16 January 2024

Dreams do come true: Roo Theatre’s journey from humble Kiama beginnings to paving pathways to Broadway

| Kellie O'Brien
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Roo Theatre Shellharbour Peter Pan

The cast of Roo Theatre’s latest production of Peter Pan. Photo: Supplied.

It’s spawned names credited on Broadway, London’s West End and Hollywood blockbusters, and produces classic theatre and musicals that attract audiences from as far as Sydney, but Shellharbour Village’s much-loved Roo Theatre had rather humble beginnings in 1987.

In the midst of putting on its latest production of Peter Pan, which is open until 21 January, Roo Theatre president Renee Brighton said the idea for the theatre was born during the late Gordon Streek’s adult drama class at the Kiama Anglican Church when members asked if they could put on a play.

From there, its story echoes the sentiment of Peter Pan that “dreams do come true” through hard work.

Renee said that with no money, no costumes, no venue and no lights, they had to think creatively. That meant hiring the unused Jamberoo Community Hall.

“That’s where the name Roo came from – it was from Jamberoo at the Jamberoo Community Hall, which was where they first performed We Shall Work, We Shall Live,” she said of the show written by Gordon from historical facts and anecdotes about Kiama from colonial days to World War 1, with music from Jon Suffolk.

“That was their first show under lights.”

Renee said by 1990, the theatre moved to the Kiama squash courts, where they converted the space into a small studio, before the early ’90s when it shifted to Shellharbour Hall, now known as The Harbour Theatre and its current home.

“I think the library was still upstairs when they moved in,” she said.

The cosy 200-seat theatre stands as a testament to the enduring charm of traditional theatrical experiences with its ambience of theatres of yesteryear.

“We’re hoping we can hold on to that,” she said.

“We try and keep it as traditional as possible.”

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She said while government support was limited for the arts, they had survived through community support.

“I know the restaurants and the cafes all really support what we do because we bring a lot of business to the village,” she said.

“It’s just important that we don’t let the arts die. Unfortunately, because of COVID, we were hit, and it’s really hard because we didn’t have any revenue coming in with everything being closed, and we still had bills to pay.”

However, Renee said growth in volunteer support from parents and friends in the past two years had helped “keep the doors open”.

“We struggled a bit after COVID to get people to come back because people were a bit nervous about being around others,” she said.

“Now we’ve got a really good range of people with a range of skills that are helping us when it comes to building sets or doing costumes.

“Even people come and help us out whose children aren’t even in the show or who have nothing to do with the show, which is just incredible. I haven’t seen that as much as what we’ve got at the moment.”

Roo Theatre Gordon Streek

Roo Theatre founder, the late Gordon Streek, running a rehearsal during the 1980s. Photo: Supplied.

The theatre also offers drama classes for varying ages, based on Gordon’s original adult drama classes.

Renee said as a result of this and its variety of productions, it had spawned many success stories, including Joel Elferink, who performed in Les Miserables and Evita on the West End and was the lead actor in Hollywood’s Jurassic World 3, Michael Cassel who produces multi-million-dollar professional Broadway and West End shows, and Amelia Ryan who has performed professionally on stage in the US.

She said among the highlights was the chance to redo shows that were done years earlier.

Peter Pan was done about seven years ago, so that’s been great to bring that back,” she said.

“It’s one of those classics that everyone knows and we did the play version last time, so this is the musical version.

“It just brings back a lot of nostalgia and memories.”

She said Josif Jovanovski as Captain James Hook and Bob Smith as the lovable Smee were reprising their roles from the 2015 production.

“Kristian Downie is playing Peter Pan and it’s his first show with Roo. He’s done a couple of other shows outside of Roo, but I think it’s his first lead role, and he’s just incredible.”

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While Renee isn’t part of the cast, having played Mrs Darling back in the 2015 version, she was responsible for helping with costumes for this month’s 55-strong cast.

“It’s a big cast,” she said.

“There are quite a few families, so we’ve got a mother with two sons in the show, two brothers who are playing the twins, and a few brother and sister connections in there.

“That’s what’s really nice about the theatre is when you get families involved.

“We have been quite kid-heavy in terms of our shows over the last couple of years to try and increase our audience numbers, but this year, we’re doing a little bit more adult-type shows.”

She said among those would be the hilarious The Great Australian Rock Musical, featuring music from The Eagles through to Cold Chisel and Johnny O’Keefe. Auditions are opening soon.

Tickets for Peter Pan are still available for the 17 to 21 January shows.

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