Sydney Theatre Company's Jono Perry on renewing their Wharf home and conserving a cultural asset
Sydney Theatre Company's home on the city's early 20th-century pier is undergoing its first major facility upgrade in 30 years. We spoke to the company's Director, Technical and Production about the project.
Thank you for taking the time to chat Jono, the Wharf Renewal Project must be keeping you pretty busy. What’s been on your agenda today?
As well as being the Project Director for the last 10 months I’m also the Technical Director at STC so my days are pretty full juggling the ongoing day to day business making theatre and the project. I’m fortunate in that I Iove what I do so being busy is par for the course. We’ve just had a meeting today with Infrastructure NSW (who are delivering the project) and Create Infrastructure (our landlord) discussing the design finalization process and we are very close to the builder kicking off on site. The last couple of months we’ve moved the entire company from our normal home to Fox Studios while construction is taking place.
Tell us about the project, we understand it’s the first major facility upgrade in 30 years – what’s the vision?
Our home at the Wharf is an incredible piece of Sydney’s Heritage. We’re on a timber wharf in Sydney Harbour originally built in the early twentieth century and opened for shipping in 1921. It was eventually left derelict for over a decade before the initial STC fit out was complete in 1984. “The Wharf”, as it is affectionately known, is a well-used and loved facility of approximately 8500m2. The renewal project is a timely opportunity to give the Wharf, its artists and arts workers better, safer and more efficient facilities. It’s also an incredible opportunity to enhance the visitor experience, not just within the theatres, but also building-wide, with new entrances, foyers and greatly improved accessibility and comfort. STC has grown substantially in the thirty odd years we’ve been at the Wharf and we build, make and rehearse all of our 12-16 productions each year at the Wharf for four performance spaces. Two of our performance spaces, our two smallest are at the Wharf, known as Wharf 1 & 2.
Exterior render of the revitalisation of The Wharf. Render: Doug and Wolf
There’s been quite a lot of consultation with artists, theatre-makers and other practitioners – how have they helped shape the concept?
We’ve had an excellent engagement process throughout the project with an Artistic Panel of leading Designers, Directors, Lighting and Sound Designers. Collectively they are the ones who reinvent the inside of our theatres to create new worlds and experiences for our audience so they are best placed to inform how the theatre needs to function and feel. It’s been a robust process with brilliant outcomes and we’re very excited about the design of the theatres for artists and audiences alike.
Have you looked to any other theatres or organisations when planning the project?
Indeed and I have been fortunate to visit several of them. We looked very closely at several theatres and theatre projects around the world including the Young Vic in London, the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare, the Everyman in Liverpool and St Anns Warehouse in Brooklyn.
An early 20th-century pier is a unique location for a theatre, have there been times you wished you could pick it up and move to dry land?
Not really, it would make life a little easier, however, it’s such a unique location and incredible cultural asset that being anywhere other than on the harbour at Walsh Bay is unthinkable.
Render of the auditorium. Render: Doug and Wolf
A key ambition of the project is to achieve Richard Wherrett’s, STC’s first Artistic Director, vision of a flexible space. How are you achieving this?
Inside the current Wharf 1 theatre our capacity is 327 people so we wanted to increase the seat count, however, we are working within the confines of a 24m wide timber wharf that on our level is 6m high. We have been able to design a space that offers multiple seating and stage configurations inside the theatre while always maintaining an intimate relationship between the audience/actor. Our much-loved corner configuration will be preserved although in a much-improved version and better sightlines as well as being able to change between productions to other interesting and popular configurations as well.
There are headaches in every project, have you encountered any particular challenges so far?
Respecting the heritage and staying within the confines of a timber building has been a real challenge. Our architects, Hassell Studio and heritage architects Tropman and Tropman have worked really hard to ensure that all the requirements of engineers, services consultants and technical fit-out led by Charcoalblue respect and add to the building’s character. The Wharf still needs to look and feel like a Wharf, that’s what we all love about it so we can’t ruin it with poor design, coordination and finishes. I’m confident our team has done this and everyone will love the final product.
The proposed workshops at Sydney Theatre Company. Render: Doug and Wolf
Do you have any advice for organisations looking to undertake a project like yours?
In the first instance gather a small team of building and infrastructure specialists who can advise your company and board on governance and project delivery structure and timelines. Get that right, like I believe we have at STC, and any project with work smoothly. Any project will also benefit greatly when consultants and design teams are given enough time to undertake the work.
What are you most looking forward to doing when the doors reopen?
Seeing a performance in our new theatre and enjoying a post-show refreshment in the Bar at the End of Wharf.
The proposed Bar at the End of Wharf. Render: Doug and Wolf
Jono Perry, Sydney Theatre Company's Director, Technical and Production
Jono Perry joined the senior management team at the acclaimed Sydney Theatre Company in the summer of 2015 bringing with him significant experience in theatre, ballet and opera production, major events and architectural lighting. He spent eight years with Opera Austraia’s lighting department before taking up the role of Technical Director at the Brisbane Festival. He joins STC following the successful Colour Me Brisbane venet to coincide with the G20 Cultural Celebrations which took in 32 sites across Brisbane.
The redevelopment will modernize the theatre spaces in the Wharf 1 and 2 building with flexible seating.