Gillian Arrighi – ‘A simulacrum of the cultural and historical process itself’: Newcastle’s vibrant, then abandoned, heritage-listed Victoria Theatre


Gillian Arrighi

University of Newcastle

‘A simulacrum of the cultural and historical process itself’: Newcastle’s vibrant, then abandoned, heritage-listed Victoria Theatre  

Built with the intention of eclipsing elite late-19th century theatre buildings in other Australian colonial cities in respect of its usability, comfort, and interior decoration, Newcastle’s heritage-listed Victoria Theatre (1891) is the oldest theatre in New South Wales and the third oldest theatre in Australia. When opened, it was a symbol and location of civic pride and a marker of Newcastle’s significance as a destination for international and national touring theatre companies and entertainers. Maintained as a commercial enterprise for seventy-five years, the Victoria’s historical layers are “a simulacrum of the cultural and historical process itself,” expressing Theatre’s function as a “repository of cultural meaning” (Carlson 2011, 2). Modernising renovations that equipped the theatre as a hybrid venue for both live shows and motion pictures responded to shifting production demands, cultural taste, and commercial imperatives. 1906 alterations removed redundant stage boxes and enlarged the proscenium to meet popular demand for musical comedies; 1921 renovations removed the cramped upper gallery, installing the infrastructure for moving picture projection and enabling the Victoria’s operation as a hybrid variety theatre and movie house. Subsequent alterations accommodated mid-20thC developments in cinema (cinemascope) whilst maintaining production of live performance. Deployment of the Victoria as a retail outlet in 1967 followed the impact of free-to-air broadcast television and the rising importance of government subsidy to the Australian arts sector. 

Using the detailed database of shows produced at the Victoria Theatre developed through the AusStage project (, this paper critically examines the Victoria’s popular repertoire across an extended period of time within the context of the city’s unique demographic and Newcastle’s cultural and industrial development.  The virtual reality (VR) experience of the Victoria Theatre (circa 1891), developed by researchers and IT specialists at the University of Newcastle, will also be available to conference attendees in conjunction with this presentation.

Assoc. Prof. Gillian Arrighi is head of Creative and Performing Arts in the School of Creative Industries, University of Newcastle, Australia. Her primary research interests are popular entertainments from the late-nineteenth century to the current day, acting theory and practice, and child actors. Her many refereed journal articles and book chapters appear in scholarly publications such as Theatre Journal, Australasian Drama Studies, New Theatre Quarterly, Early Visual Popular Culture, Theatre Research International, Theatre Dance and Performance Training, and in edited collections. She is co-editor of the scholarly e-journal, Popular Entertainment Studies (now in its eleventh year of publication), co-editor of the books Entertaining Children: The Participation of Youth in the Entertainment Industry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), and A World of Popular Entertainments (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars: 2012); editor of a focus issue on circus for the journal of Early Popular Visual Culture (2017); and author of the monograph The FitzGerald Brothers’ Circus: spectacle, identity and nationhood at the Australian circus (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2015). Her current book project, due for completion in 2020, concerns child actors performing on trans-national popular stages, 1880-1910. Her most recent publishing project is the Cambridge Companion to the Circus, co-edited with Prof. Jim Davis (University of Warwick), due for publication in 2020.