Robert Taylor is a NIDA graduate (Technical Production) who was Playbox Production Manager from 1987–90 and Administrator from 1991–5. His Lighting Design for The Mourning After (1996 Beckett Theatre) toured extensively in 1997. From 1995–2014 he was General Manager of The National Theatre in St. Kilda.
For in and out, above, about, below,
’Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.
The poem was the starting point for designer John Beckett (for whom The Beckett Theatre is named) when planning the Malthouse conversion. In particular the design of The Merlyn Theatre was the box to play in, while the words are also a play on the name Playbox. Playbox Theatre in Exhibition Street had been the company’s home prior to a 1984 fire.
Part of the design concept for the new CUB Malthouse Theatre Complex in 1990 was to commission a series of large wall panels from Australian artists, designers, theatre workers, photographers and creatives. These were called the Phantom Figure series and were hung mainly in The Merlyn Theatre. The surrounds of the play space were meant to be filled by phantom figures, evident as you enter but that disappear with the houselights. This was suggested by Sally Marsden in early discussions with John Beckett about the new theatre. Between the aisle and the seating John Beckett had introduced the ‘amado’ which is the word used for rain shutters in Japanese architecture. While the house lights were up the audience can see across the auditorium through the amado to the phantoms. They could be seen not only from across the theatre but also at close distance as the audience enters the space.
The whole design of the Merlyn—including the gradations of blue colours (deliberately not black), the perforated screens, the extra row of seats in the sides of first balcony level to connect the balcony to the seating banks when used in a transverse configuration and the moving gantry for scenery and lighting—were to create a flexible modern performance arena. A new concept in theatre where design was to include the built environment and give options for designers and lighting not possible in a traditional environment. The Phantom Figures were an intricate part of this design.
There were 27 commissioned and 24 completed. (sadly works by Peter Corrigan, Lin Onus and David Parker were not completed). The Project was funded by William J. Forrest and organised by Bill Kelly. Artists were invited to work in oil, acrylic, ink. pastels, gouache, fabric and photography. Though envisaged as two dimensional composed of faces and upper torsos there was provision for relief works to be set back between major columns. Some panels were delivered as late as 1992 and as early as 1989. Throughout this process Kelly liaised with the artists to help them meet the opening deadline.
Bill Kelly (14/9/2022): ‘The pieces were to be (and are) identical size and large enough scale to resonate with and complement the architectural space of the theatre. Each of these characteristics contributed to giving them a presence individually and as a group.
‘One of the ideas was that the theatre would, from the time that the first audience member walked in, have a presence and begin to engage them on their “journey”. Another was that when the houselights went down the “phantom” nature of them, as a further layer of experience would continue to engage the audience until the production started. This was accomplished by asking the artists to consider the contrast of “light and dark” in the works to be made ... often resulting in “faces” or imagery that glowed in low light.
‘The selection of the artist was largely collaborative between Carrillo and myself. There was great generosity from all the artists including people like Mirka Mora, other established artists in mid-career like Wendy Stavrianos, other artists closer to the beginning of their careers such as Bigambul/Indigenous artist Leah King-Smith, Irene Barberis and more. In addition, we decided to invite some who had a connection to both theatre and visual arts like Barry Dickins, and those who commented on it at times and were better known for their graphic profile such as Michael Leunig, Peter Nicholson and Tanberg.
‘Playbox became a family not only of theatre workers but of a large section of the creative community, a place where writers, artists, designers came together in agreement that theatre was not just to be entertainment but a force for changing culture. As such, “Phantom Figures” not only became a project of its time but also a significant indicator of what was to come.’
Those commissioned were provided with the panels (2.4m x 1.2m) and a very nominal fee was offered. Given the small fee offered the proposal left ownership with the artists. The panels were to hang for at least five years and then the work would be returned or the artist could donate the piece. Many made the donation. Each piece would be rotated around the venue to allow the audiences to see all the works and be constantly surprised, while continuing to expose the artist’s work to the maximum number of people. While a few of the artists were already well known many others have achieved fame in the 32 years that have passed since— indeed for many these works were amongst their first commissions and certainly the largest. For others it represented an opportunity to experiment.
Managements and tastes change, so sadly the Phantoms Figures collection was removed and has been in storage since 2005. Oddly enough the move to a ‘new’ artistic vision onstage abandoning the programming of the previous fifteen years under Carrillo Gantner and Aubrey Mellor allowed conservative architectural thinking to ultimately prevail. The theatre was painted a conventional black while the seating was fixed. Support towers for ‘in the round’ seating (see article in The Australian above) were removed and cut up for scrap. Without them the functionality and design of The Merlyn is severely compromised artistically while the removal of the Phantoms raises similar concerns to those that have been raised about the treatment of the John Truscott interiors of The Victorian Arts Centre.
Perhaps it is time for their return?
Dr Irene Barberis is an Australian artist, based in Melbourne and London. She is a painter primarily, working also with installation, drawing, and new media art. She is also the founding director of an international arts research centre, and is an international curator and writer.
Travelling to Paris in late 1979 (after receiving an Australia Council Grant) and then the Australian Power Studio at the Cite des Arts Paris, she lived, worked and exhibited at the Cite des Arts from 1980, returning to Australia in late 1982. Other positions included Senior lecturer at the RMIT University School of Art and lecturer in painting at the Hong Kong Art School. She is the Founder and Director of the Global Centre for Drawing, Director of Metasenta Publications in Melbourne. Dr Barberis has been the International Critic for the New York-based ‘Rome Art Program’ and is associated with the SACI Institute in Florence, Italy.
Dr Barberis curated the large international survey exhibition Across the Gulf; Bahrain Dubai and Abu Dhabi: 22 Artists for the 2009 Arc Biennial Brisbane. Dr Barberis has also concentrated on major drawing exhibitions including in 2010, Contemporary Australian Drawing #1, 35 Artists, RMIT Gallery, and, Contemporary Australian Drawing #2, 84 Artists, London, 2012. Contemporary Australian Drawing #4 was held in September 2013 at the New York Studio School and included 94 Australian Artists.
In 2005, she initiated and was part of the exhibition Intersections: Reading the Space which was exhibited at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco. Her major project is The Tapestry of Light in collaboration with 4 international scholars including Emerita Professor Michelle. P. Brown (University of London), and Scientist, Professor David Mainwaring (Swinburne University).
Philip Faulks was born in England and came to Australia in 1976 at the age of 17. He attended RMIT TAFE and studied painting at the Victorian College of the Arts graduating in 1980. Subsequently he also completed a Master of Art at RMIT University in 1999. He has been an exhibiting artist since 1981 and his practice has embraced painting, drawing and sculpture. This has seen him undertake 15 Solo exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and China. He has also been included in more than 75 group exhibitions in Australia, Singapore, Vietnam and Italy. He is represented in many public collections including the Australian National Gallery Canberra, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Bendigo Art Gallery, Geelong Art Gallery, and the collection of The Chinese Government. He also has work in private collections in Australia, America, Japan, England, Ireland, and France.
Faulks describes his work as ‘A personal visual exploration of common lived experience familiar to us all’ and ‘I hope that my work contributes to the idea that the revelation of nameless internal worlds can invite recognition and understanding of our shared humanity.’
Arthur Horner was an Australian cartoonist. His major creations were the serialised adventures of Colonel Pewter, which ran from 1952 to 1970, in England and Australia, and The Uriel Report in the Melbourne Age, early 1980s.
Colonel Pewter’s adventures were published in Britain, beginning in the News Chronicle (1952), The Daily Mail (after a takeover in 1960), and then The Guardian (1964–1970). The entire run appeared in the Melbourne Age.
In 1979 he was among the eleven cartoonists included in the Age’s Black and White 125th anniversary exhibition at the Age Gallery, 250 Spencer Street—staff cartoons and photographs—along with Leunig, Nicholson, Petty, Spooner, Tandberg, Tanner, et al (reviewed by Mary Eagle, Age, 5 October 1979). He had a solo exhibition at the Age gallery in the 1970s.
David Simmonds is an Accredited Professional Photographer of AIPP (The Australian Institute of Professional Photographers) and ACMP (Australian Commercial & Magazine Photographers), Simmonds serves on the AIPP Victorian Council, the ACMP National Council and is a mentor in the AIPP Mentor Program. He is also enjoying a very rewarding experience being a volunteer photographer working for the AIPP Reflections Project. Along with many other AIPP photographers David has been taking beautiful portraits of all surviving WWII veterans in Australia for a commemorative book to be given to the Australian War Memorial for their archives.
‘My fine art photographs also hang in various private and corporate collections in Australia and overseas. I love the creativity of creating a new specially commissioned work for a client, but I also just love creating interesting and beautiful images so I have a collection already available for you to choose from if you are looking for something special for your home or office wall.’
Of the Panel project, he recalls: ‘Mine was the collage (only one as far as I remember) images went from my pictures if the burnt out original theatre in Exhibition street to the new Malthouse and its restoration to the theatre space plus performances.’
David Simmonds’ panel is currently missing.
Jeff Busby has been a commercial photographer for over 30 years with interests in entertainment, editorial, landscape and portrait projects. His clients include major Australian and International corporate organisations, publishers, advertising agencies and graphic designers. Throughout his career he has also been a leading practitioner of performance photography and has worked with many of Australia’s finest choreographers, opera singers, dancers and actors as well as opera, theatre and musical directors.
‘A photographer’s tool is thought of as a camera, but our tools also include the historic design, style and zeitgeist. And that reflects a show which is itself reflecting the time. You need sensitivity and responsiveness and, sometimes, a lighter touch.’
‘My panel was a grid of images, some repeated, some flipped of B&W 8 x 10 prints from the Hoopla 1979 production of Bertolt Brecht Leaves Los Angeles.’
William Kelly’s international reputation as an artist of conscience has been frequently acknowledged publicly with the presentation to him of the Coat of Arms of the city of Guernica, Spain; he is the only visual artist to receive an Australian Violence Prevention Award (presented by the Prime Minister and Heads of Australian Government); the first visual artist to receive the prestigious Courage of Conscience Award from the Peace Abbey, Boston, USA (others include the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, John Lennon); represented Australia in the International United Nations Human Rights Print Portfolio (in collaboration with Aboriginal artist, Benjamen McKeown); selected to represent Australia in the international print folio ‘Dialogue Among Nations’ organised by Art for Humanity, Durban, South Africa and was honoured to be selected (as the only artist represented) along with others including Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Hanna Arendt and Mahatma Gandhi in the 2016 exhibition ‘Peace Makers’ at the Guernica Peace Museum, (Guernica), Spain.
Kelly held a creative Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria (2014–2016), is an Honorary Life Member of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, was formerly Dean of The School of Art of The Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne and was a Fulbright Fellow. He received the Regional Arts Leadership Award presented by the Victorian Premier.
He has been visiting artist /guest lecturer at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University as well as Cambridge University, the New York Studio School and has also been guest lecturer at places as diverse as Yale University, the Pennsylvania (USA) Prison System and schools in India, Italy, Republic of Georgia and elsewhere.
He has exhibited in Sydney, Cologne, New York City, Melbourne and in over 20 countries including Japan, England, Sweden with solo exhibitions in Queen’s Hall (Parliament House, Melbourne) and the Shrine of Remembrance (Melbourne). His art is held in public collections including National Gallery of Australia, United Nations Collection (Geneva, Switzerland), New South Wales State Library, Guernica Peace Museum (Spain), Museum of Modern Art at Heide (Melbourne), Durban Art Gallery (South Africa), Victorian Art Centre (Melbourne), Queensland Art Gallery and others.
Anne Fraser was born in New Zealand and came to Australia at an early age. She began her career as an advertising designer before working with the National Theatre in Melbourne 1951–56. In 1955 she became the first full-time designer for the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC). In this role she designed the original 1956 production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and its subsequent London and New York seasons. After leaving the MTC, Fraser worked for a short time for the South Australian Theatre Company in the late 1960s, before being invited to become Head of Design at the Old Tote Theatre Company in Sydney in 1971. She worked with the company for six years, spending a year in Europe and the United States during this time.
In 1977 Fraser began working as a freelance designer. She again designed many productions for the MTC, including The Doll Trilogy (1977), Ring Round the Moon (1977), Electra (1978), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1980), Amadeus (1981) and The Real Thing (1984). Fraser also designed for ballet and opera companies. Her work for the Victoria State Opera includes productions of The Return of Ulysses (1980), Die Fledermaus (1981), Eugene Onegin (1983), La Traviata (1992) and set designs for My Fair Lady (1988). In 1985 Fraser worked on Capriccio and Countess Maritza for the State Opera of South Australia. For The Australian Ballet she designed the productions of La Sylphide (1985) and Don Quixote (1993).
Fraser won several Green Room Awards for her designs throughout her career and in 1993 was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her services to the arts as a theatre set and costume designer. Anne Fraser passed away in Melbourne on 20 October 2005.
The Australian Performing Arts Collection in Melbourne holds over 2,000 objects in the Anne Fraser collection. Her extensive collection ranges from miniature dolls that a young Fraser created of favourite stage and screen performers whilst a student, to letters, contracts, catalogues, programs and many hundreds of set and costume designs. After her death, an additional 146 designs, including working/preliminary drawings for various productions, were donated to the performing arts collection on her behalf by Blair Edgar. The collection reflects the designer's work with many of Australia's performing arts companies including The Australian National Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, The Australian Opera, The Victoria State Opera, The State Opera of South Australia, Playbox Theatre Company, The Australian Ballet and the Old Tote Theatre Company.
In 1989 Fraser was approached by Melbourne’s Playbox Theatre to take part in The Phantom Figures Project for the new Malthouse Theatre Complex in Southbank. Her contribution was hung with 23 others in The Merlyn Theatre from 1990–2005 after which the piece was placed into storage. It was unusual in that she chose to interpret the brief in 3D, with padded figures made from fabric samples and pieces from many of her most important designs.
Jennie Tate was one of Australia’s leading costume and set designers.
An indefatigable and much-loved figure in the arts scene, Tate trained at the Melbourne Theatre Company before embarking on a multifaceted career in which she worked in theatre, opera, film and television. She was nominated for an Australian Film Institute Award several times, winning one in 1987 for her costume work on The Umbrella Woman. Her productions of Don Giovanni and the acclaimed Andrea Chenier directed by Elke Neidhardt, remain in Opera Australia’s programming.
At the time of her death she was working on her fourth production for Bell Shakespeare, a new version of As You Like It. Bell Shakespeare's artistic director, John Bell, said: ‘Jennie was one of Australia's leading designers for many years, and was heavily influenced by her love of Japanese art and design … She was also a great teacher—teaching design at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. Jennie had something that no one else had—an understanding of the characters. There were always long talks about each character and she modelled the clothes around that. They were always spot on, so classy and so beautiful. She had a whimsical, playful quality and a colossal sense of style.’
Tate worked extensively with the Sydney Theatre Company and Company B at the Belvoir Street Theatre. Her STC credits include productions of The Glass Menagerie, Three Days of Rain, A Month in The Country and A Hard God. For television she designed costumes for dramas including The Potato Factory and The Story of Johnny O’Keefe.
For Playbox Jennie Tate worked on Rock-ola through to A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur in the old Playbox (1978–83), A Spring Song at The Studio (1985) and helped open The Malthouse in 1990 with Hotel Sorrento. In 1995 she returned for The Head of Mary which also toured to Japan.
Michael Leunig says that he fled in disgrace from formal education and pursued a successful career as a factory labourer and meatworker where he nurtured his art and philosophy before beginning work as a political cartoonist for a daily newspaper in Melbourne in 1969. The Penguin Leunig, his first book of collected cartoons, was published in 1974 and since then has produced twenty-three more collections including books of newspaper columns, poetry and prayer. His prints, paintings and drawings have been exhibited broadly and are held in various public and private collections.
Leunig’s public appearances have included on-stage conversations with people ranging from the Archbishop of Canterbury to an Indonesian President, as well as painting and poetry performances at the Sydney Opera House accompanied by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. He has also performed on stage in the Purcell Room at the National Theatre in London as the special guest of the extraordinary poet and musician Ivor Cutler, the non-conformist Glaswegian humourist, anti-noise crusader and Beatle mentor. London’s Trestle Theatre Company created an elaborate stage production based upon his work called State of Bewilderment which toured England, Ireland, Europe and Australia in the early 1990s.
Leunig provided the images and verse for the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s productions of the Carnival of Animals and the Carnival of the Humans. In 2001 he wrote songs and lyrical poetry with Neil Finn, Brett Dean and Richard Tognetti for the ACO’s production of Parables, Lullabies and Secrets and developed a series of short clay figure animations for SBS Television. Leunig’s various collaborations and journeys with indigenous painters from remote communities in northern and central Australia have greatly influenced his art, humour and philosophy.
In 1999 he was declared a national living treasure by the National Trust and awarded honorary degrees from La Trobe and Griffith universities and the Australian Catholic University for his unique contribution to Australian culture.
In August 1987 Leunig designed the stage work Lilly and May for Playbox Theatre for a season in the Victorian Arts Centre Studio The work itself had a single preview in the dusty partly gutted Malthouse building in June 1987 to a special invited audience. The performance took place in the area now known as The Beckett Theatre.
Shaun Gurton’s multi–award winning stage designs are legendary in the world of professional theatre and opera, where he has been weaving his magic since the 1970s. His recent work with the Melbourne Theatre Company includes the acclaimed productions of Hamlet, Absurd Person Singular, Julius Caesar, Richard III and Red.
As a freelance designer he has designed productions for most of the major theatre and opera companies in Australia. He has also designed many international productions. From 1990–94 he was associate director/designer for the State Theatre Company of South Australia and in 1994 was Festival Designer for The Adelaide Festival. Shaun has designed many productions for the Playbox Theatre Company including the original production of Secret Bridesmaid’s Business, The Piccadilly Bushman, Tramp’s Revenge, Sanctuary and Tears from a Glass Eye.
Overseas his work includes both Cheech and Romeo & Juliet for Centaur Theatre, Montreal, Canada, and Verona in Buenos Aries. In 1991 he was invited to design a production for the Shanghai People’s Theatre in Shanghai, China.
His many awards include Green Room Awards for Steaming, Rivers of China and Masterclass.
Karen Trott is one of Australia’s most respected scenic artists and designers. She graduated from RMIT and is a scenic artist who specialises in all elements of scenic art and finishes including murals, gilding and metal, stone and marble finishes. Her designs include Theatre, Ballet and Opera, soft and built scenery.
Her talents have been displayed in Playbox productions including Gentlemen Only, No Man’s Land, My Foot, My Tutor, Mark Twain Down Under, Café Fledermaus (first Merlyn Theatre production), Away and The Chronicle of Macbeth.
Sally Marsden worked in the Community Arts and Cultural Development sector for over 25 years. From 1985 Sally held the position of Community Cultural Development Artist at Arts Access Melbourne for a period of 11 years. During this time, Sally was also the Visual Arts Director and Designer for Somebody’s Daughter Theatre Company in Melbourne. In 1996, Sally established the Artful Dodgers Studio in Melbourne, a Jesuit Social Services program for at risk young people. In 2000, Sally received the Australia Council’s prestigious Ros Bower Award for her contribution and achievement in the field of community arts and cultural development. From 2003–2006, Sally was Community Cultural Development Projects Officer and Coordinator of the Rudder Project, an arts mentoring program provided to emerging artists interested in working with the Community Arts and Cultural Development model developed within the Artful Dodgers Studio. In 2006, Sally relocated to Tasmania and established the King Island Cultural Centre and Residency Program in partnership with the King Island Council. Sally passed away in 2018.
Sally’s work in the Malthouse was primarily with Somebody’s Daughter (The Cosmic Laundramat, Tell Her That I Love Her) but included the opening production in The Beckett Theatre (The Forty Lounge Café) for Playbox. Her earlier work with Playbox included A Manual of Trench Warfare.
Mirka Mora was made an Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture and Communication in 2002. Mirka Lane in St Kilda, off Barkly Street near the intersections of Grey and Inkerman Streets was named after the artist.
Mora’s first public showing was of three circus clown paintings on masonite at Tye’s Gallery in their commemorative exhibition of the Contemporary Art Society by 86 of its members 6–23 April 1954. She went on to have more than 35 solo exhibitions throughout her career, most in five galleries; the Contemporary Art Society, Heidi Museum of Modern Art, Douglas Galleries, Tolarno Galleries, and Watters Gallery. An important retrospective Mirka Mora: where angels fear to tread: 50 years of art 1948–1998 was held at Heide Museum of Art 1999–2000 to celebrate 50 years of her work. Mirka Mora: Charcoals 1958–1965 featured in the Melbourne Art Fair 2018, from 2–5 August, just prior to her death. She designed several shows for Playbox including both Medea and The Bacchae. Amongst Mirka Mora’s best known (and most visible) artworks is her painted ceramic mural at Flinders Street Station.
In 1984 a fire destroyed The Playbox Theatre in Exhibition Street included a major Foyer Mural painted by Mora. Her Panel commissioned for the opening of the Malthouse Theatre in 1990 was unusual as she was a noted colourist and symbolist, Mora’s paintings are often bright and bold, constantly reinventing a repertoire of recurring motifs—innocent, wide-eyed children, angels, dogs, cats, snakes and birds, and hybrids of animals and humans. She passed away in 2018 and her life was celebrated in a State Memorial, attended by over 1,200. She was the first female artist to receive a Victorian State Memorial.
Wayne Tindall has spent his life dedicated to the visual arts after studying painting at Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand.
In recent years he has created a significant body of ‘interactive work’ where he has been experimenting with the convergence of more traditional art forms (such as oil painting) with digital technology. This has resulted in several portraits that have integrated digital images and video with the more traditional art practices. Paintings that are activated using voice recognition software triggered by the viewer’s comments or can be accessed by touching various parts of the painted surface are canvases that Tindall now plays with.
During his time in Melbourne, Tindall has established and run major film production companies specialising in film, video, 3D animation and graphics for both the corporate and TV market places.
As a writer and film director he has travelled the world and even climbed the highest mountain in Europe (Mt. Elbrus in the Caucasus) directing a documentary screened on SBS television in Australia.
In New Zealand, the artist spent many of his early years studying theology with a view to becoming a Christian Pastor. A great deal of the work directly after this period and again more recently deals with the intense struggle between the unseen world of spirits and gods and the mortality and the frailty of the human condition.
‘My work is an essential expression of the “unseen real”, the spiritual being who is having a physical experience. I’m more interested in the ‘what lies beyond the veil’ and how the fine arts can provide a highway taking us from the physical to the metaphysical.’
Barry Dickins’ association with La Mama Theatre led to his first play, a translation of Ibsen’s Ghosts, performed in 1974. He has written a further 50 since then, along with numerous short stories, biographies, opinion pieces, essays and children’s books. His play for Playbox Theatre (Merlyn Theatre), Remember Ronald Ryan, won him the 1995 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. He had a long career as an educator, spending 41 years teaching English and creative writing at various schools in Melbourne (including Scotch College, Melbourne Grammar and West Preston Primary School). His experiences in the classroom served the basis for his 2013 memoirs, Lessons in Humility: 40 years of teaching.
Dickins has made numerous appearances on the stage and on the screen. His first acting role was in Barry Oakley's The Ship’s Whistles, which was staged in 1978 at the Pram Factory Front Theatre, under the direction of Paul Hampton. Since then he has appeared in: Paul Cox’s Man of Flowers (1983); James Clayden’s With Time to Kill (1987); Brian McKenzie’s With Love to the Person Next to Me (1987); Paul Cox’s The Gift (1988; Paul Cox’s Golden Braid (1990) (which Dickins also co-wrote); Brian McKenzie’s People Who Still Use Milk Bottles (1990); Frank Howson’s Flynn (1993); and Elise McCredie’s Strange Fits of Passion (1999). He also had guest roles on the television shows Winners (1985) and Wedlocked (1995).
In 1985, he appeared in a revival of Graeme Blundell’s Balmain Boys Don’t Cry (renamed The Balmain Boys) at the Kinsela’s Cabaret Theatre in Darlinghurst, Sydney. His most recent stage performance was a dramatic reading of the monologue, Ryan (a continuation of his earlier work Remember Ronald Ryan), which was performed as part of a QandA event held at Melbourne based bookshop, Collected Works.
In 2009, he published his memoirs Unparalleled Sorrow, and 2015 saw the publication by Black Pepper publishing of A Line Drawing of My Father, a memoir of the author’s father Len Dickins who served in the Second World War and was a commercial printer thereafter. It also gives a portrait of the working-class northern suburbs of Melbourne.
Leah King-Smith is a Bigambul descendant, visual artist and lecturer in the School of Creative Practice (Creative Industries) QUT, and is best known for her photo compositions.
Her work at this time repositioned Aboriginal people to be seen in a more positive light and in a spiritual and living domain. Landscape and figure were brought together in these works to showcase how important landscape is to the Aboriginal people, in addition to removing the negative connotations of confinement and control presented in the original 19th century photographs taken by Europeans.
Her 1991 series Patterns of Connection is widely recognised and has been exhibited both in Australia and overseas. King-Smith’s work was exhibited in The Thousand Mile Stare: A Photographic Exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Her early work mainly explored the ideas of identity and how it can shift throughout time.
In 1998, King-Smith was selected for inclusion in the exhibition In the Realm of Phantoms—Photographs of the Invisible at the Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, Germany. In 1997 and 1999 she was also selected for inclusion in the exhibitions Metamorphosis and Beyond Myth—Oltre il Mito, part of the Venice Biennales.
In the lead-up to the 2006 Commonwealth Games (held in Melbourne), King-Smith was given a commission by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra to create four portraits. These portraits of indigenous athletes were made using King-Smith’s photo-composition technique. In 2016 her work was exhibited in the group exhibition Over the Fence, and documented in the accompanying catalogue Over the Fence, Contemporary Indigenous Photography from the Corrigan Collection.
Her work is held across Australia in collections including the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Australia, the State Library Victoria, Art Gallery of New South Wales and other public galleries. Her artworks are also in private collections, as well as in some international collections.
Ron Tanberg was an Australian illustrator and political cartoonist who contributed to The Age newspaper in Melbourne, Australia from 1972. Tandberg’s credits include eleven Walkley Awards (including two Gold). Tandberg won the Melbourne Press Club Quill Award for Best Illustration in Any Medium in 2006 and the Quills People’s Choice Award in 2002. It was the same year he was awarded National Museum’s Australia Political Humour award for best political cartoon, which he also won in 2003. He was inducted into the Melbourne Press Club’s Victorian Hall of Fame in 2014.
Sandra Matlock originally trained as a Graphic Designer. She then switched passions and learnt on the job with the Melbourne Theatre Company. She began designing sets and costumes for the original Victoria State Opera, as well as the fledgling Victorian College of the Arts, including a production directed by Malcolm Robertson, who introduced her to the Playbox.
Joining Hoopla/Playbox in 1979 as Production Manager, she also designed several productions including Barry Dickens’ Lonely Lenny Lower, and oversaw all productions in both Exhibition Street theatres for the next five years of the company, including the hugely successful Gentleman Only designed by renowned architect Peter Corrigan.
In 1989 she joined John Beckett for the final year of the fitout of the Malthouse and was part of the team working on the Malthouse Opening Celebrations. Sandra has worked with companies big and small including Circus Oz, Victorian Arts Council, the City of Melbourne and the Melbourne International Festival for the Arts plus national and international touring companies. The visual arts in all its forms remain a passion.
Rennie Ellis worked, at various stages of his life, as an advertising copywriter, seaman, lecturer, television presenter and founder of Brummels Gallery of Photography, Australia's first dedicated photography gallery, where he established both a photographic studio and an agency dedicated to his work, published 17 photographic books, and held numerous exhibitions in Australia and overseas. Gregarious and outspoken, Ellis was never shy of controversy; in 1968 he rode a penny-farthing bicycle along St. Kilda Road in a publicity stunt in protest against Melbourne’s air pollution. Later, in his photographic career, he was to become known for his confronting imagery of Australian lifestyles.
In 1975 he opened his studio, Rennie Ellis & Associates, at the same premises, and operated from there for the rest of his life.
Once established as a photographer, Ellis worked, exhibited and published continuously; he showed, for example, in 1976 with Carol Jerrems’ Heroes and Anti-Heroes at The Photographers’ Gallery and Workshop. Magazines to which he contributed were diverse; Playboy and The Bulletin. His books and exhibitions were on Australian popular culture, including the beach, beer, graffiti, Australian railway stations and the Rio carnival.
In 1993 his work was also included in Picture Freedom, an exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery in London and also exhibited Further Observations at Melbourne’s Photographers’ Gallery, 29 February–17 March 1996.
Ellis worked with designer Peter Corrigan on the Playbox production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago as Image and Slide Designer in 1979.
Jane Eagger is currently one of the most established contemporary artists exploring the urban landscape.
‘A feeling of alienation is created in my work through abstraction of urban symbols, which comment on the instability and rapid pace of change experienced today. I feel that our society clings to past technologies and ideas, as in a nostalgic world we are grounded and anchored to a known but ultimately false perception.’
Interaction is encouraged through working with space and colour to create a visual dialogue between the artwork and the viewer. Her work speaks of the temporary and illusionary, to question and provoke the viewer’s own fears towards the unknown.
While she now considers it home, Australia was an intimidating, foreign place when she arrived by boat in the 1950s. The experience of this nautical viewpoint must have been a powerful one because it continues to influence the nature of her work. “Enigmatic images of rich colour and a strong sense of personal connectedness to my surrounds inform my interpretation of that experience.
‘My artworks blend past and present to visually reflect the tension of our society between the solidity of the past and an uncertain future.’
Eagger was Assistant Designer on The Execution of Steele Rudd at the Playbox Theatre.
Mike Nicholls is a multi-talented artist. He is as adept with the paintbrush as the chainsaw, the pencil and the chisel. His paintings over recent years have been pared back, bordering at time on the minimal. His sculpture is the opposite—gnarled and elegant, brutal and beatific. It is nothing if not complex.
His work is in The Australian National Gallery, The Heide Museum of Modern Art, The Myer Collection, National Gallery of Victoria, and regional galleries across Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Both the Holmes a Court Collection and Sir William Dobell Foundation include his pieces.
Peter Nicholson was an Australian political cartoonist, caricaturist and sculptor. He has won five Walkley Awards. Nicholson has also produced animated political cartoons for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the TV series Fast Forward, and was involved in the Rubbery Figures television series. Rubbery Figures Pty Ltd is the company that Peter Nicholson has used for many years as the production entity for various TV, video, and web animation projects and for his newspaper cartoons and other cartoon projects.
He remembers ‘One of my early cartoons created a big hoo-ha. Gough and Margaret Whitlam were in China, when a big earthquake struck the town. My cartoon showed them cuddled up in bed, with Margaret asking Gough “Did the earth move for you too dear?” Talkback went ape and many people wrote to the editor, saying they would cancel their subscriptions because the cartoon was in such poor taste. Whitlam announced he liked the cartoon, and later would refer to the whole incident as if it somehow reflected favourably on his potency.’
Nicholson created the busts of Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, which are part of the Prime Ministers Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens. In 1994 a one-man show of his work was put on in an empty hallway of the National Gallery of Victoria, thanks to the imaginative entrepreneurship of gallery director James Mollison. It was called The Rubbery Years, and was later taken up by the National Museum and toured all around Australia.
Wendy Stavarianos has held regular solo exhibitions since 1967 in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. She was awarded a Diploma of Fine Art, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (1961) and an M.A. Fine Art, Monash University (1997).
Institutional exhibitions of Stavrianos’ work include Mantles of Darkness (1994, touring regional galleries including Ararat, Castlemaine, Geelong, McClelland and the Nolan Gallery ACT), A Metaphysical Edge at Bendigo Art Gallery (2005), Night’s Edge at the Art Gallery of Ballarat (2008) and Fragments of Memories at LaTrobe University Museum of Art (2011). Touring retrospectives to regional galleries in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales have been staged by the Sydney University of Technology (1999) and The Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University (1997). A monograph of Stavrianos’ work was published in 1996. She has been a finalist in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Sulman Prize (2001, 2002, 2007, 2009) and is a recipient of the Swan Hill Drawing Prize (2000), the Dominique Segan Drawing Prize, Castlemaine, Victoria (1992) and the MPAC Drawing Acquisitions Award (1977).
Stavrianos’ work is held in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia; the National Gallery of Victoria; the Art Gallery of Western Australia; Parliament House, Australia; the Museum of Arts and Sciences, Darwin; Heide Museum of Modern Art; the Australian Catholic University, regional galleries, tertiary collections, and corporate and private collections in Australia and overseas.
‘The 1980s was for me an incredibly creative time, although a period of great upheaval. There was an outpouring of work between 1980 and 1990 that expressed authentic emotions, not of the fake kind. These were so overpowering at times that they seemed to break through a wall inside me, shattering all the past conditioning that had been built up since childhood. It was as if I had come to a crossroad, where life and art merged and could not be separated. I felt then, that my passion had at last found its form.’
The melding of the female body and nature that Stavrianos uses to anthropomorphise her works allows her to present the ecological in personal and archetypal ways. But the works are also deep in their exploration of psyche and self, the dark side of the unconscious, the fragmentation of the dream state in scenes of horror, complicity and carnage. Critics have compared her work to Goya, among others.
Jennifer Talbot has held 17 one-woman exhibitions of her paintings in Melbourne since 1969.
Talbot has been involved in many causes, particularly to do with animals and conservation. After the removal of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1975 she exhibited with dozens of others as a form of protest (26–28 November):Artists For Labor And Democracy (Toorak Gallery).
Talbot’s handwritten and illustrated book Whales was published in 1981. Through the Eye of the Buddha, also handwritten and illustrated, was published in 1993. The Tree of Life from Nemi to Global Warning was published in 2006. It has 190 illustrations.
The biographies of Michael Leunig, Rennie Ellis, Wayne Tindall and Philip Faulks are from their home pages or the web, that of Anne Fraser from the Australian Performing Arts Museum and Dr Irene Barberis, Barry Dickins, Leah King-Smith and Mirka Mora from Wikipedia.
Ausstage has assisted with connections between the artists and Playbox Malthouse. The Public Art Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, also holds some images of the collection though not a full set.
Mark Pritchard (Malthouse) for providing access to the stored collection.
William J. Forrest AM, LL.B (Hons.), MBA was commissioned in 1966 as a Lieutenant in the Royal Australian Infantry Corps. After completing the battle-efficiency course at Canungra, Bill spent time at the Infantry Centre, and deployed to Vietnam, as the Administrative Officer of the 1st Australian Reinforcement Unit. Bill was posted to 9 RAR in 1969. After Vietnam, Bill Forrest joined a top law firm in Melbourne and in 1973 he completed his Master’s degree in business administration at Harvard University. Bill Forrest returned to Melbourne, re-joining his old law firm in October 1982. In June 1995 he retired from the firm to pursue his many other interests. Bill has served on numerous boards: from listed companies to universities and across the arts; in airport privatisation; financial services; and in health, education and sport. He became a National Benefactor of the Royal Australian Regiment Foundation in November 2012.
Forrest funded the Phantom Figures Project as part of the development of The Malthouse Theatre Complex in 1989 and has continued to support The Malthouse as well as The Australian Ballet, The Melba Trust, The Production Company, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Abbotsford Convent, Victorian Opera, Melbourne Festival, The Stroke Foundation and Musica Viva amongst many others. In 2015 he commissioned Kym Dillon’s Musculi, performed by the Orava Quartet.
In June 2005 he was appointed a member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to the community as a benefactor and advisor to charitable organisations.
As the photographs of the works were taken under certainly less than ideal conditions (in a Warehouse) there is some key-stoning in the images. In order to capture the full image some superfluous background is also included. My apologies for this but the colour and richness of the works was better in this form than any of the other images on hand. The Rennie Ellis picture is intentionally blurred by the artist. The Mirka Mora and Michael Leunig panels use supplied images.
Photos and programs are from my personal collection or The CUB Malthouse Malthouse Commemorative Opening Book (1990 Murray Copland) unless otherwise noted.
If I were to construct a history of Australian theatre which included a private company (run by an opera singer!) which established one of Australia’s first training schools in opera, (1935) ballet (1939) and drama (1936) there would be those who assumed it was fiction. If I said she also ran Australia’s first professional opera (1938), ballet (1939) and drama companies (1937) in Australia, no one would believe me. If I were to add that this company led to the national companies we have today with literally years of groundwork and productions that toured Australia and New Zealand people might well think I was mad. Yet it’s all true, and the company still exists today. Her name was Gertrude Johnson and she founded The Australian National Theatre Movemement in 1935.
A brief word on the career of this amazing woman. Her professional opera debut was in 1915 in Melbourne and she was quickly offered contracts touring with professional opera companies that then operated commercially in Australia and New Zealand. In 1920 she travelled to London where she sang with The British National Opera Company at Covent Garden and in regional cities. She was heard on the first live BBC Radio Broadcast of an opera and sang Musetta to Dame Nellie Melba’s Mimi in La Boheme during one of Dame Nellie’s farewells. Having established a sympathetic relationship with composer/pianist Cyril Scott at this time they performed many concerts together and she premiered much of his work. One piece was dedicated to her. She returned to Melbourne in 1935 determined to establish a National Theatre so Australians could work and train in their own country.
Yet you simply don’t find a mention of The National Theatre Ballet Company (over 87 productions) which helped Borovansky and gave him a public stage from 1939 through the war years. The first Australian ballet using indigenous themes (Corroboree) was composed by John Antill in 1950 (choreographer Rex Reid) and toured Australia and New Zealand while the first Australian ballet based on the Melbourne Cup was actually Cup Fever (1962). The introduction of Indian and Asian forms and themes to dance in Australia? Look no further than the tours of Indra Vijayam under The National Theatre banner.
Let us drop a few names. Mary Hardy, Ray Lawler, John Cargher, George Fairfax, Stefan Haag, Rex Reid, Leon Kellaway, Frank Thring, Marie Collier, Lance Ingram, Robin Lovejoy, Marie Cumisky, Kenneth Rowell, Robert Allman, June Jago, Irene Mitchell, Nance (Nancy) Grant, Elizabeth (Betty) Fretwell, Lauris Elms, John Shaw, Dame Margaret Scott, Valrene Tweedie, Jonathan Summers, Dorothea Deegan, Anne Fraser, Kat Stewart, John Truscott, Richard Cawthorne, Helen Noonan, Lynne Golding, Joyce Graham, and Henry Danton. Just to mention a few of the great dancers, designers, actors, administrators, playwrights, and singers who started at The National. For over ten years Ray Lawler worked as an actor and director for the company which staged a dozen of his early plays before Summer of the Seventeenth Doll became an international hit for The Union Repertory Company.
While much of the programming by this mostly unfunded company relied on the classics and the plays set by the Education Department for schools, a large percentage was new and innovative. The Ballet Company introduced Australia to the first full length (4 Act) Swan Lake using the full score (1951) which then undertook national tours including New Zealand. Lynne Golding made her Melbourne debut as Odette/Odile with Henry Danton, Joyce Graeme and Leon Kellaway. ‘A milestone in the ballet in Australia … a triumphant production and a flawless performance …’ (The Sun newspaper). The production used Petipa and Ivanov’s choreography from Leningrad which was later revived by both Borovansky and The Australian Ballet. Described as flawless it received 18 curtain calls on opening night. This production ended up touring with Corroboree which was described as the first Australian Ballet using aboriginal themes. Corroboree opened in Sydney to raves and high praise of Rex Reid’s choreography and the dancers’ performances. Margaret Scott was in the cast as the Thippa Thippa Bird and is quoted (by Frank van Straten in his 1994 book National Treasure) as saying:
I think the National Theatre Ballet was far more important than Borovansky was. It was really starting something Australian, whereas Boro’s was a commercial venture with Williamson’s, recycling European tradition. Gertie’s dream of a National Theatre was much more important, much bigger, taking in the whole nation and including her schools.
The National Movement held a competition in 1952 for Best New Australian play. It was won by Cradle of Thunder by Ray Lawler, while works by Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller were premiered regularly as well as the first Australian Rules musical (All Saints Day 1961). The Drama Company presented over 114 productions alone and introduced Anne Fraser, Lewis Fiander, Zoe Caldwell, June Jago, Patricia Kennedy, Robin Lovejoy, John Truscott, Mary Hardy and many others to Australian audiences. After several attempts to gain the rights, Death of a Salesman had its Australian premiere in July 1953.
The Opera Company (over 120 productions) followed this pattern by premiering much of Menotti’s work including the spine-chilling The Consul in 1953 starring Marie Collier (who went on to have an international career) and Amahl and the Night Visitors was premiered in 1954. Not only presented in the capital cities the new works were staged in regional NSW, Victoria and SA. Tours regularly included Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane and Broken Hill. This same company undertook The Flying Dutchman as its first opera in 1938 and The Royal Command Performance of Tales of Hoffman (1954) before Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Held at the Princess Theatre this production was broadcast live to the crowd gathered outside in Spring Street—an estimated audience of 20,000! Stefan Haag produced and directed the production which was the first Australian production of the opera in a modern setting. Many of those who saw it felt it didn’t work particularly and much of the opera was cut for the benefit of the Royal Party. When asked by Justine Rettick afterwards if he liked opera The Duke of Edinburgh replied that he hated it! Nonetheless the night was a sensational success with the Queen expressing the hope that the singers would all be heard in London shortly. Ironically the success of this performance gave impetus to the establishment of The Elizabethan Theatre Trust with which The National Theatre could not compete.
No mention of The National Theatre Opera Company as a precursor to The Elizabethan Theatre Trust Opera Company ever seems to find its way into the historical narrative—despite the fact that The Elizabethan Theatre Trust was established because of the success of local artistic contributions to the Royal Tour. The link is all the clearer when Gertrude Johnson (Founder and Administrator of The National Theatre) was given a place on the 1954 Advisory Board for the new Opera Company. It was hoped that the commercial opera producers (mainly E.J.Tait) would combine with The National Theatre Opera Company and the short-lived Sydney National Opera to create the new company. This was not to be due to the very strong personalities involved, which left a fully funded Government Organisation to compete with The National Theatre not only in opera but also ballet and drama. Most of the members of the new Elizabethan Theatre Company were the experienced performers and creative artists of The National Theatre.
Despite the rise of The Elizabethan Trust the National Theatre Movement was not quite done. Its three training schools were continuing and doing well. Indeed the Drama and Ballet Schools—now resident in St Kilda—are Australia’s oldest and both offer professional qualifications. The Opera School continued until 1980 when it merged fully with the new VCA School of Opera. In 2006 the VCA closed the Opera School and in 2008 Linda Thompson founded The Opera Studio whose production division is Gertrude Opera (named after The National’s Founder). It has produced two Opera Festivals in Nagambie as well as the Yarra Valley and is now known as The Australian Contemporary Opera Company. While the Opera Studio is a separate company the link continues with The Gertrude Johnson Estate providing Student Awards to all art forms.
National Theatre Collection. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Theatre Heritage Australia
From 1954 the National Theatre concentrated on its role as a training institute but still presenting Shakespeare and Opera in the Park (Treasury Gardens) from 1955 including the opening of the Myer Music Bowl in 1959. Featuring in all the early Moomba Festivals from 1955 (the first), its most extraordinary event was the 1958 staging of Hiawatha in the Olympic Swimming Stadium built for the 1956 Games in Melbourne. This event included singers, actors, dancers, canoe groups, life savers, choral societies and the full resources of The National Theatre with the performance taking place both in and out of the pool!
By 1969 with the last of the ten National Theatre Three Arts Festivals (started 1948) the three professional companies were officially put to bed, though in reality they had done little since 1954. A 1960 Festival had been mounted at the Palais Theatre for Moomba (with no drama component) but it was a subdued affair after the extensive seasons at the Princess Theatre. Surprisingly The National Theatre turned its attention, in association with the Tivoli Theatres, to producing musicals though its first had been Alaya at the Princess Theatre twenty years earlier. From 1961 to 1964 The Student Prince, The Desert Song, Show Boat and The New Moon were presented in both Melbourne and Sydney by the companies with much success though both Show Boat and The New Moon were faced with strong competition from touring commercial musicals. The association with the Tivoli Theatres in this period also led to a host of pantomimes which proved profitable to both groups.
Notably the National Theatre had to endure three disastrous fires starting with the Toorak Village Theatre in 1962. This was by far the most damaging as the conversion of the cinema to a live venue with spacious studios for the schools was almost complete when an electrical fault ignited on 18 April. The building was totally destroyed leaving Toorak Road closed while the walls teetered. Initial plans to build a new home on the same site became impossible as costs escalated. Eventually the company had to sell and then lost its temporary home (Toorak Theatrette) in a nearby building to fire in 1968. Productions moved to The Union Theatre at Melbourne University, while The Empress Theatre in Prahran was purchased in 1969. This time work had not commenced before a fire in one of the tenants’ premises broke out in June 1971. A quick sale followed and later that year the company, under General Manager John Cargher, purchased the Victory Theatre in St Kilda. The Victory was a 2550 seat cinema built in 1921 which was scheduled for sale by Hoyts. The most common expectation was that it would be demolished and a shopping centre built on the site. However, Hoyts elected to sell the building to The National Theatre Movement for conversion to studios and a new live theatre venue. The three performing arts schools moved in to the converted stalls in 1972 and the theatre—using the dress circle as auditorium and the addition of a fly tower—opened in 1974.
Surprisingly there was one last attempt at re-establishing a professional opera company. In 1970 the Arts Council approached John Cargher about returning to professional production rather than just arts training. Joan Harris had just created the three year Acting Course in the Drama School and expanded the classes for children in drama, while the Ballet School had large numbers of enrolments. The Opera School was also doing well with its productions at The Union Theatre. Financially the company seemed secure and plans were well in hand to convert The Empress Theatre in Chapel Street. Against this background The Melbourne Opera Company (not related to the current company) came into being. Its primary aim was to provide employment for Victorian opera singers and theatre professionals.
So, in 1971 at The Princess Theatre the National made one last attempt at reclaiming its past glories. After a concert at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl (for Moomba) the new company opened with an odd double bill directed by Brian Crossley. The Secret of Susanna was an opera about a secret smoker while Help, Help, the Globolinks! was a new children’s opera by Menotti adding to an already long list of Menotti premieres in Australia. This was followed by The Merry Wives of Windsor and Cosi fan tutte. The season lost a great deal of money and put an end to professional productions by the National. A quote found by historian Frank Van Straten AM from The Age (Felix Werder) is strangely familiar to Melbourne fifty years later:
There are at present more than half a dozen opera companies in Melbourne, but not one really adequate opera school. Opera in Melbourne is like the Mexican army, in that it has too many would-be generals who form break-away armies, ill-equipped and bent on fighting parish-pump skirmishes.
Following the death of Jean Alexander in 1972 the Australian Prima Ballerina Marilyn Jones took over the Ballet School which gave it new standing in the dance world. The school more than doubled when Kathleen Gorham’s Ballet Academy merged with it in January 1975, with Miss Gorham becoming Associate Director and Sir Robert Helpmann becoming patron. Eventually (1978) Miss Jones became Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet and was replaced by Gailene Stock until 1985—eventually Miss Stock became Director of The Australian Ballet School and then The Royal Ballet School. With Marilyn Rowe as Associate Director (1983) her husband Gary Norman joined the National. John Cargher used Mr Norman’s recent international exposure in Spartacus and other male roles to promote ballet as ‘A Career for Men’—it was a huge success and suddenly The National Theatre was on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald!!
With the death of the founder Gertrude Johnson in 1973 the company was not in the best of positions. Newly appointed John Cargher as CEO, Joan Harris as Director of Drama and eventually Marilyn Jones as Director of Ballet—together with Peter Rorke in The Opera School—needed time to revitalise the moribund company. The fire in 1971 and the task of converting The Victory Theatre into a useful live theatre both for the company and Melbourne was ahead of them. No wonder that Miss Johnson’s Will lincluded a provision covering the collapse of the company and the fate of her estate. As history now reveals the company was revived and continues to re-invent itself. As Associate Director of the Ballet School Joanne Adderley introduced accreditation and an academic discipline to the Ballet School which now offers an Advanced Diploma and accepts international students. After the retirement of Joan Harris in 1997 this direction was also followed by the Drama School under Babs McMillan and Ken Boucher. In 1995 I was appointed as CEO and advances in training for both schools as well as building modifications for the 21st century were undertaken—not the least of which was handicapped access in the auditorium and heritage listing of the building in 2006. The size and scale of the Annual Ballet School performances under Miss Beverly Jane Fry from 1997 grew as the standards increased and graduates gained international careers.
Today this company continues in the heritage National Theatre in St Kilda, operating an essential mid-sized auditorium for Melbourne (783 seats) as well as two essential arts training schools. The building has celebrated its 100th birthday in 2021 and the company that has been based there since 1971 will do the same in 2035.
View programs on the THA Digital website
Robert Taylor is a NIDA graduate who has been Technical Director of The Australian Nouveau Theatre, Production Manager for the Playbox Theatre and Malthouse, Administrator for both Playbox and Malthouse and General Manager of The National Theatre for 19 years. He is indebted to Frank Van Straten’s research and knowledge for the basis of this article.
John Cargher, Luck was My Lady, 1996
John Ritchie (general editor), Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 14, 1940–80
Frank Van Straten, National Treasure, 1994
National Theatre advertising brochure, 1996
National Theatre Conservation Plan, 2013
Archives of The National Theatre held at the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
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