Ku-ring-gai residents will be very familiar with the off-white façade of the
Marian Street Theatre next to Selkirk Park, Killara, and so they should be.
The building has stood on its present site since 1906, when local people raised £1500 to erect a community hall. While the hall was well utilised as a community facility,
the company which owned it, formed by
local business and professional men,
struggled financially.

The coup de grace came two years into World War One when the hall was sold and in 1919 passed into the ownership of Ku-ring-gai Municipal Council (KMC) which renamed it the Soldiers’ Memorial Hall. There is a Roll of Honour from WW1 by the entrance to the theatre. For the next 50 years the building functioned as a community centre, until in 1965 actor Alexander Archdale chose it it as the best venue for the Community Theatre, his fledgling professional repertory theatre company. This not-for-profit company raised public money to help convert the hall into a theatre and took out a five year lease on it. Council and the State Government also helped with funds to upgrade the building, supplying raked seating for more than 300 people and a vestibule with box office facilities. The Community Theatre performed initially in
St Albans Church Hall in Lindfield, then moved to Marian Street in September 1966.

Under Alexander Archdale’s leadership, the company produced plays by William Shakespeare, Noel Coward, George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams and other well-known playwrights followed. Then, in 1970,  following an accident, Alexander Archdale retired as artistic director. His successors included Peter Collingwood, Aarne Neeme, Alastair Duncan and John Krummel, who took over in 1983.

The theatre’s fortunes waxed and waned. Under John Krummel the company became the Northside Theatre Company (NSTC) for several years before returning to its former name. Actors of the calibre of Ruth Cracknell, Joan Bruce, Ron Haddrick, Judi Farr, Jackie Weaver, David Goddard, Henri Szeps, Nancye Hayes and Barry Creyton performedon its stage. During the nineties, the adult theatre company ceased performance for a year, while children’s theatre continued to keep the building alive. John Krummel was reappointed as artistic director in 1995 and the insurance company HIH became the theatre’s major sponsor. However, when HIH collapsed in 2001 the company was unable to attract other sponsorship
and adult professional theatre
in Ku-ring-gai ceased.

From 2001 to 2013 the theatre was leased by Marian Street Theatre for Young People, formerly the theatre company’s drama school, apart from 18 months between 2008 and 2010 when it was closed for renovations. Council called for expressions of interest from professional theatre companies for operating the theatre in 2002, 2006 and 2011 but none was successful.

In December 2013 Council closed the theatre for safety reasons, and it has remained unused ever since. Why did Council take this action? In his report, Strictly K (one of three commissioned by KMC), consultant Les Currie stated that wiring and rigging in the theatre
were unsafe, while large portions of the ceiling over the stage were either damaged or missing. There was unhealthy mould downstairs. According to Mr Currie, maintenance was poor, with issues such as blocked toilets and no handles on fire doors ‘falling on deaf ears’. The cost of fixing these problems was put at $410,000.

However, due to changes in theatre regulations, there were other issues that needed addressing, including accessibility, an improved connection to the street, relocation of the toilets from the foyer area, a new stage door, improved noise mitigation, and reducing the size of the stage to increase the capacity of the auditorium from 280 to 300 seats – a bare minimum for professional theatre.
This bumped up the cost to well over a
million dollars.

In August 2016, acting on the initiative of Cr Cheryl Szatow, the Save Marian Street Theatre (SMST) committee was formed, under the initial chairmanship of James Cadden. In early 2017 James moved to Murwillumbah and John Townend became chair. The remit of the SMST committee was to communicate with and engage the community in the future of MST. One of the committee’s first actions was to publish a petition to re-open the Marian Street Theatre on-line. This petition attracted more than 3000 signatures. In June 2017 KMC voted to provide the committee with $37,000 to produce a feasibility study on the theatre.

Meanwhile, committee member and architect Luke Playoust was preparing an exciting new design for a Theatre Plus. This proposal boasted a vastly increased entry foyer and vestibule and a main auditorium accommodating an audience of 300 (an increase in stage size in the 1990s had reduced seating to 280). There were two other performance spaces downstairs, plus an art gallery and café/restaurant. The building was to be connected to Selkirk Park, with the existing car park driveway being moved to Culworth Avenue, and an amphitheatre in the park providing an additional performance space. As well as adult professional theatre and children’s theatre, Luke envisaged the revitalised facility would also be able to host art shows, sculpture displays, jazz gigs and chamber music recitals, children’s theatre and adult professional theatre were just some of the arts activities Luke envisaged the revitalised facility would be able to host. The proposed budget for the Luke Playoust designs was $9.7M.

Meanwhile, fellow SMST committee member and former Australia Council head Di Yerbury was working with Council officers and theatre expert Justin MacDonnell on a detailed business plan for the theatre. The plan was presented to councillors in May 2018.

In June 2018 Council voted unanimously to proceed with the rebuilding of MST, a decision chairman John Townend described as “all our Christmases come at once”. More than 200 SMST supporters packed the visitors’ gallery to hear the debate. Soon afterwards Council set up a reference committee to provide community input into its decision-making on MST. On 12 March 2019 Councillors voted to spend $10.5 million on renovating the theatre, with construction scheduled to start in May 2021.

Council then invited tenders from architects to redesign the theatre. The contract was awarded to Tonkin Zulaikha Greer (TZG). TZG is a top performer in the arts space, having been responsible for redesigning the National Gallery in Canberra, the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, the Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst, Carriageworks in Eveleigh, The Arthouse in Wyong and many other arts related buildings. While Playoust Churcher missed out, many of the ideas Luke Playoust put forward have been incorporated into TZG’s plans. The SMST committee (now renamed the Support Marian Street Theatre committee) remains committed to assisting KMC in whatever way we can and in particular to keeping the local community informed on progress.