The Old Fitzroy Theatre is a rarity in Sydney. Aside from it being in the basement of a 157-year-old pub in Woolloomooloo, “the Old Fitz” excels at reflecting the lives of its customers. The history of the venue, and local characters that frequent it, even inspired a book and a play.
“People who usually see shows at the Opera House and like to dress up are as welcome as the bloke up the road with his thongs on,” says Andrew Henry, the artistic director of Red Line Productions, which took over the theatre in 2015. “We’re making a high art form accessible for all walks of life – it’s a safe space, people feel included.”
Almost a fifth of the residents in Woolloomooloo live in social housing – twice the average for the City of Sydney. The pub’s locals were recently immortalised in a book and a play, This Much Is True, by great Australian playwright Louis Nowra. “People are coming to meet the locals now – they have this kind of celebrity status,” says Henry.
The other thing that sets the theatre apart is its size – it has only 60 seats, says Henry “People want to keep coming back because they feel so much a part of the performances. I was told 10 years ago by Toby Shmitz [who performed in many shows at the Old Fitz and now works as a director] that as an actor you don’t get to hide in the Fitz. The audience will see bullshit. There’s no getting away with anything.” And you can make a night of it; this may be the only theatre with unlimited parking from 6pm. Grab a table outside the tiny Dumpling and Noodle House on Victoria Street before the show and order plates of xiao long bao. Or make the most of mussels night in the bistro on Thursdays. Tuesdays’ tickets are cheap. And if you ask nicely you can organise a beer tasting before a show – there are 16 on tap.
The 2018 season includes multiple world premieres and Sydney premieres of some major international hits, such as the Tony Award-winner for Best Play in 2016 The Humans, and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Wolves.
“It’s an unofficial theatre precinct,” says Henry of the area. “There’s the Griffin Theatre that just does new Australian work; emerging artists at The Bakehouse [Theatre Company]; a rock’n’roll vibe at The Fitz; and some of the best musicals at The Hayes. This postcode has so much on offer. It’s in our interests as business leaders to share our audience around, encourage them to be exploratory.”
There’s as much character on stage as there is off it. “You can wander in, chat to a local and they’ll tell you amazing stories,” says Henry. “The experience [of coming here] is really quite extraordinary – it’s so unpretentious.”