Theatre

Developments such as Barangaroo provide the opportunity for new landmark arts spaces. How best to plan them? By Tommy Murphy.

Bringing culture to Barangaroo

The Wharf, home of the Sydney Theatre Company, in Walsh Bay.
Credit: Courtesy Sydney Theatre Company

Decisions are under way that will reshape the cultural landscape of Sydney. A “cultural ribbon” is in the looms. It’s tied at the Opera House and strung to the upgraded Museum of Contemporary Art. It frays slightly at Walsh Bay and remains a tangle of threads at Barangaroo. It could be weaved into one of the world’s great cultural precincts. But this is such a Sydney story: a history of past mistakes haunts expectation. “Developers would rather have car parks. We’d like theatres,” quips Australia’s pre-eminent theatre designer Brian Thomson. “Sometimes the two converge.”

Down at Barangaroo, the 22-hectare western shoulder of Sydney’s CBD, they’ve been sawing great hunks of sandstone to reassemble an entire headland gouged out for industry in 1900. Under the man-made nature reserve sits a canyon of 80,000 cubic metres. It’s reserved for an unspecified cultural venue and, of course, a car park.

Linked to the headland is Central Barangaroo, the site’s purported “public heart”. Richard Evans, the arts and culture adviser to the Barangaroo Delivery Authority, this week cast a wide net trawling for submissions from operators and tenants, in the arts, cultural, civic, community and educational sectors. It remains to be seen how a proposal for a squash court might compete with a bid for a dance studio.

Scopes such as these are becoming a regular affair in the Emerald City. Also this month, the City of Sydney released its findings from a wide-reaching consultation into cultural priorities. In 2011, Rob Brookman handed down the state government’s report into “planning Sydney’s cultural facilities”. It detailed the economic and cultural case for at least one more lyric theatre and identified Barangaroo as the obvious site. Destination NSW backed these findings, aware they are losing commercial musicals to other state capitals. 

The report also identified the need for additional medium-sized theatres. A responsive 500-seat venue would improve opportunities for viable subscription productions to become commercial successes. The Theatre Royal is not quite cutting it for that. “The Theatre Royal still has the feel that it can be turned back into a car park,” Thomson observes. “The footprint means just knock out a few more walls and [build] ramps and you’d have a car park.”

Many of the city’s draft policy outcomes are pragmatic. A kid is growing up in high-density, inner-city living; where does he rehearse the drums? The printmakers need machines. The indie directors need a rehearsal room. A major capital city council has particular influences to compel developers to provide for artistic endeavour – but not at Barangaroo.

Expressions of interest have opened concurrently for developers to pitch to build Central Barangaroo in accordance with the brief, and to do what developers do: maximise the land value and serve their shareholders. “They’re asking for culture because they need spirit down there. On some level that’s what we ask from our arts institutions, to fill a void, to provide for something they think is lacking,” says Lee Lewis, Griffin Theatre’s artistic director. “I would say to those companies, ‘Careful what you wish for, you might end up administering it.’” There is no current provision from the New South Wales government to subsidise those taking up residency to create these cultural attractions.

Barangaroo already represents the state government’s alacrity to bend to business interests at the cost of public amenity. A longstanding one-casino policy was scrapped to cater to the city’s chief gambling tycoon. The usual mechanisms of public engagement were bypassed. Barangaroo is deemed a state-significant project and therefore under the auspices of the state minister for planning. It seems in NSW there are more avenues for community submissions and objections when you extend your patio than there are to erect a Crown resort.

Just as the state government announced its final approval to James Packer’s $1.5 billion project, the Packer family and the Crown foundation made the largest philanthropic gift ever to a performing arts organisation in Australia. A total of $60 million has been pledged, including $15 million to the Sydney Theatre Company. The Packers have a long association with the company so this gift is not entirely out of the blue. But the strategic goodwill is a clever buy.

The STC will use the Packer money to refurbish the Wharf theatres. Andrew Upton and his former co-artistic director, Cate Blanchett, recognise that the STC is the flagship vehicle on that curl of the ribbon. They have advocated on behalf of their neighbours for the Pier 2/3 upgrade and the greening of the precinct. The last piece of the puzzle would be improved transport, but staggeringly there are no plans to extend the light rail.

When the Victorian government earmarked an industrial site in the city centre for cultural use they followed it up with subsidies for the occupants who would repurpose it. It was also next to a tram and train link. Jeff Kennett promised that Federation Square would become a Melbourne icon. On winning office, Labor derided the project, then apprehended its political capital and raced to claim ownership of its completion before another poll. 

The history of these developments suggests they are doomed without the premier’s seal of approval. The Adelaide Festival Centre was built because arts advocate premier Don Dunstan championed the cause. “Bob Carr with Sydney Theatre, that was a great personal vote,” says Rob Brookman, the former STC general manager. The Wharf theatres, which this year celebrate their 30th anniversary, are Neville Wran’s legacy. In 2004 he reflected, “Anybody could have put up another box theatre and it would have served the purpose, but the Wharf really made a statement about the theatre and our commitment to that theatre.” 

NSW Premier Mike Baird will reveal his arts commitment when his coming budget determines the fate of Walsh Bay, which heaved this past fortnight with the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The State Infrastructure Strategy includes the precinct as a key project and notes that it will be completed subject to a business case and available funding. A master plan illustrates new theatres and home bases for resident companies. A sliding bridge would link the two wharves to create an outdoor performance space coupled with walkways at the water’s edge. It looks beautiful but it’s not a great time to be asking for money and there are capital works afoot for a long list of major arts institutions.

Unusual influxes such as for the writers’ festival and Vivid festival illustrate the potential and the challenges. This is the overriding sentiment of City of Sydney’s findings also – people want to participate.

David Berthold is grappling with this as he starts his job as artistic director of the Brisbane Festival: “The audience, or the general public, is no longer just the consumer – they are now co-creators. The very idea of ‘community’ is undergoing a seismic shift.”

The City of Sydney admits in its draft cultural policy that sometimes it helps best when it gets out of the way. An overly regulated arena precludes the spontaneity that is the engine of artistic expression.

Brian Thomson, the man now famous for turning the harbour itself into an outdoor opera stage, has a bold idea for the other end of the ribbon. “With the Opera House, I’d carve out the sandstone cliff opposite. You know, where Government House is. We could carve into there like the carved city of Petra. Build one big enough that you can do the big operas. The great thing about that is that the view is the Opera House itself”.

Keep dreaming, I think. That would be two entombed theatres on the shoreline. Then I realise that within metres of Thomson’s Theatre Petra there is a similar multimillion-dollar construction. It corkscrews 12 storeys down in the stone, the widest shallow-cover rock cavern in the world. Such ambitions are not so ludicrous when it’s for the Opera House’s car park.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "Urbane planning". Subscribe here.

Tommy Murphy
is a playwright and screenwriter.