A $30 million grant will see Sydney Theatre Company’s home at The Wharf undergo a major redevelopment of all its facilities. The upgrade, known as The Wharf Renewal Project, has been in the pipeline for some years. Today’s announcement of funding from the NSW State Government means that the project has finally got the green light. Work will begin at the start of 2018 and is expected to take around 18 months, during which time the venue will be closed.

Sydney Theatre Company's Wharf RenovationThe entrance to Sydney Theatre Company’s home at The Wharf

It will be the first significant upgrade to the venue since STC moved into the specially redeveloped space at Pier 4/5 in Walsh Bay in 1984. “It’s been a long time coming for us, this redevelopment, so we’re really delighted that the Government has supported it in a way that’s enabled us to press ‘go’ on it next year,” says STC Artistic Director Kip Williams.

The Wharf Renewal Project will cost a total of $60 million. Minister for the Arts, Don Harwin announced today that the NSW State Government has committed $30 million towards the project. The additional $30 million will be raised by STC. Most of that philanthropic funding is already in place, with more than $28 million raised from long-time donors and supporters.

The development will include an upgrade to the Wharf 1 and 2 theatres, allowing for them to be linked to create a bigger space, called Wharf 3. Rehearsal rooms will be sound-proofed, dressing rooms will be modernised, and the ceiling will be raised in the workshop so that larger sets can be built. Other improvements include new foyer spaces and rest rooms, a more welcoming entry point at Hickson Road, and two new accessible public entrances. However, the beautiful walkway that runs the length of the building will be preserved.

The renewal of The Wharf is part of a $68 million government grant to the Walsh Bay Arts Precinct. It comes on top of the $139 million that the government had already committed to the area in 2015 through the Cultural Infrastructure Fund. “We believe Walsh Bay will become a renowned cultural precinct in Asia Pacific and this investment reflects that. The precinct will host up to two million people every year and the extra funding will give them better access to a special experience,” said Harwin. “A unified build of the Walsh Bay Arts Precinct with the Sydney Theatre Company will provide a range of cultural benefits to the people of NSW. It will attract visitors and boost the economy, while preserving the Wharf’s iconic heritage. Further, it gives the STC facilities and a home it deserves”.

The Wharf will be closed for around 18 months from December 30 when The Wharf Revue 2017 closes. Renovation work will commence early in 2018 and is expected to be completed by mid-2019. However, the output of the STC will not decrease during the closure. “Our full intention is to produce the same number of works in the time that we’re not in the Wharf. We generally produce around 15 or 16 shows a year and that will certainly be the case in 2018 and 2019,” Williams tells Limelight.

The Company will continue to perform in the Roslyn Packer Theatre and the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, and at another venue yet to be announced. “We are very close to signing on the dotted line for a replacement venue for the Wharf – and that will be one of the exciting things that I will be announcing around the time of the 2018 season launch [in September],” says Williams. “But essentially it will be one venue to replace Wharf 1 and Wharf 2. And we will likely be doing a couple more works in the Drama Theatre and the Roslyn Packer Theatre to accommodate going from four venues down to three, but it will still be maintaining our 15/16 shows per year.”

Sydney Theatre Company has all its workshop, rehearsal and administrative facilities at The Wharf – so these will also be relocated during the redevelopment period. “In terms of the production of the work, we have a decamp location which we can’t announce yet but it’s a decamp location that will allow one of STC’s unique factors to be maintained, which is that all of the departments will be housed in the same location. It’s brilliant. We’ve searched high and low because it’s been a big priority for us to be able to maintain having all of our departments in the same venue, and keep that special connectedness of the Company,” says Williams.

Discussing the outcomes of the Renewal Project, Williams believes that the renovation of the two theatres at the Wharf is particularly exciting. “For me as an artist, it’s the most exciting element of all of this. Not only does the Wharf 1 space become more flexible in its own right with its end-on, corner, in-the-round and traverse configurations but connecting the two theatres to each other and creating a bigger Wharf 3 space will give us the opportunity to create some truly spectacular and very special theatrical experiences that are completely idiosyncratic to the Wharf. In terms of what that might spark for playwrights and directors and designers and performers my imagination is salivating at what might come!” he says.

“The other thing is that the seating configurations in Wharf 1 are fairly awkward as they currently exist and it makes it a difficult space with regard to bring compatible with other theatres around the country. So, with the increased flexibility, our capacity to tour work to other cities and, most importantly regionally throughout New South Wales, becomes increased, so that’s another great win that comes from reworking the theatres.”

As with every aspect of the redevelopment, the heritage significance of the venue is being respected. “In the consultation between the architects and an advisory panel, we kept coming back to the question of what is it that makes the Wharf unique and it is its architecture,” says Williams. [So, with Wharf 3] we looked at how to create a theatrical space that really accentuates the beauty of that heritage architecture. Not only is the entire design focused upon that but it culminates in this theatrical space that makes a virtue of the length of the building.”

The improved accessibility is another important aspect of the redevelopment, says Williams.  “With Walsh Bay becoming a much more prominent cultural precinct there is going to be a massive increase in people coming to Walsh Bay and so it’s been a huge priority for us to increase accessibility across the entire Wharf, with multiple entrance points and upgraded facilities.”