Thursday, 05 March 2020 08:07

Our Lives in Art

Written by Sybil Smith

 Our Lives In ArtSybil Smith on left as Ellen Creed in Ladies in Retirement. Author’s Collection.

Sybil Smith, or Sybil Walton as she was prior to her marriage, first trod the boards as a member of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory’s Coronet Theatre Group in the mid-1940s, where she was working as a laboratory assistant. In 1949 she was among the first (and last) intake of students accepted into a new drama school ran by Joel Kawenoka, a Polish émigré and disciple of Stanislavsky. Sybil's acting career has seen her performing with the Canberra Repertory Theatre and also with a number of Perth theatres including Patch, the Hole in the Wall and The Octagon. Now in her 90s, Sybil recalls her early years in Melbourne and her subsequent involvement with the Darling Range Repertory Society (W.A.) and ANU Dramatic Society (Canberra).

OUR LIVES IN ART*  

*With apologies and thanks to Konstantin Sergeyevich Stanislavsky

Joel Kawenoka’s School of Acting

In 1949 and 1950 Brian Smith and I attended a drama school in Melbourne. It was founded and conducted by Joel Kawenoka, a Polish producer and director of considerable credentials.

‘Dramatic School for Melbourne’

An article published in The Age (Melbourne) on 23 April 1948, announces that with the full backing of Actors’ Equity, “a noted Polish producer, Mr Joel Kawenoka, will soon establish dramatic schools in Melbourne and Sydney.”

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/206879571?browse=ndp%3Abrowse%2Ftitle%2FA%2Ftitle%2F809%2F1948%2F04%2F23%2Fpage%2F19543806%2Farticle%2F206879571

“The possibilities in Australia are immense”, added Mr Kawenoka. “The ground is fertile.”

Our classes were mainly based near the Middle Park Repertory Theatre (later purchased by Frank Thring and renamed the Arrow Theatre) and, apart from intense theoretical studies, we also spent considerable time engaged in practical work with Tim Walton (no relation). Tim had worked on stage design at La Scala, Milan and had wondrous tales to tell of sinking Valkyries beneath the waves. [1] He had to downsize our practical vision for a much smaller venue. Tim had a considerable influence on how we looked at stage production.

‘Relax – For Profit’

Pamela Ruskin discusses the artistic talents of Tim Walton in her ‘Relax—for Profit’ column in the Melbourne Argus on Friday, 18 May 1951.

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/23065626?searchTerm=pamela%20ruskin%20relax%20-%20for%20profit%20%20tim%20walton&searchLimits=

Tim Walton had access to specialized equipment to run off lithograph-type copies of artwork (below left). This is an artwork Tim made as a copy for several of our group. [2]

Hanny Kolm was also one of our instructors, teaching us to employ flexibility in movement, e.g. how to crash convincingly to the stage floor without incurring injury. Born in Vienna, she studied dance with Gertrud Bodenwieser, also touring extensively with the Bodenwieser company. After the war, she settled in Melbourne, establishing the School of Creative Dancing in Collins Street. [3]

Another of our teachers was the actress Lorna Forbes. Between 1924 and 1957 she ran the Lorna Forbes School of Drama in Melbourne. [4] Lorna Forbes dealt with our enunciation. She eventually managed to knock the edges off my uncouth vowels. Her methods, however, seemed to operate in direct contrast to the standards set by Stanislavsky as advocated by Joel.

We were obliged to enunciate Polonius’ speech to Laertes:

Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay'd for

with impeccably crisp, clipped consonants and lengthened vowels. This speech sat rather at odds with the impatience of a father urging his son to get a move on. We would have had to ignore Stanislavsky’s much parodied notion of a ‘sub text’. [5] Polonius is especially testy because he is sending his son off in a sea voyage; not a safe undertaking.

I believe we managed to combine both methods. Brian’s impeccable English public-school speech easily passed muster. He was also quite a master of British dialects having served at sea with examples of every possible speech pattern.

After we were married we used to have the occasional dialogue meal when we would converse in the ‘dialect of the day’. I was an earnest student but when it was my turn, Brian never really coped with Strine.

Brian and I met with Hana and George (Jiri) Pravda. They were charming, talented and helpful people. I certainly remember their fascinating toilet with walls decorated with pages from magazines. These were mostly in French so it took us quite a while to decipher all the jokes.

Unfortunately, as with many other talented people, they left Australia to work in the UK. I saw them in quite a number of British productions; usually with espionage plots.

Erik Kuttner certainly had a profound influence on all our group, both in performance and with makeup. ‘My dear, if you put blue on your eyelids, they will take you for a consumptive or a whore.’  

‘Award to Honor Erik Kuttner’

In his column titled ‘Theatre’, Frank Doherty writes in The Argus (Melbourne), 29 January 1955 of the first anniversary of the death of actor/producer Erik Kuttner. A Kuttner Award designed by sculptor-artist Julius Kuhn will be presented annually to a Melbourne theatre personality to commemorate Kuttner’s “invaluable work for the Melbourne theatre”.

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/71692212?searchTerm=award%20to%20honor%20erik%20kuttner%20by%20Frank%20Doherty&searchLimits=

Some of us continued to have private lessons with Kuttner after we graduated. Princess Uta [6] has pride of place on my wall. Erik gave it to me for my twenty-first birthday. It was one of the few items: postcards etc. that he had collected from art galleries, museums and cathedrals in his travels around Europe. He kept them in a modest cardboard box. This box would be brought out on days when he didn’t feel up to teaching me. He also would send me off to the Art Gallery to bring back ‘paintings in my head’ to share with him. Needless to say I worked extremely hard both on my selection and on my descriptive powers in my efforts to be entertaining.

Erik Kuttner was to have played the part of Von Schiller in the film Forty Thousand Horsemen but was taken ill before he could begin filming. When he first came to Australia, Erik was put to work in a store pushing heavy carts.

Princess Uta was chosen for me because one day I waltzed into his room wearing my new ‘New Look’ coat. I had my hand tucked under the collar, holding it up to my face, wearing a square-shaped beret and a haughty look saying, ‘Who am I?’            

Twelve students started our classes: eight men and four women. There were a couple of early dropouts. I can only account for three of us on AusStage: Brian Smith, Peter Dease and myself, Sybil Walton, because, unfortunately, I have forgotten the surnames of several of our number. Apart from Paula Cook, Jackie Wilkinson, George Smith (no relation to Brian), Gwenny and Danny Griffin there were also John, Randel, Vernon and Gloria.                    

The initial fee was 20 guineas although, as none of us could raise such a sum, we paid weekly amounts.

According to reports from Dick Diamond in newspapers from all capital cities, interviews would have been held in 1948. Only after discussing Tim Walton with my son, Aneurin (Nye), who has been doing amazing research for me, did I recall my audition. I recited the same piece that I gave for Erik Kuttner but, presumably, performed slightly better this time. I remember Tim kindly letting me off the hook when I was bemused by his suggestion that I repeat the words ‘pity me’ as if I were a beggar. That was so different from Shakespeare’s conception of the cheeky Viola: ‘Make me a willow cabin’ (Twelfth Night). I was tongue tied. Of course, after a few lessons from Joel, I totally saw the point, although I have to say it was a long time before I felt able to cope with impromptu performing. Hanny Kolm had better success with me there as I was happy with spontaneous dance-mime.

Jackie Wilkinson was the only fellow worker from the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) to attend the Drama School with me. We had worked together both on stage and on set construction for Ladies in Retirement. This was reviewed kindly in the Advocate (3 March 1949):

The difficult role of the two eccentric Creed sisters, who overstay their welcome at the home of Leonora Fiske, on the Thames Estuary, were well done by Valerie Southern (Louisa) and Elizabeth Allan (Emily). The other sister, Ellen, housekeeper to Miss Fiske, was also well portrayed by Sybil Walton. Elizabeth West, as Leonora, gave a good characterization, but was one whose performance would have improved vastly with more confidence. The same applies to Jack Wilkinson as Albert Feather, the rascally nephew of the Creed sisters.

Whereas I was a laboratory assistant at CSL expecting support from fellow workers, Jackie was one of several tradesmen plumbers. He had to put up with considerable ribbing.

‘The Middle Watch’

Frank Murphy reviews The Middle Watch presented by the CSL Players (from the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory) in his Theatre and Music column in The Advocate on Thursday, 31 March 1949.

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/result?q=LADIES+IN+RETIREMENT+CSL+PLAYERS&exactPhrase=UNSKILLED+PLAYERS+WHO+REST+BETWEEN+CUES&anyWords=&notWords=&requestHandler=&dateFrom=&dateTo=&sortby=

Our first major practical work for the drama school was in December 1949. We were working for the Myer Dramatic Club. The production was a pastiche of scenes from various dramas compiled especially for the Club by Dick Diamond.

Jackie Wilkinson and I were very envious of the skill and speed demonstrated by one of the behind-the-scenes Myer employees. He zapped together various items of scenery and chair covers. Neither of us had ever seen a stapling gun in action before. Our work for the CSL Players/Coronet Group seemed cumbersome and unimaginative. We had also lacked the artistry of Tim Walton as designer.

‘Fantasy by Myer Dramatic Club’

An article promoting the next performance by the Myer Dramatic Club appeared in The Age (Melbourne) on 2 December 1949. The fantasy Perchance to Dream by Richard Diamond was to be presented in the Repertory Theatre, Middle Park.

Produced by Joel Kawenoka, the plot featured the history of Melbourne’s oldest theatre at the time, The Royal.

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/189475087/19604160

Apart from working on the set, I also handled the properties during the performance. l well recall the problems I had with a mysteriously shifting ass’s head and the fiendish chuckles of fellow student, Gwenny Griffin as Puck, still ring in my ears.

Joel, always on the lookout for new technologies, came up with a set of walkie-talkies. The fact that they each had to be plugged into a power source rather diminished their possibilities. Jackie on the curtain, a really busy job with all the different scenes, was fine with his set but my task involved rushing about distributing and retrieving properties. It was quite impossible for me to plug myself into various sockets in time to receive any messages. Further confusion was added because Joel kept using a normal voice when speaking into his mike. The contraptions all disappeared before opening night. Joel also introduced us to the wonder of a reel to reel tape recorder. He was toying with the idea of recording celebrations, weddings etc. How he would have loved my Apple watch.

Jackie certainly took on board whatever Joel had to offer we students and I have a memory of returning to the city by train after Joel’s mime class. Jackie, putting on his ‘mad eyes’, plucked an imaginary object out of the air, admired it and passed it on to George. He, in turn, passed it on to me, and, I am ashamed to say, I gave it back to Jackie who proceeded to dismember it to our pretended horror. By then, the compartment was empty.

We students built the complete set for the Kadimah Theatre production: In the Desert of the Negev. We watched in awe as Tim created magic with a paint spray gun. I also managed the properties (learning sufficient Yiddish to cope with backstage instructions).

‘Drama Debut’

An article about Sybil Walton’s theatre performing and working behind the scenes appeared in The Herald (Melbourne), on 12 September 1950, p. 14.

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/244256706?browse=ndp%3Abrowse%2Ftitle%2FH%2Ftitle%2F1190%2F1950%2F09%2F12%2Fpage%2F26555985%2Farticle%2F244256706

At this stage Sybil has been involved in theatre for about three years, and says: “I think a theatre group is a good place for teenagers to be”.

Standing behind the scenes and watching Rokhl Holzer's performance each night as she mourned over the dead body of her son (my body-in-a-bag prop) was an experience I have never forgotten. We were also privileged to hear her talk about her work. This experience was seen by Joel to be an important part of our education.

Incidentally, the Young Moderns journalist took advantage of my relatively unusual activities but did not see fit to mention the name of the production group for whom I had worked.

I can precisely date when these pictures were taken as a short while after the 5th of April because I am wearing my first watch, my twenty first birthday present from the family. This was an expensive gift, given in spite of my pleas for a cheaper item and cash to help me pay my Drama School fees: ‘Just throwing money away on a lot of foreigners’. I wasn’t brave enough to exchange it for a cheaper item.

Paula Cook, she preferred to be known as Pnina Kochen, had an important part in the Kadimah production and was brilliant as the young Kibbutz worker.

Reading the copy of the tattered scrap: ‘Half yearly pre-examination test’ I was reminded firstly of the lack of any secretarial support and of the intensity of our course. I shall attempt to enlarge upon several of the items. [7]

A solid knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman drama was imbedded into our brains by making us walk up imaginary steps that were larger than normal to emulate the Greek theatres.

We spent time wearing appropriately draped sheets, walking and gesturing as though to a distant audience ranked in tiers above us. Some exaggeration of vowels was in order here: ‘Here comes Ismene, weeping’. All this stood Brian and I in good stead when we came to study English and, in my case, a unit of Ancient History.

Oscar Wilde’s Salome was the most modern of all the works we studied. I managed to play all the parts hence the odd item in the paper referring to ‘Herod’s Page’, surely one of the least of all the characters. Presumably other students were required to cope with more major characters.

Awaiting the local library’s delivery of An Actor Prepares, I went to Wikipedia and found reference to the Russian word for ‘bit’ is ‘kysok’.To check further I took my battered Russian dictionary to my magnifier, and while reading that ‘kysok’ means a ‘bit’ as in a bit of bread or a slice of meat or a lump as in lump of sugar, a spooky Proustian moment was evoked. I am sitting with fellow students in the Old Vienna Café. Joel, who wore spectacles with extremely thick lens and was inclined to be a bit clumsy when concentrating on what he was saying, takes a lump of sugar from the bowl and drops it messily into his glass of tea and says: ‘There! This is a “Bit!”.’ [8]

I don’t think anyone had the cheek to point out that we call it a ‘lump’ of sugar. Unperturbed by the mess he had created, Joel went on to enlarge on the notion of sorting through a play to find special moments upon which one could concentrate. Reading through the now-received copy of An Actor Prepares I am struck at how like the description from the text this sounds. Perhaps my memory has become unduly influenced but the sugar lump was real and probably Joel was just channelling his idol.

Joel probably had the advantage of reading Stanislavsky in the original Russian as I believe he spent most of the war in the Soviet Union. This fact would not have helped Joel’s cause nor would his association with Dick Diamond who was known to have leftish tendencies. (Note that the Korean War was looming at that time.)

I gained some kudos from Joel, and certainly from fellow students, for combining question 1b) What is Stanislavsky’s ‘If’ with 9) ‘… held up ... by bandits.’ I think our exams ran over a whole weekend. NB: These exams were personalised and worked mainly as tutorials in a group setting. Naturally Joel, being Polish, would not have wanted to mark long essays in our scrawl. We also reinforced each other’s knowledge. I was reminded of this when I first found the Exam Paper among my souvenirs. There is a question on music which could only have applied to two of us.

I think also that the men were not required to drape themselves in sheets to represent Chlamys and Chiton. Possibly they were required to emote wearing Roman togas. I think Plautus Twin Menaechmi came into the action somewhere.

Although I have usually received kindly reviews, my beginnings were not especially auspicious. After several lessons, Erik Kuttner told me that, when I first read a part for him, I had been so bad he only reconsidered taking me on after seeing a photo of me in Ladies in Retirement where I am sitting with my wonderfully dotty sisters and have ‘a look of grim purpose’ on my face.

I think that, with all my efforts to appear as characters much older than myself, I had forgotten how to be natural, how to draw on my own resources instead of putting up a false front (see Cockpit review below); what Stanislavsky referred to as ‘mechanical acting’. [9]

Later in that year, I was pressed into service, literally, to read the lesson in St Paul’s Cathedral. It was, of course, a great honour and only one woman a year was chosen. I, however, hated anything to do with appearing as myself and it didn’t help that the gentleman organising all matters religious, chipped me on my flat, Victorian vowels in pronouncing the word ‘love’. (I would have been fine with St Paul: Corinthians: 13 in the new translation of the Greek ‘agape’ as ‘charity’ rather than ‘love’.)

Later my speech became so ironed out, I am taken to be English and had some difficulty with the only Australian play, Image in the Clay (see below), in which I have ever performed.

As well as the Cathedral performance I was also lined up to be the Chorus/Narrator In a religious pageant. I was such a dismal failure at this I was, mercifully, given the role of Mary Magdalene. When asked for help Erik Kuttner gave a mischievous chuckle and said ‘Well! Let a Jew teach you how to make those good Christians weep. Draw out the vowels and, as there will surely be a light above your head turn your eyes up to it and it will make your tears come.’ It worked!

The implied pressure of moral obligation could be brought to bear upon me because I lived in a Church of England women’s hostel and often managed the last moments of the weeknight’s 10.30 pm curfew by a second. My drama lessons ‘should be put to some good use’.

The same moral pressure probably put me on the newspaper panel of ‘Young Moderns’ responsible for the rather useless ‘Drama Debut’.

My early schooling

It has been suggested that, in order to highlight the wonderful education I received at the Drama School, I should tell something of my rather scrappy educational beginnings. My early theatrical experiences were not exactly memorable. My first big line was ‘Jane, Jane come quickly Mother’s ill!’ My Grandmother complained that I spoke so quickly she couldn’t understand me but the Irish headmaster who directed, and I suspect, wrote the play said that I was very realistic. Criticism, however, always rankles when it comes from family.

Unlike many folk who say they were put off Shakespeare at school I have only happy memories of sitting in pepper-corn trees in the schoolyard reading though Twelfth Night. As third year students we were often banished while the fourth, final year students (with whom we shared both teacher and classroom) were tutored in the hopes they would achieve the coveted Intermediate Certificate. I still hear Maria’s lines with a German accent. One of my fellow students, Ilse, had come in from an even more deprived education at a one teacher school where there was a settlement of German- speaking farmers. Ilse had to catch up two years of Algebra and French. As I firmly believed I knew more French than the teacher that year I took it upon myself to tutor her. I wished later that I had bothered to pick up some German from her.

Another student, always known as ‘Fish’ Conway, who, though hopeless at sport, earned respect in the comic part of Malvolio. I can’t remember who I played; probably Sir Toby Belch. Years larger I bumped into Fish in the street in Melbourne. He was working in a radio shop so probably went far with the development of electronics to come.

Unlike Fish, I was given the benefit of an extra year (at Ballarat High School) courtesy of my Aunt Helen. My Uncle Ross was still overseas in the Royal Australian Engineers. I cannot honestly regret not being able to continue further for the final year; Uncle Ross returned home and moved away from Ballarat. I had been steered into studying science subjects and, although I really enjoyed physics with a wonderful, inspiring teacher, I was not in my element. I had only done well in science at Rainbow Higher Elementary School because the science teacher had taught me how to get my solid self over the high jump very effectively. My total aversion to maths was a considerable drawback.

At Ballarat High some drama did come into my schooling. In our free period three of us were supposed to be conducting a serious debate. Instead we subversively performed a dramatic reading from my copy of C.J. Dennis’ The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke.

My rather shaky science background lead me to work as a laboratory assistant at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories.

Dragged by my enthusiastic fellow worker I went along to a play reading conducted by the manager of the Packing Department, Ed Clements. With nervous excitement pushing me I gave a loud and spirited reading of Queen Elizabeth the First and was given the part.

Thus, as a chubby faced dark-haired eighteen-year old, I played the gaunt, aged Elizabeth I.

One great talent I did have in spades was a loud voice developed when I brainwashed our cow to come up from the bottom of the large paddock when I yelled for her. I lived, with my grandparents, in the Mallee town of Rainbow, not on a farm. Neighbours probably suffered. It took a lot of work with Joel to harness my one talent for reliable production.

I have included several reviews of Cockpit because, although Brian and I were the only graduates from the Drama School to take part, Erik Kuttner is credited in the programme for the make-up. Erik Kuttner also coached some of the raw recruits and surely had a guiding hand in Brian’s and my delivery.

‘Women in the Theatre’

A story about Sybil Walton, an original member of the Coronet Theatre Group formed by workers at the serum laboratories, appeared in The Age (Melbourne), on 21 October 1950, p. 7. The story also promoted Sybil’s next play Cockpit.

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/205378437/19610186

Sybil, 21, describes her role in Cockpit as “small, but satisfyingly dramatic”.

Brian and Neville Thurgood as the two British soldiers holding the action together were given reasonable reviews but were obviously overlooked in the light of the more newsworthy ‘New Australians’, all of whom were, in fact, much longer in the land than were Brian and Neville.

‘ “Cockpit” Landmark in Amateur Circles’

In a review headed “Cockpit” Landmark in Amateur Circles, published in The Herald (Melbourne) in c. October 1950, Stanley Marks describes the Coronet Players’ Australian premiere of Cockpit by Bridget Boland at the Melbourne Repertory Theatre as “a landmark in amateur theatre circles”. Marks observes that many of the New Australians were not acting, “but replaying events that had happened to them before they reached this country”.

Cast selected for mention included Richard Frank, George Mikelatis, Vilma Joosep, Kevin Toland, Christopher Woodbyrne, Gerald Hyman and Brian Smith and Nevil Thurgood.

Stanley Marks closes his review with the hope that “this unusual, provocative and living drama is repeated with the same cast in as many Australian cities as possible”. He points out that “the New Australians” can contribute towards our cultural growth, “and we can ill afford to lose it”.

Brian and I were married immediately we finished the run in Cockpit. Erik Kuttner was one of our congregation of five. Erik kept in touch with us after our move interstate and, although I can’t lay my hand on any copies. I do recall that, in one letter, after congratulating us on our local dramatic efforts, he wrote: ‘As for the theatre here, they are all GREAT and there is no help for it’.

Darling Range Repertory Society

In 1952 we left Melbourne with our baby son to go and stay with Brian‘s family in Western Australia. Apart from Howard Taylor, who later gained fame as an artist, they had all migrated as ‘ten-pound Poms’.

Brian continued with his job as an insurance assessor.

Soon after our arrival we set up and supported the Darling Range Repertory Society (DRRS) using people who had never even seen a play as actors and set builders.

In the play, The Laboratory, I played Giannetta da Brescia opposite Eddie Bullen as Alberto da Brescia. Eddie was almost completely blind, much worse than I am now, but always coped with his entrances and exits without a stumble. He was great to act with and gave a really spirited, swashbuckling performance.

Both of Brian’s sisters took part in several DRRS plays. With good looks and perfect stage voices they were naturals. Joan Bullock appeared with me in The Ghost Train and together with her sister, Sheila Taylor, in several one act plays. In Becky Sharp, Sheila had the role of the wicked Becky while Joan played the ill-used Amelia. Sheila also was a sparkling Fairy Queen in a Xmas pantomime. Appearing with Sheila, our two local butchers made up a comedy duo ‘The Two Hams’.

I should mention that we are indebted to Joan’s husband, Ralph, for the photographic record of our time with the DRRS.

Once we had settled in the Darling Range area, Brian, having passed all the Insurance Institute exams possible, discovered that, as we lived more than twenty miles from University of WA (UWA) he could study for a degree by correspondence.

I rallied to help out by reading all the supplementary literature on his reading list but only found out in the second last year of our time in WA that I could sit exams (an intelligence test plus English and Logic) to upgrade my Leaving Certificate to a provisional ‘Mature-age Matriculation’. When we arrived in Canberra, I had only managed two first year units: English and Philosophy. I had to wait a further four years to return to WA to complete my degree.

In all our years of study, Brian and I agreed that nobody was ever equalled Joel as an instructor. Apart from English studies I even sailed through a unit of Ancient History relying mainly on the work Joel had done with us.

Apart from performing in separate plays for the DRRS, Brian and I appeared several times together (always a problem for child-care). In Ladies in Retirement my character threatened Brian and in Night Must Fall his character threatened me. Our local audiences must have wondered about our relationship.

They certainly took our productions very seriously. When Brian appeared as one of the villains in Rope, the butcher’s lad, Gary Bavistock, who often saw Brian in his father’s shop, stood up and shouted for the hero, the local music teacher, to ‘run ‘im through’. Our Canberra audiences were rather more sedate.

Canberra

Brian’s first class honours degree in philosophy gained him a full scholarship to the Australian National University. This provided us with a furnished flat and a basic wage. I needed to find work as quickly as possible and really fell on my feet when I landed the job at Cheshire’s Bookshop. Not great pay but a wonderful experience in the heat of such a vibrant city where everybody bought books.

Canberra theatre was, for both of us, a wonderful, if slightly unnerving, experience. The audiences and the Reviewers all took the works presented in the Riverside Theatre very seriously. Productions and performances were often compared to those seen abroad in the fully professional theatres of the major cities. Working behind the counter in the bookshop, I was exposed to both praise and criticism.

I do remember feeling rather smug when someone kindly compared my Natasha in The Three Sisters, to the version he had seen on Broadway. My Natasha was ‘not too stupidly vulgar’.

MP, the Canberra Times reviewer was also kind: ‘Sybil Smith sketches in the character of Natasha with a graceless vitality which promises well.’ [10]

Brian's performance as Kulyigin in the same play was not commented on by the reviewer but I remember that it was extremely touching and delicate.

While he was working on his doctoral thesis ‘An Essay on Memory’ Brian defended his time spent acting in and directing several plays by stating that he had called upon his dramatic training and experience in formulating some of his theories. I think he managed to convince his tutor who became something of a fan.

Brian’s thesis was later published under the title ‘Memory’ by Allen and Unwin in the Muirhead Library of Philosophy.

The chemist around the corner always had plenty to say as did the ladies doing tuckshop duty and all cheered the good reviews or consoled me over the strange reviews accorded our Cherry Orchard. The reviewers of our production failed to impress us. Neither did they please Professor Manning Clarke who was a Russophile and something of a fan. (My role in the ordering of University books may have contributed to my general fandom.)

We arrived at the conclusion that the reviewers:

  1. A) didn’t know that I was married to the director (every nuance of my speech had run through Brian’s critical sieve); and
  2. B) that Chekhov was the son of a serf and certainly had no love for the feckless, idle rich.

‘Brave Attempt in Chekhov Play at ANU!’

A review of Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard appearing in The Canberra Times (ACT), 23 June 1962, p. 5, describes the play as “getting away from producer Brian Smith” when presented in the ANU Dramatic Society production at The Childers Street Hall.

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/130579215?searchTerm=Brave%20Attempt%20in%20Chekhov%20Play%20at%20ANU&searchLimits=

The reviewer praises Sybil Smith as “a dominating figure”.

‘Cut Down Cherry Orchard’

Hope Hewitt reviews the Australian National University Dramatic Society’s production of The Cherry Orchard in The Bulletin (Sydney), 7 July, 1962, p. 34, Volume 84, No. 4299.

https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-680306924/view?partId=nla.obj-680311666#page/n33/mode/1up

While Hewitt is critical of aspects of the production, she notes “It was a measure of the quality of Sybil Smith’s acting as Ranevsky that her vision of the cherry orchard did transfer itself to the audience, both as fact and symbol”.

Apart from confusing Lopakhin with Pishchick (didn’t she read the programme?) this reviewer makes a strange point about placement of the window. Did she expect Ranevskaia to stand with her back to the audience for some of the crucial moments of the play. [11]

I should probably plead guilty that, in that special moment (a ‘bit’) of reflection upon the orchard ‘The heavenly angels have not forsaken you’, I did not exude enough maudlin self- pity with ‘If only I could remove this heavy stone from my breast. If only I could forget my past’ (surely a deliberate redundancy on Chekhov’s part often removed in translation).

There does seem to be a problem with Chekhov’s sense of humour. The faithful old Fiers being left behind while everyone else waltzes off to new lives is rather Life of Brian. You will wince while you see the funny side. No-one should expect a chuckle here. Perhaps a wry grimace and a slight shrug of the shoulders would be the appropriate response. Certainly, if Chekhov had wanted pity for a sad, dispossessed group he would have brought the curtain down either while the family sit in silent contemplation (a Russian custom) or as they exit.

To get some perspective on Chekhov’s train of thought while writing The Cherry Orchard consider: Chekhov wrote to his wife ‘You will be Vavarva Gregorievna, an utter fool’ [12] and ‘Stanislavsky’s part is comic, as is yours’. [13] Chekhov also firmly rejected a well- bred dog and demanded a ‘sorry mutt’. [14]

We otherwise fared rather well in Canberra. An attending Irish dignitary said that my Juno in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock was ‘Straight from the slums of Dublin’. I, unfortunately, wasn’t there to bask as I had retired to rest up with the ’flu, only staggering on for the next performance.

‘O’Casey Play Presented by Repertory’

A review of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock by ‘M.P.’ in The Canberra Times, 4 August 1961, p. 9, describes the production as “artistic’ pictorially satisfying and movingly acted”.

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/103082723?browse=ndp%3Abrowse%2Ftitle%2FC%2Ftitle%2F11%2F1961%2F08%2F04%2Fpage%2F11502285%2Farticle%2F103082723

The review describes Sybil Smith (Juno) as “completely convincing”, and “ … her voice had great beauty”.

Two points of honesty here: having been rejected initially for any part in the play, I was then asked at three weeks’ notice, to take over the role of Juno. I was loaned the Abbey Theatre, Dublin recording to assist with both lines and dialect. In that three weeks, I perfected channelling Siobhan McKenna.

The play starts in a mood of general gaiety and optimism and ends with stark tragedy, well suited to someone suffering with an almost crippling virus. I managed to play on adrenaline for the first half and then, as sorrows beset my character, I became suitably fragile, bravely facing up to the future. When I turned to make my exit, I had to grope for the door handle. Stanislavsky’s advice on building on one’s past emotional experiences was, ironically, triumphantly, built into my situation. Naturally I kept all my misery into future performances. Certainly, I knew that Erik Kuttner would have been proud of my ability as a mimic if not as the creator of a memorable character.

Years later my son, Nye, wrote to me that, working on the lights for Siobhan McKenna’s one-woman show, he had experienced an odd sensation. ‘I could have sworn that it was you there on stage, Mum’.

Brian’s PhD earned him a lectureship at Queensland University. While there, Brian directed Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year for the Undergraduate Dramatic Society. Somewhere I have the taped recording of the amazing ‘radio commentary’ he made of an Anzac Day parade for the play.

I also worked with the undergraduates, and performed in my only Australian voice in Image in the Clay by David Ireland.

Perth

Brian’s heart, however, was set on working in Adult Education and this took him to the University of WA Extension Service. This body also managed the Festival of Perth so there was Brian back into the world of artistic endeavour, this time from the entrepreneurial angle.

Our years back in WA allowed me to finish my BA and play some interesting roles.

In this Irish play, The Plough and the Stars, my performance earned me great praise from the reviewer and total scorn from my husband ... Overacting! a heinous crime.

I was bored at rehearsal and I heightened the emotion. Note that it is perfectly in order to heighten excessively one’s performance in rehearsal as long as one remembers Stanislavsky’s rule: ‘cut 90%’ [15] The director, thereafter, wouldn’t let me relax into normality and I ended up with an over the top, if highly commended, performance. This was in keeping with the rest of the action and the usual fare of that theatre. My daughter, Sarah, reminded me of this populist culture and the way the director heckled all the actors into excess. Sarah had a backstage role assisting ‘The Captain’ with his boots and was in a position to draw her own conclusions. She had a critical eye even at the age of fourteen.

The critical acclaim was, in fact, quite helpful. I was offered the part of ‘Mum’ in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Aware of the disadvantage of close proximity of audience to actors in the Hole in the Wall Theatre, I donned my most girlish outfit, applied the best Kuttner inspired makeup and wafted in only to see Richard Gill’s face drop and hear him mutter ‘Oh God I thought you were older!’ I immediately let everything sag and said hopefully ‘I can be older’. To his credit, or perhaps he was desperate, Richard gave me the part with the proviso I didn’t play it for laughs. I said I would happily play over any chuckles that came my way and, actually, wasn’t especially good at being comical.

I do not think I did get many ‘laughs” but my character did elicit some strange comments. On one occasion, when ‘Mum’ was bemoaning the intractability of her daughter-in-law, a woman up the back leaned forward and said with great feeling ‘How true!’. Again, when Mum is telling how she coddled her son in the cold weather, an old gentleman seated in the front row said in an aggrieved voice ‘My mother never did that for me”. He was so close I almost leaned over and replied to him “Never mind dear this is England’. Stanislavsky’s dictum that the actor should never, mentally, look out across the footlights to the spectators but rather back towards one fellow-actors was rather hard to follow and not just because of the absence of footlights. [16] The playwright, Peter Nichols, was especially effective at evoking an intimacy of expression. Playing the lead in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Alan Cassell was well able to play for the requisite laughs and he certainly received them. Alan’s timing was perfection and he was frighteningly believable. He won a special award for his performance. The fact that Alan, playing my son, was only seven years younger than I was didn’t matter. His belief in himself and in me as our characters of mother and son was palpable.

This play was the first Australian premiere I had been in and Rosenkranz and Guildenstern are Dead at The Octagon Theatre was the second. It really felt very special to know that, very probably, nobody had seen your character before. (The film came out later.)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was just as funny as Joe Egg but in a completely different way. I was studying Philosophy at the time and, as my part of Gertrude was brief, I had hoped to be able to sit quietly in the dressing room and write my required essays. Not a hope; the sound of the audience’s laughter came clearly backstage and there was a lot of it.

Again, at the Octagon (handy to my workplace, the University Reid Library) I was delighted to be given the role of Polina Andreyevna in The Seagull. This time I had the delightful opportunity of acting with my son, Aneurin. As part of my Theatre Arts (a new third year English course) task, I thought I could mount a set of properties’ cards as I had been taught in Drama School. I suggested to Aarne Neeme, the director, that Nye may well be able to do the props for the show. Aarne sized up my tall son and suggested that he could reasonably handle two lines as a servant. Nye also assisted with construction of the set. The photo shows him on the right standing tall behind me. We both look as though we are the leading actors.

Aneurin, later, went on to support himself through University by working on backstage theatre and film production. He, along with his sister, Sarah, and I, worked on a prize- winning short fantasy film, Jabawocky. Sarah and I managed crowd control, publicity and looked after the young performer while Nye did the sound recording. He also managed several other short film triumphs.

Later Nye became the Stage Director for the WA Ballet Company. We unfortunately, were over east for many years and never did have the opportunity for free tickets. Aneurin and Sarah, later, both became proper teachers. Nye taught Media Studies and drama for many years.

Our next move was to Newcastle where Brian took up the inaugural position of Director of the new Community Programmes Department.

He could now introduce and implement fully his cherished ‘Open Foundation’ Course. Inspired by my early frustration and struggle to gain University entry, this system was first developed in Western Australia.

This move meant that I lost my job as library clerk and, when I applied for a similar position at Newcastle University, I was quietly told I couldn’t be employed in such a ‘menial position’ where my husband was a department head. I also had to drop the librarianship studies I had just begun.

In frustration I took to home tutoring migrant women. There was obviously a need. I then started up a class in a space allocated to me in the new Hunter Region Working Women’s Centre. Mary Callcott, to whom I shall forever be indebted, had co-opted me onto its board. Mary also encouraged me to apply for the temporary job as researcher for the DATEX group. I managed to fit in some interesting travel around NSW and I also worked for them as a library researcher.

Mary even pushed me into acting as, a very reluctant, spokeswoman for the Women’s Centre. I had to greet a politician (Bob Hawke?) visiting our Centre. A very different proposition to acting when one is presenting as someone else entirely.

Our English language class expanded and, when I approached the AMES (Adult Migrant Education Service) for help with some text-books, a staff member came up from Sydney to visit our class. He ascertained that I had a degree in English and quizzed me on any second languages I may possibly lay claim to. I then became an accredited teacher under a so called ‘granny’ clause meant to cover untrained, but usefully, bilingual people. Actually I doubt if any of my students were ever less fluent in English than I was in French, Russian or German. I did, however, work very hard, attending seminars and workshops. I was one of the initial group setting up the Australian branch of SGAV (Structural Global Audio Visual): a worldwide organization to promote a wholistic approach to language learning.

I had already started on studies for an MA; putting my earlier experiences with Chekhov to good use … as I thought. This area would have elicited considerable enthusiasm at UWA but as I also combined it with films of Chekov’s works, I had gone a step too far for Newcastle.

When I was offered a position I couldn’t really refuse as Teacher in Charge of the Migrant English Classes at BHP, I sadly gave up my studies. My researches, however had led me to the Soviet Union on several occasions (taking advantage of Brian’s sabbatical to the UK). I also met with some fascinating people so I can’t regret my choice.

We were both dramatically engaged in Newcastle but this time on radio. Professor Norman Talbot, in the English Department (my research work was, unfortunately, allotted to the Drama Department) ran several programmes on the University radio. This body was, technically, under Brian’s jurisdiction. I had enormous fun reading poetry and playing bits of Shakespeare for Norman’s radio lectures. After the frustration of handling the least interesting lines of Gertrude, in Rosenkranz and Guildenstern are Dead, it was wonderful to be given not only Gertrude but Ophelia to read. Together with Norman’s wife, Jean, and Brian, we read several books. These were syndicated all over Australia to various Universities and gained us quite a few fans.

Retirement WA

In retirement Brian still maintained an interest in Adult Education and prevailed upon me to set up a second website (I had put together a rather wobbly, but highly influential, site for our local environment group. Our son, Nye, came to my aid with an OCR scanner and would e-mail to me Brian’s old philosophy lectures. Brian was, at first, reluctant to approach the computer but, once he realised several forests would fall to let him order every comma to his satisfaction, he gave in and really took to the monster machine. There were sixteen lectures for me to convert into raw HTML. The site still hovers in cyberspace: An Introduction to Philosophy. [17] I later placed Brian’s obituary on the last page. [18]

In my own later years, I have found my drama training to be extremely useful. When I was 80, on my way to deliver a Presentation to the local U3A, [19] I managed to trip over a crack in the pavement. Falling full-length I began to think that I was done for the day and had probably wrecked my knees forever. Hanny Kolm’s lessons, on how to die onto a hard stage without harm took over in my brain and muscles. I stood up and went on without a twinge or bruise.

In 2017 I was asked to give short talk at the Perth Entertainment Centre. Unable to clamber up to the fixed mike, I took a deep breath, relaxed the appropriate muscles and held forth.

I was speaking on the virtues of my new text-to-speech device, the OrCam. I heard sympathetic chuckles from the vision-impaired people up the back of the auditorium when I complained that I needed an app to help me find my OrCam. (Note This app is now available).                      

Joel’s insistence on maintaining vocal flexibility paid dividends.

In an interesting coincidence the OrCam is an Israeli invention so Jewish-based expertise has come to my assistance yet again.

Endnotes

  1. Der Ring des Nibelungen by Wagner.
  2. Possibly ‘Leda’ or ‘St Anne’.
  3. Hanny Kolm (Johanna Exiner), The Australian Women’s Register, https://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE6218b.htm
  4. Lorna Forbes, Australian Dictionary of Biography, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/forbes-ada-lorna-10215
  5. Constantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood, 1936

Russian title: Работа актера над собой

Literally: the work of the actor on the self. There is a perfectly good word in Russian for ‘prepare’ so surely that is what Stanislavski could have used had he so wished.

  1. Princes Uta of Naumburg: statue in Naumburg Cathedral.
  2. Half yearly pre-examination text

1a) A three-dimensional character as compared to a ‘type’.

1b) Creon in Antigone and in Oedipus the King.

2) What is Stanislavsky’s ‘IF’?

   What does Stanislavsky call a ‘BIT’?

3) The use of light in the theatre.

4) Rythmical [sic] values in music.

   Meter in music and poetry.

5) The Page of Herod as you see him.

6) Read the attached melody and transpose it into F-major.

7) Your ‘dream-theatre’.

8) Practical: Salome. Medea.

9) You are held up in a dark street at night by bandits.

10) A sculpture on the theme ‘Reunion’ with three people in it.

  1. An Actor Prepares, Chapter 7: Units and Objectives.
  2. An Actor Prepares, Chapter 2: When Acting is an Art.
  3. ‘Producer Faces up to Chekhov’s Challenge’, Canberra Times (ACT), 16 February 1961.
  4. Several people have asked me to account for the exceptional viciousness of Hope Hewitt’s review and I have been hard put to find an answer. I do have a half memory of Bruce Benjamin, Gaev, who was a lecturer in the Philosophy Department where Ms Hewitt lectured in English, saying ruefully that he rather wished that Brian would remember who was who when he got into heated discussions at parties. Brian, unfortunately, having climbed swaying masts to spot for U-boats, and having more than held his own in the hurly burley of philosophical argument, was never inclined to hold back if he thought someone, however established, was speaking rubbish. I can certainly recall boozy university-based parties where verbal fisticuffs took place. Insults such as ‘You have an undistributed middle there!’ were commonly exchange and, usually, taken in good part. Next day.
  5. Letter to O.L. Knipper, 5-6 March 1903, in Letters of Anton Chekhov by Avram Yarmolinsky, Viking Press.
  6. Letter to O.L. Knipper, 8 March 1903, ibid.
  7. Letter to O.L. Knipper, 29 November 1903, ibid.
  8. An Actor Prepares, Chapter 8: Faith and a Sense of Truth.
  9. ‘They must be on our side of the footlights. They must be directed to the other actors and not to the spectators’, Stanislavsky, An Actor Prepares, Chapter 2: When Acting is an Art.
  10. HTTP://This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it./sybillas Note: this site will hover in cyberspace as long as my credit card works.
  11. ‘Dr Smith changed the face of mature age studying at Newcastle University’, Newcastle Morning Herald, 4 December 2002
  12. ‘Presentation’, a talk or lecture delivered by fellow members of The University of the Third Age. In later stages Norma Vaughan and I introduced PowerPoint so we indeed had ‘Presentations’.

References

Australasian Post 1951,??, ‘New Australians in Repertory, 11 January, 1951 ‘Play Like Their Own Tragic Lives’

Hewitt, H  1962 Trove Digitised Newspapers 2020, ‘Cut Down Cherry Orchard’, The Bulletin (Sydney), 7 July, 1962, p. 34, Volume 84 no. 4299, <https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-680306924/view?partId=nla.obj-680311666#page/n33/mode/1up>.

Marks, S 1950, “Cockpit” Landmark in Amateur Circles, The Herald (Melbourne) 1950, c. October.

Trove Digitised Newspapers 2020, ‘Dramatic School for Melbourne’, The Age (Melbourne, Vic) Friday, 23 April, 1948, p. 2, National Library of Australia, <https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-title809>.

Trove Digitised Newspapers 2020, ‘Relax – for Profit!’, Conducted by Pamela Ruskin, The Argus, Melbourne, Friday, 18 May, 1951, p. 5, National Library of Australia, <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/23065626?searchTerm=pamela%20ruskin%20relax%20-%20for%20profit%20%20tim%20walton&searchLimits=>.

Trove Digitised Newspapers 2020, ‘Award to Honor Erik Kuttner!’, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic), Saturday, 29 January, 1955, p. 47, National Library of Australia, <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/71692212?searchTerm=award%20to%20honor%20erik%20kuttner%20by%20Frank%20Doherty&searchLimits=>.

Trove Digitised Newspapers 2020, ‘Theatre and Music’ by Frank Murphy, Advocate (Melbourne), 31 March, 1949, p.18, National Library of Australia, <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/result?q=LADIES+IN+RETIREMENT+CSL+PLAYERS&exactPhrase=UNSKILLED+PLAYERS+WHO+REST+BETWEEN+CUES&anyWords=&notWords=&requestHandler=&dateFrom=&dateTo=&sortby=>.

Trove Digitised Newspapers 2020, ‘Fantasy by Myer Dramatic Club’, The Age (Melbourne), 2 December, 1949, p. 2, National Library of Australia, <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/189475087/19604160>.

Trove Digitised Newspapers 2020, ‘Drama Debut’, The Herald (Melbourne), 12 September, 1950, p. 14, National Library of Australia, <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/189475087/19604160>.

Trove Digitised Newspapers 2020, ‘Women in the Theatre’, The Age (Melbourne), 21 October, 1950, p. 7, National Library of Australia, <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/205378437/19610186>.

Trove Digitised Newspapers 2020, ‘Brave Attempt in Chekhov Play at ANU!’, The Canberra Times, 23 June, 1962, p. 5, National Library of Australia, <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/130579215?searchTerm=Brave%20Attempt%20in%20Chekhov%20Play%20at%20ANU&searchLimits=>.

Trove Digitised Newspapers 2020, ‘O’Casey Play Presented by Repertory’, The Canberra Times, 4 August, 1961, p. 9, National Library of Australia, <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/103082723?browse=ndp%3Abrowse%2Ftitle%2FC%2Ftitle%2F11%2F1961%2F08%2F04%2Fpage%2F11502285%2Farticle%2F103082723>.

West Australian c. 1968, ‘Tragic History’, Partial review of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars.

 

 

 

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