It’s hard to imagine the Sydney Theatre Company – or indeed Sydney itself – without its harbourside home, The Wharf.
In many ways, the venue – an award-winning conversion of a heritage-listed ironbark timber wharf built to load cargo onto ships – epitomises the big, bold, adventurous creativity and distinctive Sydney glamour of the company it houses. Celebrating its 30th anniversary in December 2014, the Wharf has been vitally important to STC’s image, success and economic viability, as well as spearheading the development of a burgeoning arts precinct at Walsh Bay. But it could so easily not have happened.
When Premier Neville Wran sent NIDA’s Elizabeth Butcher out in 1979 to find premises for the newly formed state theatre company, a second venue was not on the cards – though Butcher always kept the idea quietly in the back of her mind.
Butcher had set up the Sydney Theatre Company for Wran so that there was a company to perform in the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre following the demise of the Old Tote in 1978. Now it needed premises where it could consolidate administration, workshops and rehearsal space.
Shown the enormous, two-storey Pier 4/5 wharf at Walsh Bay, Butcher knew immediately that she had found what she was looking for. Standing empty with nothing in it except for seagulls, it was clear the building had the space for everything the company needed including a theatre.
Happily, Wran had been in New York not long before where he had seen the reclamation of wharves in lower Manhattan into gymnasiums and tennis courts and immediately recognised its potential.
“What I liked about The Wharf was that it was different,” said Wran in 2004 when interviewed for an STC historical research project. “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.”
There were objections to investing in bricks and mortar and the Maritime Services Board, which owned the building, was loath to relinquish it but living up to his nickname of Nifty, Wran was determined to make it happen.
In her foreword to Walking on Water, Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf (by Kim Spinks, Sharon Baird and Georgia Macbeth) Jill Hickson writes: “As I recall, Neville said to Gerry Gleeson [the then Secretary and Permanent Head of the NSW Premier’s Department], ‘Oh! Just tell them that I bloody want it!’ or words to that effect.”
What’s more, he insisted the Maritime Services Board pay to strengthen the piles on which the wharf was built. Finally, in 1983, having seen off three years of bureaucratic obstacles, Wran was able to announce that a budget of $3.5 million for the conversion had been approved.
Even then, it was touch and go. At one point, with cost cutting in mind, the government architects recommended that the theatre be built at the road end of the Wharf rather than at the harbour end as architect Vivian Fraser had designed it. There were also concerns that the public wouldn’t want to walk the 200 metres to the theatre.
Fraser and the company’s first artistic director Richard Wherrett were appalled. “I felt that we owed the public the spectacular beauty of the harbour end, and that once they got there they would appreciate it,” wrote Wherrett in his memoirs The Floor of Heaven.
Wherrett was also quoted as saying: “I liked the metaphorical notion that every time you went into the place to see a play, you went on some kind of journey.”
The sense of anticipation that you feel as you walk down The Wharf is still palpable three decades on. Production shots from across the company’s history line the walkway, while pithy messages on blackboards placed at intervals en route provoke and amuse.
The Wharf was officially opened on December 13, 1984. Standing on the “eagle’s nest” that overlooks the foyer, grand dame of the theatre Ruth Cracknell read playwright David Williamson’s specially commissioned “Ode to the Wharf” and Wran declared the building officially open.
When it opened its doors in December 1984, Fraser’s sensitive renovation, with its respect for the past and embrace of the modern sitting happily side by side, won universal acclaim from the media and public alike and was awarded the 1985 Sir John Sulman Medal by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (NSW Chapter).
Fraser had been appointed by the Government Architects Office as the designing architect largely because of his renovation of the old salt factory in Belvoir Street for Nimrod Theatre Company – now Belvoir St Theatre.
His design for The Wharf had an industrial logic to it. Materials entered the building at the Hickson Road end and gradually made their way from the workshop through the paint shop along the building to the stage, with the administration in offices next to the theatre.
As for the actual theatre, Fraser designed a flexible space with a hydraulic system to move the seating banks. To ensure good sight lines the seating had to be steeply raked, which some actors found fairly confronting in the early days. There is a story, maybe apocryphal, that Judy Davis went down on her knees to General Manager Donald McDonald to ask that the stage be raised for Hedda Gabler in 1986 to counteract this.
Harbouring the hope of a second, smaller theatre at The Wharf, Wherrett asked Fraser to soundproof and air condition one of the three rehearsal rooms, paving the way for it to be turned into Wharf 2 later on.
Artistic director Robyn Nevin and General Manager Rob Brookman undertook a major upgrade of the premises introducing insulation and air conditioning, adding a green room and extra dressing rooms and improving the kitchen. By its 20th anniversary, the venue was in better shape than ever.
In 2008, Fraser and the NSW Government Architect’s Office were awarded the RAIA 25 Year Award for Enduring Architecture, with the jury citation concluding: “The Wharf remains an essential community and tourist facility after more than two decades of continuous, robust use.”
Under the artistic directorship of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, who put a great deal of energy into attracting a broader audience to the company, the foyer at the Wharf has become a more relaxed, informal space. Instead of tendering out half of the foyer for a restaurant, the STC now operates the entire area as a café/bar offering a more affordable, tapas-style menu for those who want to eat. Blanchett and Upton also introduced free, post-show live music gigs called The Wharf Sessions.
Today, the spectacularly located theatre is also an inspirational example of environmental leadership. Blanchett’s and Upton’s Greening the Wharf project – which introduced Australia’s second largest rooftop solar array, rainwater harvesting and energy efficiency measures to the building – has a scale and comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability, which makes it a world first for any major theatre company globally.
Artistic Director Richard Wherrett, actors Ruth Cracknell and Jacki Weaver, and David Churches, the Project Architect (NSW Government Architects' Branch), inspect The Wharf during renovations, 1984. (Photo: Hugh Hamilton)
Richard Wherrett, The Hon Neville Wran, David Churches and Evan Williams inspect The Wharf during renovations, 1984. (Photo: Hugh Hamilton)