Many Happy Returns for Genesian Theatre
A small theatre in a large city is celebrating an enormous milestone. Sydney’s Genesian Theatre celebrates its 70th Anniversary in August 2014. Over the years the Theatre has introduced some of today’s leading artists with Bryan Brown, John Bell, Peter Carroll, the late Nick Enright, Judi Farr, Angela Punch-McGregor and even a young Baz Luhrmann among the thousands of performers to have graced the intimate theatre’s stage.
Theatre Director Roger Gimblett said that 2014 was extremely significant for the company, marking not only 70 years since it’s formation at a meeting of members of the Catholic Youth Organisation held on 15th August, 1944, but additionally 60 years occupying its historic Kent Street premises.
Originally St John's Church and dating from 1868, the building (which is said to be frequented by a couple of friendly ghosts) served as both a church and a poor school until 1932 when it became the Kursaal Theatre, housing the Sydney Repertory Company. In 1938 it became the first Matthew Talbot Hostel before becoming the home of The Genesian Theatre in 1954.
On 8 April 1954 the curtain opened on a performance of Murder in the Cathedral so on Tuesday 8 April 2014 the theatre celebrated with a rehearsed workshop of sections of the T.S. Eliot play and a party.
Although the building is still owned by the Catholic Church and the company retains links with the church, membership of the group is open to all. In addition to between six and eight main-stage shows a year, the company holds classes with industry professionals, workshop productions and social events.
Extraordinarily, given the continuous nature of its programme, the Genesian Theatre runs on a totally volunteer basis with a significant percentage of the annual profits being donated to charities. This year’s worthy causes include St Vincent de Paul, Barnardos and Youth off the Streets.
While perhaps best known for staging hugely popular murder mysteries (its eight week season of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap sold out every seat in the theatre weeks before opening), the Genesian also staged the Sydney premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s By Jeeves; new work by Dusty and Shout author Mel Morrow and, recently, the world premiere of a new musical based on Oscar Wilde’s The Star Child.
It also has an established reputation for Shakespeare, having an unexpected hit in 2012 with The Merchant of Venice directed by 22-year-old Constantine Costi, who subsequently was accepted into the NIDA Directors course.
Gimblett said the theatre had a certain ‘circle of life’ with two of this season’s directors being aged in their 70s and three more in their 20s.
“As with any community theatre people come and go. We have people go on to further theatre study at institutions such as WAAPA and NIDA and we have those for whom theatre will only ever be a hobby.
“What we try to do is create a sense of ‘company’ where there are no stars and everyone participates in all aspects of producing theatre. We don’t get it right every time, but, whether it’s the ambience of the building or the nature of the group, more often than not our cast and crew seems to develop a very tight and long-lasting bond.”
After 70 years some surprises can crop up. During its recent production of Pride and Prejudice the theatre was honoured to entertain Cecilia Bradley, a foundation member, who had played the part of Miss Bingley in the Genesian’s production of the play in 1945. Cecilia, now in her 90’s, was delighted with the show and stayed to meet the cast afterwards.
The 70th celebrations continue mid-August with various events culminating in a Gala Dinner on Friday 15 August. Past members and supporters of the company are welcome to join the festivities.
Despite the birthday the shows must go on, and Gimblett said the Board of the theatre had worked hard to set a suitable season to mark the celebrations. Sherlock Holmes - the Final Adventure during July/August, followed by the traditional murder-mystery – this year Agatha Christie’s Spiders Web. The season also features Peter Shaffer’splay exploring the life of Mozart, Amadeus, opening on the 25th of October. Terence Rattigan’s moving drama of family loyalty The Winslow Boy, which was recently revived on Broadway, andShakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream round out this season in early 2015.
In addition an ongoing maintenance programme is planned on the 146 year old building to keep the curtain going up each weekend for the next 70 years on new generations of enthusiastic amateurs and future stars.
Images: Outside the Genesian Theatre; The Comedian (1945); Frankensteiin (2014); Pride and Prejudice (2014) and By Jeeves.
Originaly published in the July / August 2014 edition of Stage Whispers