War and Peace now playing at the Metro Theatre

Exterior of the Metro (originally Minerva) Theatre in Potts Point. Photo: Peter Sheridan/Metro-Minerva Theatre Action Group.

John Moyle reports on the latest machinations in the saga of the former Metro/Minerva Theatre in Potts Point.

The battle lines for the Metro/Minerva Theatre are now drawn between owner/developer Abacus Property Group and the Metro/Minerva Theatre Action Group (MTAG).

Abacus has owned the theatre for about a year and are in the process of releasing undeclared plans for the development application to the City of Sydney Council, while the MTAG want to explore the possibilities of the space being revitalised as a live theatre.

At stake is a much needed 1,000 seat theatre space or the possibility of the theatre being converted into office or retail space.

Seeing that Abacus Group are Australia’s storage space kings, the latter appears to be the most likely outcome.

Aware that the small but active action group have been exploring potential public-private solutions for funding the reactivation of the theatre, Abacus has entered into an expensive campaign to support their undeclared objectives.

“Grassroots campaigns are good at reminding developers that they can’t take anything for granted anymore and the community will hold people to account,” MTAG president Brandon Martignago said.

Shortly after Abacus bought the theatre from film director and producer George Miller, they engaged a community liaison representative to sound out the Potts Point community for input into the theatre’s future.

The short time the liaison representative was engaged in the community would appear to suggest that she was given messages not to the Abacus Group’s liking.

Despite the Abacus Group’s claims of community engagement, this is the fourth time this writer has had questions unanswered as they continue to hide behind their corporate firewall.

As the building awaits possible State Heritage listing (it already is listed by the City of Sydney) so too do the residents of Potts Point wait for Abacus’ plans to be unveiled.

Abacus’ MetroProject website downplays the possibility of the theatre being returned to a live performance venue with lines such as: “As we begin this engagement, we want to be clear that we believe that a return of the building to a standalone theatre as it was designed in 1939 is neither commercially viable nor feasible.”

Meanwhile, Abacus’ claim that the interior has been decimated does not take into account that most of the theatrical fabric would have needed modernisation anyway.

Many other notable Australian theatres such as the Capitol Theatre in Sydney and the Empire Theatre in Toowoomba have been restored and modernised from far worse conditions. A development application for the revival of Newcastle’s Victoria Theatre, also in very poor condition, was approved by the City of Newcastle Council in August

Paul Brennan is a theatre consultant with over 43 years experience and has been involved in bringing the Scone Civic and the Liberty at Yass back to life from near dereliction.

“I think that it is possible to resurrect the theatre even though they have taken out the stalls, but the foyer and the balcony and the stage are still there,” Brennan said.

However, Abacus have not done their own feasibility study, and will not allow access to the building.

The action group has been able to work with the NSW Minister for the Arts and the City of Sydney to facilitate a feasibility study that should be completed shortly after the outcome of the heritage report is known.

“I have received a letter from the Hon. Don Harwin, Minister for the Arts, inviting the City of Sydney to co-fund a study into the viability of restoring the former Minerva/Metro in Kings Cross as an operating theatre,” Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said.

“It is resolved that Council contribute up to $10,000 from the 2020/21 General Contingency Fund.”

A statement on the Abacus MetroProject website, however, claims: “We have … consulted with the State Government to understand if there was any potential role for the Metro in the context of Create NSW’s Cultural Infrastructure Policy 2025.

“We have been advised that the Metro – at a maximum potential of 1,000 seats – does not meet the requirements for ‘lyric’ size theatres anticipated by Create NSW.”

The statement is at odds with the NSW Cultural Infrastructure Strategy 2016, which asserts: “With evidence showing that Melbourne is securing most of the touring first run musicals, the addition of a lyric theatre to accommodate long running musicals would add to Sydney’s cultural offerings.

“Arts NSW should undertake a feasibility study of potential sites in the Sydney CBD for a lyric theatre development by the private sector”.

The private sector need look no further that theMetro/Minerva, which not only qualifies for the seating capacity but is, according to renowned architect Ross Thorne, one of “the two finest ‘Moderne’ style theatres in Australia”, the other being West’s Olympia in Adelaide. 

The extent of community engagement by Abacus to date is the distribution of 2,850 flyers to 2,700 letterboxes within a radius of 150 metres from the Metro.

The distribution area omits a large part of Potts Point and does not take into account that while the benefits of a revived Metro/Minerva may be enjoyed by the local area, the stature of the theatre makes it of state and national importance.

“I’m using this opportunity to reach out and ask them, ‘What can we do to help?’ and, ‘What can [our two groups] do to help each other and work towards a solution?’” Martignago said.

“We don’t want to be anyone’s enemy and I don’t think Abacus do either.”

Last Wednesday night, the Metro/Minerva shone briefly again when lighting technicians Mark Taylor and Nino Pace bathed the building in red as part of the #WeMakeEvents campaign to highlight the impact of Covid-19 on the arts and entertainment industry.

A GoFundMe page has been created to support the campaign to save the Metro-Minerva, while a Change.org petition called Make the Metro-Minerva Theatre live again has attracted over 3000 signatures to date.

The Metro comes to life for the #WeMakeEvents campaign. Photo: Mark Taylor.

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