Cell Block Theatre in Sydney

13 Jul
The stage in the Cell Block Theatre today.

The stage in the Cell Block Theatre today.

I have a fascination with the ways in which old prisons get repurposed in new ways. I’ve heard about former prisons turning into boutique hotels, apartments, and psychiatric hospitals, all of which strikes me as depressing and unfortunate. Museums which inhabit former prison sites can eloquently honor the people who once lived and died inside them, as does Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, South Africa, but I have also seen some tasteless and unfortunate renderings of prison museums. There is a much more hopeful and innovative tradition of turning prisons into art spaces—of flying in the face of the original purpose of the building to unleash creativity. For the last ninety-three years, Sydney’s National Art School has done precisely this.

As was the case for many prisons in the 18th and 19th centuries, the walls of the Darlinghurst Gaol in Sydney were built with convict labor. Construction began in 1822 and remained in various states of construction for the next fifty years. The first prisoners to live inside it arrived there in 1841, and the last ones left in 1914. The origins of the National Art School can be traced back to Sydney Mechanics School of Art in Pitt Street, Sydney, in 1843. The Art School moved to occupy the former Darlinghurst Gaol in 1922, where it has remained ever since.

Deborah Beck was a student at the National Art School in the 1970s. She studied painting and later went on to become a faculty member at her alma mater. During her time teaching at the school, she encountered boxes of photos and archival materials about the history of the Darlinghurst Gaol stashed in basements and odd offices, and she began to realize that no one else had documented or protected the historical record of her beloved school. Realizing that she had stumbled upon a significant archive, Beck became the official historian of both the prison and the school. Today she’s preserved over four thousand items—both artistic and historical—in the pristine archive and collections room, which she oversees in the top corner of one wing of the school.

Beck worked with the state records office in Sydney to identify glass plate negatives which referred to the Darlinghurst Goal. The records of all the historic prisons in the city had been mixed together, and no one but Deborah knew which ones had to do with Darlinghurst. Her extensive research led to the publication of a book on the history of the Darlinghurst Gaol and the National Art School, entitled Hope in Hell (Allen & Unwin 2005). This official history of the various lives of this place up until 1975 has aided the school’s defenders in their repeated struggles to keep the historic prison as the site of the National Art School. Its prime location and picturesque setting make it a desirable property, and the government has made moves on multiple occasions to take the site back from the National Art School.

As it stands today, the National Art School inhabits the former Darlinghurst Gaol in quite a charming way. The floors were removed from the tiers of the cellblocks, opening up high ceilings and beautiful stone walls with the remnants of the former floors still showing and the former windows and their iron bars intact but paned with modern glass. Painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, ceramics, and drawing have their own buildings, and a lovely and spacious gallery occupies and entire building.

One of the original windows of the Darlinghurst Gaol, now part of the Cell Block Theatre.

One of the original windows of the Darlinghurst Gaol, bearing traces of the original blue paint that covered the interior of the cells, now part of the Cell Block Theatre.

The building that most interests me, naturally, is what is known as the Cell Block Theatre—a lofty and airy space with excellent acoustics—the former women’s section of the prison has served as a working performance space for decades. Katharine Hepburn announced that it would become a theatre in 1955, and since then its stage has been graced by a broad range of musicians, dancers, and actors. The roof has been replaced and a stage built into one end of the space, but the building’s life as a prison remains clearly visible. The original jail doors hover eerily on each of what would’ve been the cellblock tiers above the stage, and traces of the blue paint that used to cover all the prison’s walls remain around certain windows. The National Art School doesn’t train students in the performing arts, but the Cell Block Theatre, since its opening, has been a popular venue for music, theatre, and dance and private events.

After attaining a master’s degree in history, Beck won a New South Wales history prize for her second book called Set in Stone (New South Publishing 2012)—this one a history of the Cell Block Theatre. The beautiful volume is replete with production photos and the posters and playbills for shows staged in the space. Unfortunately, both of Beck’s books are difficult to come by. I purchased my copies at the charming coffee shop on the campus of the National Art School, but I don’t know where else one might easily find them. That said, the school itself and the Cell Block Theatre in particular are well worth a visit when one is in Sydney. They–and Deborah Beck herself–reminded me that incarceration doesn’t have to be the end of the story—that we humans are indeed capable of making beauty in a place where suffering once reigned.

This blog post has benefited from the thoughtful editing of Deborah Beck. Thank you, Deborah, for this and for all of your work on the history of this fascinating place!


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