DO WE NEED ANOTHER GYM?

Some reflections on the life and loss of a unique place: THE EDGE, last known as THE KING STREET THEATRE, by its original founders, Jepke Goudsmit & Graham Jones (co-directors of Kinetic Energy Theatre Company).

Good, affordable theatre venues and practice studios for the performing arts have long been hard to come by in Sydney. Unfortunately, that still is the case. The latest victim of our city’s rat race for survival is our former home base: that intimate little theatre at the bottom end of King Street in Newtown, which we set up in 1985. We named it THE EDGE, as our contemporary theatre practice was precarious and experimental, crossing comfortable borders and pushing conventional boundaries. And also because we were literally at the edge of the city where it borders the Inner West. We spent nearly 18 years there, before handing it on. It changed name then, and did so a few more times, as other directors gave running it a go.

We don’t want to start a long litany about the inequalities and neglect suffered by the spear-headers of culture, (ie our society’s creators, communicators and imaginative initiators). Nor moan and groan about the impossible tightrope walking we are often forced to perform in order to stay alive and true to our calling. We would rather take a moment to reflect on our contribution to the rich history of this unique space, when it was our artistic home.

Sydney has a habit of tearing down its heritage buildings. There used to be seventeen theatres like the State Theatre. Woolloomooloo was nearly razed to the ground, were it not for the visionary action of Jack Munday and the green movement. Big developers are powerful and manipulating forces and 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 and multiculturalism 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…

Of course THE EDGE / KING STREET THEATRE has never been a publicly owned venue. It only became a theatre, because we talked the owners into making it one. We began the search for a new base when our Kinetic Energy warehouse space in Sydney’s CBD was about to be demolished and turned into the World Square. At the unfashionable end of King Street we found an empty shell of a hall, last used as a car-upholstery factory, and prior to that as a snooker-cum-boxing parlour, and before that as a ballroom dancing hall. Three huge gas light crowns were still up at the ceiling, and faint images of vines and other foliage were still discernible on the peeling wall plaster. It was spacious, light, had a hard wooden sprung floor, and great acoustics. We knew we had found our space. 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 and such like. It was not yet yuppified, and therefore still affordable.

The owners wanted to convert the hall into a fitness centre and spa. So we talked about the scarcity of small theatres and rehearsal studios, and how important it is for neighbourhoods to have cultural meeting places, where ideas can be born, explored and debated, and for artists to integrate into communities. To our surprise, we managed to convince them to drop the commercial business of muscle toning, and give artistic health a go instead.

We began a longstanding friendly relationship with the owners, who turned out to be quite flexible when we were struck by a financial drought at times. Perhaps it was because we mapped out our plans together, and designed the fundamental lay out for our theatre-to-be with them, which made them so understanding. Perhaps we tapped into their nostalgia for their own cultural background that allowed them to develop a soft spot for our enterprise (their parents had migrated from the Middle East, where the need for music, dance, poetry and philosophy is encrypted strongly into the social DNA). Yes, we had to keep the budget down with regards to the building work the owners agreed to do and pay for, like installing an office, kitchen, toilets and shower. And we had to do and pay for the rest: restoring, sanding and polishing of the floor, and all the fitting out.

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. Great for dance, music & the spoken word. Intimacy, inclusivity, accessibility, sustainability and flexibility were our guiding principles. Our vision was to establish a program of ongoing training, research and creation by our company. To run educational programs in a wide range of the performing arts, for a variety of levels and ages. To explore collaborations, guest-residencies and apprenticeships. To be a host for exchange. To make the space available to other contemporary Australian theatre-makers. To bring people together and build community. To celebrate and explore being human. To play. To learn. To heal. To grow. And to keep the cost down for all, as much as we could.

It took a while to get the fire & safety requirements in place, having to satisfy both the Marrickville and City of Sydney Councils at the time. We conducted surveys in the area, door knocking like true cultural activists, canvassing the locals about their support and interest for our plans. 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. And 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 had to carry out, we acquired a Public Halls License for THE EDGE as an open-space 100-seat theatre. It was the middle of 1989. It felt as if we had created an oasis. As if we had protected a piece of pure wilderness against the rage of industrial ‘progress’.

In her article “Balanced on The Edge” in the Sydney Morning Herald, at our official opening, 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.

Recently we wrote down a complete list of activities and initiatives undertaken in those years, with the names of all the artists involved in our projects. It would take too many pages to include that list here. But it is clear, that it was an intensely vibrant and creative period in the life of all who occupied, visited or came through the place. Having this kind of stability, we were able to develop our inter-disciplinary style and created an extensive 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 our “Jazz On The Edge” program. Students and apprentices had a place to learn and orientate themselves. Kindred companies had a place to work and perform.

Perhaps it is time to quote Brian Hoad (The Bulletin): “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”.

For it was tough to make ends meet without proper funding. Tough to overcome the obstacles common to a fragmented and divided cultural climate. Tough to survive in an increasingly profit driven world. But worth every while to stick to our inner drive and truth. When the good doctor (Andrew Refschauge) became our local MP, and Labour gained state government, we were granted a $10.000 subsidy a few years in a row specifically to underpin our services to the performing arts community. Our annual rent then was $20.000 (it was about to quadruple by 2018!).

In 2001, when one of us (Graham) fell severely ill, we handed THE EDGE over to new management. Two years later we continued our path in Enmore, where we established another small theatre at St Luke’s Hall.

In the ‘80s we created an artistic sanctuary, THE EDGE, and shared it with many. We were travelling, as it were, on a collective journey of change 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 eventually take notice, and recognise the need for visionary support for the arts, and by so doing, for the well-being of all. We had hoped that by the time 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.

This article was written in March 2018. It was published by the SMH online Sydney Arts Guide, 20/03/'18.