Streamgraph of productions at Sydney’s most active theatres, 1920–2020. Visualisation of data from AusStage by Jonathan Bollen.

Companies and venues may come and go, but theatre in Sydney over the last hundred years is a story of growth: more venues, with more seats, presenting more performances in a wider range of genres to more spectators. This is the finding of a new essay by Jonathan Bollen on ‘Visualising the Story of Theatre in Sydney: Venues, Repertoire and Change, 1920–2020’, published in Australasian Drama Studies (vol. 78, 2021). 

Maps of venues in Sydney and visualisations of repertoire patterns reveal insights into the city’s history of theatre production and cultural change between 1920 and 2020. Maps are arranged in a time-series to reveal what venues to audiences in Sydney. Genre terms drawn from theatre programs trace the evolution of performance, while information on the national origin of artists frame the efforts to produce Australian works.

In visualising data on theatre production, the essay reveals longitudinal patterns in repertoire that challenge assumptions about theatre in Sydney and extend the story in new directions – including the metro-centric distribution of theatrical activity, the persistence of repertoire in programming patterns, the significance of Australian works for􏰊􏰇 Indigenous relations, and the return of variety in an aestheticised from.

Published in conjunction with the Performing Sydney exhibition at UNSW Library, the essay demonstrates an approach to research that integrates digital records of theatre production with theatre programs from the Wolanski collection. Even as digital coverage of theatre history grows in extent, these findings demonstrate how integrating access to material archives remains crucial for discoveries that forge new understandings.

Map of theatre activity by suburb across greater Sydney, 1920–2020. Visualisation of data from AusStage by Jonathan Bollen.