Brisbane Theatre History - Queensland theatre History focussed on Brisbane live entertainment venues


Table of Contents

Since colonial times, Queensland cultural facilities, venues and events have benefited from state and local government support. The first buildings for performance were erected in Brisbane well before the First World War.

Until the 1860s, concerts, theatrical performances, ballet and opera in Brisbane were staged principally in the School of Arts building in 1849/1851.  The first purpose-built venue was the Victoria Theatre on Elizabeth Street, which opened in 1865. The theatre was successful and was entirely rebuilt in 1881 to increase the seating capacity to 1,350 and renamed the Theatre Royal. In the same year the old School of Arts was remodelled as the Gaiety Hall.

The most significant advancement came with the construction in 1888 of Her Imperial Majesty’s Opera House (later known as Her Majesty’s Theatre). The theatre was lit with electricity and seated 2,700 people.  Her Majesty’s Theatre became the principal venue for major performances in Brisbane for opera, musicals and ballet for almost a century.

Other buildings erected or adapted for performance spaces in the late 19th century and early 20th century included Albert Hall (1881 and 1901), Centennial Hall (1888), Princess Theatre (1888), Cremorne Theatre (1911), Empire Theatre (1911), Bohemia Theatre (1912) and Tivoli Theatre (1914).

The 1920’s were a boom period for the cinema industry, with many cinemas being constructed.  Brisbanites visiting simple, less glamorous, cinema buildings in the suburbs was a commonplace event, yet the grander picture palaces in the downtown became a special event.  Yet all cinemas generally continued the practice of inclusion of variety, vaudeville or live music accompanying the film programming.

Between the wars, other cultural initiatives included the formation of the Brisbane Repertory Theatre Company (in 1925, becoming La Boîte in 1967), the Twelfth Night Theatre Company in 1936, and the Ballet Theatre of Queensland in 1937.

During World War Two, several significant government supported initiatives included the Queensland State String Quartet from 1944, and the Brisbane City Council public concert programs from 1941, both of which had a strong presence in the Brisbane City Hall which opened in 1930.

Queen Street in the 1950sNew post-war cultural organisations included the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in 1947, Brisbane Opera Company in 1948 (which did not have a long life, and was not connected to the later formation of the Queensland Opera Company as an offshoot of the Queensland Arts Council in 1970), and the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in 1957.

Queensland’s first fully professional ballet company, The Queensland Ballet, was formed in 1960 as a private initiative of Charles Lisner, eventually becoming state funded in 1968.

In 1961 the annual Warana Festival began.

In 1967 Brisbane’s La Boîte Theatre in Hale Street Milton was one of the few early venues (in a converted cottage) which opted for a permanent in-the-round setting, in fact, the first in Australia.

The SGIO Theatre was built in 1969. The formation of the Queensland Theatre Company occurred at the same time, and for nearly 30 years, used the SGIO Theatre.

The Twelfth Night Theatre was built in 1971.  A new purpose built La Boîte Theatre replaced the old cottage theatre in 1972.

By the early 1970s, the standard of major facilities for the performing arts in Brisbane was lagging behind contemporary venues elsewhere. The need for a new major performing arts centre in Queensland became more urgent in 1973 with the sale of Her Majesty’s Theatre. The new owners, the AMP Society, intended to demolish the building and redevelop the site.

The imminent demise of Her Majesty’s Theatre became a key consideration in the decision by the Queensland Government in November 1974 to announce the development of a Cultural Complex incorporating a Centre for the Performing Arts at South Brisbane. The Cabinet submission noted that, with ‘Her Majesty’s Theatre closing, Brisbane will be really deficient in this area’.

The Joh Bjelke-Petersen government was responsible for allowing the demolition of Her Majesty’s Theatre (1983), and the Theatre Royal (1987).

A number of new cultural organisations were born in the ’80s… The Lyric Opera of Queensland as a replacement for the Queensland Opera Company (1981 – the first season was in 1982), Dance North (1985), and Rock’n’Roll Circus (1986, renamed Circa in 2004).

The Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) broke ground in 1976 and opened on 20 April 1985. The road to its development was long.

On August 31, 1997 the Queensland Theatre Company production of The Marriage of Figaro opened the new 850 seat South Bank Playhouse (then called “Optus Playhouse“) built within the Queensland Performing Arts Centre complex incorporating a proscenium & orchestra pit.

Established by the Brisbane City Council in 2000, The Brisbane Powerhouse emerged from a repurposed industrial space with a variety of flexible spaces focussed on independent groups and companies creating theatre, dance, music, film and visual art.  Its primary Powerhouse Theatre seats about 500.

The Judith Wright Arts Centre (aka The Judy) was renovated and re-opened as an arts centre in October 2001.  The venue includes performance spaces with 3 rehearsal studios for dance, theatre and music. The main 300 seat performance space is a flexible “black box” theatre.

In October 2018, Queensland Theatre moved into its own purpose built premises at 78 Montague Road including the Bille Brown Theatre (351-seat) and the Diane Cilento Studio (228 seat)  after a $5.5 million renovation converting from the former 228-seat Bille Brown Studio.

An upgrade to the Queensland Performing Arts Centre with a new grand theatre was announced in May 2018, targeted for completion in 2022, will become QPAC’s fifth theatre and making the Queensland Performing Arts Centre the largest performing arts centre in Australia.

In chronological order, I provide my research, some of which stems from my final year school drama essay from 1979, supplemented with later research in 2005-2007, updated with Queensland Theatre Company and TN! Theatre Company colleagues recollections from our Facebook groups, on the history of largely demolishing Brisbane live entertainment venues…. (Her Majesties, Cloudland and the SGIO Theatre are at the top of my sadness list).  A few escaped the wrecking ball, and in the past couple of decades, the city seems to have done a 180º…  I only including cinemas that also hosted theatrical live entertainment.  a perpetual work in progress


School of Arts (1851-1884)

Brisbane Theatre History School Of The Arts 1877The School of Arts (corner of Queen and Creek Streets) was Brisbanes first institution established to cater for the cultural needs of the developing colony when in 1849 meetings were held in the North Brisbane Court House. It opened in 1851 and was also occasionally used by touring and local live entertainment.

The School of Arts, was never referred to as a theatre even in its day yet was one of the earliest buildings used for public performances. The Brisbane Amateur Minstrels were based there, and visiting minstrel shows were popular.

The Queen Street front of the building included four shops and two offices and was the main entrance to the hall. The hall could house between 800 and 1000 patrons.

The supposed revenue to come from the shops at the front of the building was not forthcoming during an economic depression at the time and they remained empty and the hall was not popular. The financial woes of the organisation led to the sale of the site in 1872 to the Queensland National Bank (now National Australia Bank).

Membership dropped severely during the Depression.

In 1881, the School of Arts then moved to an Adelaide Street site with a new venue called Albert Hall.

Now known as The Old School of Arts (Queen and Creek Streets) remained available for hire until demolished in 1884 to make way for the Queensland National Bank’s new premises.


Masons Concert Hall (1865-1880)

Masons Concert Hall (80 Elizabeth Street) opened on 25 January 1865. George B. Mason, who has since been credited with introducing the first regular theatrical performances to Brisbane, built the theatre which was close to, and subsequently adjoining, the Victoria Hotel where he was the lessee. Mason had previously been the proprietor of a music shop in Queen Street, he was also a teacher of music, and he was responsible for promoting some public concerts .

This was likely Brisbane’s first purpose-built theatre.  The audience sat on benches with backs that were tiered gradually to allow patrons unobstructed sightlines from the rear of the auditorium. By having no pit or gallery, the hall could be used for dance balls on the flat floor.

From 1865 to 1880, the theatre was perpetually being renovated and renamed. It was variously Masons Concert Hall, Masons Theatre, the Victoria Theatre in 1865, the Royal Victoria Theatre in 1867, and renamed the Queensland Theatre on 21 April 1874, before it was demolished by James Thynne in 1880 who entirely rebuilt the theatre as the Theatre Royal.


Exhibition Building