Where art thou council?

JO STERKENBURG is a current member and former president of Harbour Theatre. Until a few years ago it was Freo’s only community theatre, before relocating to Mosman Park. She says mayor Brad Pettitt’s call to get Freo’s creative heart beating (“Getting creative,” Herald, October 19, 2019), doesn’t tally with her experiences.

AS a long time member of Harbour Theatre, an actor, director, and a participant in the myriad of other jobs that go on behind the scenes, I nearly choked on my morning cup of tea when I read the “Getting Creative” story in last week’s Herald. 

Let me enlighten your readers and maybe some city councillors about the ongoing saga we at Harbour Theatre have endured since 1963.  

We have been promised repeatedly over the past 56 years, that we would have a permanent home of our own in Fremantle, as Fremantle Council wanted to support the arts. 

We are now in Mosman Park at the Camelot Theatre, still waiting for this so-called Fremantle home.

We exist solely on the funds we garner from our paying audiences; no subsidies, no grants or assistance apart from the odd Lotterywest application to help with lighting/communications/air conditioning etc. 

In December 1963, Harbour Theatre was formed by eight enthusiastic amateurs in the theatrette on the upper floor of the Evans Davies Civic Library in South Terrace, which was made available by council and became Harbour’s first home with a peppercorn rent. 

Conditions were very primitive at the beginning, but enthusiasm overcame all difficulties and the group flourished and expanded rapidly. 

In 1975 the library was relocated next to the Town Hall, and the Evan Davies Building was scheduled for demolition to make way for a car park. 

Due mainly to the efforts of the members of Harbour Theatre, The Fremantle Society, and a grant from the Heritage Commission, the building was saved and in 1977 was partially restored. 

• Alex Jones and Alex Kennedy during a Harbour Theatre production in 2009. File
photo

At the same time the theatre underwent a major restructuring, now occupying the entire upper floor and resulting in the stage and seating being completely rearranged, allowing for larger audiences and better facilities for actors.

All the work to the theatre was due to the group’s own physical labour, with funds raised by themselves and their supporters – no grants or funding from anyone.

Unfortunately in March 1995 we were forced to find another venue, as Bankwest funded KULCHA to move into our old home and completely changed it. 

Thus Harbour Theatre departed from the Evans Davies Building – our home for 31 years. 

As a temporary measure and under difficult circumstances, Harbour Theatre performed at the Tivoli Theatre, Applecross, while searching for a location back in Fremantle. 

After exhausting every avenue with Fremantle council to relocate back to the city, a lease was finally arranged privately with the Fremantle Education Centre at the Princess May Building, and Harbour Theatre was able to return to Fremantle at the end of 1996. 

And then, yet again, due to circumstances beyond our control, in December 2009 we were forced out of the Princess May Building, our home for 13 years, when the FEC received a federal government grant to re-roof the building and convert the theatre space into offices. 

Despite intense lobbying by the Harbour Theatre membership and the general public to the state government and local councillors, we were forced to move.  

Harbour proposed to council to use the long disused Port Cineaste Building on Adelaide Street as a temporary venue, until a more secure home could be found. 

So once again, we dismantled our beautiful theatre, the only purpose built theatre in Fremantle at the time, and moved lock, stock and barrel across the Princess May Park to the Port Cineaste Building. 

The major task of converting a cavernous cinema into an intimate performing arts space, including building a stage and erecting lighting, was an enormous job undertaken by a small, but hardworking and dedicated group of members and involved many, many hours of volunteer labour.

But it wasn’t to last. In 2014, just after our 50th Anniversary celebrations had come to a close, the Port Cineaste Building was sold and we were told we had to move out by the end of March. 

After much searching, discussions & negotiations, Harbour Theatre moved just seven minutes north of Fremantle into the lovely Art Deco Mosman Park Memorial Hall, also known as Camelot Theatre. 

Our dedicated team once again kicked in with the massive undertaking of moving the theatre less than five years after our last move.

So for more than 50 years Harbour Theatre has entertained tens of thousands of people. 

As a self-funded, not-for-profit theatre managed solely by volunteers, all proceeds raised by our productions are channeled back into the club so we can continue offering quality community theatre to the residents of Fremantle and the surrounding suburbs.

We are so tired of Fremantle council saying they will assist us and yet whenever we have found a suitable venue we are told it is earmarked for something/someone else. 

Victoria Hall was suggested but the rent was so astronomical it was impossible. 

We looked into every empty/disused building in and around Fremantle with no satisfactory results. 

We asked about the Port and the empty sheds there – seeing as we are called Harbour Theatre in honour of our port city we thought that would be ideal – alas nothing eventuated.  

We were so sad to see the Port Cinema demolished and now here it is; nearly six years later and it is now a temporary  car park, when it was a perfect venue for us. 

We also made application to move into the Fremantle Boys’ School when that was an option, but alas we lost out on that too. 

While we were the oldest and only Community Theatre in Fremantle, we are certainly not the oldest theatre group in Perth and it is sad that we are now in Mosman Park rather than in our true home of Fremantle. 

We have participated Harbour Theatre have performed in many venues since being established in 1963, with every move being a very traumatic experience for all involved. We strive to one day move just one last time into a dedicated building we can call our own…in Fremantle.

All the original members of the theatre are now sadly passed away or in declining health and the banner for Harbour needs to be carried on by the next wave. 

If only we had a home of our own to do it in.

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