'A great city deserves great theatres': Campaign to save Sydney's lost theatre

Talking points

  • The Australian theatre premiere’s Sydney has lost:
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
  • Come From Away
  • Once

The Berejiklian government and Lord Mayor Clover Moore have backed a campaign by leading theatre producers and performers to force the reopening of the Theatre Royal, warning that the viability of live theatre is at risk in Sydney.

More than two and a half years after its doors were shut, Live Performance Australia, representing theatre and musical producers, and the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, representing performers, actors and crew, have come together to pressure the co-owners to honour a ''deal'' they said was negotiated 40 years ago guaranteeing the Theatre Royal a permanent home.

Australian producers, performers and creatives have launched a petition to save the Theatre Royal.

Australian producers, performers and creatives have launched a petition to save the Theatre Royal.Credit:AAP

Amid rumours the owners want to hand over the theatre site to an upmarket retailer, supermarket or boutique hotel chain, the LPA's president Andrew Kay said producers were turning away shows every month due to a lack of suitable venues in Sydney.

The theatre's ongoing closure, they say, points to Sydney's lack of centrally located theatre venues to house international touring productions such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which went to Melbourne's Princess Theatre.

Cursed Child's Australian producer, Michael Cassel, said theatre availability in Sydney was part of the reason the show will play exclusively in Melbourne.

"In the Princess (Theatre) in Melbourne you had the best theatre for the show, and everything else is secondary," he said.

But he admitted more theatre space would have given Sydney a running shot at hosting the blockbuster.

"I think it certainly would have been a consideration, it would have at least made it a level playing field."

Mr Cassel, who produced the Australian productions of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Kinky Boots, said the lack of space was also contributing to the delay of major productions making their way to Australia.

"I think the lack of theatre space is holding Sydney back in having a variety of cultural experiences available and it is holding Australia back in being able to secure a lot of these shows," he said.

"You look at the lag time of shows premiering on the west time and broadway and coming to Australia to see that. A great city deserves great theatres and deserves great cultural experiences."

He said the rumoured plans to convert the space into more retail or commercial space was disappointing.

"The great shame is we have a theatre here that is beloved, in a great location, it is there ready to go, it would be a great shame to lose it if that is what is intended," he said.

Sydney's MLC Centre

Sydney’s MLC CentreCredit:Edwina Pickles

Lord Mayor Clover Moore has met with representatives of the lobby group and given them her full support. She had also met with Arts Minister Don Harwin on September 24.

In 1972 thousands of people rallied at the Town Hall for the theatre, which had operated from that site since 1875, to be saved. There were green bans, marches and the issue was raised in Federal Parliament.

In exchange for saving the theatre, Lend Lease was given up to 8000 sqm of extra commercial office space or close to six additional floors as compensation, the lobby group says, estimating the extra value to owners and shareholders as worth between $9 million and $11 million in commercial office rent per year.

In the intervening time, the LPA calculates the extra value of additional floor space accruing to the owners to be between $182 million and $220 million.

''In good faith, I encourage the current owners Dexus and GPT Group to commit to re-opening the theatre,'' Ms Moore said.

“It is vital that we have theatre spaces in the heart of the Sydney CBD. Without sufficient theatres, there is a real risk that Sydney audiences will be denied seeing the best of live theatre from Australia and overseas and our talented performers will be denied opportunities to make a living and further their careers.

''Theatres benefit everyone, through their contribution to our cultural life and nightlife and the economic benefits from increased employment and tourism.''

Mr Harwin said it was the government's ''preference'' that the Theatre Royal be reopened: ''Ultimately it is a matter for the owners but there would be delighted public if shows returned to the Theatre Royal. There would also be a huge boost to Sydney's visitor economy.''

The co-owners may not have a legal requirement to reopen the theatre but they certainly had a moral obligation to Sydney to keep that open, the Lord Mayor said.

''They have had the benefit of Sydney's airspace for some 30 years and continue to have that ongoing financial benefit, Sydney needs to have the benefit of the theatre, they should honor that deal.''

A spokesperson for the owners said they were ''reviewing options to enhance the asset, including the Theatre Royal''. ''We plan to provide an update on the development, including the theatre space, in late 2018.”

The theatre-going public has been urged to sign an online petition calling on the owners to reopen the Theatre.

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