In 1984, the Nimrod Theatre Company was in trouble. Running out of money and riven by internal tensions, the company decided to sell the building that was its home, the former Fountain Sauce factory on Belvoir Street in gritty Surry Hills.
News of the impending sale alarmed the local theatre community. A syndicate of 600 supporters – an assortment of actors, artists and audience members, including Nicole Kidman, Mel Gibson and Sam Neill – banded together to buy the theatre, and Belvoir Street Theatre was born.
More than three decades later, the Belvoir is an undisputed Sydney institution that has fostered some of the nation’s brightest theatre talent, from Richard Roxburgh to Deborah Mailman.
Its theatre company, Company B, remains committed to its egalitarian founding principles, a vision that promotes voices from marginalised communities: Indigenous, female, ethnic and LGTBQI. “We’ve spent the best part of 35 years trying to devote ourselves to providing a divergency of voices, trying to tell progressive stories,” says Tom Wright, artistic associate at the Belvoir. “We engage with a new community with every show we do.”
The centrepiece of the 2019 program is Counting and Cracking, an epic production that follows a family fleeing war-torn Sri Lanka to seek refuge in Australia. The show, to be staged at the Sydney Town Hall as part of Sydney Festival, is a co-production with Co-Curious, an arts organisation based in western Sydney. “A lot of our work is happening at Pendle Hill, where members of the Sri Lankan community live,” says Wright.
The Belvoir strives to engage with the diverse communities on its doorstep, too. On the first Tuesday of every show, the Belvoir stages an Unwaged Performance that offers free tickets to eligible concession-card holders. “We’re really aware as a company that there are two Sydneys here in our one street – there’s a big housing commission estate, with all the associated social challenges involved with that. They’re part of our mob and community too.”
At the same time, Wright acknowledges that gentrified Surry Hills is a home of great affluence. “A lot of our subscribers and people who come to every show live within a couple of square kilometres of here,” he says. “We try very hard to embrace the paradoxes and tensions in what it means to live in Sydney in the 21st century.”
The area has undergone repeated transformations over the last 250 years. Before the arrival of Europeans, according to Wright, the Belvoir’s corner of Surry Hills was a set of shifting sand hills, a hunting place and a source of natural springs for the local Indigenous population. During the 1800s and 1900s, Surry Hills was a working-class area that became semi-derelict before revitalisation arrived in the late 20th century.
It may have swapped its “ragtag” atmosphere for something more sophisticated, but Surry Hills still has an eclectic feel, Wright says. “Thousands of people walk up and down the streets – this is a dynamic, happening part of Sydney. We like to feel that we can tap into that buzz, and other times we’re a refuge from it.”
Wright, who has worked at the Belvoir on and off since the early ’90s, knows the neighbourhood well. “There’s a great cafe down in Devonshire Street called Felix, just a little hole-in-the-wall place that serves sandwiches,” he says. “They’ve made toasties and coffee for so many people who work in this industry.”
Many of the Belvoir crew’s favourite haunts are night-time venues. “There’s a different sort of rhythm to people working in a theatre – you don’t tend to get out until after dark,” says Wright. The theatre’s local pub is the Strawberry Hills, “always a great place for an unpretentious late-night drink”.
Across the road is The Wanderer, where the crew often goes to discuss politics or a show over a glass of wine. And around the corner is the Shakespeare, another much-loved pub. “Every local knows it,” Wright says. “It’s been there for a long time and it’s got some stories to tell.”