Exclusive: Sydney reveals world’s first ‘breathable’ theatre

When Stephen Found, the owner of the 2010 seat Sydney Lyric Theatre, is in New York checking out shows, he has to be careful to not accidentally roll onto his phone when he’s asleep.

If he does, he might set off the app he designed that within a few seconds turns the vast Lyric from 2010 seats to a 1350 seat venue mid-performance when its “movable walls” silently descend from the ceilings.

Found’s app – the only one of its kind in the world — controls the seating configuration of the Sydney Lyric Theatre as it cuts off up to a third of the seating in the Dress and Grand Circle levels. Entire rows of seats appear to simply disappear as the black, paper-thin, acoustically calibrated screens lower before the audience enters – leaving them none the wiser about the real size of the theatre.

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The app has a menu allowing the theatre to be in “Intimate Mode” (1350 seats), “Broadway Mode” 1500 seats, “Her Maj (Melbourne) Mode” (1750 seats) and “Full Mode” (2010 seats) with a press of the finger.

“Think of it as a really sophisticated blind,” says Found of this system which he describes as creating a “breathable” theatre.

The shape-shifting allows the Sydney Lyric to respond withins seconds to a producer’s ticket sales, while at the same time creating the ambience of a full house at every performance.

“There’s nothing worse as an audience member than sitting in a half-empty theatre,” says Found after a recent matinee performance of the musical The Bodyguard, now about half way through its three month run. “Today, for instance the stalls were all but 12 seats full and the dress circle was full, so you get the feeling the whole joint is jumping.”

Found agrees that it might seem counter-intuitive to reduce the theatre’s size – and thus its box office take – by lowering its moveable walls with a press of his phone, but he explains the logic of commercial theatre right now.

“It might seem strange to make it smaller and rent it for less, but you have to be able to adapt the space to all the different forms of theatre that are coming down.

“You could say to a producer ‘it’s a 2000 seat theatre, take it or leave it’, but you have to have a competitive edge.  There are more ‘book musicals’ coming down, some amazing plays and some beautiful ballets. Our vision looks out to 2022.

“When you look at these coming productions you have to have the theatre adapt to the show, not the other way ’round. By making a theatre ‘breathable’ you can attract the better shows and you make the audience feel really good to be there, so they feel this once a year trip was special and worth a $100 seat.”

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The Sydney Lyric in 1750 seat ‘Her Maj’ mode

Found, 55, who also owns Sydney’s other major commercial theatre, the historic 2000 seat Capitol in Haymarket, has just spent $18.5 million renovating the Lyric.

Once owned by the casino operators (with whom he still shares a party wall), it suffered from an entry via a bain-marie lined food court and ugly, yellow masonite walls, among many other crimes against good design.

“It was like a concert hall; bright, light and just shocking,” he says.

Found became 100 per cent owner in 2011. The renovation allowed for the installation of the moveable walls. But the main work was in ripping out the concrete floors to re-rake the seating and insert steel dampers to allow patrons to feel the resonance of the sound system.

In order to create a feeling of intimacy the ceiling in the Grand Circle was lowered, a system of tiered boxes built to visually connect the balcony seating with the stalls, and the side walls were brought in. The number of seats remains the same, but Found now guarantees that each seat – even the cheapest at the back of the Grand Circle – has perfect sight lines and sound.

New ladies toilets, a parent’s ‘crying room’ and VIP boxes were also installed and the entire interior was redecorated with midnight blue carpet, LED lighting,  brass finishes and warm, timber walls and balustrades. Found said that the ‘rolling timber panels’ are meant to subtly recall the theatre’s site as a warehouse district when Sydney was a bustling colonial port.

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The Sydney Lyric in 1500 seat ‘Broadway’ mode

His nod to history has also seen him install plaques backstage at both the Sydney Lyric and Capitol commemorating the names of each show’s cast and orchestras. “In 100 years people will be able to look back at this,” he says.

Found built new “green rooms” for both the orchestra and cast which includes an open air balcony. “They need fresh air.” His administrative staff offices for both the Lyric and Capitol were built backstage so they can watch the performers make their entrances and exits. Every performance is also transmitted to monitors in each office.

Some of these ideas came from consultations with many industry players including his friend and colleague, the London producer and theatre owner, Cameron Macintosh who has taken a close interest (but has no financial interest) in the redevelopment of the Sydney Lyric.

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The Sydney Lyric before the renovation (top)

Found does not usually speak to the media and little is known of him other than a brief Wikipedia entry. He can, however, be described as a ‘theatre animal’.

His first full-time job was an electrician’s lighting apprentice at age 15 at a business called ‘Strand Electric’. He then became a theatre follow spot operator and in 1984 ,with his wife Angela, he co-founded a business, Bytecraft, which made electrical systems for theatres.

His wife personally soldered the dimmers installed at the Victorian Arts Centre, the Theatre Royal Sydney, Burswood Casino and many other theatres around Australia. When he shows Daily Review a control room at the Lyric he points to a DMX distribution panel and says: “I built that for here when this theatre first opened (1997)”.

Found diversified Bytecraft to become an electronic repairer of high security, transactional equipment in major companies across the country.

This business fortune he has amassed now allows him to expand his theatre operations.

“My ultimate dream is to have a network of theatres around the country. If you had breathable spaces of 1350 to 2000 seats you can adapt it for when you have the really big names of theatre performing – the mega names – and then bring it down to a smaller size when you need to, so that local artists and writers and producers can still make a living,” say Found who also invests in new shows as an underwriter, including the recent Australian work Ladies in Black.

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Main image: The Lyric interior in full 2000 seat mode. Note that the ceiling decoration was part of the original design and will be covered with black silk and brass lace work in the next few weeks.

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