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Ross Turner ABC Interview with Jayne Edwards

James Cassius Williamson
Ross Turner

JAYNE EDWARDS, REPORTER: An essential part of any theatre production is the scenery and transforming an empty stage like this one into a place of character is a specialised and time consuming job.

The small business Scenic Studios has done it for virtually every big production to hit our shores, and despite some tight margins it's no drama.

ROSS TURNER, SCENIC STUDIOS: Theatre's alive and kicking at the moment.

It's quite remarkable that every time there's a downturn in the economy, the theatre industry does well.

JAYNE EDWARDS: A generation ago, Ross Turner's business Scenic Studios was part of the historic JC Williamson theatre company, but he took it over in a management buy-out in 1974 and hasn't looked back.

ROSS TURNER: We've had some pretty tough years but we've existed for 34 years and still going strong.

We're the only ones who can handle large productions.

JAYNE EDWARDS: And there have been plenty of them.

ROSS TURNER: Pretty well every musical that's ever been in Australia - Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Lion King, the Australian Ballet have been our main clients over the whole 30 odd years that we've been in existence.

JAYNE EDWARDS: Since the Commonwealth Games two years ago, there hasn't been much down time in the business.

ROSS TURNER: We're also starting to work on the Australian Ballet's up and coming production. Working on David Strassman who's about to do an international tour

The business now, we've managed to diversify a little bit because relying on painting scenery is a little bit dicey. We're manufacturing our own range of paint for scene paint. We've also started a backdrop hire service. The scenic art would be probably 70 per cent of the business. The hire is building up to 15 per cent and the balance in the paint.

JAYNE EDWARDS: Turnover is about $1.2 million in a good year, and five people are employed full-time, trained virtually from scratch.

ROSS TURNER: Scenic art is an interpretive art so the designer comes to us and say well this is the impression I want to portray, and it's up to us to try and make it work in full scale.

JAYNE EDWARDS: Sets for major productions can take three to four months to complete and there's not a lot of margin.

ROSS TURNER: One of the responsibilities of having a monopoly is looking after the industry you're working in. So we're ever mindful not to use that monopoly to rip people off.

We work on the survival technique that if we can make enough money to survive then we live to fight another day and perhaps the next production might be a little bit more profitable or have a bigger budget. My quoting basis is basically about 50, 60 dollars a square metre. We are charging out labour with all our overheads at around about 60, 65, 70 dollars. We do other bits and pieces. I like tinkering in the workshop.

Part of David Strassman's touring arrangements is that the whole set goes into suitcases. So I though this could be a bit of fun, I'll have a go at making this one. I've devised a way of having collapsible scenery that travels in a suitcase.

JAYNE EDWARDS: There are also some added perks.

ROSS TURNER: We get invited to most of the opening nights and I take that as a great favour and we've had some wonderful night outs. To take in the whole atmosphere of an opening night. I never get sick of theatre. I've actually been doing this for over 50 years now.

But retire and do what? I think its good fun coming to work and every day you do something different. Its part of the fun of having your own business, sometimes.

ALAN KOHLER: Jayne Edwards reporting.

  on [25 May 2008]

Past Productions

  • 42nd Street
  • Annie
  • Beauty & the Beast
  • Billy Elliott The Musical
  • Carousel
  • Cats
  • Chicago
  • Grease
  • High School Musical
  • Les Miserables
  • Midsummer Nights Dream
  • Miss Saigon
  • My Fair Lady
  • Oliver
  • Phantom of the Opera
  • Scrooge The Musical
  • Seussical The Musical
  • Shrek The Musical
  • South Pacific
  • Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  • The Lion King Musical
  • The Nutcracker
  • The Sound of Music
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Tom Sawyer The Musical
  • West Side Story
  • Wicked


We wanted to write to thank you for the in kind hire you provided for our recent Theatre Works ABUNDANCE fundraiser event.

ABUNDANCE raised over $15,000 for independent theatre companies Little Ones Theatre, the Present Tense Ensemble and the Theatre Works Artist Appeal. The event was the most successful in its three-year history.

As you know, funding for the independent arts sector is scarce, especially in this current political climate. Contributions such as yours mean so much. The ABUNDANCE fundraiser simply wouldn’t have got there without your support.

On behalf of the entire Theatre Works team, we want to express our most sincere thanks for making the night such a success.

Kate Hancock
Theatre Works