An expression of interest process began, which everyone thought would see an operator named before Christmas. Four parties were in the game: Australian theatre producer Michael Cassell, who is responsible for bringing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to Melbourne and next year’s Australian premiere of Hamilton to Sydney; Sir Howard Panter’s Trafalgar Entertainment Group, who are currently touring the National Theatre’s production of War Horse; Steven Found, who run’s Sydney’s two existing commercial theatres The Lyric and the Capitol; and one mystery fourth party believed to be the Marriner Group, which operates the majority of the theatres in Melbourne.
It turns out the EOI process was just the government kicking tyres to see if there was anyone interested in running a theatre. They could have just read the Herald. We have run multiple stories about the parties who want to get their hands on it – but you do you, Gladys Berejiklian.
Come November, rather than announce a theatre operator, the government announced a tender process that, for all intents and purposes, is getting the same people to submit the same proposals so the government can read them again. We may never know exactly what it looked like; the whole process has been hidden behind a cloak of darkness with the government using its favourite buzzwords ‘commercial-in-confidence’ (AKA, ‘we don’t want the public to know what we are up to’).
Government sources tell me the winner of the commercial theatre hunger games is imminent.
The front-runners remain those who expressed interest in the first place.
Cassel, who has the runs on the board when it comes to bringing blockbuster productions to Australia, has fingers in pies all over Broadway and has recently appointed a development producer to create new Australian works at a commercial level.
Panter, who has recently done a deal with the National Theatre in London, is understood to harbour strong desires to use the Theatre Royal as a base from which to present NT’s phenomenal productions in Australia. (An admirable plan, but protections would need to be put in place to ensure Australian creatives and performers aren’t locked out of the space for British touring companies to come through.)
Found is Sydney’s most experienced theatre operator, and he has kept the Lyric and the Capitol open through some incredibly challenging conditions in the market. But some producers have raised concerns that a third theatre in his Foundation Theatres stable wouldn’t be great for competition and would create a situation like that in Brisbane, where one organisation is responsible for the commercial theatre diet of the city.
The tender process is being run by Create NSW, the government’s arts policy and funding body, and Harwin is at the centre, directing traffic.
He tells me he wants his legacy as Arts Minister to be returning New South Wales to the number one state for theatre and performing arts. His vision for that, as far as space for performing goes, is solid. The Theatre Royal will re-open under his watch and he has announced plans to turn the Powerhouse Museum space in Ultimo into a 1500-seat theatre when the museum moves to Parramatta.
“For too long we’ve seen the big shows going elsewhere – I’m determined to stop that,” he told me.
“Sydney is crying out for more performances spaces. More space will bring more shows, and also more diversity in terms of what audiences will be able to see.”
But, as the minister responsible for delivering it, it is also his responsibility to put a firecracker under his bureaucracy and make this happen quickly.
At the moment the lack of space in Sydney (and to a lesser degree, Brisbane) makes for tour-planning nightmares for a producer. Major productions go and meander around Asia waiting for space to open back home, resulting in tired shows opening in Sydney that struggle to sell tickets. Shows can’t be commercially successful in Australia without playing the three east coast capitals and if producers can’t line up a run of dates the shows either don’t come here at all or they come here years after they have played on Broadway and in London.
Live theatre plays an integral part in the life of a city. Blockbuster productions such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child inject millions into the economy by way of tourism; they inject energy into a city’s night-time economy; and they create essential cultural experiences.
The government’s decision must be made urgently and the Theatre Royal’s new operator must be committed to raising the curtain as soon as possible.
Nathanael Cooper is the deputy culture editor at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.