Footlights And Famous Faces: The History Of The Seymour Centre

August 20th, 2021 - by Brad Gillespie

Sydney’s Seymour Centre is renowned as a thriving performing arts centre, showcasing the best in live performance for more than 40 years.

And we’re lucky to have it on our doorstep.

In 1966, a businessman with a very long name shuffled off this mortal coil, leaving a significant bequest for ‘…the construction of a building to serve as a centre for the cultivation, education and performance of musical and dramatic arts …’

The kind benefactor? Everest Reginald York Seymour – and his four names are now firmly entrenched in Sydney’s rich creative life.

The Seymour Centre is born

With the University of Sydney as trustee, the building of Seymour’s vision began on the corner of City Rd and Cleveland St.

The theatre complex was designed by Allen Jack+Cottier and officially opened in 1975 and honoured the man who’d made it possible in its name: the Seymour Centre. The names of its two largest theatres – the York and the Everest – also gave a nod to their generous benefactor. In 2011, the former Downstairs Theatre was renamed The Reginald to complete the set.

In its early years the Seymour showcased some of Australia’s most legendary performing names, such as June Bronhill and June Salter, and Leonard Teale in his successful one-man show While the Billy Boils.

The Dance Company (NSW), which later became Sydney Dance Company, also gave early performances here.

Famous faces at the Seymour

The Seymour fostered the first steps into the footlights of some now-famous faces. Geoffrey Rush starred as the Fool in King Lear in 1978 at the Seymour, and Nicole Kidman made her professional debut here in 1988’s Steel Magnolias.

Geoffrey Rush -- Photo from Wikipedia

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll opened in 1991 with a cast including luminaries Bill Hunter, Max Cullen, Angela Punch McGregor and a young Claudia Karvan.

Russell Crowe, Judy Davis, Jacki Weaver, Hugo Weaving, Mel Gibson and Cate Blanchett have all trodden Seymour’s boards. And one emerging children’s group – the Wiggles – filmed their very first video in the York Theatre in 1996.

Supporting companies, showcasing events

The Seymour has a strong history of supporting emerging arts companies and fostering innovation.

In the 1980s the seminal Nimrod Theatre, founded by John Bell, Richard Wherrett and Ken Horler, brought numerous productions to the Seymour, as did Toe Truck Theatre, the company started by Robert Love AM, now director of Parramatta Riverside Theatres.

Today, contemporary dance company Sean Parker & Company and Sport for Jove Theatre Company, which focuses on classical plays and education programs, are both resident at the Seymour.

The kids are alright (the music’s good too)

The Seymour has been known and loved for its children’s theatre for years. Highlights have included The Magical Tale of Puff the Magic Dragon, Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts, The Gruffalo, and shows by current sensations The Listies.

The Gruffalo -- Photo from Seymour's Instagram

Live music has found a home here, too. Along with past gigs by Missy Higgins, Florence + the Machine, Neil Finn and others, there’s the popular contemporary music program Seymour Nights.

Musicals staged at the Seymour include Sweeney Todd, Side by Side by Sondheim, Keating! The Musical and Tom Burlinson’s Frank: The Sinatra Story in Song.

The Seymour Centre today

Refurbished in 2000 by Lahz Nimmo Architects, today the Seymour Centre programs performances from national and international artists, comedians and musicians, and hosts a range of festival events.

Overseas companies Gecko, Complicité and DV8 have all performed here. And audiences enjoy events and shows for Mardi Gras, Sydney Writers Festival and the Sydney Fringe.

To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the Seymour’s Great Ideas Performance Series brought Taiwanese choreographer Huang Yi to the York Theatre with his dance-engineering fusion work, Huang Yi and Kuka. The series also featured Letters to Lindy, Alana Valentine’s play centred on letters written to Lindy Chamberlain during her trials and imprisonment.

Find out what’s on at The Seymour Centre website.

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