Helen Madden’s theatre crusade began with an idea to bring open-air theatre to Melbourne with a bilingual summer theatre festival.
Helen developed the Epidavros Summer Festival idea in 1982, working in collaboration with the Northcote City Council and members of the local Greek community. After searching extensively across Melbourne for a perfect location, the Yarra riverbank at Fairfield Park became the obvious choice for open air theatre. The landscape already provided a natural amphitheatre and importantly it was also a hub of the Greek community in Melbourne.
Helen experimented with the festival concept in 1983 and 1984, using a pop-up scaffolding theatre built for each Epidavros Summer Festival season.
Each night featured one comedy and one tragedy, with one drama in English and one in Modern Greek. This mirrored the Ancient Greek practice of staging open air theatre as popular entertainment. In 1983 Euripides’ MEDEA was staged in Modern Greek, directed by Nick Skiadopoulos. LYSISTRATA by Aristophanes, was directed by Garry Down in English. The following year this bilingual program was reversed. In 1984, Meredith Rodgers directed IPHIGENIA IN AULIS, the Euripidean tragedy, staged in English. The comedy ECCLESIASOUZI by Aristophanes was directed by Thannassis Papastergiou in Modern Greek.
Melbourne’s audiences and reviewers were delighted with this new theatre scene. As The Melbourne Times described of Iphigenia in Aulis:
In 1985, the Festival’s success led the progressive Northcote Council to seek funding to build a permanent amphitheatre at the site.
Helen worked with the Council, Fairfield Residents’ Association and Greek and Commonwealth Governments to plan the construction of a permanent amphitheatre and its first five-year season. Helen also worked with Edmond & Corrigan Architects who designed the stunning 500-seat bush amphitheatre. Modelled on Epidavros Theatre, a 12,000 seat amphitheatre in southern Greece, the aim was to meet the most demanding theatrical needs while preserving the natural environment.
The Commonwealth Community Employment Program (CEP) financed the project. Unemployed workers were trained in stone-cutting skills to build the new permanent Fairfield Amphitheatre. Bluestone originally from Northcote gutters and laneways, was rescued from an old storage depot and used to build the theatre. The first Fairfield Amphitheatre board included members from the arts, community and corporate sectors. The Hon. Brian Howe, former Deputy Prime Minister and Member for Batman, was the inaugural Chairman.
Today, the stunning Fairfield Amphitheatre remains our ONLY professional outdoor theatre venue and Ancient Greek amphitheatre. It has the remarkable acoustic phenomenon in which a person whispering on stage can be heard through to the very back row, as per the most famous theatres of Ancient Greece. This phenomenon provides extraordinary acoustics and exists in no other venue in Victoria (or Australia).
In 1986, Playbox Theatre opened the first season of the permanent Fairfield Amphitheatre with THIS ANTIGONE by Sophocles, directed by the renowned James McCaughey.
Helen brought the Attis Theatre production of THE BACCHAE by Euripides, from Greece in 1987. The show outraged audiences for its brevity, violence and eroticism.
From 1987 the Epidavros Festival expanded into the Wang Summer Festival when it attracted significant corporate sponsorship. This support enabled the program to grow and feature opera, cinema under the stars, comedy, poetry, music and other theatrical events, until 1992.