A gasp of surprise ripples through Canberra's Playhouse Theatre as a dramatic turning point in the closing scenes of The Merchant of Venice provokes the audience to switch its revulsion towards the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, to sympathy.
A mid-week evening, the stalls are packed for the newest offering from Bell Shakespeare company, whose players have been pulling heartstrings in this venue every year of the nearly two decades since it opened.
"The Playhouse is my favourite theatre in the country and it's partly because I also admire Canberra audiences," actor and company founder John Bell says.
"They tend to be more educated than in other cities, with more time and more money. And they really appreciate theatre."
The Cultural Facilities Corporation, celebrating its 20th anniversary of running the Playhouse and other key city cultural sites, understands this well. Visitors to its venues exceeded half a million last year, but it is not resting on its laurels.
Under the ACT Government, the CFC manages the Canberra Theatre Centre, Canberra Museum + Gallery, the Nolan Collection Gallery and the historic homes of Lanyon Homestead, Calthorpe's House and Mugga-Mugga Cottage.
A grand ambition is in play to expand dramatically cultural opportunities for the national capital's community and beyond.
Top of the wish list is a 2000-seat purpose-built theatre to compete with the country's biggest venues. When the Canberra Theatre opened in 1965 Canberra had only 90,000 people and it was state-of-the-art. Now it is showing its age. The goal is to build the new one by the early 2020s. A site has been allocated with seeding money to examine the next steps. Among a myriad of challenges is to find the $120-plus million to build it in the heart of the city.
Maybe a stint at the Australian consulate in Hong Kong in 1997 as the Chinese resumed control of the long-held British colony steeled Harriet Elvin for her future role as a Canberra arts mandarin. Late that same year, the already seasoned arts administrator stepped in to lead the newly created CFC.
The Playhouse was nearing completion and, with the older, bigger Canberra Theatre, was put under her watch. Construction was underway of the Canberra Museum and Gallery, which opened in 1998, a $14 million "link" connected the foyers of the theatres and Canberra Library in 2006, and a clutch of historic properties around the ACT completed her portfolio.
"I'd just finished an MBA when I came into the role, and valued the chance to apply business disciplines in the cultural sector, to allow the arts to flourish," Harriet Elvin, who was also an ACT Telstra Business Woman of the Year, says.
"We're now positioning our organisation to cater for the cultural needs of a population of 900,000 and growing in the catchment area. Canberra is undergoing major urban renewal in the Civic Square/City Hill precinct and we want to take a broader leadership role in that to make the city a much more vibrant place."
She might present as mild-mannered, but this CEO and her team have survived three major government reviews and ongoing scrutiny that could have easily derailed the organisation or subsumed it into a government department. Instead it has emerged stronger, buoyed by rising audiences and healthy revenues. Annual revenues have leapt from $9m in year one to $19m today and significantly, more than half of this is now self-generated .,
"I like to think it's a sign we know what we're doing," she says.
For the casual visitor to Canberra, it's difficult at first to understand the city's unique split personality. As Australia's capital, it houses a slew of prominent national galleries and museums that cater for tourists and locals alike. But it's generating stories, exhibitions, history and entertainment for the home crowd and visitors looking for something extra that makes the CFC tick.
"You know when the phones start ringing, you've started something," says the director of the Canberra Theatre Centre, Bruce Carmichael, while he's describing the MAMMA MIA! phenomenon that is blitzing town. This production of the musical is kicking off in the capital as part of the theatre's aspiration to provide large-scale entertainment for the Canberra region.
Proponents of the new theatre point to the competing demands on the Canberra Theatre which doubles as the town hall the national capital lacks. As they see it, the existing theatre could largely be turned over to local use.
To demonstrate its inadequacy, John Hindmarsh, both the CFC Chair and the city's building construction titan, recalled an unintentionally humorous moment two years ago during the theatre's 50th anniversary production of the Australian Ballet's Giselle.
"As I watched, a couple of times a few of the dancers flew off into the wings. There wasn't enough room for them on the stage," he said.
Hindmarsh, however, talks bluntly when it comes to the future cultural planning and "shabby" state of the civic heart that has been completely over-shadowed by nearby commercial development.
"There's no point building a theatre in isolation. It has to be part of a linkage to the cultural precinct," he says.
Building civic pride is uppermost in the mind of the CFC's strategic manager Shane Breynard.
"There's recognition at government level that Canberra can now be promoted as a global destination," he said, pointing out the way the arts universally help societies become more inclusive, boost economies and make cities much more exciting.
As Canberra grows – it's now near 410,000 – he said it's shaking off its image of being an Anglo-dominated culture, with a cosmopolitan population boosted by a large diplomatic community.
The name of Canberra itself is also a point of local pride, according to Breynard.
"It's an Aboriginal word meaning meeting place and this is the only capital city in Australia to have an Indigenous name. Every time I hear anyone around the world say Canberra, I think it's fantastic. The name stretches back tens of thousands of years."
The museum has references to the area's Aboriginal heritage and Ngunnawal and Ngambri language groups. But Breynard is painfully aware that more must be included. And there's an obvious place to start.
When you approach Lanyon homestead outside of the city's southern limits, the land in front of you suddenly transforms from manicured Canberra suburbs to pristine Australian bush studded with white-trunked eucalypts and a glistening ribbon of the Murrumbidgee River. Inside the meticulously conserved heritage-listed house, visitors roam from room to room learning about the domestic life of settlers in the early days of the colony.
As yet, few Canberrans who flood to the homestead and café at weekends and for weddings are aware of the area's rich Aboriginal history. Save for a protected "canoe" tree on the property, a tree with its trunk carved out long ago to provide wood for an Aboriginal canoe, there is little immediate evidence.
"This land has been occupied by Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years," Breynard says. "It's very important to show how those stories are woven into the modern Canberra story. That's a major challenge for us all."
Anne Maria Nicholson is a former ABC arts reporter.