Australia’s Best Suburban Theatre

Australia’s Best Suburban Theatre

It’s on the same stretch of water as the Sydney Opera House, and some time over the next decade it might become a performing arts centre just as significant. The Riverside Theatre in Parramatta, thirty five kilometres from the CBD, is arguably already Australia’s finest suburban theatre – thanks largely to one man. Now it’s been given 100 million dollars for a makeover. David Spicer reports.

Slightly stooped, of medium height with silver hair, he can be seen in crowded foyers on opening nights across Sydney, and of course at the dozens and dozens of openings every year in the three venues inside the Parramatta Riverside Theatres.

“People love the current Riverside (even though) it was built like a prison (in 1988) with an exercise yard in the middle,” says Robert Love with a laugh.

He became Director of the theatre in 2000, when it sold about 50,000 tickets a year.  These days almost 200,000 tickets are sold in the ‘prison’, which is a significantly larger number than attend home games of the Parramatta Eels Rugby League team.

Riverside hosts a dizzying variety of entertainment.  Any month might include a blockbuster pro-am musical, art house cinema, Arabic or Chinese story-telling, a dance concert, comedies from the national touring circuit, Sri Lankan dance and one of their own completely original productions.

“Everyone wants to be a producer. No one just wants to manage the box office and the toilets,” he quips.

Most regional or suburban theatres are a combination of “halls for hire” and producers which buy in national touring works.

Only a few exceptional regional venues might produce one or two self-generated original works a year – Riverside does five or six, under the banner of the National Theatre of Parramatta, which now has a secure funding base.

How is it a national theatre I ask?

“We are putting the nation on stage,” says Robert with a grin.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the National Theatre of Parramatta is putting its community on stage, at a level of professionalism not matched even by many fully funded main stage companies.

The company’s latest play was an adaptation of a novel that is set, in part, at the McDonald’s car park in North Parramatta. That is just one hundred metres away from the Riverside Theatres.  

The theatre commissioned the author of the novel The Incredible Here and Now (about teenagers growing up in western Sydney) to turn it into a piece of drama.

The adaptation was the full bells and whistles. It included a fully professional cast of seven and an impressive set that featured a motor car and scaffolding to replicate the Parramatta Swimming Pool.

Directed by Wayne Harrison, it was a powerful night in the theatre which had a message that could resonate amongst teenagers in any part of Australia.

The National Theatre of Parramatta does not get much recognition in Sydney town. Robert Love says it is largely ignored by eastern suburbs and inner city theatre critics.

“We gear ourselves to local audiences - for them to come and see things they recognise.”

(He did have a point. I am an eastern suburbs theatre critic and one of the reasons I attended The Incredible Here and Now is that as a teenager I did a few shifts at McDonalds North Parramatta, where the play was set.)

The National Theatre leans towards multi-cultural themes but does not want to be typecast as the SBS of the theatre world.

A number of its original plays have been published by Currency Press. Another exceptional work it premiered last year was Smurf in Wanderland, in a co-production with the Griffin Theatre.

The central character was a fanatical fan of the Western Sydney Wanderers football team. At kick off he divided the audience into two teams, Sydney FC on one side (eastern suburbs) and Wanderers (western suburbs) on the other.

The divide between east and west remains a big deal in Sydney.

“The state only spends a small percentage (of arts dollars) in western Sydney.  We know that people like to recreate within 30 minutes of where they live.”

All that is about to change. The New South Wales Government announced in August that, with the Parramatta Council, it will spend 100 million dollars to upgrade the Riverside Theatres.

“All the ducks have lined up,” says Robert Love, tipping his hat to the feathered neighbours which swim next to the theatre.

He has grand plans for an exceptional venue that will sit impressively on the Parramatta River and draw people in, just as the Sydney Opera House draws people in further up the river/harbour.

“You should be able to come down at eight thirty in the morning and have breakfast at a great eatery that will be part of the building.

“When you have finished, there might be a little story telling exercise around the forecourt which will be free for kids.

“Maybe something at 11.30 which is a ticketed event, also an exhibition contextualised with the program, then a big musical at night in the big theatre.

“At least two screens for cinema showing live performance and documentaries.  We need discreet foyer spaces, not just one big foyer. We need to allow public movement from our park (next door) through the theatre to the river.”

He expects the venue to go up a few storeys, allowing for a 200-seat black box theatre, a medium sized 400 seater, home to the National Theatre of Parramatta, and a 1200 to 1500 seater for large scale commercial productions.

This would make it a truly exceptional performing arts space. Robert Love admits his plans are expensive.

“We might need more than 100 million dollars,” he warns. With the electorate of Parramatta marginal for the NSW and Federal Governments, he’s in a good place to raise the dosh needed.

It’s all quite a few years off, which means Robert Love has to put any retirement plans on hold.

His career began in 1976 when he founded his own theatre company. The Toe Truck Theatre lasted 15 years, primarily in theatre in education. He later worked for organisations including the Sydney Theatre Company, News Limited and Fox Studios.

Earlier this year he was awarded an AM for “significant service to the performing arts, particularly in Western Sydney, as an administrator, and as a supporter of independent artists”.

At the time, the Council’s Administrator Amanda Chadwick wrote that “under his directorship Riverside Theatres has become one of the most highly attended theatres in the country. His passion for performing arts is truly inspiring." 

Production images - National Theatre of Parramatta - Photographer: Heidrun Lohr.

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