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The restored and revived Independent Theatre occupies the allotment described as 269 Miller Street, North Sydney. This land formed part of one land grant to Thomas Chaplin Breillat in 1840, and another, 13 years later, to William Lane, but, while both grants were subdivided, they remained undeveloped. Then in 1885 the New South Wales Commissioner for Railways began to build a cable tram to travel up the hill from Milsons Point, and resumed part of the land for the power house and carriage sheds. By 1890 there were waiting rooms and a refreshment room and soon some shops and houses. Then in 1909 the tramway moved its depot to Neutral Bay, closing the site in Miller Street in 1910.
Tram shed to theatre
A year later, North Sydney Coliseum Pty Ltd was granted a licence for a theatre and cinema on the site. Under architect Joseph Kethel a façade was built on the tram shed. Behind this the Coliseum Picture Hall was constructed on the later Independent Theatre site and the Coliseum Picture Theatre was created next door at 271 Miller Street.
Under the management of CM Bertie, the Coliseum Picture Hall became part of JC Bain's suburban vaudeville circuit. In 1918 it was leased to the Harry Clay circuit, operating as Clay's Coliseum Theatre. Clay continued to use the theatre until 1930, but from 1926 administrators of the Theatres and Public Halls Act expressed almost constant concerns about the condition of the building. After Clay's theatre closed, the building was licensed only for short-term entertainments, with its capacity reduced from 778 people to 500. Finally it was closed in October 1934 for contravening licensing provisions. It became a boxing venue for the circuit run by Mayne and Austin, and known as the North Sydney Stadium, but in 1936 the building was again condemned as unsafe.
Despite this it was relicensed as a theatre in 1937, used first by Les Shipp for vaudeville entertainments and then as the Criterion Theatre, with a company created by Scott Alexander, indirectly backed by JC Williamson's. Alexander died soon after in early 1939, and his widow sold the theatre fittings to Doris Fitton.
Fitton had run her own company, using a range of city venues, since 1930. She was initially reluctant to 'cross the Bridge' to the out-of- town location of North Sydney, but generous lease conditions finally persuaded her to accept the offer.
The theatre that Fitton's company leased was a rectangular space at the end of a long, downward-sloping corridor leading from the street front. At the end a staircase led to small rooms used as offices and storerooms and one large 'studio' area in which the Independent's acting classes were conducted. The theatre itself, on the entry level, was of a simple design derived from its Georgian ancestry. There was a large stalls area and a very small dress circle, or perhaps gallery, with the whole area painted a dusky pink, which grew progressively duskier with age. The proscenium-arched stage was narrow but deep, with only marginal wing space and no flying capacity. There were two dressing rooms at the rear of the stage and a dark, close area under the stage, known as the crypt, which served both as wardrobe room and overflow accommodation for extras and students appearing in the shows. There was a minimal staging dock at one side, a tiny construction area, and an inadequate lean-to 'granny flat' residence occupied by Ivan Ratcliffe, a devoted supporter of Fitton, who acted as caretaker, theatre technician and who built the sets for her productions until the end of his life.
The Independent Theatre opened with a production of Terence Rattigan's French without Tears on 3 September 1939, one day prior to the British and Australian declaration of war on Germany over the invasion of Poland. The theatre continued to operate as the lessee of North Sydney Coliseum Ltd throughout World War II and until 1948 but its tenure was never secure, and there were constant problems with the building, including a fire in 1946. Finally in 1948, after attempts by the owners to convert the site into a furniture warehouse, Theatre Freeholds Ltd, a company formed by supporters of the Independent Theatre, purchased the building for £7000.
Fitton retired in 1977 and the Independent Theatre, which had been her personal fiefdom, closed. The building was then leased to John Howitt of Playhouse 680 operating in Killara on Sydney's north shore, who changed its name to 269 Playhouse. In 1983 it was leased to Hayes Gordon of the Ensemble Theatre as a theatre school, and in 1989 ownership was transferred to Roncord Pty Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. When the Trust ceased operating in 1991 the building was in a poor state and close to derelict. In 1993 it came under the control of the Seaborn, Broughton and Walford Foundation. Under the direction of Dr Rodney Seaborn, the Foundation, in a lengthy association with North Sydney Council, restored both the interior and exterior of the building. A revived Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust bought back the theatre in 2004 and undertook another acoustic and heritage refurbishment, making the theatre suitable for musical performances as well.
In May 2013, the theatre was bought from the Trust by the adjacent Wenona School, which operates the theatre as both an educational facility and a public venue.
Ailsa McPherson, A Dream of Passion, North Sydney Council, Sydney, 1993
Local history collection, Stanton Library, Miller Street, North Sydney
Philip Parsons (ed) with Victoria Chance, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press in association with Cambridge University Press, Sydney, 1995 pp 292–3
Th is entry was written in 2008. The last two paragraphs were revis ed on 14 Feb ruary 2017 to include subsequent changes to the ownership of the Independent Theatre.