Next year, the Griffin Theatre Company will celebrate its fiftieth birthday.
In the last half a century – since the company has found its home in the SBW Stables Theatre – its stage has provided the launching pad for Australian icons like Cate Blanchett and David Wenham.
Today it’s the only theatre company in the country solely dedicated to producing new Australian plays. Read on to find out about the visionary organisation we’re lucky to have in our local neighbourhood.
Like the name suggests, in the 1840s the building at 10 Nimrod Street was a stable for horses. It evolved into a garage, a gymnasium and when Barrister Ken Horler stumbled upon it in 1970 it was nothing more than a disused shed. His friend the iconic actor and director John Bell described the structure as “a small two-storey ruin of bare brick walls and rotting timber built in the shape of a narrow wedge.”
Horler and Bell, alongside their friends and family were keen to reinvigorate Sydney’s theatre scene into something representative of Australian culture. Horler called in favours from friends and clients who worked off their debts to him by scraping, painting and restoring the building on the weekend into something stage-worthy.
Despite the “renovation,” certain aspects of the building were still rooted in the 19th Century. Until as recently as 1997, performers had no access to a bathroom once spectators were gathered in the theatre below. Tara Morice (who played the female lead in Strictly Ballroom) told Time Out (Sydney) that she had to use a bucket in the dressing room as a toilet. Although today there is a toilet backstage, the acoustics mean that actors are forbidden from flushing it during performances.
In 1970, with renovations complete, John Bell, Anna Volska, Richard Wherrett, Ken and Lilian Horler and Ron Blair launched The Nimrod Street Theatre. The intimate venue could only hold just over 100 people in the audience and the small space forced a special kinship between actor and spectator.
The theatre produced a steady stream of Australian plays and radical versions of Shakespeare. One of its best-known plays was Basically Black, written and directed with Indigenous actors. The poster art was designed by Brett Whiteley.
The popularity of the Nimrod Street Theatre led Ken Horler to look for a larger venue, which eventually became the Belvoir Street Theatre in Surry Hills.
In 1975, writer Bob Ellis purchased the space on Nimrod Street and renamed it the Stables Theatre and The Griffin Theatre Company, run by a collective of NIDA graduates, took up residence in the building in 1980. In 1985 Ellis listed the building for sale, endangering the future of The Griffin Theatre Company. The Griffin’s ‘knight in shining armour’ arrived in the form of psychiatrist, Dr Rodney Frederick Marsden Seaborn.
Seaborn purchased the theatre, set up the Seaborn, Broughton, Walford (SBW) Foundation and renamed the venue as the SBW Stables Theatre. He offered it to the Griffin Theatre Company rent-free, provided that they pay for outgoings, renovations and upkeep. Today they are still the resident theatre company at the SBW Stables Theatre in Darlinghurst.
- In 1981, the Griffin Theatre Company adopted its Australian policy, meaning that all of the plays had to be written by Australian playwrights.
- 1984 season the Company was awarded The Sydney Critic’s Circle Award for “the most significant contribution to theatre that year.”
- In 1986 the play Away, Australia’s most-produced contemporary play, had premiered at ‘The Griffin.
- In 1991 David Wenham launched his career by playing the lead role in The Boys.
- In 1993 Cate Blanchett played Felice in Kafka Dances at The Griffin Theatre, before she became an internationally acclaimed actress.
- In 1999 The Sun Herald described the Griffin Theatre Company as Australia’s ‘Theatre of the Decade’.
- Plays produced in the theatre inspired Australia’s cult films like Lantana, The Boys and The Heartbreak Kid.
The Griffin Theatre Company has gained a reputation for its gritty live performances. Readers be warned: The blog SheGoes described it as “the theatre where you’re most likely to cop a penis in the face.”
Griffin’s current Artistic Director Lee Lewis is continuing the ground-breaking legacy, with an emphasis on diversity. Next year there will be a range of events to celebrate half a century at The SBW Stables Theatre. “The 2020 season is not a looking back but a looking forward. Our playwrights have questions for you, challenges for you, laughter to share with you and hope and visions of the future to offer you,” Lewis said.
Catch the latest plays from the Griffin Theatre Company at SBW Stables Theatres, 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross.