Stage by Stage
ROBERT TAYLOR, director of the National Theatre in St Kilda, Melbourne, for nineteen years, takes a look at the history of The Australian National Theatre Movement founded by Gertrude Johnson in 1935.

nla.obj 144259189 1Gertrude Johnson, c.1955. National Library of Australia, Canberra.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.

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.

Sound familiar?

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.



The Author

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