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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Stoddarts put their money where their heart is

Of all the industries impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, the performing arts has been one of the hardest hit – among the first to shut down and the last to have restrictions eased.

And, while it’s been a daunting year for everyone in “live” theatre, one Hunter producer faced the challenge head on.

In the midst of lockdown, Novocastrians Daniel and Hayley Stoddart took the ultimate leap of faith in the industry they love, purchasing their first commercial premises for the Stoddart Entertainment Group.

They’ve acquired an expansive, decommissioned warehouse in Fern Street, Islington – once home to Teterin Engineering – and transformed it into a world-class performance space.

Daniel said the duo believed 2020 was merely a setback, adding there was so much to look forward to in 2021.

As evidence of that conviction, the Stoddarts decided to literally invest in the theatre industry and the region.

Stoddart Entertainment Group’s Daniel Stoddart. Photo: Peter Stoop

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a nerve-wracking decision,” said Daniel, who founded Newcastle icons Hunter Drama and The Very Popular Theatre Company.

“Very Pop was due to open our mega production of Chess: The Musical at the Civic Theatre exactly two weeks after the 13 March lockdown was announced.

“Of course, the production had to be put on hold, which was crushing.

“Then Hunter Drama had to pivot with the best of them, becoming, as far as we know, the first Australian drama school to transition to a full online learning environment.

“While this was happening, Hayley and I were contending with the looming prospect of the lease on our commercial premises in Broadmeadow expiring at the end of the year.

“We’d been searching for some time for the ideal premises and had all but resigned ourselves to it not happening when this gem came on the market.

“In June, we leapt headfirst into our somewhat scary but, undeniably, thrilling new future.”

The “gem”, however, needed some major polishing to find its shine.

Performers Julia Boyd, Isabella Parker and Alice Thompson with Stoddart Entertainment Group’s Daniel Stoddart at the Islington premises. Photo: Peter Stoop

But, with the help of a team of amazing family and friends who’ve given their time and muscle, over the past five months, the redundant warehouse was finally converted into a dream facility, which will be the permanent home for The Very Popular Theatre Company and Hunter Drama.

The current fit-out includes two large studios, where classes and workshops will be held and rehearsals conducted for all major productions and stage events.

The custom-fitted foyer includes a laptop workstation, iPhone charging stations and a gallery installation showcasing highlights from Hunter Drama’s and Very Popular Theatre Company’s history.

There is also a shop with a tempting and expansive range of play scripts and piano/vocal books from the world’s favourite musicals, as well as HD and Very Pop merchandise.

All Very Popular Theatre Company rehearsals are now taking place in Fern Street and, from the start of 2021, all Hunter Drama courses and programs will be run from the new location.

“Positioned in the heart of eclectic and gentrifying Islington, we’re delighted to be adding a significant new entertainment facility to the cultural fabric of our region,” Daniel said.

“In fact, we’re extremely excited.

“And, the best part is, the facility has plenty of room for us to grow – watch this space.”