The 1970s - Premises
Another rent increase in 1969 signalled that the landlord wanted the theatre out so the hunt began again for new premises. Solicitor Sid Conway was among those recommending the purchase of a building with a separate legal entity to administer it. A Premises Fund was set up and fundraising activities increased. Money also came from members’ loans, with support from trade unions, other theatres and left-wing political parties. In the interim, some old chairs were patched up at St Peters Lane and 32 others bought from MGM’s St James Theatre prior to its demolition in 1971.
In August 1972 the 10% deposit was paid on 542 King Street at the St Peters end of Newtown, within South Sydney Council, its last occupier the Sure Brite television picture tube factory, a cavernous space covered with broken glass.
The drainage had to be completely relaid, part of the roof on the King Street side removed and a new mezzanine floor built. The rear on Iredale Street was also extensively reshaped. Work progressed from the front to the back, with all the problems of having to park on King Street.
Miriam Hampson and Jack Mundey were the driving force in getting support from unions and construction company Civil and Civic who secured a bank loan, bricks and second-hand timber, and a full-time leading hand. Bill Franklin was told by the foreman to buy whatever materials were needed, charging them to "Head Office".
Civil and Civic's Dick Dusseldorp saw the benefit of maintaining a good relationship with his workforce, negotiated a productivity agreement with the Builders Labourers Federation, and avoided disruptive industrial action. At a time when there was a shortage of skilled labour because of the amount of building work happening in Sydney, the New engaged a bricklayer, two carpenters and three labourers. Trade union boilermakers built the steel framework for the raked auditorium and a volunteer plumber installed the guttering. Theatre members Jack Kreger, Trevor Finch and Frank Busby worked on the electricals; Jamie Stevens on the drainage. There were only a couple of minor injuries, although Diamantino Cavaco fractured his wrist after falling from a ladder.
In April 1973, amid piles of bricks, mortar and timber, a fundraising “Newtown Prom” featured singers Jeannie Lewis and Marian Henderson, and offered wine with supper instead of the customary keg of beer. A few days later St Peters Lane was vacated for its new tenants the Sydney Film Makers Co-operative.
The Newtown building was formally opened on 15 September 1973 by the Minister for Media Doug McClelland on the opening night of the revue What’s New before an audience including trade unionists and South Sydney councillors. The 160-seat auditorium included two rows of “plush” chairs from St Peters Lane. (In 1982 all were replaced by second-hand seats from Walter Burley Griffin’s ivory- bronze themed Capitol Theatre in Melbourne. Some of these were in 2006 replaced by recycled audience chairs from NIDA.)
Settling in at King Street coincided with the period in office of the Whitlam government, supportive of the Arts. A federal grant secured the building and Australia Council grants financed children’s workshops and freelance directors.
Keen to show such financial support had been justified, the New promoted itself as a community space, with children’s arts and crafts, workshops and productions; puppetry; folk dancing; karate; street theatre and activities involving migrant groups. Despite these efforts, local and general audiences were hard to find for the mainstage shows and there was continued conflict within the exhausted committees in a sometimes “poisonous” atmosphere.
By the end of 1974 the theatre was in serious financial trouble with debts of over $32 000, the bank warning that the position “cannot be allowed to continue”. Salvation came in March 1975: the Australian premiere of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a work which combined theatricality with a political message, and which could have played for months beyond its extended season.
In contrast, Durrenmatt’s The Physicists, also set in a hospital for the insane, had made a loss in 1970 despite “gripping” and “brilliant” performances by Shirley Broadway and Paul Sonkkila.