Until the middle of the 20th century, the building at 45 Flinders Lane housed the industrial equipment and cloth bales of the rag trade.
In the early 1990s, with Span Galleries on the ground floor, the lower ground warehouse space was first set up as a commercial gallery. Mary Lou Jelbart and Julian Burnside took over the space, founding fortyfivedownstairs in 2002 with a vision for it to become a unique curated space for both live performance and visual art.
For the first five years, exhibitions and theatre productions alternated in the lower ground space.
Following a successful first half decade, in 2007 fortyfivedownstairs expanded and took over the derelict basement of number 45 to create a dedicated performance space on the floor below.
Upstairs, the space became two dedicated galleries, in which a curated programme of exhibitions has hung almost constantly since.
In 2004, Melbourne’s leading theatre critics nominated four productions as their top choices for the year. The Lower Depths by Gorky, directed by Ariette Taylor, and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, directed by John McManus, were nominated by The Age critic Cameron Woodhead as two of his top three independent productions for 2008. During the April 2009 season of Yana Alana and Tha Paranas, Yana Alana (aka Sarah Ward) was announced the 2008 Green Room Cabaret Artiste of the Year. fortyfivedownstairs has acted as co-producer for two seasons of Finucane and Smith’s The Burlesque Hour and as producer for The Lower Depths (2008) and And When He Falls, (2009) presented by noted actor John Stanton and acclaimed pianist/composer Dr. Tony Gould.
Outstanding contemporary Australian productions at fortyfivedownstairs have included Ollie and the Minotaur (Floogle Theatre S.A.) Three Dog Night by Petra Kalive, based on a work by Peter Goldsworthy, Angus Cerini’s Chapters from the Pandemic and two seasons (2007 & 2009) of Melburnalia & Melburnalia No. 2 presented by White Whale Theatre. Leading choreographer/performer Tanya Gerstle presented two seasons of remarkable physical theatre Yes and Five Kinds of Silence in 2008, and Manbeth in 2009.
Contemporary international theatre works have included Terrorism by the Presnyakov Brothers (Russia) and Arabian Nights by Roland Schimelpfennig (Germany), presented by Theatre at Risk, This Is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan (U.S) presented by Inside Job Productions, and Someone Who’ll Watch over Me by Frank McGuinness (U.K) presented by West East Theatre.
In 2010 fortyfivedownstairs produced the highly successful premiere production of new Australian play Do not go gentle… by multi-award-winning Patricia Cornelius. Do not go gentle… was directed by Julian Meyrick and featured Paul English, Jan Friedl, Rhys McConnochie, Terry Norris, Anne Phelan, Pamela Rabe and Malcolm Robertson
Following this, in 2011 fortyfivedownstairs produced Café Scheherazade by Thérèse Radic based on Arnold Zable’s novel. Described as “…a compelling ninety minutes of theatre.” by Stage Whispers, Café Scheherazade was so well received that fortyfivedownstairs put on a second season in late 2011.
Also in 2011, the fortyfivedownstairs production of Whiteley’s Incredible Blue by Barry Dickins was featured in the Melbourne Festival.
Michael James Manaia by John Broughton, staged from Friday 12 – Sunday 28 October 2012 as part of Melbourne Festival, was our first foray into international collaboration. fortyfivedownstairs worked with New Zealand national Maori theatre company Taki Rua Productions to stage Michael James Manaia. This inaugural production of international work was a venture driven by fortyfivedownstairs artistic director Mary Lou Jelbart’s commitment to bringing extraordinary theatre to Melbourne audiences.
Artists exhibiting in the fortyfivedownstairs gallery have included Julie Dowling (presented by Artplace), Judy Holding, Elizabeth Milsom, Damian Broomhead, Stephen Nova, Prudence Flint, Richard Stringer, Peter Daverington, Cathy Drummond, Richard Wastell(presented by Bett Gallery, Hobart), Nobby Seymour and many, many others. fortyfivedownstairs have produced curated exhibitions including Unrepresented in 2010, curated by Bernadette Alibrando and Unfold in 2012, curated by Sally McKittrick.
The fortyfivedownstairs doors opened with works from the Keene Taylor Theatre Project – a series of outstanding short plays by Daniel Keene, directed by Ariette Taylor, and from its inception the venue gained a reputation for presenting remarkable theatre productions. Seasons have included a series of contemporary European and new Australian works by Theatre @ Risk, Keep Breathing, Black Hole and many other contemporary, established and emerging theatre artists. Seasons and performances have been staged for the Melbourne International Festival, the Next Wave Festival, the Comedy Festival and the Melbourne Fringe. Events and launches have been held for the Melbourne Fashion Festival, Mietta’s Forums and Writers Week. Playreadings, book launches and music recitals from classical, contemporary and jazz to folk and multicultural performances are regular fixtures in the venue calendar.