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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.
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.
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.
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.