Encore for the Genesian

The familiar old Genesian Theatre at Kent Street in the city centre. Photo: supplied.

Change is afoot at the much-loved Genesian Theatre Company. After 65 years in their Kent St location, the company is moving to Rozelle. Rita Bratovich reports.

In 2017, Sydney’s Genesian Theatre Company was told that their residence of over 65 years had been sold and they would need to find new digs.

It was devastating for the small, independent group whose hopes of finding a new residence grew ever fainter as the eviction date drew near.

However, in true dramatic style, they have had an eleventh hour, deus ex machina rescue in the form of a new tenancy at St Joseph’s Catholic Church parish hall in Rozelle.

Genesian Theatre president, Barry Nielsen, is thrilled.

He has been with the company for 22 years, taking care of business while occasionally dabbing on some grease paint and treading the boards.

“I just came along for a play, that’s how it started,” says Nielsen.

“I guess I just started finding the management side of things interesting as well.”

Exterior of the Genesian Theatre Company’s new digs, the St Joseph’s Catholic Church parish hall at Rozelle. Photo: supplied.

The company itself is more than 75 years old, beginning with a handful of thespians from the Catholic Youth Organisation. They called themselves The Genesian Players after St Genesius, patron saint of actors. The theatre that became their residence is actually a converted church in Kent Street.

The St John The Evangelist church building was built in 1868 and is a quaint, brick building in the style of Victorian Free Gothic. It has been heritage listed, particularly due to its three rare early Australian stained glass windows.

“It’s very basic, beyond what the public sees, it’s very basic in there,” says Nielsen, describing the theatre space.

“There’s no privacy, there’s limited wing space, there’s no cross-over. When you look up above the stage there’s just that bare steepled ceiling – you’re just looking at the slate tiles.”

If you’ve been to the Genesian Theatre you’ll be familiar with the timber panelling, exposed timber rafters, and high pitched roof. It’s very rustic.

“But a lot of people feel very affectionate about it,” says Nielsen. “It’s wonderfully centrally located, and everyone who goes there loves the charm of the red velvet curtain and the red carpet – and that charm is hard to recreate.”

The combination of vintage, ex-church and old theatre verily screams “haunted” and Nielsen says there are rumours of ghosts, but he himself doesn’t believe in them.

The only unwanted presence he and everyone else has experienced is the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s been very depressing for the company, especially since it interrupted their last season at Kent Street.

“We had some really good shows lined up,” says Nielsen.

“We were in the midst of Sherlock Holmes – a world premiere. We had an Australian premiere of The Ladykillers, we were planning the Australian premiere of A Passage To India, and we had an Australian premiere of the new Agatha Christie show.

“So we just felt we had a fantastic season to end with and [it was upsetting] to just see it literally disappear overnight.”

Genesian Theatre Company players on stage before Covid-19 hit. Photo: supplied.

The landlord gave the theatre company a reprieve on rent, and they’ve been provided a rehearsal space where they can hold acting classes for small groups.

They’ve also been conducting readings online for their membership base.

Nielsen is unsure whether they’ll get in one more performance at Kent Street, nor can he say for sure when they’ll begin performing at the new theatre in Rozelle.

“There’s no sort of journey out of this at the moment and I don’t imagine there is until the vaccine comes and a sufficient percentage of people get vaccinated.”

The parish hall at Rozelle is a much more austere building than Kent Street.

“Inside is very nice, very airy, tall,” says Nielsen.

Before it can be used as a theatre, however, it will need a complete fit out. It currently has no seating or proper lighting, and the stage is too high and shallow.

The interior of St Joesph’s Catholic Church parish hall at Rozelle, which will be transformed into the Genesian Theatre Company’s new home. Photo: supplied.

Nielsen says they want to install a proscenium stage with a big curtain because that’s the style of theatre their audience loves.

A development application has been lodged with council and is awaiting approval, but Nielsen says they won’t start renovating until they have a better idea when things will open up again.

“It’s exciting! It’s slightly scary, as well,” says Nielsen.

“I think what is exciting for the Sydney theatre scene is that there haven’t been very many new purpose built theatres for a long time.”

One thing Nielsen can promise is that the quality we have come to expect from the Genesian Theatre Company will remain.

“We really pride ourselves on the amount of work that goes into our sets, and the production values … and over the years they’ve gotten really better and better.”

With the potential to attract whole new audiences from around the area, Nielsen plans to expand the repertoire, while at the same time, keeping the old Kent Street crowd happy.

It’s only one stop on the bus from Kent St to the Rozelle location, so Nielsen expects to see familiar faces in seats when the new theatre opens.

There are no ideas yet about what the first Genesian Theatre production at Rozelle will be. It doesn’t matter to Nielsen – he’s already getting his happy ending.

“What I think it is, is just a nice story in these grim times, that there is still life out there … and that at least one theatre company is looking to the future.”

For more on the Genesian Theatre Company’s move, as well as future productions and seasons, visit www.genesiantheatre.com.au.

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