Louis Nowra’s Lewis trilogy will be the final piece at the Stables theater before it closes for renovation.Photo: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian
On a small, kite-shaped stage in the heart of Sydney’s Kings Cross sits a theater of first chances. A melting pot for playwrights and actors for almost 54 years, this space has elevated an Australian voice and vernacular and launched hundreds of new Australian stories.
Every night, about 100 audience members crowd into the historic Stables theater, so close they can almost wipe the sweat off the actors. These performers have to go down the rutted stairs to a small dressing room; they agree not to flush the adjacent toilet during shows.
Rough edges provide a rich base here. David Wenham first starred as a deadly sadist in 1991’s The Boys; Jacqueline McKenzie’s stage debut as a teenage bride the same year, in Child Dancing; Sarah Snook as a “serial slug” in 2010’s Crestfall; and Cate Blanchett in 1993 as Franz Kafka’s first fiancée, Felice Bauer, who danced the boards to become the best newcomer at the Sydney theater awards.
Home to the Griffin Theater Company for 44 years, The Stables is about to enter a new era, with the venue soon to close its doors for a massive $11 million renovation. Kings Cross playwright Louis Nowra has the honor of saying goodbye to the creaking stage and surrounds with a new production of The Lewis Trilogy: three plays about misfits and love, spanning five decades from 1962 and premiering on February 9.
Actor and playwright Kate Mulvany remembers being put to the test at the Stables. It has long been her favorite place to perform, but the most distracting place as the audience surrounds actors from two sides. “When you first step on that stage, it feels small,” she says, “and yet it can encapsulate entire universes.”
Mulvany recalls playing Therese alongside Martin Vaughan in Debra Oswald’s Mr Bailey’s Minder in 2004: “There were so many times when I was rocking Martin and you could feel both sides just crying; Everyone was in the room together.” Another highlight was her role as Amanda in Justin Fleming’s Molière in 2016. “God, I fucked a chair on the revolving stage of The Literati,” she says, laughing. “There’s absolutely no escape once you’re there – and you wouldn’t want to.”
The site started life as a stable in the 1890s, a brick building with iron on it and owned by a butcher and mutton exporter. It was 1970 when the pioneering – but now defunct – Nimrod Theater Company set up shop there and raised money to repair large holes in the dilapidated roof.
Griffin moved in in 1980. Playwright Michael Gow remembers the premiere of his play Away there in 1986 – “a brutally hot summer; the programs became fans”. The play has since been performed for almost 100 seasons across Australia, including a 20th anniversary production directed by Gow at the Stables. “There used to be a red pole [on stage] which held up the roof in the middle. You had to [act around] the red pole, you couldn’t ignore it.”
In 1992, Ros Horin became the company’s first female artistic director and since then Griffin has staged exclusively Australian plays – more than 400 to date – championing women, including queer and racially diverse voices.
When she started the job, Griffin was bankrupt and on the verge of collapse. “They said, ‘The good news is we’d like to offer you this position,’” Horin says. ‘The bad news is that we only have money for you for six months. Your first job is to raise money.” Horin instituted a rigorous development period for new plays and secured triennial government funding, continually renewing its creative teams; she led the company for 12 years.
Horin remembers casting Blanchett, then fresh out of Nida, in a 1993 production of Kafka Dances. She was “very self-effacing and said, ‘Am I good enough?’ uncertain picture,” says Horin. “Cate was very funny, great in the role.”
Griffin has also premiered many blueprints for Australian film classics. Wenham adapted the violent Brett Sprague from Gordon Graham’s play into the film adaptation of The Boys; Andrew Bovell’s play Speaking in Tongues, which Horin helped develop, became Lantana; Tommy Murphy’s play of Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding the Man became a feature film; and Richard Barrett’s play The Heartbreak Kid is better known to TV viewers as Heartbreak High.
Next, Suzie Miller’s feminist play Prima Facie – which premiered at the Stables in 2019, directed by Lee Lewis – will become a British feature film starring Cynthia Erivo, after Jodie Comer and the play won Olivier Awards on the West End and Comer a Tony Award won. on Broadway.
Speaking to the Guardian from Los Angeles, Miller says that “the tears and sweat of artists have bled into the bones of the building.” She continues to premiere work there because Griffin is “akin to the Royal Court Theater in London: the home of playwrights and they know how to develop and create work and support writers”.
When Miller started submitting plays to Australian theaters in the early 2000s, women weren’t getting much attention, so she moved to Britain. “I was gaining traction overseas, while in Australia… the female playwrights of the generation above me were suddenly no longer in the theater.”
Mulvany similarly remembers it as a time of tokenism: “We used to say, ‘Does anyone know which female playwright so-and-so company has chosen for next year?'”
Nowra’s classic semi-autobiographical Lewis trilogy is being performed through April in new versions specially updated for their Stables season. The first play is set on a housing commission estate, the second in an asylum, the third in a theatrical version of the Old Fitz Hotel in Woolloomooloo, where Nowra lives. The same ensemble of actors is used in all three works, including Paul Capsis as Roy in Così – the second play in the trilogy.
Griffin’s current artistic director, Declan Greene, says the Stables “makes you a better playwright because it forces you to look at an audience watching your play”. When we meet outside a cafe in Darlinghurst, Nowra says: ‘Yes, it’s one of the most hateful things to feel the crowd around you saying, ‘Oh no. He used to be good.” It forces the playwright to be honest.” Nowra says Griffin provides an important learning curve “where people can fail, without too much attention being focused on them.”
The stables will close in May for reconstruction. A $5 million donation to the Neilson Foundation in 2023 allowed the theater company to finally purchase the stables, as well as the adjacent terraced house at 12 Nimrod Street, which will be demolished. Bringing the sites together will cost a further $11 million: $5 million committed by the New South Wales Government, while a further $6 million is being raised. There will be a slightly larger stage, more seats (from 105 to 140) and a new elevator and rehearsal space on location.
Greene and the co-chief executive, Julieanne Campbell, have promised it won’t be too polished when it reopens in late 2025 or early 2026. They hope to keep Griffin’s spirit in line with his “slightly chaotic” work. Gow will be happy if they can make that happen. “I’m a little ambivalent about all these renovations,” he says. “It’s the slow march of gentrification. Something is going on [a] raw [theatre space] I find it incredibly attractive, even though it is borderline unsafe and unsanitary.”
Times move on, new voices arise. Wongutha-Yamatji actor and playwright Meyne Wyatt delivered a blistering performance at the Stables in his first play, 2019’s City of Gold – a monologue that went viral when he performed it on Q&A. Playwright Merlynn Tong, whose play Golden Blood premiered there in 2022 and will be revived for two major theater companies in 2024, says Griffin gave her the freedom to experiment.
“I’m a woman, I’m Asian… so I was very concerned about whether my stories are relevant to this place,” she recalls. “Having Griffin program me … reaffirmed my legitimacy as a person living in this country and as a woman, as a person of color.”
Between a stable and a theater, the space has served as a garage, Sunday school, gymnasium, taxi company office and screen-printing studio — and may also have been a “whorehouse,” said actor Sacha Horler in a 2020 Griffin podcast (her late father Ken Horler rented the stables for Nimrod in 1970 for $17 per week).
Mulvany laughs when he discovers that The Stables’ first shows may have been on the more erotic side. ‘Over the years I have had many meetings in that foyer with people that turned into first dates, into relationships. It has that beautiful, positive domino effect,” she says. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a place of delight rather than a theater.”
• Griffin Theater Company’s production of Louis Nowra’s Lewis Trilogy runs at the Stables until April, before the theater closes for renovations