Dictionary of Sydney

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Turret Theatre

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Turret Theatre

The Turret Theatre operated in Milsons Point from 1928 to 1930. It was cited in the former East St Leonards Town Hall. This was a building of a distinctive pseudo-medieval style, built from 1888–1890 on an irregularly shaped block of land on the corner of Alfred and Glen streets in Milsons Point. It was designed by Walter Liberty Vernon, a Neutral Bay resident and Alderman for East St Leonards and, in 1890, the newly appointed Government Architect. When boroughs of the area, including East St Leonards, were incorporated to form North Sydney Council, also in 1890, this building became the Town Hall and was used as such until 1926.

When North Sydney Council moved to new premises, the building was leased on 7 June 1928 for two years at two pounds a week to Don Finlay as representative of the Turret Theatre Ltd. Among the provisional directors of the Turret Theatre were such Sydney luminaries as: Richard Windeyer KC; Professor Alfred Radcliffe-Brown of Sydney University; and Miss J Washington Soul, of the well-known pharmacy company. Its planned subsidiary, The Turret Theatre Club (which would produce the shows), was under the Viceregal patronage of Lady de Chair and the Presidency of Sir Mungo MacCallum. Stage designer Don Finley, who had initially promoted the idea, was installed as Managing Director.

The initial idea was for an amateur company but it was hoped that in a short period the theatre could support a permanent company of professional actors. The Turret Theatre's ambitious plans included the presentation of 12 plays a year and, eventually, a children's theatre, a touring company and a (partially realised) School of Acting. While the organisers were aware of the limitations of their suburban location, they settled on Milsons Point in acknowledgement that suitable buildings in the city were too expensive. The committee hoped to develop the potential of a north shore audience, which they estimated at around 150,000 people, in part relying on the fact that Milsons Point was a transport hub.

The company planned to raise its capital from investor subscriptions, club memberships and the leasing out of the upper floor auditorium and the ground floor as shops and studios. Conversion costs were budgeted at 670 pounds. While these business plans appeared to be realistic, they did not adequately take into account the requirements of their theatre project. Only one of the ground floor rooms was finally tenanted, since the other spaces were needed for the theatre's production facilities, and the leasing of the hall was limited because of its use for rehearsals.

The production aims of the company were more idealistic than the business ones. The works presented were to be 'plays which are pre-eminently plays of ideas, poetic or lyric drama and musical and experimental work'. This idea did attract the artistic community of Sydney, including conductor Joseph Post, historian H M Green, broadcaster Wilfrid Thomas, actor Nellie Stewart, designer Hera Roberts and composer Alfred Hill. The aims reflected contemporary international interest in the concept of 'little theatres'. These were organisations, usually amateur, espousing cultural interests in the current fashion for literary theatre, derived at least in part as a reaction to the dominance of commercial interests in the mainstream theatre. The 'little theatres' sought an alternative cultural voice, in a repertoire particularly influenced by European consciousness.

The Turret Theatre operated for three seasons from 1927 to 1930. Their first production was Alfred Hill's opera Teora or The Magic Flute, which had been written over 20 years earlier. Other productions included more recent works such as Noel Coward's Daring and Hay Fever, Benavente's The Passion Flower, The Macropulos Secret by Capek, Betty Roland's A Touch of Silk (the only Australian play produced), and Sierra's Cradle Song. In 1929 the theatre also held a successful amateur drama festival, in which 17 companies participated.

These productions did not, however, attract large audiences and finances soon became a problem. The club was in debt, owing nearly 200 pounds, in September 1929. The experienced theatre producer Scott Alexander was brought in to try to improve the commercial operation. Two following productions under his auspices, At Mrs. Beam's and O'Casey's Shadow of a Gunman could indeed be seen as having more popular appeal than the previous works, but pressure to make the theatre pay exacerbated tensions between those holding views of the pre-eminence of artistic merit and those who favoured financial stability. These conflicting views ultimately led to the departure of Don Finlay.

The Turret Theatre company was finally unable or unwilling or both to keep up to date with rental payments to North Sydney Council and at a meeting on 3 June 1930, it was resolved to 'temporarily close' the Turret Theatre and transfer activities to the city. A suitable venue was not found and the theatre did not reopen.

The building stood for nearly another 40 years, and underwent varied uses. For a time it was a scout hall, and long term occupants included the Equitable Life Insurance Co. and the Kirribilli Ex-Servicemen's Club. Then it was finally demolished in 1968.

The influence of the short lived Turret Theatre, however, continued. Don Finlay went on to a successful career as a designer in British theatre. In Sydney, at the time of the closing of the Turret Theatre, 20 members of the Theatre Club each contributed ten shillings as working capital to Mrs Doris Mason, actor and part time secretary of the company, who wanted to establish her own theatre. She succeeded, and as Doris Fitton, she was inseparable from her Independent Theatre in North Sydney until her death.


Ailsa McPherson, A Dream of Passion: Theatre Activity in North Sydney, North Sydney Council, Sydney, 1993

John Ritchie, (ed) Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 12, 1990, pp 320–2

Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Papers of the Turret Theatre Ltd. MSS A3146, draft prospectuses, scenic designs, programmes, publicity, press cuttings,1928–29

Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Papers of the Turret Theatre Ltd. MSS A3146, draft prospectuses, scenic designs, programmes, publicity, press cuttings,1928–29

Philip Parsons (ed) and Victoria Chance, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press in association with Cambridge University Press, Paddington, 1995 –