Get ready for major disruptions at the Adelaide Festival Centre, because it all happens soon.
Work will begin at the end of October or November on its northern frontage, to revamp the entire perimeter stretching from the Bistro and Amphitheatre right around to the Festival Theatre’s eastern entry on King William Road. New entrances will be built, walkways widened and eateries upgraded, all with the aim of bringing in pedestrians from North Terrace and the new ‘footy-bridge’.
Then the serious stuff happens. From August 1 next year, the Theatre will close while the carpark is demolished and the Festival Plaza redeveloped to make a gleaming new main southern entrance. Hopefully they get it right this time. But consider for a moment what the five months’ closure means for resident companies there. It is hard to say who will be hardest hit. State Opera loses two opera productions, while the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) has been forced to hire separate venues during the building works.
They are understandably miffed about the 13 months’ notice they were given. The building certifier and architects advised it was better in the interests of public safety to shut the theatre down, and the Adelaide Festival Centre took that decision.
“The short notice is clearly problematic. Unfortunately all our plans were well advanced and set in stone,” says ASO Chief Executive Vincent Ciccarello. “We anticipate the bulk of the work will be done during the closure, but work on foyers and amenities might be ongoing. We will be battening down the hatches over the next couple of years.”
Two concerts during the closure will be relocated to the Town Hall. One of these is Romeo and Juliet, a second collaboration with State Theatre along the lines of Midsummer Night’s Dream last year. “We had hoped for more production elements that could only have been staged in the Festival Theatre,” Ciccarello says. A larger capacity show is going to the Adelaide Entertainment Centre; this is a reprise of May’s Movie Masterpieces.
State Opera is in a stickier spot. Its problem is that few other venues in town can really do mainstage opera. Two of the company’s productions have to be shelved, says CEO and Artistic Director Timothy Sexton. “We have lost two-thirds of our season and potentially it is a very significant cost to us.”
The ASO is seeking compensation from the State Government, and State Opera might have to do likewise. “We could well be,” says Sexton. “But at this stage, we do have an obligation to manage the situation first. And if we can’t, we would need to look at other options.”
Festival Centre chief executive Douglas Gautier says: “We’ve obviously got to work with the ASO, State Opera and the Australian Ballet to make sure there is continuity, because as resident companies they are important to us.”
Ultimately the gain will be worth the pain. The Festival Centre will have a new look and feel. There will be enlarged exhibition spaces and secondary food options in the foyer, and the northern frontage will be made more porous to foot traffic. And just maybe the Plaza will be the great public space it was always meant to be but never was – except that Parliament House’s handsome balcony side will be forever blocked from view.
Meanwhile, Her Majesty’s Theatre will be overhauled to soak up demand for big musicals, which will in turn free up the Festival Theatre for use by resident companies and festivals. Work to turn Her Maj into a 1500-seater will begin in the second quarter of 2018. A new modern entrance, foyers and toilets will be built at the newly acquired site immediately to the left (62 Grote Street), to allow for boosted seating capacity in the heritage-listed theatre.
“Most of the existing foyer area will be given over to the auditorium,” Gautier says. “Work will also open up the proscenium and push back against the southern wall a bit.”
Architectural purists need not fear. Her Maj never had a foyer originally, and its capacity used to be 2300. It was later on that seating was reduced to around 1000, the proscenium arch narrowed, and a false ceiling put in.
An artist’s impression of the soon to be renovated Her Majesty’s Theatre
So the Big Lady on Grote might once again be fanning the city’s night life by hosting blockbuster musicals that for many years have been bypassing Adelaide. Touring productions will be able to tie down the theatre 10 to 12 weeks at a time – which is what they need, and impossible at the Festival Theatre due to its crowded schedule.
Not only that, a laneway will connect Her Majesty’s all the way down to the Festival Centre. This will create a north-south entertainment axis through the city. “The Government encouraged us to look at this as a big picture concept,” Gautier says. “It will be a great driver for the city.”
Sexton is optimistic that a reborn Her Maj might be able to serve as an alternative venue for opera, if the stage and wings are widened sufficiently.
But Ciccarello rules out any possibility for orchestral performances there – the stage is simply too narrow – and instead he is still pushing for construction a new, purpose-built concert hall for the ASO. “This is still very much on the agenda and is as important as ever. If anything the UNESCO listing of Adelaide as a city of music has increased the need,” he says.
Nevertheless, Gautier believes the Festival Theatre’s imminent closure might be a chance to upgrade its notoriously dry acoustics. “I have been talking to Vince [Ciccarello] and over the years sound shells have been discussed. There are new possibilities now to explore too. Acoustics is quite a complex art, but hopefully we will get a better sound in there.”
And does he think a new concert hall is a good idea?
“The city shouldn’t lose that ambition. We should keep thinking about it, and a recital hall as well.”