One of the oldest community theatre groups in Australia, which is losing its heritage church home of the past 60 years because of a massive $82 million redevelopment of the site, is now to be rehoused in another church across town.
There were fears that the curtains might close for the last time on the 75-year-old Genesian Theatre Company, which has nurtured talents such as Bryan Brown, Baz Luhrmann and Nick Enright, after the purchase of its Victorian Gothic church in the Sydney CBD.
But the company has been offered a new base by the Catholic Archdiocese – in a similar-sized parish hall in Rozelle, in the city’s inner west.
“It’s very exciting,” said Barry Nielsen, the president of the Genesians, who have lodged a development application with the Inner West Council to undertake renovations to the hall at St Joseph’s Church.
“It’s a big undertaking for a group of volunteers, especially in the time of COVID-19, with so many unknowns.
“But our patrons – some of whom have been coming to see our plays for 30 years now – are wonderfully loyal, and our actors are excited too.
“We’re moving to a genuine residential community and we hope we’ll be embraced by the people there as well.”
The Genesians, who stage up to 150 plays a year, have always performed in the 1868 St John the Evangelist Church, located on Kent Street.
But following its sale to a developer by the Catholic Archdiocese, and plans for a hotel tower designed by Richard Francis-Jones of fjmt studio to be built beside it and cantilevered over it, the church offered them a new home.
Subject now to the approval of the DA, work will start in 2021 to convert the Rozelle church’s unused old school hall into a 132-seat auditorium with a proscenium stage, with curtains, proper stage lighting, dressing rooms, machinery for scenery and possibly in the future a licensed bar for patrons before the performance and during the interval.
The administrator at St Joseph’s, Father Richard Waddell, remembers being taken by his parents to see one of the Genesians’ plays 40 years ago when he was a boy.
With his mother on the board of the Sydney Theatre Company and his father on the board of the Seymour Theatre, he said he was delighted the theatre was coming to the hall of his church.
“Rozelle is rapidly changing character and I believe it’s going to become an inner-city arts precinct,” he said. “The connection between the church and the theatre is very long-standing, going back to the Miracle Plays of the Middle Ages.
“In addition, theatre gives us a window into eternal truths in the same way as the Catholic liturgy which has many of the same theatrical aspects. So we can feed off each other!”
It’s hoped that, if COVID-19-related restrictions ease, the theatre could be up and running with performances by mid-2021. The usual audience is being urged to visit its new home just one bus stop away from Town Hall, while a whole raft of new followers could expand the fanbase.
There are transport routes directly to the new venue, and it’s surrounded by restaurants and cafes, and next to the Sydney Community College which also runs drama courses and will have access to the auditorium.
One person who’ll be eagerly awaiting its opening in Rozelle is actor Sandra Bass, who began performing with the Genesians nearly 40 years ago, and has played everything from villains to prisoners of war.
The first play she’d ever written, Sherlock Holmes and the Death on Thor Bridge, was in the middle of its sold-out premiere run when the pandemic shut the theatre.
“It’s going to be a wrench to leave our old theatre, but it’s exciting to think of our new one, which will be designed from the start as a theatre, with proper lighting,” said Ms Bass.
“I love acting, and being able to explore life from different perspectives, so I’ve really missed it since the theatre closed. But we’re really looking forward to getting back.”
Many of the theatre volunteers will be called on to help with the renovation work, with the Genesians also planning to apply for a loan from the Archdiocese to help.
“The Archdiocese has been fantastic in terms of the assistance they’re giving us for project management and helping steer us along the path of renovation, and we had a call from the office of the mayor to say they’re really supportive too,” said Mr Nielsen, who’s also a vet and a vet teacher when he’s not acting, directing or managing the theatre group.
“There’s an old saying in the theatre that when you close a theatre, you keep a lamp going so the light still flickers on. We can now see the light flickering at the end of our tunnel too.”
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