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10 years since the Brisbane Floods

When the Brisbane River broke its banks on 11 January 2011, Queensland Theatre’s home of 10 years — on flat land, about 100 metres from the waterfront — was in imminent danger.

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When the Brisbane River broke its banks on 11 January 2011, Queensland Theatre’s home of 10 years — on flat land, about 100 metres from the waterfront — was in imminent danger. When it became obvious that the building would go under, the company came together to try and save as much of a collection of props and costumes built up over four decades. There wasn’t the time or space to move everything to the building’s upper floors, but the valuable technical equipment was first to be earmarked for relocation.

Queensland Theatre exterior. Photo: Jason Crooks

“It was a case of prioritising and moving what we could in the time frame before the order was given to clear the building and put the final sandbags in place at the entry points,” recalls Daniel Maddison, then-Technical Coordinator, now Technical Manager.

Two days after the river rose, the flood peaked; and when the waters receded, leaving a brown and mud-caked streetscape in their wake, a small number of key personnel went back in to assess the damage.

“I remember walking through into the Bille Brown Studio and seeing the water stains on the walls,” says Maddison. “The damage was significant.”

Photo: Stephen Henry

Water had lapped up the walls of the Bille Brown Studio to about 1.2 metres, completely flooding the electrical switch board room, killing the power and the lights. The stage flooring and the lowest of the seating banks were ruined, and the reception area, greenrooms, kitchen and some of the ground-level props and furniture storage rooms had to be completely gutted. Early assessments put the damage at around $200,000, but that amount doesn’t account for the thousands of vintage costumes and props that had to be dumped — that figure was probably three or four times as high.

The first show of the year, French farce Sacre Bleu!, was deep in rehearsals when the word came to abandon ship. Actor Neridah Waters was one of the cast members in that production.

“We were in rehearsals … and the news was getting serious about the floods,” she recalls. “There was talk for a couple of days about what happens if we had to all go, and then people from the office came down to announce that we all have to pack up and leave for a week.”

Bille Brown Studio. Photo: Stephen Henry

The show must go on, though, and the Sacre Bleu! rehearsals were transferred over to the QUT Gardens Theatre, across the river and on higher ground. While most of the Montague Road building was still deemed unsafe for staff, the company’s administration and ticketing workers found a temporary home in the Brisbane Festival office, the wardrobe department was offered space at Queensland Ballet, and the bold set builders brought in generators and continued in the workshop, preparing the backdrop for Sacre Bleu!.

Waters and the other cast members pitched in to help with the cleanup of the company’s base. Within two hours, of a call-out on social media for a working bee, some 80 volunteers had responded, joining staff, directors, actors, loyal patrons and even 20 soldiers, who donated their lunch break after working on repairs to the Go Between Bridge across the street. The ADF also power-hosed the exterior of the entire building.

“We helped with clean-up,” Waters remembers. “It was all very spooky and a bit thrilling. I remember (then Artistic Associate) Todd MacDonald had just started and he was great at organising the clean-up and the prep before the floods came.”

The company’s own volunteer Mud Army moved through the building, sluicing out the foul silt and scattered debris, salvaging what they could, and removing what couldn’t be saved. The amount of material that had to be disposed of spanned almost the entire perimeter of the building.

The 'Mud Army'. Photo: Jason Crooks

“The support from the community was amazing,” Maddison says. “I remember a call from a dear friend who said ‘I will cater lunch for you during your clean-up days, just let me know when and I’ll be there’. (His) team supplied a barbecue lunch across the clean-up days for all involved — he supplied everything. Wicked was in the Lyric Theatre, QPAC at the time. The technical team split their time between assisting us and QPAC with the clean up. It was humbling to have support from people we had never met before.”

In a minor miracle, Sacre Bleu! proceeded as planned in QPAC’s undamaged Cremorne Theatre — but the second show in the season, Pygmalion, had to be pushed back from March to November as the QPAC Playhouse was still being repaired after being under three metres of water. In a strange twist of fate, the ghost of the floods re-emerged on Montague Road two years later, when playwright Maxine Mellor’s work Trollop — written in response to the 2011 floods, and winner of the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award — premiered on the Bille Brown Studio stage, seeing it once again strewn with muddy detritus.

As with the recent experience of theatre closures over COVID-19 in 2020, the Company was the recipient of extraordinary support to assist in the flood recovery. Audience members donated generously as did the RACQ Foundation, the Commonwealth Bank through its Community Group Flood Assistance Grants, and Westpac Group though its Queensland Community Flood Relief Fund.