The smell of the grease paint

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Actor Marty O’Neill prepares to play Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes with the 70-year-old Genesian Theatre Company. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Actor Marty O’Neill prepares to play Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes with the 70-year-old Genesian Theatre Company. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

As the lights went down in the historic church-turned-theatre at 420 Kent St, members settled in for the performance that would mark 70 years of the Genesian Theatre Company.

It was Sherlock Holmes: The Last Adventure, the latest in a series of performances that date back to 1944 when the Genesian Theatre Company was formed around the Catholic Debating and Social Union of NSW (later the Catholic Youth Organisation) and the Austral Players.

The company was established, it was reported at the time, “to counteract what they term the worst tendencies of the modern stage”

After 10 years of temporary venues, the company found its permanent home in the disused church of St John the Evangelist in Kent St.

Dated back to 1868, the building was already old when the Genesians moved in and set about converting it to a theatre.

Sixty years later, 146 years after the church was built, it still proudly bears the title ‘Sydney’s unique little theatre’.

Backstage the walls are lined with faded posters of performance past and, held up with a generous border of gaffer tape, an actor’s prayer:

“God, Divine Master, Who in the great drama of Thy life and death hath shown us the eternal purpose of living, grant us to play our part on this our earthly stage that we may never in word or gesture shame our calling, but may fashion out of tears and laughter a deeper truth for life and a brighter hope for heaven, through Christ our Lord, Amen.”

While no-one remembers who penned it, the prayer bears a note of ecclesiastical approval dated 1965.

Though members are no longer required to be Catholic, the faith is still at the heart of the identity and history of the company.

It is named after St Genesius, the patron saint of actors, comedians and clowns.

Theatre buff and long-time company chaplain Mons John Lyne celebrates an annual Mass to mark the saint’s 25 August feast day. The Genesian Theatre Company puts on six main productions each year, in addition to classes and workshops.

It has proved a training ground for young actors and directors including Bryan Brown, Baz Luhrmann, Judi Farr, and John Bell.