SongWays Grainery Lane Theatre & Art Gallery
Grainery Lane 2017, Photograph and Source: Georgina Williams
Hidden within this impressive 1883 bluestone building - home to the Grainery Lane Theatre and Gallery in the 1990s and early 2000s - are recycled supporting timber beams from Ballarat's gold rush Charlie Napier Theatre in Main Road (rebuilt after the famous 1861 fire). The building was not originally purposed for a theatre, but a grain store. But in 1993, Barnstorm Theatre's 'Rebellion' by Chris Dickins, was the first to convert the building, then named 'Besemeres', into a theatre. Their production, centring around gold, Eureka Stockade and the Spanish conquistadors, showcased the talent of students from the music theatre course at the University of Ballarat (now FedUni).
Shortly afterwards, the space changed hands and, through a number of different organisational structures over the years, Grainery Lane Theatre and Gallery soon became home to a conglomeration of small theatre companies, actors, theatre makers and a gallery as well as circus classes for adults and children.
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Grainery Lane News Fortnightly, 2005 issues, Photography: Geoffrey Williams, Source: Kiri Smart
By around 1997 Kiri Smart was managing the workshops, the gallery and booking temporary liquor licences to create a 'pop-up' venue for bands. At the same time a change of ownership at ‘The Rat’ (Bridge Mall Inn), with a new commercial focus away from including community bands in the bill, meant that their legendary booker Paddy O'Driscoll was looking for somewhere new. He approached Grainery Lane. The new venture was going to require a permanent liquor licence so they could host the bands, great and small, who were instrumental to the thriving Ballarat music scene at the time.
This move triggered an inspired chapter in live music in Ballarat presented through the lens of theatre and more than a tinge of cabaret. The audience – a large portion of whom were musicians, artists and students – loved it.
Spectrum Girl Artwork, Photography: Georgina Williams Source: Kiri Smart
Kiri Smart remembers the wide range of events that were supported there: ‘All-ages events were an important part of Grainery Lane – we ran FreeZA events and we even had a Church of Christ rock band all-ages gig.’
Bands in boats, flying foxes, cricket nets, angels playing saxophones hanging from scaffolding and people from all walks of life all found a home here. ‘It was a place where they were able to open the stage for “neat moments of chaos”,’ remembers performer and Banana Lounge organiser Mick Trembath. Like an argument in the bar that was mistaken for a well-scripted performance; the night the curtain came down on Dave Graney when he played on too long and there were people suspended in the rafters waiting to come down (Banana Lounge 2005, now immortalised in a song by local famed, singer songwriter Pat McCabe); one festival opening when a man dressed as a giant banana mounted a scaffold tower that was erected on stage, then shot out through the curtains as the fans eagerly awaited the opening band and effectively flew overhead on a handmade flying fox straight into the green room ... the Mayor with crown on head and banana sceptre in hand was ready to dance with the people to the sounds of 'Worako Musica'.
Grainery Lane performance 2003, Photographer:Tim Bignell
Banana Lounge 2000, Grainery Lane Source: Rex Hardware
Banana Lounge was the sort of happening that could easily fit into the Melbourne Fringe Festival. It wasn't a set of gigs; it was performance theatre, including crazy spoken word artists. People wore dress ups and funny hats. Sometimes stilt walkers walked around at the bar, just for fun.
Ballarat News July 23 2003, Source: Kiri Smart; Herald Sun 2004, Photo Norm Oorloff, Source: Kiri Smart
All this outlandish entertainment would not have been possible without the willingness to take risks, a great sense of humour, extraordinary creativity and vast numbers of volunteer hours. And it wouldn't have survived as long as it did without Rex Hardware getting on board, supported by SMB (now Federation University) and having sound and light production students come in and use the venue as a learning ground. From 1999 to 2005 Rex and his team recorded over 500 hours of footage and took 3000 photos at Banana Lounge. Bands also used it as the perfect rehearsal space at the beginning of the week while the bar was open and there were no bookings.
Musician, Geoff Hassall, who was new to town in the early 2000s, remembers Banana Lounge giving the Funky Turtles their first gig, ‘not as a disability gig, just as a regular music gig’. The Funky Turtles have gone on to great success as a writing, recording and performing group who, as they say, ‘don’t let their disabilities stand between them, and a creative life’.
Stuffest, Grainery Lane 2000, Source: Kiri Smart; Banana Lounge 2005 Grainery Lane, Source: Geoffrey Hassall
Banana Lounge was a once-a-year winter festival which ran between 1999–2005. For the rest of the year, bands were playing throughout the week adding up to thousands of musicians playing there over the years. As you have probably guessed, Grainery Lane wasn't your usual venue; even its construction was unique for a performance space. The floor sits way above the ground because when it was originally built to store grain, they had to leave space underneath the building to push the carts of grain in and out. Mick Trembath explains, ‘The floor connects to the roof through a bracing structure, creating something not unlike a giant guitar. When Bucket Rider came to play ... they managed to hit one particular note which rang Grainery Lane like a soundboard and let out a tiny sonic boom. At that moment, everyone in the room was pushed back by force of the resonant frequency.’ Apparently, shortly afterwards, they got a call from the nightclub up the road, 21 Arms, saying, ‘What was that?’.
Grainery Lane 2003, Photographer and Source: Tim Bignell
Like many of the venues in the vibrant post-punk era in Ballarat, including The Camp, Grainery Lane was running on a huge amount of enthusiasm, volunteer hours, high levels of creativity and masses of love.
Banana Lounge 2000 - Grainery Lane Theatre 'Hap Hayward & Paddy O'Driscoll'
Kiri remembers, ‘the venue suffered from being tiny at the front and enormous and freezing at the back. There simply wasn't enough capital to capitalise on the space’.
Grainery Lane 2003, Photographer and Source: Tim Bignell