On stage: theatre in Sydney

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The theatre has been an important part of social life in Sydney from the early days of the colony.


Since then, Sydney audiences have been enthusiastic consumers of staged entertainment of all kinds. Over the years, tastes have changed, but Sydney has seen a broad range of performance styles, including dramatic and comedic stage plays, vaudeville and variety shows, dance and cabaret, ballet and opera.

The State Library of NSW has extensive photographic collections relating to theatre and performance dating from the latter half of the nineteenth century. These photographs document theatre performances and rehearsals; audiences and premieres; actors and stagehands; and the theatre buildings themselves.

The people

Many well-known performers have trodden the boards in Sydney. Over the years, these have included local stars like Gladys Moncrieff, visiting international celebrities such as Russian dancer, Anna Pavlova, and those who came to Australia to perform and stayed, like English-born Harry Rickards. Behind the scenes are hundreds of theatre workers who make an essential contribution to every production, like costume makers, set builders and painters. And no theatre could function without entrepreneurs and financial backers, such as the powerful and successful manager and theatre magnate, J.C. Williamson. The photographs below celebrate some of the known and unknown faces of the Sydney theatre scene from the late 19th to the mid 20th centuries.

J.C. Williamson photographs : musicals, opera, early performers, women performers
Digital ID: 
a2392010
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Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a296046
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a296001
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a296114
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a297119
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a297032
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a297108
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a296021
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Hood, Sam, 1872-1953
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Digital ID: 
a297080
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a296039
Photographs of stage sets relating to the Capitol and State Theatres, Sydney, 1920-1930s
1920-1930s
Digital ID: 
a2395001
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Series 01: Tivoli Theatre shows and artists : collection of photographs, ca. 1928-1965
ca. 1928-1965
Tivoli Theatre (Sydney, N.S.W.)
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Digital ID: 
a2396005
Series 01: Tivoli Theatre shows and artists : collection of photographs, ca. 1928-1965
ca. 1928-1965
Tivoli Theatre (Sydney, N.S.W.)
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Digital ID: 
a2396007

The venues

The earliest performances in colonial Sydney were staged in fit-ups – areas in houses, shops, sheds and pubs converted into temporary theatre spaces.  The first dedicated theatre in Sydney was as a fit-up established in 1796 by pardoned First Fleet convict, Robert Sidaway. In 1833, the first purpose-built theatre was opened in Sydney – Barnett Levy’s Theatre Royal in George St. The Theatre Royal featured tiered seating for the upper, middle and lower classes and the stage, (raised above the lowest tier of seats) was surrounded by a proscenium arch, forming a frame for the action. This proscenium style was used in most of the purpose-built theatres in Sydney throughout the nineteenth century. Levy’s Theatre Royal burnt down in 1840, but by the mid to late 1800s many other venues had been established. The photographs below show some of Sydney’s many theatres which have come and gone over the last 150 years.

Views of Sydney and its streets, 1868-1881 / compiled by John Lane Mullins
1868-1881
John Lane Mullins
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Digital ID: 
a1939066
King Street entrance, Theatre Royal, Sydney, 1882
1882
Digital ID: 
a1528418
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Her Majesty's [Theatre] re-opened after the fire, 1903; [with] Sir Henry Rawson in [the top left] box / A.J. Perier
Aug 1903
Talma & Co.
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Digital ID: 
a128752
Waiting for matinee, Criterion Theatre, Sydney, ca. 1920
ca. 1920
Digital ID: 
a1528419
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[Her Majesty's Theatre, Sydney, decorated and illuminated for the visit of the Prince of Wales and showing "Kissing time", 1920]
1920
Digital ID: 
a1528420
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J.C. Williamson photographs : men performers, plays, theatres, miscellaneous
Digital ID: 
a2394008
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[Her Majesty's Theatre Fire, 1902]
1902
G A Hills
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Digital ID: 
a2264002
Castlereagh Street; Tivoli Theatre
Hall & Co.
Digital ID: 
hall_35186
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Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a297130
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a297121
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Cinema; people, films and theatres]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a296037
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a296023
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a297124
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Cinema; people, films and theatres]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a301078
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Cinema; people, films and theatres]
Sam Hood
Digital ID: 
a301037
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Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a297082
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a297100
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a297104
Opening night, "Hollywood Hotel Revue" (taken for Fuller's Theatres Ltd)
Digital ID: 
hood_18059
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Group in evening dress at the box office of the Theatre Royal for "Lights of London" (taken for J.C. Williamson)
8/7/1937
Digital ID: 
hood_15582
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The performances

The Recruiting Officer, a comic play by George Farquhar, was the first play performed in Sydney. It was staged by convicts to celebrate the birthday of King George III on June 4, 1789. Until the mid-nineteenth century, Sydney entertainment consisted mainly of popular works from England, brought out by colonists, convicts and military. In the 1850s, the population boom brought on by the gold rushes, meant that styles of entertainment became more diverse. In the second half of the nineteenth century, local and overseas travelling companies of actors performed standards such as Shakespeare and French farces, as well as pantomimes, comic opera and variety shows. The early twentieth century saw the rise of vaudeville, chorus lines and musical comedy, influenced strongly by trends from the United States. The photographs below show some of the various styles of performance enjoyed by Sydney audiences.

Photographs of actors and actresses, singers, music hall artists and others, ca. 1863-ca. 1881
ca. 1863-ca. 1881
Digital ID: 
a2209012
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"Early Flashlight" (Lands Office Musical Society), Palace Theatre
1896-1900
Albert James Perier
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Digital ID: 
perier_34528
Series 01: Tivoli Theatre shows and artists : collection of photographs, ca. 1928-1965
ca. 1928-1965
Tivoli Theatre (Sydney, N.S.W.)
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Digital ID: 
a2396004
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a296013
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a296010
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a296097
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a296145
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a297086
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a297129
Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Hood, Sam, 1872-1953
Digital ID: 
a296084
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Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a297006
Haymarket Ballet. Wong & Co at Civic.
Digital ID: 
hood_12661
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Choreographer Frances Scully discusses dance routines with dancers
Hood, Ted, 1911-2000
Digital ID: 
hood_01788
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Hood Collection part II : [Theatrical, Live theatre]
ca. 1920-ca. 1950
Sam Hood
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Digital ID: 
a296018