Do we need another gym? Sydney loses a cultural icon

Jepke Goudsmit and Graham i in Who Lives? at The Edge, 1995.

Jepke Goudsmit & Graham Jones, co-directors of Kinetic Energy Theatre Company, reflect on the life and loss of a unique place — The Edge, last known as the King Street Theatre, of which they were the original founders.

Good, affordable theatre venues and practice studios have long been hard to come by in Sydney. The latest victim of our city’s rat race for survival is our former home base: that intimate theatre at the bottom of King Street in Newtown, which we set up in 1985.

We named it The Edge, as our practice was precarious and experimental, crossing comfortable borders and pushing conventional boundaries. And we were literally at the edge, where the city borders the inner-west.

We spent nearly 18 years there, before handing it on. It changed name then, and a few more times, as others gave running it a go.

We don’t want to start a litany about the inequalities and neglect suffered by the spear-carriers of culture (society’s creators and communicators). Nor moan and groan about the tightrope walking we are forced to perform to stay alive and true to our calling.

Rather, let’s look at the rich history of this unique space.

Sydney has a habit of tearing down its heritage buildings. There used to be 17 theatres like the State Theatre. Woolloomooloo was nearly razed to the ground, were it not for the visionary action of BLF leader Jack Mundey and the green movement in the 1970s.

Big developers are powerful, manipulating forces: the WestConnex saga and other privatisation projects pushed through by our state government are examples of that type of bullying.

We are not talking about clinging to the old, or resisting the new. This is about the need to respect public heritage, to nurture the intricate dynamics of cultural activities in our communities, and to express our diversity in multilayered ways. If only we could get our politicians to recognise the importance of supporting and maintaining our cultural meeting places, great and small.

The Edge/King Street Theatre has never been a publicly owned venue. It only became a theatre because we talked the owners into it. We began our search for a new artistic home when our warehouse studio in the CBD was about to be demolished to make place for World Square.

At the unfashionable end of King Street we found an empty shell of a hall, last used as a car-upholstery factory. Prior to that, it was a snooker-cum-boxing parlour, and before that a ballroom dancing hall. Three huge gas light crowns were still up at the ceiling, and faint images of vine foliage were still discernible on the peeling wall plaster. It was spacious, light, had a wooden floor and great acoustics.

That end of Newtown was the home of rag traders, ateliers and small galleries, experimental eco shops, second-hand book and record shops, musical instrument repairers. It wasn’t yuppified yet and still affordable.

The owners wanted to turn it into a fitness centre. So we talked about the scarcity of small theatres, the importance of places where ideas can be born, explored and debated, and for artists to integrate into communities. Perhaps we tapped into their cultural nostalgia that gave them a soft spot for our enterprise (their background is Middle Eastern, where music, dance, poetry and philosophy are encrypted strongly into the social DNA).

To our surprise, they dropped their idea of a muscle-toning business and gave artistic health a go. Yes, we had to keep the budget down with regards to the building work they agreed to pay for (like installing an office, kitchen, toilets and shower). And we had to do and pay for the rest: restoring the floor and all the fitting out. But they were quite flexible whenever a financial drought struck.

We kept the place open and multi-purpose, so it could be used as a studio with natural light and as a theatre space with mobile audience seating. Intimacy, inclusivity, accessibility, sustainability and flexibility were our guiding principles.

Our vision was to establish a program of ongoing training, research and creation. We looked to run educational programs in a wide range of the performing arts, and for a variety of levels and ages. We sought to explore collaborations, guest-residencies and apprenticeships, and to be a host for exchange. We made the space available to other contemporary Australian theatre makers and sought to bring people together and build community.

All while keeping the cost down for all, as much as we could.

It took a while to get the fire and safety requirements in place, having to satisfy both the Marrickville and City of Sydney councils. We conducted surveys, canvassing the locals about their support. We did volunteer work in local neighbourhood centres by performing for the elderly and disadvantaged, in an attempt to explore what integration of artists and communities could look like. We also sought to establish practical areas of mutual benefit, such as shared car parking.

After ploughing through miles of red tape, and with some Australia Council funding to complete the extra building work, we acquired a Public Halls License in the middle of 1989. It felt as if we had created an oasis. As if we had protected a piece of wilderness against industrial rage.

In a Sydney Morning Herald piece that year titled “Balanced on The Edge”, Pamela Payne said: Given the dearth of inexpensive theatre spaces available for hire in this city and the consequent dearth of budget-priced theatrical entertainment, The Edge seems assured of a resounding welcome.”

We stayed and played and were welcome. Having this kind of stability, we were able to carry out our vision. We developed our inter-disciplinary style and created a large body of work.

Ethnic communities met and exchanged in our “One With At Least Another” project. Dancers and choreographers developed their ideas in our “Dance On The Edge” program. Composers and musicians let rip in “Jazz On The Edge”. Students had a place to learn, and kindred companies had a place to work and perform.

To quote Brian Hoad in a 1993 Bulletin piece: All bureaucratic arty farties at the Australia Council should attend at least a couple of the current cycles at The Edge. They may learn something about life as well as art.”

It was tough to make ends meet without proper funding. It was tough to overcome the obstacles common to a fragmented cultural climate. It was tough to survive in a profit-driven world. But it was worth it to stick to our inner drive and truth.

When Labour gained state government in 1995, we were granted a $10,000 subsidy a few years in a row to underpin our services to the performing arts community. Our annual rent then was $20,000 (it would quadruple by this year). In 2001, when Graham fell severely ill, we handed The Edge over to new management.

We created an artistic sanctuary with The Edge, and shared it with many. We were on a collective journey towards another kind of society, one that is more sustainable and fair, more friendly and humane, more playful and compassionate.

We had hoped that the powers-that-be would recognise the need for a visionary support of the arts, for the wellbeing of all. We had hoped that as we entered the 21st century, a more emancipated spirit would be the norm.

Clearly, much work is still to be done, for apparently, we need another gym.

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