Civic Theatre Heritage

The heritage-listed Civic Theatre & Newcastle City Hall were both designed by New-Zealand born architect Henry Eli White.

White is best known for the many theatres and cinemas (or 'picture palaces' as they were then called) he designed in Australia and New Zealand in the 1910s and 1920s.

Many of the major surviving historic theatres in the two countries are White designs, including the St. James Theatre, Wellington, St. James Theatre, Auckland, the Capitol Theatre and State Theatre in Sydney, and the Palais Theatre and the interiors of the Princess Theatre and Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne.

The Civic Theatre was opened on December 15 1929. Although designed as a live-theatre, the Civic was immediately leased as a cinema to Northern Amusements (in association with Newcastle Theatres Pty Ltd and Greater Union). In 1941 Hoyts gained control and the Civic continued under this management until 1973. The City Of Newcastle then decided to move towards more live productions and phase out cinema operations completely. This adaption to the building was undertaken over 1974-76.

In June 1992, the Civic closed for a $10.4 million refurbishment and was re-opened in November of 1993 as Australia's Premier Regional Theatre.

The Civic Theatre is now firmly established on the Australian national touring circuit and hosts a wide range of music concerts, theatre, comedy and dance events.

Statement of Significance from the Office of Environment & Heritage

The Civic Theatre is of state significance. It is regarded as one of the finest theatre buildings in New South Wales designed by prominent theatre architect Henry Eli White.

It is one of few surviving late-1920s atmospheric theatres in the country. The building facade is a finely crafted example of the Georgian Revival style. Along with the Newcastle Club and the BHP Administration Building, it represents the influence of this style in the Hunter Region.

The theatre's largely intact interior is considered to be an outstanding example of the Spanish/Moroccan style. The building is also an important townscape element, being part of the civic cultural precinct and located adjacent to Newcastle City Hall (also designed by White) It reflects Newcastle's status as the state's second capital at the time of the theatre's construction.

The theatre has operated almost continuously as an entertainment venue since 1929 and continues to be a focus of social and cultural activity, highly valued by the citizens of Newcastle for its outstanding historical, aesthetic and social significance.

Physical Description

The Civic Theatre is a two storey rendered brick Georgian Revival building. Its facade exhibits features of the Georgian Revival style with Italian Renaissance elements, particularly in the elegant, repetitive semi-circular-headed windows. According to the National Trust, the facade of the shop at No 14 Wheeler is the only original. Entrance ways are timber framed with glass, and leadlight above. The awning is painted in heritage colours with circular motifs and pressed metal soffit.

The interior is an elaborate example of White's style in 'Spanish Baroque' featuring a traditional proscenium arch, crowned with a classical frieze, a grand ornamental dome in the ceiling, with smaller domes above the back stalls and huge, recessed arches over the Royal boxes which flank the stage. Within these arches are Alamo-style parapets containing statues. The domes are indirectly lit and a 'blue sky' surround flanks the stage. The auditorium walls were decorated to imitate stone castle walls. Renovations in the early 1970's enlarged the stage and orchestra pit.

Playhouse History

The Playhouse, in its first incarnation, opened in 1979. The Playhouse was the home of the Hunter Valley Theatre Company (HVTC), Australia’s first regionally based full time professional theatre company dedicated to new and original work.

Productions included John O’Donoghue’s A Happy and Holy Occasion and Essington Lewis: I am Work, David Allen’s Once a Bold Collier and Stephen Abbott’s Headbutt. While shows are ephemeral, this history created lasting community memories and it was considered a major setback to the region’s performing arts and cultural development when in 1996 the HVTC folded and then the Playhouse closed in 1998. Many in the community did not accept that a fundamentally well designed performing arts space was allowed to close down, albeit with significant safety and access problems compounded by other issues including deteriorating technical equipment and below standard cast and audience facilities.

Following a community based campaign that sought an affordable, well equipped, comfortable performing arts space for local practitioners, the City Of Newcastle and the NSW Ministry for the Arts committed a combined $1.5 million to refurbish the moth-balled Playhouse.

The Playhouse in it's current form was designed by local architect Brian Suters and was officially re-opened on December 21, 2004.