Perth In Profile: The Blue Room Theatre

Pictured: Perth Boys’ School, now PICA and The Blue Room Theatre. The latter is located frame right.

Words by: Jonathon Davidson

One thing you might not expect to have found under the floorboards of The Blue Room Theatre is an inkwell and fountain pens that had once been used for note-taking long, long before plastic bics had ever been invented. Well, this exactly what a team of exterminators recently discovered. The pens are up to one hundred and forty years old.

Rotunda Media reached out to The Blue Room Theatre Executive Director Kerry O’Sullivan to get the lesser known, almost-forgotten facts behind the iconic theatre.

Schoolyard Beginnings

Dusty and ornate classroom relics are by no means the only memories absorbed and preserved by the walls of The Blue Room Theatre, as the innards of the building have shifted and changed over time. The building itself goes all the way back to 1896* when it was the Perth Boys’ And Girls’ School. During this period, The Blue Room Theatre was a space used as a science block, a staff room and a technical drawing centre for the school. Apart from lingering items under floorboards and some brick etchings on the walls of PICA, there aren’t many signs left that a school ever existed there, although the building is certified with heritage status in the city of Perth. Not much of the exterior had changed since until the recent removal of some buildings that housed ArtRage offices. 

In 1989, the WA Actors Centre took hold of the building, and shortly after The Blue Room Theatre set up shop. It was named The Blue Room Theatre in honour of a separate establishment, also named The Blue Room, which was actually attached to the Northbridge Hotel. It was here the original actors and management team would meet and hangout in the years before occupying the space. According to Kerry, there was a brief initial moment where the theatre looked like it would be called ‘Swamp City Theatre,’ which is definitely a love-it-or-hate-it kind of name.

A Friend With Residency Is A Friend Indeed 

The original director, Tony Bonney, was only 21. It was he who had decided to go with The Blue Room as a name, after that title was included in an interior mural painted by artist Tom Alberts – you know the one. In the early 90’s, the building didn’t have heritage status and it was in a constant uneasy limbo where complete tear-down was seemingly imminent. One could argue that it was actually a combination of Tom Albert’s mural – uptaken one day on borderline impulse for $500 – and the long history of the building that came together to protect The Blue Room Theatre. As it turned out, Tom Albert was the first ever artist in residence at the Art Gallery of WA, and the team were able to not only secure historical heritage status with the city of Perth, but also register a West Australian “artwork of note” within their very walls. 

Clearly, Perth would have lost a solid creative powerhouse had The Blue Room Theatre ever been torn down. If you were a theatre regular, then things started changing for the better the same year operations commenced in 1989. One of the first shows that stuck in the team’s memory was called Harold’s Uterus. There are posters behind the bar, and it was a play about penis envy.

Slow Starts, Big Names and Good Causes 

The origin tales of at least two big Australian personalities are attached to The Blue Room Theatre – case in point, Rove McManus and Claire Hooper. When he was just 19 and an undergraduate, Rove was belting out comedy sets at The Blue Room Theatre – his local haunt. Comedy was a regular sight in those days – Judith Lucy and Dave Callan have also passed through – as were the antics of a local heavy metal band who had a pigs head in their drum kit and a passion for hurling dog food at the audience at the climax of their shows.

At the time, everything was youth directed – a lot of attention came from the Curtin guild who rented the space out on more than one occasion, and student mentality reigned supreme (did we mention the executive director was 21?) Early lighting setups were primitive: bust a hole in the roof and loop a light through.

To finish up, we asked Kerry about raucous stories, and got a response that isn’t surprising given all this background –  just the few drunk and rowdy instances that come with having an establishment in Northbridge, and a handful of times actors were caught in compromising positions. Local comedian Alex Manfrin once fell through the roof. Kerry labels it a “bit ramshackle” back in those days.

*This next bit isn’t really related to The Blue Room Theatre, just a little something for those playing at home: some fifty years later, the school went all “no girls allowed” after a girls’ college was built elsewhere in Perth and turned into the Perth Boys’ High School. That lasted ten years. After that, it became TAFE’s Perth Technical College, who the last residents before PICA set up shop in the James Street Mall – formerly the James Street Annexe. Also, the floor of the bar used to be the set of Barking Gecko’s ‘Frog Opera.’