It all started with a big bang!
Home of the Powderkeg Players. Est.1971. Community Theatre based in Sunshine, Vic, Australia. Affiliated with the Victorian Drama League.
The History of the Powderkeg Players
(Sunshine Community Theatre Inc – The Deer Park Drama Group)
1971 – 2021
The Wurundjeri aboriginals who lived and hunted on the land around modern day Deer Park and Sunshine are believed to have used the word ‘Kororoit‘ in describing male kangaroos that they shared their habitat with. With white settlement and exploration, the name ‘Kororoit’ was given to creek which flowed slowly through this area eventually out to the bay. At that time, the Kororoit Creek area was largely untouched, some ten miles of rugged bushland from the fledging port city of Melbourne.
The discovery of gold in Victoria’s west in the 1850’s called for the creation of roads and bridges across Kororoit Creek and its area, leading to some settlement in the region. The Melbourne Hunting Club began to use the Kororoit Creek area for sport in the middle part of nineteenth century and housed their bountiful game deer in an area they called ‘Deer Park’. The Hunt Club building still stands today on Ballarat road in Deer Park, near the football ground and serves as community services building.
As rush for gold depleted and the need for large deep-lead gold mining ensued, so the need for the building of explosives factories that could be used in the western Victorian goldfields. The government of the day choose Deer Park due its relative location on the Ballarat road and train lines, its overall proximity to the growing inner western suburbs and it’s largely remote surroundings.
The Explosives Factory
Water was used from Kororoit Creek to supply the ever expanding Albion Explosives factory which had it busiest times during the era of world wars in the early part of the twentieth century. The Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) company which operated the factories in Deer Park began commercial housing estate in the area after the wars, hoping to attract a new generation into its work force.
Deer Park primary school sat on the corner of Ballarat Road and Station road for nearly a century as the population of the surrounding area grew and Deer Park went from rural outpost to inner suburb of Melbourne’s sprawling west. Towards the end of 1970, the Parents and Teachers Association of the school asked one of the school’s teachers, Rod Cuthberston to produce a play in order to raise funds.
With a cast of nine teachers and five parents, the show was produced at a local church hall for three nights in December of that year, receiving such a good reception from the residents of Deer Park that forming an amateur drama group was proposed.
Deer Park Drama Group
The inaugural meeting of the Deer Park Drama Group was held at the Primary School on the 22nd February 1971 attended by 23 people. Mr Edmund Thorton, a well-known Melbourne theatrical director and actor, chaired the meeting and in his address to those present let them know of the challenges and rewards that faced the running of such a group. Mr John Dobson, a representative from the Victorian Drama League gave a speech on the function of the collective body and was later elected as the group’s first Secretary. Rod Cuthberston was elected President. At subsequent committee meetings the constitution and club rules were presented and accepted.
From then on the Deer Park Drama Group began to produce plays, with the melodrama ‘Only An Orphan Girl’ being the company’s inaugural production. It was followed later that year by the thriller ‘Murder For The Asking’ and then three one act plays, a drama, a comedy and a farce in season end triple bill. These plays continued to be performed in the local church hall; however following the opening production of 1972 ‘Bad Seed’, the Group was no longer able to use the venue. It was decided that rather than let the Group go into recess, they would enter various one act drama festivals around Victoria, winning numerous awards in the process.
The Powderkeg Playhouse
The search for a new home for the group continued during 1972 and it was becoming apparent that no venue in the Deer Park/Sunshine area was suited to theatre structure. The Deer Park Drama Group began protracted negotiations with the Commonwealth Department of Supply and late in 1972 they were granted a lease hold of three unused buildings on the station road side of the Albion Explosive Factory. These buildings, an office, a mess-hall and an amenities block were fenced off from the rest of the factory while the company waited for power and water to be connected.
In December that year, a triple bill of one act plays, a satire, a dram and a comedy were presented in the round at the Deer Park Scout Hall, on Station road, not far from where their new home would be. The group moved in the new buildings on March 2nd 1973 and began the process of converting the buildings into a playhouse. It was decided to call the building the ‘Powderkeg Playhouse’ a reference to the former use of the buildings and its surrounding areas in producing explosives. Soon after, the Deer Park Drama Group decided to change its name and adopt the playhouse in their title; they became ‘The Powderkeg Players’.
For the next two and half decades the playhouse saw the staging of 85 major productions and became the spiritual home of amateur theatre in Melbourne’s western suburbs. The Powderkeg players were the only group in the area, stretching from Williamstown Little Theatre and the Essendon Theatre Company (est. 1976) all the way out to Melton and beyond.
With a population in western Melbourne growing to almost half a million by the mid-eighties, the need for usable community housing and infrastructure was recognised by the government in the decommissioning of former defence land at Deer Park and turning it into new housing estates. The former home of the Wurundjeri and site of the Albion Explosive Factory now became paved with the trappings of suburbia, with a new estate popping up to the service the population. This expansion included the widening of Station Road in Deer Park, the land that the Powderkeg Playhouse was situated. In 1987 Station road was doubled to become a dual carriage way on both sides, but the playhouse survived, now situated on an island on a major thoroughfare along with some other original buildings of the explosive works that were re-commissioned for other uses, including a Girl Guides hall a few hundred metres down the road.
As the western Suburbs grew and merged together with new estates overlapped old ones, the Powderkeg Players rose into their golden age. Now the group was producing up to five shows a year, with each dragging in an audience of almost one thousand people a season to the Playhouse. It was at this time that the Powderkeg Players realised its recognition in the wider western suburbs community and decided to adopt the name ‘Sunshine Community Theatre’, also partially in the hope of wider local government support too. The suffix ‘Home of the Powderkeg Players’ was added to the group’s title and remains to this day. Sunshine Community Theatre became an incorporated body under the incorporations act and introduced a new constitution while continuing to perform in their ‘theatre in the middle of the road’ Powderkeg Playhouse.
The End of the Playhouse
On one otherwise uneventful evening in 1997, a truck driving north along Station Road passed the playhouse before the driver lost control and ploughed in the Girl Guides Hall up the road. The accident lead VicRoads, the government body responsible for the road to declare all buildings situated on the medium strip between to the carriage ways on Station Road must be demolished in order to improve road safety.
It was seemingly inconsequential motion which would improve the overall safety of those who happen to continue their driving once they had left the safety of bitumen on Station Road, but would destroy the 25 year home of Sunshine Community Theatre.
The theatre community however, spoke out in protest. A committee was formed to fight the demolishing and contacted local and national media in order to gain support for their cause. The company was giving less than six months’ notice to evacuate their belongings from the building. It was a seemingly impossible task given the group had collected sets and props form two and half decades of shows and was run only on a volunteer basis.
The group fought on three fronts. One; to establish who the rightful owner of the land was and if it was not VicRoads, then to lobby the owners to keep the building. Two; to lobby the local and state governments in support of finding a new or purpose built venue in the Sunshine/Brimbank area. Three; to ask for compensation and/or a replacement for the venue directly from VicRoads. The group was unsuccessful in all three attempts as VicRoads -which is government run, owned the land and had no desire to help replace the demolished buildings. The group was expected to pay all outstanding rent on building up until their eviction on December 31st 1998.
The government wrote to the group demanding final notice of eviction and a guarantee the group would have its belongings out of the venue. In a reply, the group asked for extended time in clearing out its property and that was granted, but also gave a guarantee that the group would fold indefinitely. It didn’t. Though the group came perilously close to voting itself out of existence, members who wished to see SCT continue gave themselves a twenty-four months window to find a new home. The last show to be performed at the Powderkeg Playhouse was ‘The Real Inspector Hound’ by Tom Stoppard.
Years of Transition
With the group continuing, all property was taken into storage into a factory in sunshine, where the group also held some rehearsals. Included in this was the originals chairs from the Playhouse, many of them had plaques commemorating the members who had donated financially to the company over the years. The equipment was planned to be installed into a new venue, once it could be established where that would be.
While the group was unable to find a new home, much of the equipment was spread amongst members who could store it and much was lost to the natural attrition of moving regularly to new storage.
The theatre company had to continue to perform theatre, the very core of their existence. A pantomime was planned for 1999 and a venue found at Footscray Primary School. The show was ‘James and Giant Peach’ and was SCT’s first show away from the playhouse since 1973. Other venues were searched, including ‘The Tin Shed’ in St. Albans where the company performed the famous Australian play ‘The Club’ by David Williamson and another pantomime ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in 2000 and 2001 respectively. The company came close to using the Bon Thomas hall in West Sunshine, but was foiled by council restrictions in the area.
Around this time, The Brimbank City Council discovered through a stock take of its facilities, that it owned a small multi-purpose hall in Phoenix Street, North Sunshine. The venue, Dempster Park Hall, had been run by the local Italian Citizens club who had made a fair amount of money from hiring the hall out on weekends.
The council offered SCT the use of the venue under generous conditions, with the group able to store their equipment in there. Plans were undertaken to install a lighting rig, three phase power, dressing rooms and a stage. Over the next few years, all these important areas of theatre were installed. The last of these the stage, was eventually built in 2014.
While Dempster Park Hall has did not at that time have a permanent stage suitable for use by the theatre company, it quickly became a new home and while not quite a ‘new’ Powderkeg Playhouse, it did move the group permanently into the centre of Sunshine.
Dempster Park Hall offered a central location, with plenty of parking, close to amenities and neighbouring two childcare centres, a local football/cricket oval and a tennis club. SCT had moved into the heartland and was now sharing recreation space with other community groups in representing Sunshine. Before amendments could be made to the building, SCT staged a performance of ‘Dimboola’ complete without sets and lights. It became the first of many productions in the new venue.
A New Home at Dempster Park
Throughout the three year process of evacuating the playhouse, being stuck in no-man’s land and finding a new home, the company lost a number of loyal members who had contributed to the growth of the group throughout the years. The change of location and the loss of resources hit the group hard and the number of productions a year was reduced. Occasionally, during spasmodic periods of excitement, a number of members and former members would get together to bring regular theatre seasons to Dempster Park Hall, as in 2005 when 4 productions were staged. Then the numbers would again drop off as in 2007 when only one production was staged. The first five years in the new location was almost a cooling off period for the group, as it settled into the new restrictions of a venue it now shares with a local church, council meetings, bingo nights and hiring out on weekends to various party groups.
The astonishing reality of performing at Dempster Park Hall now meant that the company had to pack away its entire set and stage, each night, after a performance and re-set it again the next day. In what would amount in theatre terms to ‘bumping in’ and ‘bumping out’ on a daily basis in the same venue, the company faced server restrictions in its use of the venue compared to hosting shows in its own playhouse. Again, the unique challenges faced and poor management contributed to a lack of membership and a loss of returns during these years.
The New Wave
A new wave began to develop towards the end of the decade. A new group of talented locals joined the company who had not been part of the group while it existed in the Powderkeg Playhouse. New artists bought new talents which enthused long standing members and the company once again started staging regular performances and pantomimes.
The annual children’s pantomime has become an event on the community calendar and is usually sold out well before opening night. Some of the children’s plays were written by a resident playwright including ‘Fluffy’s Christmas’, ‘High Seas Adventure’, Firehosue Zoo’ and ‘Jen and the Magic Mud’. While kids have also entertained their audience with more familiar tales like ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of the Black Forest’ and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’.
In 2011, the committee set about deciding the long term venue for the future. The hard decision needed to be made to stay at Dempster Park Hall or look elsewhere in the community for a long term solution. After several meetings with the council, it was decided to peg down roots and make Dempster Park home and by 2014, the council funded and built a permanent performance stage. A new lighting system was invested in and the continued success of shows meant the group had money to advance their on-stage technologies and the offstage reach.
In 2015, the company won Best Production (Drama) in a tie with Williamstown Little Theatre at the Victorian Drama League Awards, for the production of ‘Ruben Guthrie’ directed by Rachel Holt and starring Travis Handcock in the title role. The amazing win catapulted the company into the headlines a major success story. The only show in the rich history of the company to have won a major award.
Name Change Back To Powderkeg
In 2018, Sunshine Community Theatre voted to change its name back to the ‘Powderkeg Players’ to honour its heritage. With a new name, came a new brand and some powerful new theatre.
Powderkeg entered the 2018 one-act play festival circuit with the one-act play ‘Slut’ by Patricia Cornelius and won five out six festivals with an outstanding performance and direction. In 2019 Powderkeg staged ‘The Beast’ which was an MTC hit written by Eddie Perfect and staged in an amphitheatre style placing the show on the floor and the audience on the stage. The Beast was a huge hit with a sell-out season and won second place in the Victorian Drama League awards for Best Comedy.
The worldwide Covid 19 pandemic in 2020 knocked out any theatre performance for 2020, but the company returned it’s anniversary year of 2021 with Popcorn by Ben Elton which include nine shows squeezed between Melbourne lockdowns to big audiences keen to get out of the house.
Today, the company continues to grow. As with the age, many things have moved online including websites, ticketing, promotions and social media. The tentacles of the company continue to reach through the wider community while the heart of the company still beats true.
More than twenty years on, a road sign on the corner of Station Road and Ballarat Road in Deer points in the direction of the old playhouse and reads ‘Sunshine Community Theatre’. The road sign sits on a pole in front of the now vacant sight of the former Deer Park Primary School. A fitting tribute to where it all began, oh so many years ago.