The opening of Sydney Theatre is the most significant new theatre development in Sydney since the Sydney Opera House opened 30 years ago. The name, Sydney Theatre, acknowledges and celebrates the premier role this new theatre will play in Sydney's cultural life. It also pays homage to Australia's first theatre built in 1798, located nearby. Sydney Theatre is the centerpiece of the rejuvenation of the Walsh Bay area on the harbor and represents a strategic partnership between government, the arts, and the private sector.

The NSW government funded the construction of this A$42-million state-of-the-art theatre, however, the funding of the interior fit-out was the responsibility of Sydney Theatre Company. The theatre was built by Walsh Bay Finance, which is a partnership between Mirvac and Transfield.

Sydney Theatre sits on a site that had been used for cargo storage since the 1830s. Architects Peddle Thorp and Walker designed the theatre with Andrew Anderson's design. Anderson successfully incorporated the elements of an existing historical Bond store with elegant and functional new facilities. The grand entrance echoes the heritage archways along the busy Hickson Road, and those inside the building, which have been restored and maintained.

Original plans, dating back to 1995, were for a 1,000-seat theater, but plans changed in 1999 when Robyn Nevin was appointed artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company. She wanted an intimate and authentic space that could also be a home for contemporary dance and other companies such as the Australian Ballet, Bangarra, Bell Shakespeare, and Sydney Dance Theatre. Therefore, a few changes had to be made to the theatre's shape and it became an 850-seat theatre.

Sydney Theatre Company's home will remain at The Wharf and it will continue as the resident theatre company at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre. However, with its impressive stage and technical facilities, Sydney Theatre will provide the company with opportunities to produce on a larger scale.

Aside from encompassing an 850-seat proscenium arch theatre, the venue features a café-style restaurant, an external balcony opening onto Hickson Road, a dedicated function room, rehearsal room, stylish bars, and a small bookshop.

“The biggest problem with this project was getting a theatre this size into a space this size!” says theatre consultant Denis Irving, who collaborated closely with the architects and acoustic engineers to ensure that the latest in theatre and design technology resulted in optimal audience conditions. The auditorium, foyers, and fly tower occupy the space created by the demolition of a 1950s era warehouse. Back-of-house and support facilities are located within adjacent heritage buildings.

“The problem in this country is that theatre consultants are a tolerated, rather than a well-recognized, profession,” Irving says. “This theatre was eight years in the making. It took three months of meetings to get the rehearsal room ceiling height raised to two stories rather than one, and months to persuade the developers that we needed a rear crossover behind the stage.”

Sydney Theatre is the first theatre in Australia to be planned for all computer-operated, electrically powered flying, with the government providing extra funding to make this possible. The extensive power flying system was co-designed by Jands Theatre Projects and Stage Technologies, with the mechanics built in Sydney by Jands. The system is operated by a Stage Technologies modular axis system combined with a Nomad Console complete with 3D-graphical cue simulation. The Nomad console is usually situated on the lower gallery, but is relocatable to operating positions on the stage and on other galleries. A Seimens riggers' control, able to control four axes simultaneously, can be operated from stage level.

The stage performance area is 39' × 33', although this can be augmented by a three-part forestage lift. Each of the forestage sections can be operated independently to suit performance requirements. The lift is operated by a Serapid LinkLift Vertical Chain Lifting Mechanism, and it can be lowered to the auditorium floor to add 37 seats to the stalls, or lowered even further to create an orchestra pit for 30 musicians. The stage has 54 winched scenery bars with six more over the forestage area, each with a half-ton capacity.

The proscenium is operable and can be adjusted via a series of diaphragms to heights of 18' to 23' and widths of 33' to 46'. In addition, a solid 3D proscenium can be placed downstage of the operable proscenium. A fire curtain is not a prerequisite so there was no need to leave slots or build knockouts in sets.

Jands supplied and installed the drapes, lighting and communications system, as well as the Serapid lifting mechanism. Jands HP 12SC and HP 6 SC dimmers, rated at 2.5kW and 5kW, are installed into two dimmer rooms providing 600 dimming channels.

The lighting control room at the back of the dress circle houses a Strand 520i control system, a favorite of the Sydney Theatre Company crew. The system uses the Strand Shownet Ethernet communication protocol and a Stage Technologies Designers Remote Control is available for rigging and focusing on stage.

The auditorium has a series of lighting positions in a range of locations: balcony fronts, vertical box booms, and two main bridges. Various temporary and demountable technical positions are located throughout the stalls and are linked via sub-floor cable paths. All scenery battens are also capable of being used for lighting bars with 11.5' sections of pre-wired bars clamped to the head batten. Multicore cables connect with dimmers at level 3 via 24 adjustable cable reelers in the grid. DMX is operated by remote RF technology.

The 600 stage-lighting fixtures are a mixture of mainly ETC Source 4 and Selecon Pacific profiles, Strand and Selecon fresnels, and Strand cyc units. Jands also supplied two Robert Juliat Korrigan HM1200 followspots.

Built directly on Hickson Road, the theatre could have had problems with external noise from traffic, the Walsh Bay residential and commercial buildings, the large ships in the harbor, as well as the internal noise generated from the front of house or its own café-style restaurant. Arup Acoustics designed the acoustics so that these noise intrusions, not to mention the noise of building services equipment and the sound systems, would not invade the theatre.

Arup's chief electro-acoustics engineer, Glenn Leembruggen, is quite blunt when asked what was the most challenging aspect of designing the audio for Sydney theatre: “The architects,” he says. “Regrettably this is nearly always the case. You'd think that in a performance venue the sound, lighting, and access would have priority in terms of design. Once the curtain goes up that's what is important; the appearance of the space becomes less important.”

According to Leembruggen, loudspeakers were placed in a variety of non-ideal positions just to fit in with the aesthetics of the interior design. “However, we still made it work reasonably well,” he says. “A theatre should be built for passion, not as part of a trade off between a government and a developer.”

Coda Audio supplied and installed a Meyer PA system based on three self-powered Meyer CQ1 speakers in a left-center-right configuration. EAW JF50 speaker boxes cover some areas shadowed by the ceiling. Six Meyer MM4 boxes spaced along the stage apron supply front fill. When used as a thrust stage these are relocatable to the front of the orchestra lift. Sub woofers are a Coda/Arup custom array design that had to be flush mounted into the ceiling to appease the architects, although Leembruggen would have preferred them hung from the proscenium.

“I chose the Meyer CQ1 system principally for marketplace acceptance,” Leembruggen says. “It's an accepted speaker in that domain in Australia, and so any theatre operator should be familiar with it. Powered boxes are very useful in theatre and the CQ1s had a pattern that worked relatively well with the reverberation time of the theatre while also giving good coverage.”

Bose 132 speakers are located on the sidewall of the auditorium to supply delay to the stalls while Tannoy T300 speakers, spaced under a lighting bridge, supply delay to the balcony. EAW JF 50S speakers, described by Leembruggen as “nice and grunty,” are spaced under the dress circle to supply fill to the stalls underneath the balcony.

“The budget was seriously tight,” Leembruggen says. “It was actually set three years prior in a ten-minute phone call. We really had to fight to get a decent infrastructure.”

The audio control room, housing a Midas Venice 320 24ch/4/4 input console, is located at the rear of the auditorium behind acoustically isolated windows. For events requiring active mixing, the windows can be removed and the desk positioned at the rear of the stalls. Alternatively, there is a remote mixing pit at center of the stalls below the line of the circle gallery front. A smaller Midas Venice 160 8ch/4/4 input desk is also available for operation from the stage or from any of the aforementioned positions.

Processing equipment includes a BSS Soundweb 908811, BSS Omnidrive 366 and a dbx166A Compressor/Limiter.

“Compared to other theatres I have done, it's a fairly simple one,” Leembruggen says. “Audio wise, things are not optimum but maybe in a couple of years they'll fly the speakers where they should be flown with little regard to the architecture!”