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The Playhouse, opposite the Canberra Theatre across a colonnaded plaza (now converted to The Link) was opened by a local company, Canberra Repertory on 18 August 1965. The opening production was Peter Ustinov’s Romanoff and Juliet designed and directed by Rep’s professional Manager-Producer Peter Batey. The cast included the cream of Canberras acting talent. 

This represented the prevailing view of the time that The Playhouse should be home to the best of local productions whilst the Canberra Theatre would house national and international touring acts. Over the years this has certainly proven true with many notable productions staged by local companies over the years. More recently local work has tended to graduate to the smaller The Courtyard Studio, whilst many national theatre companies have seen the benefits of playing in the renovated The Playhouse.

In 1975 an extension was built to provide better storage space backstage and more dressing rooms. An orchestra pit was added but it was rarely used, as it required the removal of the first two rows of seats. The auditorium remained much the same. There was some refurbishment in 1984. Part of the slated wood ceiling was removed to increase the height of the proscenium arch. The walls and foyer were repainted and the green original seats were dyed black. 

The then ACT Public Works Department commissioned Hassell Architects to design the new theatre. Then a two year long exhaustive consultation process between the Canberra Theatre Centre staff, Totalcare and the architects began. Hassell were joined by local architects, Butterworth Russel and John Hindmarsh (ACT) who won the construction tender.

In design terms the new theatre has moved away from the conventional fan shaped auditorium and proscenium arch stage that was used in most Australian theatres built in the 20th century. The auditorium takes the form of a semi circular drum with seating in the stalls and two balconies. Traditional ‘boxes’ have even been re-introduced. The design principles are similar to those used by Grecian architects over two thousand years ago and by the Elizabethan architects 400 years ago.

The auditorium is a very intimate space with the green seats and the rich wood panelling on the auditorium walls creating a warm and welcoming feeling for the patrons of the venue.

The Playhouse has dressing rooms on two levels, wardrobe, a green room, a reception room and the foyer, which wraps around the drum.

The Playhouse had two ‘soft openings’ prior to the official opening in May 1998. Bangarra Dance Theatre’s production of Fish opened on Tuesday 21 April and Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Sylvia opened Tuesday 5 May.

Since then The Playhouse become a favourite venue for artists and companies nationwide, the design of the theatre has actually played a role in attracting companies such as Bell Shakespeare and others to come to Canberra to play in such a unique space.