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Edgy venue forged from gritty past

Dance beats and theatre voices will soon drum out yesterday's echoes of metalwork at an old railyard, writes Valerie Lawson in the Sydney Morning Herald of October 2 2006.

Asleep for almost 20 years, the dusty railway workshops of Eveleigh are wide awake once more with a cacophony of hammering, drilling and blasting.

The vast industrial site in Darlington is being transformed into Sydney's newest performing arts space, CarriageWorks, at a cost to the NSW Government of $34 million.

It will be officially opened on January 5, with the first performances taking place during the 2007 Sydney Festival, which runs from January 6 to 27.

CarriageWorks, on land formerly owned by State Rail, is managed by Arts NSW and directed by Sue Hunt, a former director of performing arts at the Sydney Opera House.

Surrounded by blueprints and vast wads of paper, she has been working out of Arts NSW's city offices for the past few months. Hunt will move on site, with a staff of six, later this year. Venue staff will come and go as needed.

CarriageWorks has three performing spaces, with the biggest seating 800, three rehearsal rooms, workshops, office space, a cafe, a long bar, and an observation deck that looks down on the gigantic 65-metre-long foyer. It is understood parts of the complex will be let to commercial tenants who will subsidise the arts spaces.

At the main entrance, an orange-red glass wall will be etched with a blueprint of the old Eveleigh rail yards, while foyer panels will tell the story of the site, once home to 15 workshops housing blacksmiths, coppersmiths, tinsmiths, springsmiths, plumbers, gasfitters, boilermakers, patternmakers, wheelwrights and carpenters.

But this is not a conventional big city venue. CarriageWorks will specialise in contemporary performing arts. Rather than hosting mainstream companies, it will be home to troupes such as as Performance Space, which will move from its Cleveland Street home of the past 25 years to present shows at the site from the end of February.

Performance Space will be joined by troupes better known to overseas festival audiences than home crowds, including the physical theatre group Stalker Theatre Company, and ERTH, a company of eight full-time artists who work with oversized puppets, stilts and abseiling and rigging equipment.

What rent will they all pay?

"We're still working it out," Hunt says. Apart from the full-time tenants, she also plans "joint projects and an ongoing artistic partnership" with Legs on the Wall, and a performance program for other companies that can use it as a one-off venue.

The Sydney Festival director, Fergus Linehan, and the outgoing Sydney Dance Company artistic director, Graeme Murphy, have toured the site.

All the performance spaces have sprung floors and very high ceilings so they will be most in demand by physical theatre and dance groups. Hunt hopes the spaces will be leased out for functions, fashion shows, product launches and conferences, and is keen to build relationships with the nearby Newtown performing arts precinct and Eora College, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performing-arts training centre.

This is not the first time the space has been used for arts events. In the mid-1990s, State Rail leased the site for 10 years at a peppercorn rent to Belvoir Street Theatre. The company established what it called Wilson Street Theatre in five of the 10 bays in the workshops, but there were few performances there. During the Festival of the Dreaming, in 1997, Belvoir's production of Black Mary closed early after the seating collapsed. Belvoir Street did not have the resources to develop the site as a performance venue and, until its lease expired, used it for rehearsal rooms, set construction and wardrobe storage.

The north Eveleigh site is being developed in conjunction with the Redfern-Waterloo Authority on land rezoned from railway zone to a cultural, business and residential precinct.

Within five to 10 years, CarriageWorks will be flanked by residential and mixed business developments. The development is likely to become a meeting point for the Newtown and Sydney University communities, but there are geographical problems to be overcome if CarriageWorks wants a wider audience, as it appears to be rather un-anchored, as if it is in the middle of a no man's land.

Despite the recent activity on the site, there remains a sense of what the director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Edmund Capon, once described as "the stillness of dereliction", as if nothing has taken place since the workers downed tools.

That sense of abandonment is captured in a book, Eveleigh Railway Workshops, published by the late Caroline Simpson in 1995, with an introduction by Capon, and photos by David Moore. He photographed the remnants of the workshops five years after they closed in 1988. They had operated from 1887, to service the era of steam locomotives and railway expansion, and reached their zenith in the 1950s.

Much of the industrial look and fabric of the old building will be retained, such as the cast-iron columns, cranes, overhead gantries, and iron-framed, gabled bays where carriages were built.

Still vivid are the words etched into the walls "Danger 450 Volts". On one sign, the "r" has vanished and the "g" is half-missing, leaving the eloquent sign "Dance 450 Volts".

Photo: Wheels of time ... Sue Hunt, the director of CarriageWorks at the old Eveleigh railway site which is being transformed into theatre space.

[Note throughout this article Eveleigh was originally spelt Everleigh this has been corrected for search engine purposes]