The Academy




The European concept of theatre and its conventions came with the first settlers to the settlement at Sydney Cove and, although the Governor's permission was required, performances by both convicts and soldiers were conducted at spasmodic intervals over the next forty years. Australian theatre has grown from these beginnings to an important cultural industry today. Sydney and its theatrical world played a crucial role in this development. See the general history below:

Click on the names in the scollbar to the left to go to the page belonging to each theatre.

In 1832, entrepreneur Barnet Levey finally won a long battle for permission to open a commercial theatre. Other colonial businessmen followed in establishing venues, but the economic uncertainties of a small and isolated community inhibited expansion until, in the 1850s, the colony's population and its prosperity were both briefly stimulated by gold discoveries. There was a short boom in theatre building, and Sydney was also visited by international touring companies. Another lull followed, until the prosperity and nationalist self-perceptions of the late 1870s and 1880s again stimulated both theatre building and the emergence of entrepreneurial chains. The initiative for much of this development came from the newly established firm of Williamson, Garner and Musgrove, later J. C. Williamson's.

Commercial expansion was again limited by depression from 1891, but in the early twentieth century, despite emerging competition from cinema, and the hiatus in business life brought by the first World War, commercial theatre remained prosperous. Williamson's dominated Sydney theatre, presenting primarily imported artists and material, but the circuits and theatres built by Harry Rickards, J. & N. Tait and Ben Fuller successfully presented melodrama, vaudeville and musicals to large audiences. In 1900 there were seven major theatres operating in Sydney and by the late 1920s this had expanded to ten. 

From that time, however, external forces militated against the theatres' viability. The combined effect of the popularity of film, the development of recording techniques, entertainment taxes and economic depression led to the partial demise of the chains and to many theatre sites being converted either to cinemas or sold for commercial development.  By the end of 1935 there was no major drama touring company and only two theatres remained open in Sydney.

Following World War two, a spasmodic and erratic revival of live theatre emerged, usually initiated by Williamson's, either in the form of overseas touring companies or revivals of musicals. The development was influenced by a mixture of motives, including the cultural initiatives underlying post war reconstruction, a conscious attempt to re-establish the Imperial image and a desire for commercial profit. These complexities also underlay the aims and objectives of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, which was established in 1954, but a concomitant of the establishment of the Trust was the institution of the innovative principal of a degree of government support for the arts. In the 1950s and 1960s re-emergent nationalist sentiment, the provision of government subsidy for some theatres and the engagement of Universities in theatre studies and in operating theatre companies all contributed to the emergence of an alternative theatre. This aimed to both present Australian plays and to reflect an image of Australians on their stages to Australian audiences.

Over the last forty years, this dual system of theatrical presentation has sustained the development and expansion of one style of commercial theatre into permanent state or quasi-state theatre companies, while Williamson's, until their demise in the late 1970s, and other commercial entrepreneurs have used the city theatres, often to present large scale musical spectaculars.

The early settlers at Sydney prepared playhouses in the style they remembered from Britain, and the design of this Georgian theatre became the basis for theatres constructed in New South Wales. This theatre comprised a rectangular or roughly horseshoe shaped auditorium, with pit and stalls, galleries and boxes. There was a stage with a proscenium arch and a forestage, initially with side doors and later, as the forestage area decreased, with tiered boxes. The stage was usually fitted with the groove system for setting, with sliding flats, borders and backcloths.

The box set, a product of the European movement toward theatrical realism, and the capability to fly sets, did not come into general use until the 1890s. This new technology for lifting and lowering settings then allowed designers to create spectacular scenes but presented a considerable challenge to architects and builders in modifying existing theatres to obtain space above the stage.

The theatres of the nineteenth century were decorated, to an increasing degree, in Regency style. This fashion for decoration reached its apogee in New South Wales in the early decades of the twentieth century, in the Adam influenced designs of the leading architect Harry E. White. His work is represented by, for example, the now destroyed St. James' and the Capitol Theatre.  Late in the 1920s a reaction against this fashion began to emerge, with modernists arguing that decoration distracted the audience from the action on stage. Depression then war, then effectively ended theatre building in Sydney, and it was only with the revival of small, often University based, theatres in the 1950s that the modernists came to prevail. Their influence may be seen in the design of the, now derelict. Empire Theatre, in the interior of the Sydney Opera House and in the theatre at the National Institute of Dramatic Art.

Initially there were no purpose built theatres in the early settlement, and the colonists became adept at creating fit-up stages in the available large spaces. In the nineteenth century large spaces, often termed saloons or assembly rooms, were usually in hotels, and when a theatre was then developed from these rooms, it remained the largest part of the existing hotel building, but situated behind the tavern and bars on the street front. Levey's Theatre was in his hotel and the Theatre Royal, built in 1855, was behind a two storey hotel, with its stalls entrance through the tavern. This combined use of space as hotel and theatre venue continued until 1882, when legislation was passed which both formally prohibited the association and initiated the building of public halls.

Nonetheless legislation could be circumvented. The first Her Majesty's, built in 1887, was still behind the ornately ornamented facade of a five storey hotel, and this link between theatre and hotel was and remained a feature of Sydney theatres, although by 1912 legislation required that the patrons leave the theatre and reach the bar by a separate entrance. One result of the association was that most Sydney theatres had foyers which were little more than lobbies, since the space was not required for refreshment or socialising. When the theatres went `dry' in 1917 with the introduction of 6 o'clock closing for hotels, the legacy of small and inadequate foyers remained. Relaxation of the liquor laws in the 1970s saw the reintroduction of bars and an increased foyer area, but by then most of Sydney's nineteenth century theatres had been destroyed and not replaced.  

In the 1970s, in a revival of an old theatrical practice, Nimrod Street, the Old Tote and Jane Street theatres were all created as fit-up theatres using existing space, but there is still a shortage of theatres in Sydney. This arguably is the effect of a combination of factors including commercial re-development, changing fashion in entertainment and suburban expansion.

A few points to consider when reading about nineteenth century theatres:

Current theatregoers are accustomed to numbered seating, usually in lounge chairs with armrests, in an auditorium with wide aisles and in a space conducted to conform to strict fire safety regulations. This was not so in nineteenth century theatres. The early theatres, some still with standing room in the pit, could be and were packed with people. Seats were not numbered, and all but the most expensive seating was bench style. Managements were known to cram people into aisles and put timbers across separate seats to increase the audience capacity.

Theatres in nineteenth and much of the twentieth century Sydney thereby allocated each audience member less than half the average space designated today. Contemporary estimates of a theatre's capacity should be read with this social experience in mind.

In the nineteenth century, theatres in Sydney and Melbourne, as a reflection of Imperial association, were frequently named after those of Britain. Empire, Gaiety, Prince/Princess, Royal and Adelphi were all adopted in the colonies.  These theatres frequently changed hands or were destroyed by fire and rebuilt, sometimes under the old name, sometimes under another one.  The owner/builder of a theatre moved from one site to another, and on occasion revived a former name for a new building. In the colonies, therefore, the use of the same name does not always mean it was the same theatre.    

Some titles can be confusing. The name THEATRE ROYAL proliferated in the colonies on theatres which did not have a vestige of claim to the tradition associated with the British Patent Theatres. The title ACADEMY OF MUSIC could also be used generically, since it appears to have been a euphemism, possibly American, for a music or variety house. Music Halls in the Australian colonies evolved in a specific style to provide a hybrid entertainment influenced both by the British original and American vaudeville.  

No attempt has been made to convert Imperial measurements, in distance, size or currency to the metric system.

For length and size:
One foot = twelve inches = 30.05 cms.
One yard = three feet = 91.04 cms
One acre = 0.04 hectares
For currency:
One penny = approx. .09 cents
Sixpence = 5 cents
One shilling = twelve pennies = ten cents
Ten shillings = one dollar
One pound = two dollars
One guinea = one pound and one shilling = two dollars, ten cents
The abbreviation for Imperial currency was L.s.d. = pounds, shillings and pence.
If it was British currency it was referred to as `Pounds Sterling' 

It should be remembered, when referring to currency, that while conversion may be deemed an absolute, purchasing power is a wholly relative concept. 



Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National