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Crisis point in NSW's Blue Mountains' theatres

By Robert Gibbons - posted Tuesday, 3 June 2014


The Blue Mountains is the world-famous wilderness, playground, alternative lifestyle and bushfire-risk asset to the west of Sydney proper: 80,000 people living in some 27 towns and villages along about 100 kms of "mountainous terrain", abutting the World Heritage park which is one of the top tourist magnets in Australia. It attracts about the same number of overseas visitors as it has residents each year – 55,000 to 80,000 (about a tenth of the Gold Coast's but quadruple Tasmania's Wilderness).

However, visitage has been level for a decade at least while the Katoomba mainstreet already had 25 empty stops in just one section. Employment and the number of businesses in the Mountains declined substantially in that decade. The council had no economic development strategy since the 1990s and resisted the State's housing targets.

The community was smashed by the bushfires in October 2013. Simultaneously a dispute about the need for a theatre in the Mountains' capital, Katoomba, broke out in the national media. The town had been a theatre hotspot seven decades before, with the grand Savoy and Embassy theatres as well as the Arcadia at Blackheath, while the Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath was a companion attractor to the upper Blue Mountains. That all faded from the 1950s.

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The current controversy relates to the failure to include a theatre in the new civic complex in Katoomba. It has a gallery and a library but no performance space. Just in front is the former Library which is a concrete "butter box" capable of seating 200 patrons but with no vertical clearance for sound and lighting equipment and no side access for stage bumping.

Both the sitting Liberal MP and the hopeful Labor candidate at the March 2015 elections have endorsed Katoomba Theatre Company's bid to operate a theatre from the former Library which would also function as a hall. Theatre fit-out would cost $1 million or more (according to a theatre operative but KTC mentioned lower compromises).

Expectations had been raised by the former Liberal mayor in 2012 with a report in the local Gazette regarding that Library, that "By (October) next year Katoomba will be a place to enjoy theatre and dance productions in a quality venue near restaurants, cafes and bars". The incoming Labor administration had other ideas.

Just down the hill a bit, the council is about to open a 420, 440 or 500-seat theatre at Springwood (all numbers have appeared in official documents) , integrated with a kitchen and dining room but with unknown design features and consequences for theatres in Lawson, Katoomba, Mount Victoria and elsewhere. The council has deferred its overall theatre strategy for several years, for some reason, seemingly preferring to deal with each village separately. This in turn dictates the political agenda with Katoomba being the largest population centre in the Mountains but the weakest theatrical context – hence a populist imperative on candidates.

This is a compromise. The KTC appears to be desperate to access that space, understandably. The regrettable reality is that KTC's intent to attract touring companies is likely to be frustrated – the venue being inadequate compared with two or more other (unexplored) options. The touring companies' needs have been established through research and consultation to be, in summary (apologies, but the table below was left out of the article when first posted Ed):

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The real question is whether the butter box will attract one significant show in its life. Moreover the KTC's proposed ticketing policy varied from accepted practice in major respects.

A better mission which would have come out of a strategic overview would be "to create a game-changer – a theatre that rivals Hobart's MONA. The form should follow the context, a heritage building in a mountain resort or a peak on the mountain, its skin reflecting light and snow. Regardless, the theatre will attract the best shows and excited audiences from all over Australasia".

Would this vision be practicable? In fact there are two alternative venues which might be found to be practicable as well as exciting. These are both within the civic precinct, one being old and the other new, the Embassy next door to the butter box and the other being the atrium of the new Civic centre:

There is a vast difference on the mainstreet between a vibrant theatre and a community hall. BMCC appears to be distracted by plaintive calls without a vision of "what is possible" – the Local Government Act requires councils to show leadership instead of acquiescence.

BMCC's last community survey's conclusions were that "The main reason for dissatisfaction with Council's overall performance was 'Lack of facilities, services and infrastructure', followed by 'Poor allocation of funds / no value for money / could offer more'".

KTC and the council are facing the risk of repeating past mistakes. What would be better is a strategic review free of local constraints, based on use of all of the Mountains' venues, and an economic strategy that builds visitage, provides a career path for young talent as well as outlet for experienced performers, and changes the prospects of a declining mainstreet. The former Library is more likely than not a distraction. Moreover the council's determination to run the facility from council is contrary to commercial and municipal commonsense as seen in Newcastle, Waverley and elsewhere.

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About the Author

Robert Gibbons started urban studies at Sydney University in 1971 and has done major studies of Sydney, Chicago, world cities' performance indicators, regional infrastructure financing, and urban history. He has published major pieces on the failure of trams in Sydney, on the "improvement generation" in Sydney, and has two books in readiness for publication, Thank God for the Plague, Sydney 1900 to 1912 and Sydney's Stumbles. He has been Exec Director Planning in NSW DOT, General Manager of Newcastle City, director of AIUS NSW and advisor to several premiers and senior ministers.

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