Sydney theatres underutilised and expensive

Sydney’s theatre venues are used for performance less than a third of the time, while producers struggle to find an affordable venue, an independent study has found.
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A ghost light illuminating a darkened theatre: photo by Jon Ellwood via wikipedia.

Playwright, director and theatre producer Steven Hopley conducted the study independently to investigate the challenges faced by the city’s theatre-makers.

The Sydney Theatre Report 2015 identified a severe shortage of affordable, suitable theatre venues in Sydney. There are currently no venues available for hire with less than 100 seats or under $2000 per week in rental.

Existing venues ​were used for performance only 29% of the time in the 2015 financial year. Non-performance events and rehearsals accounted for some of the remaining usage but often theatres are empty. Performances included dance, music and comedy as well as theatre and Hopley noted venues were often more affordable for non-theatrical performances with lower overheads. Only 18% of performances were actual theatre productions. 

Hopley also conducted an online poll of independent producers which found 91% of independent producers surveyed have had to postpone or cancel a show due to the lack of a suitable venue, and 55% have had to make creative compromises because of the venue shortage.

He found that 64% of independent producers have cited finding an affordable venue as the single biggest problem they face in putting on a show in Sydney.

Hopley was prompted to conduct the research while looking for a venue for his own use.​

‘I’m a producer myself so I’ve been hit hard by the lack of venues – in particular the Tap Gallery had two venues in it, both of which I was using not long before it closed [in late 2014]. And once it closed there was virtually nothing else that was really replacing it in that size,’ said Hopley.

‘As I was looking around at various different spaces, and I guess after a while I was gathering information anyway so I started to think maybe I should put it together in a larger format for other people,’ he told ArtsHub.

Hopley’s ​study of theatre venues in the inner city and surrounding suburbs has identified 65 spaces, either designed and dedicated for use as a theatre venue, or currently being utilised as a dedicated theatre venue.

‘That might look a lot on paper [but] the very fact that all the theatres in a world class city like Sydney could be this easily quantified, is a sign of their dearth. That this number should include professional, independent, community, and student theatres, including private venues in schools, obscure venues, theatres only just launched, venues marked for closure, spaces temporarily closed, theatres that are more frequently used as lecture halls or exhibition spaces, theatres that are little more than semi-converted classroooms or function rooms, and venues that many in the industry would question being classed as theatres at all (whenever there was doubt, I erred towards inclusion), make this number shrink further into inadequacy.’

He said he was shocked when the figures came in. 

‘The fact that our theatres are being used only 29% of the time and even less that for actual theatre – that for me is shocking. I sort of half-expected a lot of the other stats but I was kind of shocked when I did all the numbers and saw that … I was expecting it to be under 50% because I was seeing some of the figures that were coming in, but when you actually crunch it all together, yeah it’s pretty scary,’ he said.

Those figures are slightly skewed by the inclusion of school theatres and auditoriums, which may be prevented from wider hiring by planning conditions. But even with schools removed, the figures were still surprising low, said Hopley.

‘Even taking them out it was – instead of 29% [usage] and 18% [dedicated theatre performances] – it went to 35% and 21%, so it didn’t actually make that huge a difference … Downstairs Belvoir was only at 33%. The Wharf”s, which might have been a surprise for some people because it’s Sydney Theatre Company, those spaces are only actually used for 58% for Wharf 1 and 20% for Wharf 2, so when you actually break it down, across the board it is quite, quite low.

‘Some of these spaces are no doubt being used for corporate gigs and whatever, and I haven’t included those – I haven’t gone with the occupancy rates – I’ve gone with the actual uses for theatre, which is something that we don’t see, which is why I went for those figures in the report.

‘But one wonders with places like the Wharf, what are they doing the rest of the time? It is used as a rehearsal venue, could we be using it for other things? Could they be hiring it out? These are questions I don’t know the answers to – I’ve just crunched the figures, but hopefully we’ll find out,’ he said.

Where to next?

The Sydney Theatre Report 2015 makes a number of recommendations, including greater financial investment in the arts, and more support for artists in the independent sector, from all levels of government; a lowering of hire rates across the board, and greater transparency from venues on their rates and additional charges; more co-operation within the industry; and the opening up of school venues for community use.

Jane Kreis Director, Theatre Network NSW (TNN) said she was very pleased that Stephen Hopley had taken the extensive effort to produce his review, and was eager to see what feedback other stakeholders listed in the recommendations might contribute.

‘Hopley’s review raises some very relevant concerns facing inner Sydney-based theatre producers as well as the venues that surround them. Furthermore, it offers actions for all parties to pick up on. Individually, many are chipping away at these issues on a regular basis but unless a more collective approach is developed they will remain unsolved,’ she told ArtsHub.

‘Theatre Network NSW first received operational funding from Arts NSW in 2015 and that support continues in 2016. Like the theatre sector it supports, TNN is lean but active. The organisation exists as a direct result of our sector’s demands for the dedicated “support mechanisms” Hopley refers to. TNN is currently working with theatre producers, local and state government to find ways to collectively address issues affecting NSW theatre. The emphasis on the way TNN works is on the word “with”.

‘To date TNN has addressed the issue of requiring incorporation to hire venues by offering auspice services, negotiating partnerships between theatre makers, government organisations and venues, and offering a platform for resource and knowledge sharing through a basic Share, Swap ‘n’ Sell site. These are all small steps but we know that the longer we remain and the more open discussion there is about such issues, the more solutions TNN might facilitate,’ Kreis said.

Comparing the data contained within the Sydney Theatre Report with other areas of the state would also be valuable, she added.

‘Regional NSW, as Hopley points out, operates in a completely different way with a wealth of accessible venues but with reduced population, proximity, and access to urban facilities and transport solutions,’ Kreis concluded.

Download a PDF copy of the Sydney Theatre Report here.

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Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts