Mary Lou Jelbart Profile

Written by: Fiona Gruber
Housed in a former rag trade warehouse, fortyfivedownstairs is a gallery and performance space tucked up the top end of Flinders Lane in Melbourne’s art gallery strip.

Co-founded and presided over by former ABC presenter, Mary Lou Jelbart, fifteen years ago, its two large rooms on ground and basement level have seen hundreds of memorable plays, musical recitals and cabaret as well as some excellent art.

You’d imagine its genesis to be the culmination of a long-held dream, but Jelbart says it was all an accident.

‘The last thing I wanted was to tie myself down to an occupation that takes seven days a week,’ she says, laughing.

But the philanthropic philosophy that kicked off the venture, to make money for artists, rather than from them, still remains.

She’d just left the ABC and was helping director Ariette Taylor find premises for a production. They fell in love with fortyfive’s airy proportions and diffused light and a new venue was born.

Five years later, fortyfivedownstairs expanded into the derelict basement, creating a dedicated theatre and cabaret space and leaving upstairs for art and functions.

Jelbart ruminates on performances past and present: Moira Finucane’s extreme cabaret shows have made their home here; her latest The Rapture opens at the end of June. An extraordinary version of Chekhov’s Ivanov and another of Gorky’s Lower Depths were created by director Ariette Taylor; Do Not Go Gentle, Patricia Cornelius’s prize-winning play about Scott’s doomed voyage to the South Pole, as performed by people in an aged care home, had its debut in 2010. There are many more firsts, many more plays that chimed with critics and audiences.

A lot of these, explains Jelbart, had and have trouble attracting bigger venues, or even getting funding.

‘It’s currently a lot harder for small to medium companies… fifteen years ago there was much better support from local funding bodies. Now, huge festivals and major events like “White Nights” soak up funds,’ she says.

The creation of fortyfivedownstairs couldn’t have come about without the aid and advice of long-term friend, Julian Burnside, says Jelbart. The prominent lawyer and refugee advocate became its first chair –a role he still holds – as well as a benefactor. He also came up with the idea of asking friends and supporters to stump up the first year’s rent.

‘A dozen people came forward and wrote out significant cheques,’ says Jelbart.

The venue continues to have a strong cohort of supporters; another board member is Tom Lowenstein and fortfivedownstairs’ dedicated staff of five includes Jelbart’s daughter Philippa, who’s the venue manager and administrator.

They all work as a team, Jelbart emphasises, and whether it’s an artist looking for exhibition space at a fair price or a performer with a new show, they’re always open to ideas. The venue co-produces several shows a year and makes extra money hiring out the spaces for private events.

Does she get tired of the relentless pace and financial strains? I ask.

‘I get fed up sometimes but then someone calls up and then I get excited again. If we like the content and performances enough we take the gamble. Sometimes we lose but on the whole we make it work.’