Sydney's arts companies are on the move

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SMH SPECTRUM Portrait of Australian opera soprano Danielle De Niese who stars in The Merry Widow photographed at the Opera Australia Warehouse in Surry Hills on October 24, 2017 in Sydney, Australia. Photograph by Anna Kucera.

SMH SPECTRUM Portrait of Australian opera soprano Danielle De Niese who stars in The Merry Widow photographed at the Opera Australia Warehouse in Surry Hills on October 24, 2017 in Sydney, Australia. Photograph by Anna Kucera.

 Emma Dunch  , New CEO appointed for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Pic Nick Moir 14 august 2017

Emma Dunch , New CEO appointed for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Pic Nick Moir 14 august 2017

Almost all Sydney's major arts organisations will be rendered temporarily homeless over the next few years in a period of unprecedented upheaval brought about by massive renovations to key parts of the city's cultural infrastructure.

More than half a billion dollars will be spent on upgrades to the interior of Sydney Opera House and the Walsh Bay arts precinct. Final completion for all the works is not scheduled until the end of 2021.

When the dust settles and the builders hand back the keys, the companies who make their homes there, ranging from Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Song Company, should have world-class performance and rehearsal spaces.

But in the meantime many are scrambling to find temporary office and performance spaces as well as to weather the inevitable blow to their box offices.

One of the first cabs off the rank in this monumental game of musical chairs is the Australian Ballet, whose usual home, the Joan Sutherland Theatre in the Opera House, is getting a $45 million backstage upgrade.

This weekend the company opens David McAllister's lavish production of The Sleeping Beauty at the Capitol Theatre, with principal Lana Jones returning in the role of Aurora. Gabriela Tylesova's??? decadent fairytale sets, a dedicated sprung floor, 130 costumes and 70 wigs have been carefully packed, then trucked in from storage in Melbourne along with 70 dancers and 57 technical staff.

Beauty's encore season, and its follow-up, the full length ballet Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, has been deliberately scheduled to draw a family-friendly, commercial audience to the Capitol.

"It feels a bit like we are camping at the moment because some rehearsals are here, some are at the Opera House," says McAllister. "I said to the dancers just make sure you have your big ballet bag and take everything with you."

Later, observing the unloading trucks, he corrects himself: "We're more like a grand procession."

The Australian Ballet is far from alone in its big move. Opera Australia also vacated the Joan Sutherland Theatre in May and is planning a triumphant return to the Opera House on New Year's Eve with a production of The Merry Widow.

The work at "The Joan" - largely confined to backstage and accessibility upgrades - is part of the massive $273 million revamp of the Opera House, which will also extend to the concert hall, leaving the Sydney Symphony Orchestra homeless through 2020 and 2021.

The task facing the SSO, because of the sheer size of the orchestra and its very particular acoustic requirements is bigger than most.

Detailed planning has been continuing at the orchestra ever since the Opera House project was first mooted, however, administrators declined to reveal specifics at this stage, due in part to the fact the organisation is "between" chief executives.

But the challenges of two years without a base will inevitably be at the top of the agenda for incoming CEO Emma Dunch when she settles into the job early next year.

Dunch may well find the experience of Opera Australia instructive, especially when it comes to seeking financial help from government.

Like the Australian Ballet, Opera Australia CEO Rory Jeffes (and former SSO chief) said they had had no assistance.

"Representations were made to both federal and state governments," he says. "But there was not any appetite for a commitment to support the disruption costs for Opera Australia."

OA managed its way through the period by building a $3 million surplus in its 2016 season then this year staging innovative programs such as its highly acclaimed concert production of Parsifal with international star Jonas Kaufmann.

And along the way, they have learnt a few things.

"2017 has been incredibly interesting," says Jeffes. "Being forced by the closure to look at alternative ways of presenting things that would appeal to opera audiences has been fascinating.

"It has actually created some thinking about how do we do some things differently going in to the future - in addition to and not instead of the grand opera which we are proud to present. What else can we do as a way of inspiring and connecting with as broad a range of opera audiences as possible?"

That new thinking may already be in evidence in OA's program for 2018, particularly with its plans to stage Brian Howard's chamber opera, Metamorphosis, in the scenery workshop at its Surry Hills base.

The Australian Ballet returns to the Opera House in April with a vibrant tribute to Graeme Murphy, Australia's premier choreographer, and McAllister sees its summer productions as a chance to draw new fans. His gambit has proved fruitful with more than 80 per cent of tickets to Beauty's 12 performances sold and Alice almost sold out.

"Everything is exactly the same for this production but the dancers get so much more room," McAllister says. "This sort of feels like there is more air around the dancing and, you know, people can really step out and move in a different way."

At the same time as work continues on the Opera House the rejuvenation of the Walsh Bay arts precinct is slated to begin in July.

Planning for the project has been much delayed, most recently by a successful court challenge that has forced planners to return to the drawing board.

However, the Department of Planning's Craig Limkin insists the project remains on target.

"We are still on track to commence construction in July next year," he says. "We are supporting the arts companies during this transition and working closely to ensure this is as smooth a transition as possible."

The state government is talking up the potential of the new-look Walsh Bay, an enthusiasm that appears mostly shared by the arts organisations. But in the meantime many are facing the headache and cost of moving out for 18 months or longer.

One of the companies in the thick of the process is the Australian Theatre for Young People, who expect to leave Pier 4/5 in Hickson Rd, their home for more than 20 years, mid next year.

Artistic director Fraser Corfield says an upgrade is long overdue.

"It's a funny little space," he says. "In some ways it's Sydney's most unlikely theatre.

"We're getting a purpose-built 200-seat theatre. It's been designed very much to suit the national youth theatre with seating suitable for kids as well as adults. There's a green room, dressing rooms and two beautiful new workshop spaces and increased office space."

However, that space will not be available until 2020 and, in the meantime, ATYP has to continue without its own premises.

"The challenge is to operate with a base and home to bring people to," says Corfield.

"At the moment we serve as a destination for a lot of schools and young people around the country. It's astonishing how many regional schools will come to our space at the wharf, so losing that is the challenge. However, at the same time it pushes us to make sure our work is operating more remotely."

ATYP's solution is to shift its administration to Woolloomooloo and to team up with Kings Cross's Griffin Theatre for performances, as well as to take more shows on the road.

"It forces us to really look at the national mandate," says Corfield, adding that the company still needs another $50,000 to $60,000 to cover its extra costs.

Walsh bay's flagship theatre company, Sydney Theatre Company, will also be joining the ranks of the temporarily homeless.

Executive director Patrick McIntyre is enthusiastic about the newly flexible theatre space that will be created at Pier 4, taking its cue from overseas theatres such as London's Young Vic and Berlin's Schaubuhne, while also wrestling with how to minimise the impact on the STC's bottom line.

It will still have use of the drama theatre at the Opera House and the Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay but will lose the use of its two wharf theatres in Pier 4, where it stages smaller works or works by emerging artists.

Added to the complexity of the planning is a degree of uncertainty that would be familiar to anyone who has dealt with the vagaries of a major building project.

"If the closure period looks like it will just be until the end of 2019 there's the possibility we might leapfrog a year and maybe 2019 will feature larger works," says McIntyre.

"But if the closure was to roll into the first half of 2020 that would obviously leave us with quite a long time without having some developmental, small-scale works in the program. We're still chewing over all that now.

"Doing them in another venue is a possibility - whether that is an existing venue or a pop-up venue or a 'found' space is something we are talking about."

Meanwhile, STC's administration and other functions such as wardrobe and construction will shift to Fox Studios for the duration.

"We ideally want to keep all the departments together both for operating efficiency but also to keep the culture of the company alive during the 'decant' period," says McIntyre.

Another organisation being forced into thinking differently is the Sydney Writers' Festival, which will celebrate its 21st year at the more edgy Carriageworks, rather than its traditional home at Pier 2/3 Walsh Bay.

Close to the University of Sydney and Newtown's lively night life with the potential to draw a younger, more diverse audience and build on the festival's loyal audience base, the new venue will give festival director Michaela McGuire the chance to take stock of the program; what events work, what can be done differently.

But the festival faces higher costs, paying significantly more to use Carriageworks and the Seymour Centre than the peppercorn rent the government charged for use of Pier 2/3.

The two centres also can't match the number of pop-up and established venues the festival used in Walsh Bay, with the festival facing an overall reduction in venue capacity of about 6500.

The festival is in negotiations with the NSW government, hoping for a helping hand towards the increased costs caused by the move.

Festival organisers want to make sharing the site with Carriageworks' weekly Saturday farmers' market a virtue, enticing stall holders to extend their offerings mid-week to feed hungry patrons.

More than half the international guests have already been confirmed, and for the first time they won't be enjoying the Harbourside views of Walsh Bay but will be staying in the more bohemian quarters of the Old Clare and Adina Hotel.

A necessary shift in dates has also affected the availability of international guests.

Brought forward three weeks because Carriageworks is to stage Sydney Fashion Week, the festival will fall well before the Auckland Writers Festival with an 11-day gap in between.

A nice layover for international guests but the "reality is most authors have a busy schedule as it is", says McGuire. "That's a real shame. Some authors are doing both [events] but it is a three-week commitment."

If anything, the change in festival dates is proving more of a challenge than the change in venue, and McGuire is looking forward to hopefully returning to the traditional dates and venue, in 2020.

Perhaps the smallest tenant of Walsh Bay is The Song Company, a boutique vocal ensemble of six to eight voices whose quality and impact belies its modest numbers. Sharing its rehearsal space with Gondwana Choirs and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, the ensemble will join the July exodus, booking rehearsal spaces where it can.

"We have flexibility," says general manager David Sidebottom. "Because we have a very small footprint all we need is a piano."

When the Song Company moves back in, the musicians are looking forward to a sound-insulated rehearsal space so they no longer have to compete with traffic noise from Walsh Bay - as well as efficient air-conditioning.

Meanwhile, Bell Shakespeare and the Australian Chamber Orchestra have the benefit of not presently being resident at Walsh Bay. They will have the luxury of moving from their current quarters into state-of-the-art facilities only when the work at Hickson Road is complete.

In the case of the ACO it will be a huge relief for staff and players alike to leave their dungeon-like premises at Circular Quay.

"They say real estate is all location, location, location but if you're in a cellar then location is meaningless," says ACO director Richard Tognetti. "Our staff don't experience sunlight or fresh air for their whole working day. So we're looking forward to it."

At Walsh Bay the ACO will get a dedicated performance and rehearsal space as well as the chance for the artists to rub shoulders with other companies from Bangarra Dance Theatre to Gondwana Choirs.

"It's what I call the Chinese restaurant cluster mentality or all the violin makers being together at Cremona," says Tognetti. "There is definitely something about bouncing off each other in a competitive yet friendly environment."

Bell Shakespeare's Gill Perkins is equally enthusiastic and echoes the sentiments of all the other companies who are eager for the work to be completed so they can get on with what they all do best.

"It's going to be a game changer for us," she says. "We're looking forward to getting in and getting cracking."

This story Sydney's arts companies are on the move first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.