The theatre lights are dimmed over rows of empty seats, and two actors rehearse on stage in robust Russian. If you walk further down the steps and turn around, you’ll see a shadowy face in the projector’s box at the back of the theatre.
That face is David Corben’s. Without him tonight’s performance would not be possible, just like the crimson theatre seats and the chandeliers in the filling reception area of one of Melbourne’s thriving amateur theatres.
David, lighting technician for Malvern Theatre Company, devotes much of his time in his retirement to lighting the way for the company’s shows. This weekend’s performance is minor: David is only using the leftover lighting from the last major show, “Our Town”, which ran for three weeks.
Where David honed his craft
David’s appreciation of the dramatic is evident when he describes his working life. He revels in the details of his twenty years at Rosella foods, where can after can of tomato soup rattled past on the production line and smoke plumed from the factory chimneys.
“I don’t think they ever slit anyone’s throat,” David said. But he chuckles when he recalls the Greek and Yugoslavian employees glaring at each other while they sharpened knives on the brickwork.
David realised theatre lighting’s potential after Rosella Foods relocated. He worked for Village Roadshow while volunteering at South Yarra’s Viaduct Theatre, where he would spend weeks drawing up lighting plans with the “genius” who did the lighting for Melbourne University’s student performances.
“One light would do someone there, sitting where you are, but also just catch someone standing behind you, just catch their face very dramatically.”
“And he knew which colours to use. You know that gel that you put in spotlights that’s like really tough cellophane? Well he knew what would complement the costumes, the set, the floor, whatever.”
A stint in cinema
After the Viaduct, someone offered David a one-screen cinema in East Coburg. You may have been there in the ‘80s, when David and his partner Bruce turned the cinema into a bookings-only affair which won awards for presentation.
They had to make some changes first. When David took over, the cinema was an “action theatre”, with an audience to suit.
“They were bogan, horrible little teenagers, in those days in skin-tight jeans and skin-tight pointy boots. Horrible. And, after a Bruce Lee film they’d all pour out onto the footpath and start Kung-Fuing each other,” David scoffed.
With their choice of quality ‘70s films, the partners attracted different viewers and more bookings than they could cope with while also working full-time. They sold in 1995, when one-screen cinemas were on the out.
What David does now
David returned to theatre, applying his eye for ambience and lighting to the Malvern Theatre Company when he and Bruce were asked to join it in 1996. The rich theatre seats and the reception area chandeliers were David’s ideas, amongst others, though the expense meant arguments with the committee.
“As far as the public are concerned it’s improved a hundred per cent.”
For fifteen and a half years, the sight of David and Bruce in “the room up the back of the theatre” has given confidence to actors, many of whom work in TV or radio.
“People keep saying it’s so satisfying for them to come here and see us sitting up there in the gloom, because they know every cue will be right, every sound cue will be spot on and every lighting change will be spot on.”
“I am rather proud of myself. I do pat myself on the back occasionally.”
Outside on busy Burke Road you can see the latest innovation. “Malvern Theatre” shines from an LED sign on the outer wall, alternating with the details of the next major show. If someone driving by, curious, joined the audience filtering inside, they’d be in David’s good hands.
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