Walsh Bay’s history of performing arts began with Aborigines chanting and dancing around foreshore campfires, then evolved to rowdy singalongs by convicts, seamen and wharf workers in local public houses, before maturing into an internationally sophisticated performing arts precinct.
In 2013, cultural advisor Gianfranco Cresciani advised the City of Sydney Council that Australia’s first regular playhouse, named the Theatre, Sydney, opened on 16 January 1796 in a convict-built hut on a site uphill from the current Roslyn Packer Theatre. Other historians said this venue probably was built in The Rocks—perhaps around Lower George Street or at Windmill Row (now buried under the southern pylons of the harbour bridge). Although popular, the theatre catalysed some robberies of the homes of some patrons, and other social disturbances. It was closed by the colony’s third Governor, Philip Gidley King, circa 1800.
During the late 1820s and 1830s, the first few small jetties were built along the settlement’s western headland (the first of many around Darling Harbour to Balmain Point), These ricketty structures hosted small sailing ships carrying cedar, hops, sealskins, whale oil and bones, turtle shells and sandalwood between South Pacific ports and London.
As Sydney’s maritime trade expanded, new drinking venues fostered rowdy singalongs of popular shanties, folk ballads, hymns, carols, arias and ditties. Notable hotels around Argyle Street, Windmill Street and Lower Fort Street were the Whalers Arms (1831), Shipwrights Arms (1833-37), Lord Nelson (licensed 1842), Harbour View (1843), Hero of Waterloo (1845), Hit or Miss (1850-1923) and Captain Cook (1874). Most of these continue to thrive (with the Palisade, licensed in 1916) and are especially crowded with revellers on St Patricks Day (17 March) each year.
The Theatre was not recorded by authors of several Australian theatre history books published in the late 20th century, but it was the vital precursor of today’s Sydney Theatre Company, which was launched in 1983, occupying custom-renovated premises in the historic cargo shed on Wharf 4-5. This building also was adapted to suit the Sydney Dance Company, and later the Bangarra Dance Theatre, Ausdance, The Song Company, the Australian Theatre for Young People, the Australian Philharmonic Choirs, and offices for Regional Arts and Accessible Arts.
Elizabeth Butcher, the first administrator of the Sydney Theatre Company founded in 1978, visited Wharf 4-5 in 1980 and gained support from then-Premier Neville Wran’s Labor government to renovate the derelict two-storey shed, wharf platform and piers.
In September 1983, Wran announced a budget of $A3.5 million to build a recycling scheme designed by architect Vivian Fraser and a special projects team led by Andrew Andersons and David Churches at the NSW Government Architects Office. They integrated modern facilities suitable for creating, producing, performing and enjoying theatre and dance performances, without sacrificing the building’s historical structural integrity or visual character (especially when viewed externally).
The renovated building was opened in late 1984, then co-won the Royal Australian Institute of Architects’ 1985 Sir John Sulman Medal for outstanding works of public and commercial architecture. In 2008, Wharf 4-5 also won the RAIA’s 25 Year Award for architecture of enduring quality.
The first STC production at the Wharf was Late Arrivals, written by Pamela van Amstel and directed by Wayne Harrison, part of a season of short plays called Shorts at the Wharf.
The Sydney Theatre Company gained another performance venue at Walsh Bay in the mid-2000s, when the former Parbury’s wool stores buildings, on the south side of Hickson Road, were rejuvenated by PTW Architects, led by Andrew Andersons. Originally called Sydney Theatre, it has been renamed the Roslyn Packer Theatre.
In mid-2018, all the performing arts companies occupying Wharf 4-5 moved to other premises to wait out another major renovation of both this wharf and the adjacent Pier 2-3. These redevelopments are key to creating a waterfront arts and culture hub named the Walsh Bay Arts Precinct.
After hosting regular events including the Sydney Writers Festival, Biennale of Sydney, and pop-up art events, Pier 2-3 will become a long-term home for the Bell Shakespeare Company, Australian Chamber Orchestra and Australian Theatre for Young People.
Gianfranco Cresciani, 2013, Naming Proposal–”Walsh Bay”—Proposed New Suburb (report to the City of Sydney), pp. 3, 8, https://www.walshbay.com.au/documents/Reports/DrGianfrancoCrescianni_WalshBayNamingProposal.pdf (accessed 11 February 2019).
John Kardoss, 1955, A Brief History of the Australian Theatre. Sydney: New Century Press.
Ailsa McPherson, 2008, ‘Theatre’, The Dictionary of Sydney, https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/theatre#ref-uuid=c4ca4238-a0b9-2382-0dcc-509a6f75849b (accessed 11 February 2019).
Lisa Murray, 2017, ‘Sydney’s first theatre’, The Dictionary of Sydney, http://home.dictionaryofsydney.org/sydneys-first-theatre/ (accessed 11 February 2019)
Kim Spinks, Sharon Baird and Georgia Macbeth (eds.), 1995, Walking on Water: The Sydney Theatre Company at The Wharf. Sydney: Currency Press.
Ross Thorne, 2016, ‘Sydney’s lost theatres’, The Dictionary of Sydney, https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/sydneys_lost_theatres (accessed 11 February 2019).
‘History‘, Sydney Theatre Company website.
‘Walsh Bay Arts Precinct‘, Create NSW website.