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The curtain rises on Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Renewal Project

The Sydney Theatre Company (STC) is a much loved and revered institution, not only in its hometown of Sydney and across Australia, but also around the globe. Now that it has a revitalised and renewed home at The Wharf in Walsh Bay is the icing on the cake for both the staff of the STC and the theatre going public.

The curtain rises on Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Renewal Project

Photography by Brett Boardman

Founded in 1978, the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) is a power house of world-class theatre that boasts diversity in its presentations – from the classics through to the best Australian and International productions. With an annual audience of some 300,000 people, the 100-year-old former timber wharf building used to export wool, as home to the STC, has played host to capacity crowds over the years. However, with the advent of the Wharf Renewal Project, the amenities and facilities now available are world’s best and have exceeded expectations as a working theatre and hospitality venue.

The initial design for the home of the STC at the finger wharves was created by architect Vivian Fraser in association with NSW Government Architects, however in 2018 work began to upgrade and refurbish the site in line with today’s requirements.

The project by Hassell, with Principal Glenn Scott as lead architect, worked closely with STC, theatre consultants Charcoalblue, heritage conservation architects Tropman & Tropman and also received input from STC staff and audiences. The simple brief was to improve theatre operations and maintain the STC philosophy of an ‘all-under-one-roof’ facility – STC is unique globally for having all theatre production and performance in the one location. Now with the new interior complete, the entire creative process can take place within the one building where administration, marketing and management work alongside play-writes, set-builders and costume-makers as actors rehearse and perform.

A woman in a pink dress sits, with her back to the camera, on a stool looking towards the Sydney Harbour Bridge, at Sydney Theatre Company.

Photography by Brett Boardman

Some eight years in the making, from concept to completion, the STC Wharf Renewal Project has been a labour of love for Scott and the Hassell team and, as lead architect, Scott has designed a sensitive, streamlined interior that combines the best of the old with the advantages of the new.

Access to the STC is from Hickson Road, Walsh Bay at Wharf 4/5. Up the stairs to the first floor, there is a long corridor that leads to the administration offices, performance spaces and hospitality areas at the rear. The walkway with glazing at the side of the structure provides views of water and allows for ample natural light to penetrate. White walls and white painted linear cladding, purposely contrasting the heritage fabric, visually elongates the area and soon visitors arrive at the two theatres.

Part of the process of redesigning the STC space was the modernisation of the theatres. Flexibility is key in both spaces and, importantly, there is acoustic separation for both however, when required the two theatres can be re-configured to become one. Capacity is now extended with 350-400 people accommodated in Wharf 1 and 160 people in Wharf 2.

Ceiling height in the Paradise workshop has also been raised to allow for large sets to be built on-site, a new back-of house corridor has been incorporated to allow for greater movement from workshop to rehearsal and theatre spaces and there is also a dedicated wig room. Along with new amenities for set design there are sparkling new dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms and break outs spaces, as well as, music and vocal coaching rooms and a recording booth.

A view from the second level of the Sydney Theatre Company, looking through the heritage beams of the building.

A focal point for all theatre goers is the hospitality amenities and these have been upgraded and refined, while the inclusion of two new lifts provides improved public accessibility. The iconic, The Theatre Bar at the End of The Wharf and Atrium has enhanced kitchen facilities and there is the addition of two balcony extensions or gantries that provide excellent harbourside views for patrons. On the floor above, and overlooking the bar, is a new multipurpose venue space, the Neilson Family Gallery, that once again is a flexible space and can be hired for small gatherings.

Working closely with collaborators, Scott was also in constant contact with STC Company Executive Director, Patrick McIntyre, who has been a consistent figure throughout the renovation process.

Commenting on the STC’s new home McIntyre reflected, “The newest incarnation of the company’s headquarters by Hassell architect and Charcoalblue theatre consultants has pulled off a triple coup by revealing even more of the original structure and providing new and more functional theatres and work places while at the same time honouring and responding to the earlier work by Viv Fraser and NSW Government Architects. We couldn’t be happier with the result and we look forward to creating new memories here for artists and audiences for decades to come.”

While the general interior of the STC is white, bright and light and very dark in the theatres, technology is state-of-the-art and functionality incomparable. Scott has added a deft touch to the design, modernising and rejuvenating the spaces but also paying deference to the history of the building and, in turn, the organisation.

A woman in a white and black top sits at a sewing machine in Sydney Theatre Company, near a wall of colourful threads.

Photography by Brett Boardman

Scott remarked, “The STC Wharf Renewal Project is a rare, culturally important, heritage project that is a huge responsibility for a design team to work on – we are delighted with the outcome, and proud that STC can continue their ground-breaking theatre at The Wharf well into the future”.

It may have taken a few years to complete however the new STC is a shining example of what can be achieved through vision and determination. The STC Wharf Renewal Project was made possible with the support of the NSW Government and private donors and certainly everyone involved must be elated with the outcome.

As theatre brings joy to those who attend it, now with the completion of the Wharf Renewal Project, those who work at the STC can also enjoy the fine surrounds back-of-house as well as those seated in the front row.


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This story originally appeared in Indesign Magazine #84Subscribe now.

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