Planning is underway to create a new theater district centered on Sydney’s George Street and Haymarket in the tradition of London’s West End and New York’s Broadway.
The NSW government has identified old picture palaces and other properties ripe for conversion, while quietly talking to theater owners and producers about what it takes to snatch Melbourne’s mantle as Australia’s cultural capital.
Live Performance Australia has facilitated roundtable meetings between the country’s leading theater players and Create Infrastructure, a division of the government’s arts agency.
The market research comes just a few weeks before the Royal Theatre’s red carpet opens on December 9, five years after it closes.
The feedback will help complete the state’s first theater and film strategy driven by central ministers: Arts Minister Don Harwin, Treasurer Matt Kean, Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet and Industry Minister Stuart Ayres.
A $ 5 million fund has been set aside to fund appraisals of suitable properties – to be built or acquired – as prioritized by Create Infrastructure. On the radar are the heirlooms of Roxy Theater and The Minerva.
One of the country’s largest theater producers, Trafalgar, has declared interest in securing a commercial lease on a 1,500-seat theater in the CBD. The Michael Cassel Group says it supports the government’s and industry’s assessment that there is a desperate need for two lyrical theaters for Sydney.
A third company, Foundation Theaters, is submitting plans for a 1,550-seat Broadway theater and a 1,000-seat Live Room in Pyrmont, which opens in 2023.
“Sydney does not have a defined theater area because we have never planned one,” says theater planner Sean Macken. “Almost all of Sydney’s existing venues are either the result of political opportunism, the heroic efforts of the Sydney parties to preserve certain places, or simply the mishaps of history.
“The end result is a sprinkling of isolated theaters across the city, none of which are interconnected, and none of them can in themselves generate the secondary industries that drive the economy of theater areas in other cities.
“In Sydney, it’s all tactics and no strategy when we think of theaters and live performances. All too often we do not think about it at all.”
The strategy will draw on a government plan for cultural infrastructure from 2019, which found that lack of adequate theater space stifled long-running musicals and contemporary shows.
This report identified the need for a CBD cultural area co-located with technology centers, investments in Parramatta and Sydney Olympic Park, and an area serving the new city of Bradfield and downtown Penrith and Liverpool.
The investigations will determine if there is a role for the government in securing Parramatta’s Roxy Theater for shows. Last year, the government passed an opportunity to invest in the redevelopment of the nearby Riverside Theaters.
Theater owners and producers have backed the reopening of the Roxy Theater, now privately owned.
“A first-class theater offering with 1,500 seats in Paramatta within the next decade makes sense as presenters seek to develop the touring market for productions in Australia beyond the capitals,” said Graeme Kearns, CEO of Foundation Theaters.
In the CBD, the Plaza Theater at 600 George St has been identified as having sufficient internal volume to be reused as theaters or venues with live music.
A survivor of decorative cinemas built in Sydney during the film’s golden age, it lies in the middle of the dilapidated George St entertainment strip between the Theater Royal and the Capitol Theater.
Another potential venue is the smaller 500-seat Australian Hall at 150 Elizabeth St, and Chinatown’s Twin Cinema on Goulburn St, built in 1885 by the Salvation Army and ideal as a small venue or rehearsal room that is in dire need.
Macken says there are only three possible locations in Sydney to build a defined theater area.
“A little one at Kings Cross, gathered around Minerva,” he says. “The other is in the southern part of the CBD around George St and the Capitol and is provided through the City of Sydney’s draft density bonus scheme.
“The other is one centered around the Parramatta. Anchored at Riverside, the new theater in line with the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and a revitalized Roxy. All are within 500 meters of each other.
“In the next two decades, Sydney will pass 7 million people and I think we will need all three. We should start planning for them now.”
Historically, Sydney’s entertainment district followed George St.’s meager retail trade. This concentration was first broken by the Sydney Opera House, then composed by the Walsh Bay Arts Precinct, says architect and urban designer Craig Allchin.
The requirement that major developments show public benefit also contributed to the spread, Allchin says. “The Lyric Theater is in The Star rather than a theater district.”
A revived theater district could revive the now shabby George St and Chinatown district, where restaurants and bars are seeded. “What these areas need is a variety of reasons to visit,” Allchin says.
There was no better time for government and entrepreneurs to act, he says, as office space lay empty with the lockdown shift in work habits.
“All A-Class office space will fill up; it is the B- and C-class offices that may be suitable for other things and lead to other purposes. You can try to find new uses from these old spaces. I feel this is an important time to focus on [the creative arts] while the market adapts, and eventually these things can become the lifeblood of the city. “
Sydney has no shortage of entrepreneurs interested in investing, but views are mixed on how much extra capacity is needed and when.
“When you look at Sydney, you have to look at the national footprint – especially in commercial theater, because all shows have to move,” says Live Performance Australia CEO Evelyn Richardson.
Sydney also needed to look beyond the next 10 years and focus not only on presenting work but creating work.
“Basically, we need to take a 20-year view of cultural infrastructure,” Richardson says. “There must be recognition of the Foundation Theaters’ investment plans for the 1550- and 1000-seat theaters in Pyrmont.
“[In the meetings] there was also discussion about the need for a diversity of spaces, a multifunctional hub for upscaling successful works, a Black Box theater. There was plenty of industrial support for the Minerva Theater. The question is whether NSW will play around the edges or go fast? “
The fund theaters warn of oversupply. “Given the national touring landscape for large-scale productions, additional theaters with more than 1,000 seats will not be needed for some time,” says Kearns.
“Once our project is completed within the next few years, there just won’t be enough touring content in or out of Brisbane and Melbourne to fill more theaters of that size in Sydney.”
The construction of new theaters also needed to be carefully balanced to promote private investment in theater infrastructure, Kearns said.
A big blockbuster like Hamilton or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child can take a theater for years. But they are balanced by a cycle of evergreen productions like Oh mother and Evil who need smaller houses.
With Singapore increasing cultural investment, Sydney cannot be as dependent on theater tourism as New York does, it is argued.
But once the Foundation’s two theaters open, Sydney’s next priority, says theater producer John Frost, should be a theater with room for 1750-2000 with an orchestra pit and behind the scenes large enough to perform the opera epic Wagners. The cycle of the ring, the ballet and great success musicals.
“We are missing a venue for major event productions where Melbourne gets them because of the size of their art center,” he says. “The population of Sydney is only getting bigger and the interest in cultural events and musicals is only getting stronger.
“It does not necessarily have to be built in the CBD, but close to it, close to the Powerhouse at Haymarket or White Bay. It could be an entire art area that is no different than the finger harbors.”
Equally important is a smaller theater that could take hit productions from Hayes and Belvoir St and more intimate work.
Kearns says these smaller performance spaces are crucial to the development of the theatrical industry on several levels.
Minerva, an art deco movie theater in Potts Point, could fill that role. Current hotel plans have been strongly opposed by Minister Harwin, who supports its transformation into a 1,000-seat theater.
It was Harwin who saved Theater Royal from the disgrace of becoming a foodcourt in 2019 and relayed it to impresario Howard Panter.
Kearns believes Minerva would fit nicely into Sydney’s theater landscape if the theater could be restored for the aforementioned $ 35-40 million price tag.
“But after working on a number of similar projects, it is unlikely that it can be delivered for even double that amount,” he said.
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