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24 April, 2020

Working on the State Theatre curtain

Image: Kevin Pierce painting the curtain at Scenic Studios, Melbourne, 1984
Top insert: Kevin Pierce, Peter Pettit and Nicholas Register working on the curtain
Lower insert: Ross Turner, Founder Scenic Studios and Head of the project
Image: provided by Kevin Pierce

If you’ve ever been to see a performance in the magnificent State Theatre you will have no doubt admired the Act Drop – State Theatre curtain on the State Theatre stage. It is quite possibly the hardest working object we have in the Public Art Collection, as it takes pride of place, working nightly and being admired by thousands!

Act Drop, State Theatre Curtain

'Act Drop – State Theatre'
Public Art Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Design and construction

In 1984 John Truscott commissioned Graham Bennett to design the curtain. Bennett’s design features a representation of a lyrebird’s fanned tail as the centrepiece where the two halves of the curtain meet. A clustered spray of native flora comprising fern leaves, gum leaves and wattle flowers are painted on the far right and left lower sides; an exact mirror image of each other. Above each, a smaller Victorian Coat of Arms is presented, on each top corner of the curtain. In this insignia the female figures of Peace and Prosperity stand either side of the Southern Cross and a Kangaroo holding a crown. The figure of Peace on the left, holds an olive branch and Prosperity on the right, has a cornucopia by her side. They stand on a grassy mount with the State motto ‘Peace and Prosperity’ at the base of the figures. Depicting the Coat of Arms at a smaller size emphasises height of the curtain and allows the native flora and fauna motifs to dominate the eye. Four ribbons draw all the elements of the curtain together. They hang vertically from the crests at each side and are laced through the bouquets. Large golden curls of ribbon then work their way along the bottom section of the curtain becoming entwined in the lyrebird motif.

Painting the curtain at Scenic Studios

Peter Pettit painting the curtain at Scenic Studios, 1984
Image: provided by Kevin Pierce

The finished curtain by Scenic Studios took over three months to produce, is 11 metres wide x 11.2 metres high and made of dense red upholstery velvet from Windsor Fabrics. It cost $90,000 and was a gift of the then State Bank of Victoria.

Audiences always ask “How did they get it looking so glimmery?”. The secret… the surface was painted in multiple layers of ‘impasto’, a technique whereby the brushstrokes are thick and visible. Each layer was dried before adding the next, so that the result is a thick build-up of paint that glistens under the spotlights. It has long been rumour that gold leaf and crushed glass were mixed through the paint to achieve the effect. However, we’ve been assured by the creators that it is not the case, but the layering of the paint brings a brilliant effect when the curtain is lit to Truscott’s specific instructions.

State fly system upgrade

An upgrade of the State Theatre Fly System later this year has required structural works to the fly system grid. A plan was developed to temporarily remove the State Theatre Curtain to mitigate any risks of damage to this spectacular curtain during the works.

The first step involved a thorough condition assessment to identify any areas of damage or vulnerability. Conservators were able to get a very ‘close up’ look at the condition of the painted design. As you can see in the image below, it was possible to appreciate the intricate detail of the design and the skillful tonal painting techniques used to create the dazzling effect under stage lights.

Detail of painted floral design

Detail of painted floral design on 'Act Drop – State Theatre'
Image: Carmela Lonetti, Conservator

Condition assessment of the curtain

Despite the weight of the thick velvet and the continual wear through such regular use, the curtain is in reasonably good condition. Predictably, a thick layer of surface dust was observed on the curtain especially on the upper regions and within the undulating folds. There are numerous areas where the thick paint has cracked due to repeated movements, however, the paint remains firmly adhered to the thick velvet pile.

Condition reporting also permits detailed documentation of many aspects of the original construction. A wonderful clue to the creation story of the curtain was discovered - a frayed canvas patch attached under the head tape at the back of the curtain with a blue pen ink inscription, ‘16th AUGUST 1984/ROSE WOODS/ VAL-WILLIAMS/MICHAEL HILL’.

Detail of canvas patch on the back of the curtain

Detail of canvas patch on the back of 'Act Drop – State Theatre'
Public Art Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Image: Samantha Hamilton, Head Collections, Preservation and Access

Moving the curtain from its head baton

The curtain was lowered to a height where each individual tie could be untied from the head baton in preparation for the curtain’s transferal to a box truss hanging in the auditorium. This was an opportunity to examine the condition of hundreds of individual brass eyelets across the head tape that supports the entire weight of the curtain.

Detail of the curtain from the back

Detail of the curtain from the back, head tape and ties being untied in the central overlap
Image: Carmela Lonetti, Conservator

Moving the curtain required skillful planning and execution by many members of both the Arts Centre Melbourne Production and Collections teams. Careful handling was critical to minimise the tension placed on the velvet fabric and to keep the painted surfaces as flat as possible to prevent further cracking.

Production crew lowering the curtain

Production crew lowering the curtain March 2020
Image: Carmela Lonetti, Conservator

Production crew paging out the curtain

Production crew ‘paging out’ the curtain over the front of the State Theatre stage, March 2020
Image: Carmela Lonetti, Conservator

Conservation treatment and future preservation

This condition assessment has enabled us to develop a methodology for conservation treatment of the curtain once the new fly system has been installed. A priority for conservation will be surface cleaning to remove all the dust and the repair of minor areas of damage. We look forward to sharing further images and information as we start to plan for the next phase of this exciting project.

Claudia Funder, Research Coordinator and Carmela Lonetti, Conservator
Collections, Arts Centre Melbourne.


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