Felicity Cripps, co-owner of the Theatre Royal Castlemaine.

Theatre Royal Castlemaine

Interview by Steven Winstanley
Images by Tara Moore

The historic Theatre Royal in Castlemaine is over 165 years old and has played a major role in the cultural life in the township and greater central Victoria. Prowd owners Felicity Cripps and Tim Heath purchased the theatre in 2016 and have shaped the venue into a modern arts space, restaurant and music venue, staging countless gigs for both national and international touring artists. Felicity talked to Calder Western about the trials and tribulations of running and maintaining such an iconic, historic and cultural landmark.

What was the impetus for purchasing the Theatre? Was it always a dream to run a venue like the Theatre Royal?

The opportunity came about somewhat unexpectedly. We saw the business was up for tender and both Tim, myself and our two former partners, decided to go for it; between the group of us, we had experience in music, film, production and hospitality. We felt we could make a good go of it with our combined skill-set.

How would you describe the feeling once the keys to the building were in your hands?

I remember it distinctly as I was the one who picked them up and then the four of us went in and just wandered around quite stunned and a bit giddy. I felt really overwhelmed. I knew it was going to be a huge challenge, but it was also very exciting.

Did you need to face a daunting refit, or was the venue pretty much as we see it today?

We decided to rebuild the bar and paint the place as it looked pretty worn out. There was also a lot of sorting of years of accumulated artifacts, some historical, some just old bits and pieces from the cafe and restaurant. It was a big project to get done in ten days. That was our goal; to open on Boxing Day, ten days after receiving the keys.

I remember when I first visited Castlemaine many, many years ago, the sight of the old Theatre surprised me; that considering the relatively small size of the Castlemaine township, it had a grand theatre. It is such an important part of Castlemaine’s cultural life and history, isn’t it?

It’s the heart of this town. There’s a great sense of community ownership - the Theatre is a meeting place for every demographic. It houses arts and culture, music and hospitality. It brings people from out of town and it’s home to many locals. As the owners, we quickly learned that we are caretakers for a time, until that time passes and it enters a new era. We just do the best we can during our time.

Interior of the Theatre Royal Castlemaine
Lola Restaurant at the Theatre Royal Castlemaine
Wine bottles at the Theatre Royal Castlemaine

You have had a much needed membership drive to help revamp some of the interiors. How responsive has the community been to the drive?

The community has been amazing and very supportive. We’ve received enough sponsorship for 15 new couches and 35 seats in the upper circle. We have 150 seats to replace, so we still have a long way to go, but we are thrilled by the initial response.

Describe the personality of the Theatre Royal in five words.

Welcoming, enlivening, raffish, unique, epochal.

The live music scene has been in decline for many years now. Ballarat recently faced several venue closures. What are your feelings on why punters are less inclined to support live artists?

Firstly, I don’t agree with that statement. The last live music census in Victoria showed an increase in live music and attendees.

Whilst some venues have closed down, new venues are opening - the Sound Doctor in Anglesea, the Rye Hotel, which will have a new live music focus. The scene is ever changing and evolving.

The Theatre Royal seems to always have an impressive line-up of gigs from local and international artists. Is the venue and region gaining a solid reputation with booking agents and artists?

Due to the fantastic work of former owners, David Stretch and Sarah Burdekin, the Theatre Royal has been a staple of the Victorian music scene since around 2005. Back when the Theatre saw Smog, Joanna Newsom, Cat Power and Bonnie Prince Billy all perform there in the same year.

The Bridge Hotel is also an amazing venue that has a diverse range of local and international acts.

Castlemaine is full of music lovers but it’s also now a destination for artists as well. The key is to have good operators who work hard to deliver a high-quality experience and encourage great artists to return time and time again.

Foyer of the Theatre Royal Castlemaine
Exterior of the Theatre Royal Castlemaine

Sometimes old theatres are known to be haunted. Is the Theatre Royal home to any ghosts?

There’s definitely a feeling that we are not alone... It’s a very large building, so often there are unexplained noises or movements that can startle you, but the overriding feeling is that whatever spirits or ghosts or supernatural phenomena exist there, they seem content enough and perhaps even supportive of us. I think they just want to know the Theatre is in safe hands!

I did once hear what sounded like a whole cast of actors on stage moving heavy sets across the floor. There was so much noise and racket and no one else but me in the auditorium, frozen stiff and staring at the empty stage…

If you had to choose one, what has been your favourite gig at the Theatre and why?

Calexico. It was a warm evening, there were 500 people in the theatre, the band was amazing, the energy was palpable. The band said it was their best show of the tour and the crowd adored them.

Which three artists would you love to see perform at the Theatre?

Nick Cave, Patti Smith and Neil Finn.

What has been some of the most daunting aspects of running the business?

Making ends meet! The overheads on a 165-year-old building are mind-bending. We are still struggling with this on a weekly basis.

That and knowing that whatever choices we make, we can’t please everybody. We sometimes need to make tough decisions for the sake of the business, which can often feel unpleasant. We’ve learned that it’s essential to be ruthless at times.

What milestones are you most proud of?

The membership program has been one of the most rewarding because it gave people the opportunity to talk to us and offer their thoughts and feedback and it was so heartening to know how loved and supported we are.

Surviving another Castlemaine State Festival - an epic ten-day music and arts festival that happens bi-annually in Castlemaine. We become the festival hub from morning to night with back to back shows. Everything comes alive for that time and the work-load is epic, but lots of fun.

What was the inspiration for you to move into central Victoria?

Tim grew up here. I grew up in the high country and we both always wanted to move back at some point. To me, the city always felt like a transitional place. Castlemaine was perfect in many ways, but also being so close to Melbourne, it was an easy transition.

Many people are making a tree-change. What words of advice would you give people considering the move?

I don’t really have any. I think you just need to do it and see how it feels.

What are your top three must-see movies to date?

Betty Blue. The Never Ending Story. Rocky.

If you could offer any words of advice to a young Felicity, what would they be?

Embrace who you are, try your best, but don’t be ashamed when you fail. Don’t worry when people don’t like you, or don’t like what you do, if you’re intentions are pure, then you’re ok. Don’t pluck your eyebrows and explore as much of the world and as much art and music as you possibly can.

Posters in foyer of the Theatre Royal Castlemaine
Stella Donelly performs at the Theatre Royal Castlemaine

You have a love of music. What artists do you currently have on high rotation?

Weyes Blood, the new Nick Cave record "Ghosteen". Tiny Ruins. The Peep Tempel.

Are there any local music artists that you recommend people listen out for?

MonCoeur. Stop That Mammoth. Galaxy Hop.

What places do you think people should visit while in Castlemaine?

The Bridge Hotel, The Red Hill Hotel, Wesley Hill Market, Maurocco Bar, Origini, Corner Store Merchants, Stonemans Bookrooms, The Mill, Nam Pla, Opus Belle, the Castlemaine art gallery and botanical gardens.

You can play the lead in any movie ever made. Who would you play and why?

Eliza in "My Fair Lady". I love Audrey Hepburn and I love the musical.

Theatre Royal Castlemaine

30 Hargraves St,
Castlemaine Victoria Australia
Opening Hours:
Tuesday - Friday from 2pm
Saturday - Sunday from 10am
Dinner Tuesday - Saturday from 5pm