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A case for the preservation of existing buildings as performing arts centres

There are many regional communities across Australia which have the benefit of venues for the performing arts and associated activities. Many of the venues currently in use are purpose built for the occasions, however there are other venues which have evolved from the conversion and upgrading of existing buildings, such as cinemas and community halls.

In either scenario, these arts centres have lead to the establishment of thriving arts orientated communities, by providing appropriate spaces for the performing arts, created from within the community, and more often than not, venues where visiting production from elsewhere, usually of a professional nature, can be staged, in conjunction with the community based events.

It has been my experience to have been involved in the establishment and operation of six regional arts venues. It has also been my pleasure to witness these art centres become a vital part in the wellbeing and social life of the communities where these venues have been created. It is not unusual for regional venues to become home bases for performing groups, dance groups, choirs and most importantly youth theatre groups, thus ensuring that the venues are put to constant use.

The successful venues usually have an input from local government, with ongoing involvement by providing staff, funding and operational assistance. Further to this involvement, community input is provided from the community, by way of Advisory or Management Committees, and perhaps most importantly the input of volunteers, such as Friends Of…………. By establishing these groups drawn from across the community, a great sense of ownership is established, further enhancing the notion of an all embracing hub of activity.

I refer to two particular arts centres, the Toowoomba Empire Theatre, Queensland, and the Stirling Community Theatre, South Australia.

The Empire Theatre is a heritage listed building, famous for a number of reasons, particularly the art deco interior. The venue used to seat around 1700 patrons for movies and occasional stage productions. After the theatre stopped showing movies, the venue was used for a number of other activities before it fell into disrepair over a number of years. During the mid 1990’s the Toowoomba Council purchased the building with the view of rejuvenating the theatre as a modern performing arts venue.

In due course, with funding from a number of sources, architectural designs were prepared, and building commenced, resulting in a new stage house, dressing rooms and other public spaces, creating a first class performing arts venue seating around 1200, and an important link in the national touring circuit.

Thoughout the entire process of planning and building, an ad hoc committee from the community created awareness, interest, and other support. This committee eventually was formalized, and since the opening of the venue, has provided a wealth of support by way of volunteer staff and financial assistance for the purchase of capital items of equipment.

The theatre has become the home base for several of the local performing groups, visiting shows, and a producer of in house pro-am productions.

The operation of the Stirling Community Theatre is on a much smaller scale to the Toowoomba Empire, but nevertheless driven by community involvement.

The building was rescued from demolition around 50 years ago by a group of local residents who recognized the value of a local theatre as apposed to another supermarket.

Conversion to this heritage listed building was undertaken by the Adelaide Hills Council, which is the owner of the building. Over a period of time additional spaces were added to the building, which is now managed by the Stirling Community Theatre Incorporated Management Committee.

There are three resident performing companies which stage events and productions at the venue, The Stirling Players, The Hills Musical Company and Hills Youth Theatre. A local ballet teacher also conducts regular classes in the dance studio.

The management committee consists of representatives of the performing groups and other interested community members.

Youth Theatre activities take place over six days each week, and certain evenings and weekend times are used by the performing companies for rehearsal purposes. The building is also available for external hires when time permits.

While Adelaide Hills Council provides some support to the venue, the operations are left to the management committee. Operational funds are raised in the following manner.

The resident companies pay no rent as such for rehearsal and performance occupancy. In turn, after production expenses have been deducted from box office income, any profits then go the management committee. In effect, this committee takes the financial risk for the production. Any profits accumulated are then used for upkeep of the building to a certain extent, and the purchase of lighting, sound and associated equipment. This style of operation has proven to be very successful at the Stirling Community Theatre.

The ongoing success of the two venues mentioned, and the many other similar operations across Australia, is dependent on the support and collaboration of the local authority and community support groups.

These venues are testaments to creating a more interesting and fulfilling lifestyle within regional and surrounding communities. They become a pride of place in a community, and a wonderful showcase for the local authority.

I would be pleased to elaborate on these thoughts should the need arise.

Written by Bob Peet

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