 1996. The King and the Corpse! subsequently won Matrix its first Matilda Award Commendation, and went on to be published by Playlab Press.
1347, the second of Matrix’s open-air shows, and companion piece to The King and the Corpse! was inspired by Boccaccio’s “Decameron”, and continued the company’s exploration of storytelling through the ages. 1347 examined the tale of a group of Florentine youths escaping the onset of the great plague, and how telling stories reaffirmed their will to live. Devised in a similar fashion to its predecessor in just six weeks, and once again performed by a large cast and live musicians under the stars in the Mt Coot-tha Botanical Gardens, 1347 trebled the audience numbers of the previous year and delighted theatregoers with its immediacy, raucous humour and physicality.
While the outdoor experiments in the gardens were continuing, high-quality contemporary texts were also investigated by the company to be performed in mainstream venues. Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Frank McGuinness’s harrowing but darkly humorous story of an Englishman, Irishman and American being held captive by Arabs in Lebanon, proved to be a perfect choice. Directed by Lewis Jones, the play struck a chord with audiences and critics alike, selling out at the old La Boite Theatre in Hale St, winning three Matilda Awards.
1997 and 1998 saw a changing of the company’s focus in the way a play was developed. Teaming up with dramaturge Janis Balodis, Michael and Helen set about bringing to life the true story of Iranian political refugee Mohammed (Cieavash) Arean, a musician who had worked on The King and the Corpse! His amazing story of imprisonment and escape from Iran, married to the parallel story of the 1992 raid on the Iranian Embassy in Canberra, formed the basis of A Beautiful Life – which has probably become Matrix’s most well-known production. With financial assistance from Arts Queensland and the Australia Council, Matrix collaborated with The Brisbane Festival and La Boite to bring the play to the stage in 1998, at La Boite, Hale St, to great critical and audience acclaim. The play won a Matilda Award, was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, and was nominated for an AWGIE. The production then toured nationally in 2000 with Performing Lines, winning four Green Room Awards, was nominated for two others, and was recorded for ABC radio. A Beautiful Life has since become a modern classic, being regularly studied in schools and universities around Australia, and published by Currency Press.
Alongside the seasons of A Beautiful Life, Matrix continued to stretch boundaries in rehearsal technique and form with two very different styles of production. In 1999, Lewis Jones once again took the helm as director for Matrix’s first Shakespearean production, Hamlet, alongside Helen as choreographer and Michael in the title role. Presented at the Merivale Studio in co-production with QPAC, Hamlet incorporated Matrix’s trademark physicality with strong ensemble playing, showcasing the talents of some of Brisbane’s finest actors. Then in 2000, drawing on Mike Leigh’s detailed character-based improvisational methods, Matrix created Cutting Loose – a three-handed comedy/thriller, devised, rehearsed and staged in a chaotic six-weeks, in the atmospheric Princess Theatre. The production was also part of a wider season of plays incorporating many other independent companies, designed to attract people to the historic venue and to keep it theatrically viable.
In 2001, Matrix once again looked to classic literature for its inspiration, and as part of the Powerhouse Incubation programme run by Zane Trow, developed its own adaptation of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita which was presented as two enthusiastically-received staged readings in the Visy Theatre, where the theatrical potential of the work was recognised, but alas no viable co-producer was found. Matrix still hopes to stage this extraordinary piece one day.
Shortly afterwards, Matrix was approached by the Queensland Government and the Queensland Arts Council to develop a school’s show based on the newly consolidated Queensland Constitution. This seemingly impossible initiative headed by Peter Beattie and the Premier’s Department, resulted in Michael and Helen’s play, Citizen Jane, which had its first performance on Queensland Day 2002 at Bundamba SHS, featuring then government minister Matt Foley in a cameo role as the speaker of the house. The highly successful and zany production, telling the story of a totally weird accidental brain swap between the Premier and a year six student, as a way of examining the content of the constitution, then toured Queensland schools successfully during 2002 and 2003.
The genesis of Matrix’s next work, The Drowning Bride, occurred in 2003 when Brisbane painter Elise Parups recounted to Michael and Helen an amazing story about her Latvian grandfather, who had collaborated with the Nazis in World War Two. The concept was taken to Sean Mee at La Boite and he did not hesitate in commissioning the play. Over the next two years the idea was painstakingly developed, in consultation with Elise, and with dramaturgical assistance once again from Janis Balodis, culminating in a production at the Roundhouse Theatre in 2005, which was highly acclaimed and was described in The Australian newspaper as “the best Queensland play and the best Queensland production in years”. The production went on to win three Matilda Awards, the play was published by Currency Press and it was also shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. Most importantly for Michael and Helen however, the play facilitated a positive cathartic reaction for Elise and her family upon seeing the play.
Within a year of the staging of The Drowning Bride, another true-life story was presented to Matrix, this time by Sasha Janowicz, who had written a new documentary play, The Kursk, about the Russian submarine disaster of 2000. Through six years of research and many interviews, Sasha had formulated an alternative view of the cause of the tragedy to the one perpetuated by most Western media sources. The subject matter was of sufficient moment for the play to be accepted into the 2007 Metro Arts Independents Programme, then was developed further by Sasha, Michael and cast before playing a highly successful opening season at the Sue Benner Theatre. Within a few weeks Critical Stages expressed an interest in touring the show nationally, and in 2009, what began as a tiny chamber piece rehearsed in what amounted to one-and-a-half weeks, was toured to 34 venues around the country in what was at the time one of the largest ever tours of an Independent company in Australia. The Kursk evolved into one of Matrix’s most successful and widely-seen productions, winning three Matilda Awards, and a Helpmann Award nomination for Best Touring Production. Playlab Press published Sasha’s play in 2009.
Before The Kursk’s national tour, Matrix began a new collaboration with La Boite Theatre, based on a series of histories from Helen’s own family background as well as from the story of a renowned Melbourne chef of the 1950’s. The Wishing Well marked a return to Matrix’s extreme actor-driven work of the mid 1990’s, and utilized a highly physical storytelling style coupled with songs and choral work, whilst also drawing on the dramaturgy of Janis Balodis. With financial assistance from the Australia Council, the production played a highly successful season at the Roundhouse Theatre in 2008, presented by La Boite, and was lauded for its inventive ensemble-driven style and the moving subject matter.
2011 saw Matrix’s first collaboration with Queensland Theatre Company, on a new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island for two actors, to tour Queensland schools. Its first season proved so popular across a wide range of ages, that the production then toured to 45 venues Australia-wide in 2012, before a short season at the Gold Coast Bleach Festival in early 2013, followed by a run at the Spiegeltent as part of the 2013 Brisbane Festival. The portability and wide appeal of the production has enshrined it as one of Matrix’s most popular shows and it remains in the company’s repertoire.
In 2015, Matrix in association with Metro Arts, revived one of the highlights of the 2011 Queensland Music Festival – Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano Lessons, based on Anna’s highly-popular memoir of the same name. Piano Lessons charts Anna’s profound musical journey from beginner to artist, and details her moving and intense relationship with piano teacher, Eleonora Sivan. Originally commissioned by the Queensland Music Festival in 2011, Piano Lessons played to enthusiastic audiences at the Cremorne Theatre, then toured Queensland in 2013 with Artour. The 2015 tour, with Anna Goldsworthy and Helen performing, and Michael directing, began at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, moved to the Melbourne Recital Hall for a sold-out season, then played at two more regional venues in Victoria and Queensland. This much-loved production also remains in the company’s repertoire and further tours are planned.
Throughout 2016 and 2017, Matrix is developing several new works, including Haneef, about the arrest and detention of Dr Haneef in 2007, and Eleni Conomos-Hoare’s Indiscriminate Act, about the incarceration of journalist Peter Greste. Matrix also continues its program of school residencies, at Brisbane Girls Grammar School and Clayfield College, as well as launching, with Metro Arts, a new tour of Piano Lessons.