By ALEC SMART
The award-winning New Theatre at 542 King Street, Newtown, has an interesting history and is among Australia’s longest continually-running live theatres, staging over 550 productions.
New Theatre publicist Alice Livingstone explained, “We usually host around six to eight productions a year. We start in February and stage an LGBTQI production to coincide with the annual Mardis Gras, which we’ve been doing since 1994. We continue throughout the year and in September we also participate in the Sydney Fringe Festival.
“We’re mainly staffed by volunteers, including the performers and crew, and rely upon public support and ticket sales to finance the productions.”
The New Theatre was founded as the Sydney Workers Arts Club (SWAC) in August 1932 in temporary premises at 273 Pitt Street in the city, before relocating to a more secure base nearby in October at 36 Pitt Street, former home of the Australian Seamen’s Union.
Launching with the slogan “Art is a Weapon”, the first public performance took place in April the following year, featuring The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a play based on the popular 1914 novel about an Irish sign writer and house painter struggling to find work in a southern English seaside town.
This politically-charged production, adapted from a novel praised by Animal Farm and 1984 writer George Orwell, set the template for the theatre company’s future endeavours. The socially-motivated thespians were inspired by the burgeoning New Theatre movement that began in the USA, which examined and showcased the lives of working people, and grew out of the economic hardship and realignment of cultural values inflicted by the global Depression.
In 1936 the SWAC adopted the name New Theatre League, shortened to New Theatre in 1945, by which time they’d set up in new premises in Castlereagh St, and set about challenging stage censorship whilst focusing on stories that explored social issues, including human rights, indigenous struggles and women’s emancipation.
Following a formal protest lodged by Hitler’s government representative in Australia, New Theatre’s 1936 production of Clifford Odets' anti-fascist play, Till The Day I Die, was halted by police intervention, which caused a stir in the media as the public demanded it be allowed to continue. (Thereafter it was performed illegally).
Other productions that challenged conservative thinking (and attracted the attentions of ASIO!) included Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, critical of the communism paranoia that typified the McCarthy era in the USA (New Theatre was the first Australian venue to stage the play); Pacific Paradise, opposing atomic bomb testing in the Pacific; and Steven Berkoff’s Sink the Belgrano, about Britain’s torpedo-sinking of the Argentinian ship full of conscripted sailors during the Falklands War.
In 1973, after nine years at the Waterside Workers’ Federation Theatre in Sussex Street, followed by a decade in Kings Cross, New Theatre found their permanent home at 542 King St, Newtown.
Ms Livingstone revealed “it was previously an old TV picture tube repair factory. We received a grant from the Gough Whitlam government to purchase the premises.”
In 2016, New Theatre received the ACON Honour Award for Arts and Entertainment for their “25-year commitment to LGBTI content and productions for the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras and for recognising diverse sexualities and genders as an important demographic within the theatre’s community and audience.”
New Theatre welcomes volunteers, including set builders, lighting riggers, stage hands, costume designers and sound managers, or front-of-house bar work (with a current RSA).
Membership is available for $30 a year, which includes discounted tickets, the quarterly newsletter Spotlight, and extras.
Joan Lindsay’s supernatural mystery, Picnic at Hanging Rock, runs from 17 Nov to 19 Dec.
542 King St, Newtown
Ph: 02 9519 3403