The Adelaide Festival Centre, Australia's first multi-purpose arts centre, was built in 1973 and opened three months before the Sydney Opera House. The Festival Centre is located approximately 50 metres north of the corner of North Terrace and King William Street, lying near the banks of the River Torrens and adjacent to Elder Park. It is distinguished by its three white geometric dome roofs and its plaza consisting of lego block-like structures to the south and lies on a 45-degree angle to the city's grid. It is the home of South Australia's performing arts.
The Centre is managed by a statutory authority under the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust Act 1971 which is responsible for encouraging and facilitating artistic, cultural and performing arts activities, as well as maintaining and improving the building and facilities of the Adelaide Festival Centre complex.
The Centre hosts the annual Adelaide Cabaret Festival in June, OzAsia Festival in September, and the biennial Adelaide International Guitar Festival in July.
The Adelaide Festival Centre was built in three parts from April 1970 to 1980. The main building, the Festival Theatre, was completed in 1973, within its budget of $10 million. (The Centre was completed for $21 million.) In comparison, the Sydney Opera House, also completed in 1973, cost $102 million. The Festival Centre is known for the quality of its acoustics.
The Southern Plaza was completed in March 1977, comprising a then-controversial environmental sculpture by West German artist Otto Hajek. The sculpture was conceived as a concrete garden and iconic City Sign and is suffering from poor maintenance. The lego-like forms and colourful paint work across the plaza were designed to conceal an air-conditioning vent at the same time as provide a playful place to congregate. However, Adelaide's citizens never warmed to the idea, and it remains one of Adelaide's most under-utilised public spaces.
The Festival Centre Plaza also serves as host to an outdoor collection of sculpture, including the prominent stainless steel Environmental Sculpture (also known as Tetrahedra), by Bert Flugelman.
360-degree panoramic view of the Southern Plaza of the Festival Theatre Centre. (From left-to-right, starting SE): Background: (SE): Government House, The Myer Centre, (S): Parliament House, Dame Roma Mitchell Building (SW): Adelaide railway station/Casino/Hyatt Hotel Foreground: (SE): Southern Plaza, (S-to-W) City Sign Background:(W-to-N): Adelaide Festival Centre: The Dunstan Playhouse, The Space Theatre, The outdoor amphitheatre, The Festival Theatre Foreground:(W-to-N): Southern Plaza Background:(N-to-NE): The Festival Theatre (northern) Plaza, (NE-to-E): Trees along King William Road Foreground:(N-to-E): Stairs from Southern Plaza down to Festival Theatre Plaza, and Southern Plaza.
In the 1960s, the Adelaide Festival of the Arts started to outgrow the city's existing venues. Liberal Premier Steele Hall saw the sloping banks of the River Torrens as a natural choice for the home of the Adelaide Festival of the Arts and the cultural heart of the city. During this time, the State Government changed but the drive for a new Centre continued with fervour.
The Lord Mayor of Adelaide, Robert Porter, supported by Labor Premier and arts advocate Don Dunstan, launched a public appeal to raise funds to build a Festival Hall and put Adelaide, along with its fledgling festival, on the global arts map. Most of Adelaide shared this vision and the appeal raised its target within a week. It was soon over-subscribed and the surplus was set aside to create a world-class collection of artworks to grace the new State icon.
Australia's first multi-purpose arts centre was designed from the inside out by architect John Morphett. Work began in Elder Park in 1970 and on 2 June 1973 the Festival Theatre opened. Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, officially opened the venue at a gala performance of Act Two, Scene 1 of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio and Beethoven’s Choral Symphony.
The Playhouse, Space Theatre and Amphitheatre soon followed and Australia's first multi-functional performing arts complex was complete. The flourishing Festival Centre became a role model for many other performance venues as they strove to emulate its functionality and versatility. Since then it has become a place that South Australians regard with pride and a strong sense of ownership. 40 years later, it still maintains its status as a national arts icon.
As well as managing the theatres and surrounding areas of the complex, the Festival Centre is one of Australia's most active arts centres and presents a wide range of arts activities and performances for the community.
Performance and other venue
Physically, the Adelaide Festival Centre has two locations: the riverside centre located on King William Road, and Her Majesty’s Theatre located on Grote Street. These two locations house six different venues: the Festival Theatre, Dunstan Playhouse, Space Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Artspace Gallery and the Amphitheatre. The Festival Centre also houses two function spaces: the Banquet Room and Lyric Room.
- The Festival Theatre is the largest proscenium arch theatre in Adelaide, seating close to 2000 people. It was designed as both a lyric theatre and concert hall, and is used not only for theatrical productions and large concerts, but also for graduation ceremonies, seminars and many other community functions. Its huge backstage area makes the stage area one of the largest in the southern hemisphere and a favourite of companies with large sets. It also houses the Silver Jubilee Organ, a ‘hovering’ pipe organ built and donated to mark the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.
- The Dunstan Playhouse, located in the Drama Centre behind the main building, is a more intimate venue, seating 620 people on two levels. South Australia’s State Theatre Company has been based here since 1974, and uses the theatre, the rehearsal rooms and the extensive production workshop also housed in this second building.
- Her Majesty's Theatre was built in 1913 and originally called the Tivoli. The Theatre seats 1009 people, and is located at 58 Grote Street, Adelaide.
- The Space Theatre is a versatile studio theatre with no traditional stage or fixed seating, meaning its configuration is completely flexible. It can be turned into a theatre in the round, a corner stage setting, or a cabaret venue. The theatre seats anywhere from 200 to 350 people, depending on the configuration.
- The Artspace Gallery is the Centre's gallery exhibition space. Situated in the second building above the Drama Centre, the Gallery hosts a variety of performances, particularly during the Cabaret Festival.
- The Amphitheatre is an outdoor venue with raked seating for 600 people overlooking Elder Park and the River Torrens. It is often used for community events and free entertainment during the summer.
In 2003, the area around the Adelaide Festival Centre was substantially redeveloped by the State Government. The much-maligned Festival Plaza was redesigned, including opening the underground plaza to the sky and building a pedestrian suspension bridge to link the plaza to the nearby Riverbank Precinct, as well as a small number of cafés, restaurants and retail outlets. The Riverbank Precinct and Convention Centre were hoped to attract more people to the plaza and surrounding area, but due to the decision not to develop cafés and shops in the new precinct (in favour of more convention centre car parking), the area remains under-patronised.