Tuesday, 01 March 2022

Memories of Tait Theatre

Written by Peter Stephenson Jones
PETER STEPHENSON JONES pays tribute to theatre director and actor William Robert Bates, who ran a private drama school affiliated with the Tait Theatre in Leicester Street, Carlton. During the 1970s the William Bates Academy was the training ground for many aspiring actors.

WilliamBatesWilliam R. BatesToday, if you wander past 107 Leicester Street Carlton you will see modern, plush, mostly one-bedroom apartments mainly for university students. There is a small food outlet and a mini mart. Nothing very special. Cookie cutter designs yet, highly functional. But in the sixties and seventies downstairs on ground level was a garage and toilet but upstairs was place of wonder! As you wandered up a fairly narrow flight of stairs you had arrived at the William Bates Academy of Theatre and Allied Arts. It had notices and signs on all the walls reminding you it was affiliated with Tait Theatre. Hundreds, and I really mean hundreds of young aspiring actors started their training with William Bates. The William Bates Academy was an independent acting school. I could not have envisaged William Bates ever working for anyone else. This was before state drama schools like the VCA. When more acting schools came along the William Bates Academy remained a major independent Academy.

William Robert Bates hailed from Ballarat, Victoria. It was here he grew to love theatre putting on plays and even boasting in later life that he was directing adults at sixteen. He was an active participant in Ballarat’s famous South Street Drama Festivals. He often reminded you of competitions he had won. He was very close to his father, and he was devastated when his father died. He mostly kept his personal feelings to himself. Few of us knew anything of his childhood. However, when his father died, he was shattered. It was clear nothing much would happen for him in Ballarat, so he headed to Melbourne.

Picture3Edwin StylesAfter the Australian Theatre Guild discontinued its Australian touring program, he established the Grosvenor Acting Academy in Flinders Street Melbourne. It is said that if a country town had a hall or theatre the Guild would play there. It’s very hard to find much information on the Guild however, I know William wrote some of the plays and in the cast were a few established actors such as June Jago who went on to appear in film and theatre in England and also appeared in a few Carry On movies. When June returned to Melbourne, she appeared in plays with the Melbourne Theatre Company and was for many years a much loved and respected teacher at the VCA. William loved the tours with the Guild. He directed the plays and often starred in them. One play was Rope which was quite controversial for its time. Other plays with the Guild he either directed or both directed and appeared in were Private Lives, Claudia, Hamlet, As You Like It, Dark in the Forest, and Blithe Spirit.

Years later he even wrote a comedy based on the touring company days called On a Clea Day which he presented at Tait Theatre mainly as a vehicle for one of his students at the time, Carol Ann Kennedy. William frequently wrote plays or revues to feature one of his stars. It was so good for the ego to be called a Tait star and Bill could stroke your ego brilliantly. I believe this was one of his great skills. Many young people lacked self-esteem, but Bill boosted your confidence in yourself and your abilities. Somehow William Bates met the much-loved actor Edwin Styles. Edwin was a very fine actor appearing in films such as The Dam Busters. Edwin came to JCW, getting rave reviews in all the papers for The Man Who Came to Dinner and Not in the Book. A photograph of Edwin was prominently displayed and remained on the honour wall for a long time, Bill and Edwin stayed in contact for many, many years.

Image 13.2Sir Frank & Lady TaitTait Theatre was named in honour of Sir Frank Tait often regarded as one of Australia’s greatest theatre entrepreneurs. His wife Viola Tait attended several functions at Tait Theatre. On the walls of the studio side of the building were several photographs, many of William Bates in various Guild plays he had performed in and several JCW stars Bill had met and invited to Tait Theatre for fund raisers. The goal was always to establish a beautiful theatre dedicated to Australian writers and directors. Many of these photographs were autographed ‘Lots of love to Bill’ from Tivoli and JCW stars such Winifred Atwell, Kym Parry, Phil Jay, Edwin Styles, Eric Reiman, Suzanne Steele, Jill Perryman, Hayes Gordon, and other popular imported stars like Evelyn Page who came here for Stop the World I Want To Get Off and who had brilliantly played the Wife of Bath in Canterbury Tales. Evelyn was very fond of Bill and vice versa. Pride of place was one of Denise Drysdale who was a student at the academy in her earlier years. William Bates adored Denise and always spoke of her with much affection. Denise attended several classes at the academy with Bill. Denise always respected Bill and attended his funeral.

William Bates got away with things no one would get away with today. I could not believe it then and I still don’t now, but he would say to women he saw as his friends: ‘Hello you old bag.’ Then greeting them with a friendly hug, these women would laugh and say things like ‘Oh Bill!’ Then laugh. I saw him do it with Lady Tait! He would greet June Bronhill and a few other theatre ladies with ‘Hello you old bag!’ Incredible!

Picture5Denise DrysdaleWhen you entered his office Bill Bates would be sitting at his huge desk. There were books, books, and more books. There was a large diary in which he kept notes about you, and his other students. There were some of his own paintings on the walls. One I recall was of a very handsome naked man on a bed. I once asked Bill who he was but was never told. One day out of the blue Bill saw me looking at the painting and said ‘Oh, he was here yesterday.’ On his desk he would have his cup of tea, teapot and milk. He chain-smoked Hallmark cigarettes because, he insisted, they were so bloody ‘mild and harmless’. No one smoked with more flair flourish, elegance, and style than Bill Bates. Indeed, he once told me that I needed to smoke with more elegance and that I smoked like a schoolyard bully. He taught me to smoke like Noel Coward did! Personally, I think I looked more like Tallulah Bankhead!

William Bates brilliantly played his role as artistic director. He was a high-status player. He certainly had a huge ego. As critical as some were, I believe his ego kept him going. He had plenty of bluff but everyone I know in theatre has to have the art of bluff. Many Tivoli performers believed their own publicity. He just about ran the whole show at his Academy, although in a smaller studio next door were the children’s classes. These classes were conducted by Jeanne Battye. Jeanne had appeared in many shows at the Tivoli such as Show Boat, and in Funny Girl with Jill Perryman and Evie Hayes. Years later she appeared in a revival of My Fair Lady. Jeanne started getting more theatre work and left and the children’s classes were taken over by Kevin Holman and Anthony Busch. Bill preferred training adults. He preferred to say he trained actors because he did not like the word ‘teacher’.

He was always immaculately groomed. His comb-over was very generously lacquered or plastered with hair spray. Nothing was out of place! If you ever did touch his hair, you would cut your fingers - not that anyone would dare to! He denied wearing makeup, but everyone knew that he did. He had a passion for jewellery. Not just rings, rings, and more rings, bracelets, quality watches and thin but tasteful necklaces. Cufflinks and tie pins were obligatory. He mostly wore a suit. I did see him once up on a ladder adjusting some lights in the theatre. He was wearing overalls but still wearing makeup and of course, lots of jewellery. He quite liked glitter.

I remember being nervous about my first class and while he could be very intimidating, he had a knack of making you feel special. He always called you ‘Old boy’ and ‘Dear boy’ which I seem to have inherited and cannot seem to brush off much to the annoyance of many people. People do not like being called ‘old boy’ much these days and shock horror, he even called some ‘dear’. I really do not think he would think much of today’s political correctness. We always called him ‘Mr. Bates’ until after a few months or years he would say, ‘You may now call me Bill’. We all thought this was a real badge of honour. He spoke in a ‘cultured’ voice. Other teachers I know used the term ‘Educated Australian’. Of course, he insisted he ‘trained’ actors, but he privately ‘taught’ you voice production. It was voice production not speech nor elocution, which was a word he despised. I will speak more about this later, but for now William Bates instilled in his students discipline and a respect for theatre, it has stayed with us all our lives for most of us. He hated any kind of sloppy undisciplined conduct. He was very tidy. An untidy appearance he would say shows an untidy mind. His home and office were always tidy.

The Voice Production Teacher

The voice production lessons were odd by today’s standards. Often, he would dictate notes from one of his journals. There were no photocopied notes to take home. I believe he thought that dictation was the best way of letting it all sink in. He had no chalk board. When he taught phonetics, he would hold up a picture of a neutral vowel or some phonetic symbol which you would meticulously copy. I found phonetics boring yet even today I can still recall them. The studio next door to his office with the master’s grandiose desk was the acting studio. A small stage, exit wings and couches for the students. Although the voice classes were always private there would generally be about six to ten in the acting classes. Back to the voice classes, I can recall many of the phrases you had to say over and over until you had pleased him. I still remember them. ‘The touring tooting train tootled tunefully through the tunnelled tube’. ‘NO, not TOORNG, it’s toring … TORING.’ There were others. Bicycle bell was to be BAYSICAL bell. Then there was Towel, I never got that, I could not stand saying TAHL. The tongue twisters were fun. My favourite was ‘The seething sea ceased and thus the seething sea sufficeth us’. Then there was ‘Red Leather Yellow Leather’ and a series of well-known tongue twisters most teachers still use. My personal favourite as a teacher was ‘Smiths crisps’ which in the last few years I have tackled perfectly. Bill would then guide you through his breathing exercises. You would go into the acting studio, lie on the foot of the stage. he would ask you to unbutton your shirt, hold a mirror over you so you could see your tummy rising as you breathed in. No two voice teachers are the same. (Bell Foster, the well-respected voice teacher, disliked people saying breathe in … Bell insisted that you FILL UP!) Before he checked your breathing, he would ceremoniously warm his hands before he felt your diaphragm (I doubt one could do that today!) I always giggled. FOCUS! Then he would growl and then gently say RELAX which I saw as a contradiction.

He would train you to project your voice. When auditioning many actors for my company, the Flying Bookworms, I am sorry to say I was not very impressed with most actors’ voice training. Few actors could project their voice as I and many others at the time had been taught. There are even some teachers who strangely think voice-projection is a dirty word. I have seen many student productions at many well-known schools over the years. I have seen them, yes, but battled to hear them! They are made to be so gentle on their voices. They think their voices are as fragile as thin glass Christmas decorations. The voice is strong and resilient! Of course, one should not strain but if you are trained well, you do not have to strain. Students who studied with William Bates had strong voices. We did not see our voices as a delicate and fragile. Anyone who saw Googie Withers will know that here was an actress who could be heard in every seat in the theatre. Bill had met Miss Withers many times and often used her as an example of the perfect voice. No body mikes for actors like Alfred Sandor and Googie Withers … just real technique! So, we left his classes knowing how to use our voices and knowing our phonetics! We also knew not to drop our voices at the end of sentences and to speak to the end of the line, TECHNIQUE! TECHNIQUE! I am glad I had this training and even though I went to other schools and teachers no one comes close to Bill Bates with his passion for discipline. Punctuality was drummed into us.

The Acting Classes

The acting classes were traditional. Bill actually taught stagecraft and technique. I found when I started directing that very few young actors knew a thing about stagecraft. I have always been grateful Bill taught about stagecraft and technique. It is a tradition I continued in my own teaching. He did not do very much script reading but you got your chance to do that in the plays at Tait Theatre if you were invited to perform. Like many teachers he was strongly influenced by Stanislavsky, the great Russian theorist and insisted that we were studying ‘method acting’. The only Stanislavsky book around was the first book An Actor Prepares. Stanislavsky wrote of ‘belief in the character’. If the actor does not believe in the character, then the audience won’t either. Well, that’s the theory anyway. Bill said one must ‘think, feel, and act’ and the ART of acting was the creation of a believable character. Bill often spoke of what he called ‘Auras of Light’. This basically meant ‘the personality of a character’. Stanislavsky once said, ‘invent your own method, do not stick slavishly to mine’. This is what Bill did. His classes also showed some influence from Lee Strasberg although I am not sure Bill would concede this.

Picture6Maria Mercedes & Bill BatesI studied with quite a few different teachers as well as doing a few workshops. After I left the William Bates Academy, I studied under Jeff Warren. Jeff came to Australia to star as the King in The King and I. So many teachers, all different. All fascinating and there are many different theories today. I find them all wonderfully interesting. Most of the teaching in Bill’s acting classes was preparing and performing in what he called AD LIB PLAYS. I do not think I ever heard him use the word ‘impro’ or ‘improvisation’. He certainly would NEVER say IMPRO. He hated any kind of sloppiness in speech and ‘cheap abbreviations’ were not tolerated. I loved the ad lib plays. You were rarely given much instruction except to ‘get a play ready’, the play must have a beginning, a middle and an end. The ad lib plays generally ran about ten minutes or so, but some went considerably longer. A play without a script is what it was. We loved the ad lib plays. I had the pleasure of working with many fine actors in those classes. I attended the Saturday classes and I remember a Greek girl who arrived with and was taken home by her dad. Mr. Moustidis was a lovely man and I enjoyed chatting to him. He was very proud and protective of his beautiful daughter. Her name was Maria, and we became great chums. I loved doing ad lib plays with Maria. She truly connected with you. Maria was so vivacious and had a great sense of humour. Bill obviously saw something special in Maria too. He cast her in one of his revues. She sang ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’. Anyone who ever saw Maria do this knew they were seeing something special. She went on to become Maria Mercedes star of Nine, Sunset Boulevard and many other great shows. Another student in my classes at the Academy was Ron Boyter and I remember Ron as being very encouraging and supportive of me. A lovely man!

Apart from the ad lib plays there was another improvisation exercise Bill enjoyed using. We did it a few times. Before I tell you this story, I need to explain that in most improvisation classes and certainly in Bill’s ad lib plays you were NEVER to stop an impro and never draw attention to a mistake. You had to stay in character no matter what! You had to keep the ball in play. I used this rule in my own teaching and it prepares actors for unexpected eventualities, teaching this helps them to cover any mistakes made in a performance.

Picture7Anthony Bush, James Robertson & Carol-Ann KennedyNow to the exercise … In the film Anastasia there is a scene with Ingrid Bergman, who plays a girl trying to convince the world that she is the last surviving daughter of Tsar Nicholas who was executed with his family. Somehow it was believed Anastasia survived. Later years with DNA we have learned the woman was indeed a fraud, but we did not know that then. There is a moving and powerful scene when Anastasia finally convinces the old Dowager Queen played by Helen Hayes, that she is indeed the real Anastasia. It is a scene with much sub-text and many layers. We were to interpret it different ways. We were not to copy the scene but use it as inspiration. It could be played as an old man finding a long-lost son for example, indeed there were many other creative possible scenarios. I was playing the scene with another actor, let's call him Wayne. We had planned for me to play an old Grandpa and Wayne was the long lost, thought dead, nephew. It was all planned and thoroughly prepared. Poor Wayne. I spotted my umbrella on the couch, so I grabbed it. Wayne waited on stage for his old Grandpa to enter. I draped a jumper over my shoulders, using it as a shawl, the umbrella adapted to be a very elegant walking cane. I entered in regal splendour.

Picture8Kevin HolmanPoor Wayne was expecting his old Grandpa but at the last moment without even the courtesy of letting poor Wayne know, I entered as the Dowager Queen. I had decided to play Helen Hayes playing the old Queen. I even changed Wayne’s character and, on the spot, his gender too! Young Butch Wayne was not happy about playing Ingrid Bergman. Wayne was furious but I could not resist it. When Wayne told Bill how angry he was with me, Bill feigned disapproval telling me off, yet everyone could see Bill was trying to keep a straight face. ‘Peter, I will see you after class!’ Bill exclaimed. This struck terror into any student. He told me that I must never spring surprises like that onto another actor! He then smiled at me and told me I had played the old Queen very well though he had never seen a BOY in his class do it quite that way. Wayne avoided me for some weeks. He once said to Bill ‘what’s the point in preparation time? Peter will change it at the last moment anyway!’ I am sorry I upset poor Wayne but give me a break, where else would I get the chance to recreate that famous scene and actually play Helen Hayes?

Bill’s feedback after your class work was tough. Often it was downright vicious. He sat like a Lord High Executioner draped elegantly on the couch smoking his perennial cigarettes. He was tough and it was not unusual for him to look you square in the eye, take a puff from his Hallmark cigarette and saying, ‘bloody awful’. Of course, he was capable of heaping on the praise as well and he would tell you that it was brilliant. Next to the classroom was the theatre foyer. More couches, photos of previous shows and stars he knew, a huge elephant sculpture and what he called the Monks’ Bench. He also rather liked plastic flowers. We then pulled back a curtain and there she was … Tait Theatre.

Players and Playgoers

Picture9Daryl, James & Kevin building stairsFor many years William Bates was the President of The Players and Playgoers Association. This was a large group of old theatre people, performers, stagehands, ushers, and people who just loved theatre. It was very well attended, and they met in Duckboard House in the city. The old ducks of Duckboard House I called it. They were mostly lovely ladies in hats. I remember performing for the Players quite a few times. Bill would get us to present short scenes from the latest Tait revue. We all loved it because after the meeting you got to be fed by the ladies getting as much cake as you wanted. At each meeting there was a guest speaker from the latest show in town. There were so many. Most successful guests were those who loved to talk of their favourite subject: themselves, and they loved it! Two that come to mind were Miriam Karlin the ‘everybody out’ lady from the hit series The Rag Trade. Miriam was hilarious and spoke for much longer than she had to. She was so entertaining in her bangles and over the top jewellery. She had come to Australia to do a few shows like Butterflies are Free and a Tivoli revue Is Australia Really Necessary? Miriam also starred in The Mavis Bramston Show. Patrick Wymark the distinguished English actor, though unwell at the time was another guest William and the ladies enjoyed having at their meetings. Patrick and Bill got on very well, he was a lovely actor. One that annoyed Bill was the English actor Stratford Johns who clearly did not want to be there. He was thoroughly bored and by all accounts did not like Australia. He made no attempt to be pleasant. The rather anti strike conservative Peggy Mount was also a disappointment. More impressive was Orson Bean who came here for Promises Promises. Orson had a very impressive background but was quite unknown to Australian audiences. Another wonderful speaker was Suzanne Steele. She was an old friend of Bill’s and attended a few fund raisers at Tait Theatre. When La Mancha was in town Bill gave me a note so mum and I could meet Suzanne after the show. He did this a few times with a few performers. Suzanne Steele was the loveliest lady I ever met backstage. She was so interested in meeting her fans, giving you the impression that she was as excited about meeting you as you were to meet her, as were Mary Hardy and Carol Channing.

Tait Theatre

Picture10James Robertson & Taylor OwynnsIt was intimate but it was indeed a real theatre. A reasonable sized stage and seating for about 120 patrons. There could have been 150 but regrettably there was a pole in the middle of auditorium which obstructed the view of the stage and to Bill’s credit he never sold those seats. Tait Theatre was constantly being built and improved. There were many fundraisers. Wine and Cheese nights, recitals, card nights, I even once presented a very rude adult puppet show. Many celebrity guests and overseas performers attended these special fundraising nights. Bill met many JCW and Princess Theatre and Tivoli stars. The original founding members were William Bates, James Robertson, Darryl Strachan, Kevin Holman, Anthony Busch, Robert Stagg, and Ron Boyter. Tait had a very clear mission statement. The goal of Tait was to present original Australian plays with an Australian cast. Here I should mention Bill’s method of directing. I am afraid some directors reading this will cringe. Because he wrote the plays, he had a clear idea of exactly how it MUST be played. It was even worse if you were in a play that was being revised. You had to play the role exactly as the previous actor had played it. If you were having trouble with a scene Bill would say ‘I cannot let you get away with it, step down’. You would step down and a stage manager would feed Bill the lines and he would demonstrate how it must be done. Pure rubber stamping: ‘Monkey see, Monkey do.’

Picture14Anthony Bush & Kevin HolmanBill loved acting and this was a chance to show off. I always found it humiliating, I hated it. There was generally no room to put your own stamp on the part. I believe every actor plays a role in a different way. No two actors are the same. I believe that the director should question the actor using the three big questions: 1. What do you want? 2. How are you going to get it? 3. What obstacles are in the way of getting what you want? In my teaching I have tried to structure situations where the actor will come up with YOUR idea as a director. Still, we all show off at times and I confess I have demonstrated but only as a last resort when all else failed. I am not saying Bill was a bad director just that he was a bit old fashioned. In his defence I must add he delivered the goods and got the best from his actors most of the time. When Bill was not demonstrating but explaining what he wanted and when he was blocking a scene, he was excellent.

Picture11Cast of Comedy TonightIn 1968 Bill presented A Lesson in English by Barry Oakley. It starred Kevin Holman and Anthony Busch. I was one of the students along with many of the younger Tait actors. The play gave several younger actors a chance to perform. The play was about a teacher, and it is revealed that that the teacher was homosexual. Homosexuality was quite a popular theme in many plays at Tait. Bill invited Oakley to see it, but it was one those nights when it rained, or more precisely it poured, the heavens opened up! It sounded like the theatre was being bombed. The problem was that if it rained, because of the tin roof, you simply could not hear. The poor cast were yelling! I think parts of the roof were leaking as well. It was however an Australian play and great training for the youth of Tait Theatre. I think I was about sixteen. Kevin Holman was the finance director and kept the company going from 1965 till 1983. He was also a brilliant stage manager and much of Tait's success was due to Kevin’s dedication. One minute Kevin was setting the lighting and fiddling with the sound then he would have to rush on stage perform his scene then get back to the bio box. Although it was not great equipment Kevin was a miracle worker. It was quite a feat! I cannot think of anyone who could do this as well as Kevin. Like most Stage Managers he rarely got the recognition he deserved. It’s so nice to salute Kevin now! Kevin (right) with Anthony Busch in a play called The Club. Bill wrote this long before the play of the same name by David Williamson. Anthony won a best actor award in competition. The Club was a murder mystery set in a ski lodge. It won quite a few awards for Bill. Little did I know that Bill would revise the play and it was so exciting because he cast me in Anthony’s award-winning part. Not because I had great talent but because he needed a youngster to play it. I think I was about fifteen. I am pictured here with James Robertson and Peter Rogers.

Picture12James Robertson & Peter Rogers and young Peter Stephenson JonesTait had several impressive leading ladies. One of the earliest was Jan Lord, an elegant attractive actress who gave a powerful performance opposite Darryl Strachan in the play Neighbours by James Saunders. When Jan Lord left an actress, who was to become Tait’s leading lady for many years came along, she had been a school chum of mine and we both loved performing. Taylor Owynns was, and is, a remarkable actress equally at home in drama and comedy. Taylor played in several Tait plays always giving strong credible performances. Taylor in later years had an impressive list of credits. Of course, she was also the voice of Lulu in Bananas in Pyjamas. Incidentally, Taylor was the voice you hear on the train platform in both Sydney and Melbourne. If you heard a clear voice saying, ‘Stand clear please, stand clear!’ That was Taylor. Taylor appeared both on stage and on television. There is no doubt that Taylor was indeed Tait Theatre’s supreme perfect leading lady. Another great leading lady was Coralee Porter who Bill directed many times. Coralee was also very much at home in comedy drama and revue.

Most of the plays were written and directed by William Bates. People said it was so that Bill would not have to pay huge royalties, but I think there was another reason. When Bill wrote a play it was because he had a certain actor in mind. He wrote Arthur for Kevin Holman, An Element of Doubt for James Robertson, and I had a Dream for Anthony Busch. I found a similar problem with plays at my own school The Actors Showcase. I had to give each actor a fairly equal workload. There was no place for spear carriers. The only way to do that was to write my own plays just as Bill did. Audiences came! Mostly they were from clubs and party bookings. There were regular patrons as well. Some of the plays, remarkably, had long seasons. An Element of Doubt ran for over two years. When you think about it was extraordinary. With limited publicity it is credit to the company that they ran long and successful seasons often to full houses. We played Friday and Saturday and often Sunday nights. The other nights of the week were classes. Audiences were greeted to a sherry on arrival and after the show the audience greeted the cast with applause as we wandered into the foyer. When the cast arrived for a performance, we would go, and Bill (mostly) would do our make-up. A phrase I heard time and time again, ‘Bung on some 5 and 9’. These were Leichner make-up sticks, and we all learned to blend and apply the foundation. Bill would do the more complicated make up, he was a master! I loved the smell of Longmore’s Theatrical Cream. I still do. I have saved a bottle for years.

Picture13James Robertson & Taylor OwynnsHe ran the academy and Tait Theatre as a kind of personal empire. There was almost no other world outside Tait. Things had to be done his way and that could well be the reason he survived for so long. If one had a falling out with him, which was quite easy, or you left the company he would take it very personally He did things very differently to others I worked with. I cannot ever recall seeing actors doing a physical warm up before a performance. Although there was no physical warm up, I certainly recall many actors doing a psychological preparation. Bill after applying your make up would tell you to get into character. Some actors would run lines, others would only ever talk to you in character. Most of us did our voice drills. It was a wonderful, exciting atmosphere backstage, nervous but there was a beautiful camaraderie. Ron Boyter always spent a lot of time getting into character. I loved it when we had our make-up, I could watch Bill apply the make-up on the other actors. There was much flirting backstage, but I better leave that though.

Picture15Backstage VerandahWe all smoked! I remember Taylor Owynns used to look very elegant smoking from a long cigarette holder. I had been taught to smoke with more flair by Bill. Of course, we all in later years stopped smoking and so did Bill. There is another reason why I mention smoking. The characters in Bill’s plays smoked. Smoking was often a tool used to block a play, move stage right, put out cigarette in or stage right cross light a cigarette. Another actor and friend always found this amusing, indeed at parties we exaggerated and sent up the constant moves. It is said no move should be executed without a motivation, it’s just that at Tait it was mostly to butt out a cigarette. There were ashtrays everywhere on a Tait Theatre set. After the show the cast would sometimes go out for supper but often things were closed so we would make our way to Bill’s place for tea and coffee. Someone would be assigned the job of toast maker and supper would arrive. Toast with jam, Vegemite, peanut butter or whatever Bill had in the cupboard. I guess there was alcohol because James Robertson always enjoyed a drop or two. And of course, everyone smoked! The big four at Tait were Darryl Strachan, James Robertson, Kevin Holman and Anthony Busch. Later Taylor Owynns became pivotal to this ensemble along with Coralee Porter and Peter Rogers. Another name I must include is Garry Russell but more of Garry later. The plays were written as a showcase for an actor in the company. An Element of Doubt, Barrel of Money, Summer Lovin, The Goldfish Bowl, and Arthur, were just some of the plays. At times he would review a play with some re-writing. It’s regrettable that these plays disappeared with Bill because mostly they were very good. Bill created some very good sets too.

Bill loved and perfected the double exit. Non actors may not know what it is. Let me explain. An actor is about to make an exit. He says something to indicate he is leaving. (e.g. Stands looks at other character/s ) ‘I’m going now.’ (He walks to exit, pauses, turns, looks at other chacter/s ) (small pause) ‘And I hope to God I never see any of you again!’ Exits. This was a perfect way of milking some applause for that actor. William Bates got great mileage from the Double Exit.

Revue

Tait was one of the last theatres to present Revue. To be honest it was, and is, my very favourite form of theatre. While the other actors were clearly the stars of the plays, I think I can safely say that Revue was my forte. Finally, I got star billing on the posters. This was very rewarding. Many teens lack confidence and by stroking your ego Bill I think did so much good. He certainly helped me to believe in myself.

Picture16Cast of a Tait Theatre RevueRevues were once very popular. The last Revues at the Tivoli were huge hits. Is Australia Really Necessary? was a vehicle for Miriam Karlin and A Cup of Tea, a Bex and a Good Lie Down was a huge hit for Gloria Dawn at the Tivoli. These shows were great successes; however, revue was on the way out. The Tivoli and the Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney were on their last legs. Another revue Oh! Sir Henry! at the Athenaeum in Melbourne failed to get the audiences. It had everything going for it, a great cast including Sheila Bradley and Bob Hornery, a genuinely funny script and some wonderful songs including a hilarious opening song about the suburbs of Melbourne. The show attacked lots of sacred cows and it deserved much more success than it had but I think it was the end of theatrical revue.

But not at Tait Theatre! I am glad to say revue was alive and well at Tait.

Audiences came and loved them. The revues at Tait were pure vaudeville. Mostly a big opening musical number, a couple I recall were ‘The Best Things in Life are Dirty’ an irreverent send up of Paint Your Wagon, ‘Let the Sunshine In’ from Hair and ‘Comedy Tonight’ from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with the boys in the cast in very sexy togas. Tait revues did not follow a specific theme they were several diverse sketches, maybe a song or two and a finale. They were great fun both for audiences and the actors. Like all revues some sketches were better than others, but one must remember Bill wrote everything without the aid of a dramaturge or as some people say, a play doctor. Quite remarkable really. They were mostly very camp with lots of very topical gags. That’s the problem with revue, they are often trapped in the time they were written. It’s a pity really because those Tait Revues were so much fun. There was often a Christmas or holiday Revue and most had a send up of traditional melodrama. It was pure over the top fun. Audiences loved it!

IMG 0081Peter Stephenson Jones as Bertha LovedayBill asked me into the office one day and said ‘Peter, read this …’ It was a script for a character called Bertha Loveday. It was love at first sight. I was to play Bertha many, many times It was not really drag but a character. At first Bertha was a bit like Dame Edna but she changed. Bertha evolved. To Bill’s credit, he let me play around with Bertha. Wicked and apparently very funny. She said Graham Kennedy could put his shoes under her bed any time. I noticed that Kennedy often poked his tongue out and this became part of Bertha. She asked audience members to wiggle their tongues as a tribute to Graham. Bertha never stuck to the script indeed there were times I ignored the script completely. Darryl Strachan once said to me ‘I cannot believe it … you are the only one Bill allows to almost ignore the script’, Bill often joked with me ‘I really do not know why I write it’ and I have wondered all my life ‘why did Bill let me have so much freedom?’, and to this day I am not entirely sure except to suspect he wanted me to discover my limitations on my own. Here I need to explain that something odd happened with Bertha. She took me over. I sometimes left the stage thinking ‘I cannot believe I said that!’ Bill did reprimand me once and told me that in one performance I had gone too far. He was right. He dictated a new script which I had to stick to. It lasted one performance but next night Bertha took over. I had however learned about going too far. One revue I loved was called Give the Boys a Go. This revue was one of my favourites and it was one that William Bates gave me star billing for! At last, I got my name above the show’s title on the foyer billboard. At Tait that this was a great honour. Bill created an extra two characters for me. Toby who was an obnoxious young schoolboy with two front teeth missing and lots of freckles. Then there was old Charlie. I loved playing old Charlie and continued playing him often. I actually stuck to the script. It was glorious. It was comedy with a lot of pathos. He was an old man who lived with his pet budgie.

Picture18Coralee Porter & Taylor OwynnsThen there was Bertha. There was always Bertha. In one show Bertha got a featured dance routine. The boys of Tait were choreographed to sing and dance ‘Let Me Entertain You’. Bertha was to move graciously around with a few high kicks. The boys were choreographed with almost military precision. I asked Bill Why aren’t you choreographing me? Bill smiled and said ‘Why dear? You will only change it anyway’. He was right. For a few minutes I believed I was Dame Anna Neagle. Bill had me in a glorious flowing gown, and I even got a tiara. Oh, how I wish a photo survived that dance, I had great legs in those days! I did some glorious twirls. At the end of the routine the boys would kneel, and I would stunningly twirl, sit on a boy’s knee and kiss him on the cheek. I was always careful to pick the same cute boy. He was Christopher Milne who years later went on to marry the fabulous Denise Drysdale, one of Bill’s favourite students! I often compered the shows. Mostly as Bertha but sometimes as Toby. As I have said these revues required actors who could play larger than life characters and you need to be able to laugh at yourself. I recall the big three as I called them: James Robertson, Kevin Holman and Darryl Strachan playing boy scouts in a very funny sketch loaded with double entendres referring suggestively to woggles and boys rubbing sticks together to make a fire! Kevin Holman was prepared to remove his dentures and get into drag in a hilarious melodrama. Ah, the things we actors do for comedy!

Picture19Legends on the ParkLegends on the Park presented at the Hilton was one of Bill’s most exciting ventures and much of the credit goes to Garry Russell. Jill Perryman was invited to join June Bronhill, Lorrae Desmond, and Kerrie Biddell. The show had been done at the Tilbury Theatre in Sydney as one woman shows but Garry and Bill put the four of them together as a biographical musical feast. It was a wonderful show and filmed for the ABC. Bill loved these women and the four of them had a high regard for Bill

Garry Russell

Picture20William Bates & Garry RussellOne important figure at Tait Theatre was Garry Russel. Indeed, without Garry and his dedication to Bill, Tait Theatre would not have survived. After the move from Leicester Street there were several new venues. I asked Garry how he started at Tait: l joined in May 1976 together with my mate Clayton Sinclair. We both had a dancing and singing background. I was 20 then. We worked front of house at Tait on Verandah, and later performing in Ain't We Got Fun revue. We both joined the Tait board about 1977/78. We were in productions for many years including An Element of Doubt, Summer lovin, Holiday House, Goldfish Bowl, The Final Game. In 1980 the Tait building in Leicester Street was sold and we made our first of several moves. By this stage I was running the financial side of the Academy, and Tait. I later started teaching there around 1990. I was at this time on the steering committee of ACPET (Australian Council of Private Education and Training) and on an advisory committee to government in forming the National Training Board and subsequent standards. I developed a parallel promotions business with Exhibitions and shopping centres. Later we expanded the academy to include other teachers in Dance, Music, Acting, and Fencing. Bill and Garry got William Bates’ Academy accredited as a TAFE RTO (Registered Training Organisation), which was a huge achievement.

Epilogue

William Robert Bates died on the 28 February 2003. I attended the funeral and James Robertson and Garry Russell spoke brilliantly. At one-point James stopped, looked at the coffin and smiled saying I am waiting for him to give me a cue. Denise Drysdale, Taylor Owynns, Maria Mercedes were present as were many other actors of his era. It was fitting his coffin was escorted by Kevin Holman, Ron Boyter, James Robertson, Garry Russel and his Tait family.

As his coffin left the church, I felt an urge to stand and applaud as did many others who joined in the applause. We did get some odd looks. Eventually, nearly the whole congregation was standing applauding He never got the recognition I believe he deserved. Bill Bates taught many hundreds of students at his academy and although in later years some may not have known him personally it was his acting academy philosophy that was passed on and became the raison d’être of their early training. He kept Tait theatre going for over forty years. In 1994 he became a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, His plays Verandah, Element of Doubt, and The Final Game were admitted into the Library of Congress. No small achievement! A complex and difficult man but in so many ways remarkable.

Acknowledgements

Kevin Holman
Garry Russell
Frank Van Straten and Elisabeth Kumm for helping me with my declining typing skills
Taylor Owynns
And special thanks to my personal advisor Willem Tetro
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