Little Theatre Movement

A peek at Sydney's 'little theatre' movement
from Gae's perspective 1960-80

ensembleI arrived in Sydney in October 1960, in the belief that life in the 'big smoke' offered greater opportunities for me than eisteddfod appearances, and amateur acting with the Wagga School of Arts Players.

I kept my dream of Sydney theatrical success alive by taking lunch-hour speech and drama lessons with Bryson Taylor in the city's Angel Place, and attending Saturday morning acting classes at the Ensemble Theatre in McDougall Street, Kirribilli.

The year I arrived in Sydney, Hayes Gordon, a charismatic American actor, founded the Ensemble in an old boatshed at Careening Cove. Apart from upholding the worth of 'ensemble' values in production, he engendered the qualities of enthusiasm and optimism among his devotees. He believed American drama, in tandem with The Method style of acting training, deserved to take its place alongside the European-based drama being performed by other local groups.

Feeling less secure with Hayes' 'Method' than I at first anticipated, I consulted with Bryson Taylor about changing direction in my fledgling career. Bryson's letter of introduction to his good friend Doris Fitton of the Independent Theatre in Miller Street, North Sydney secured me a place in her acting school.

Apart from the New Theatre in Forbes Street, East Sydney (now located in King Street, Newtown), the Independent was the only other theatre in Sydney providing actors with consistent work and experience. (The alternative on offer before television started in 1956, was radio drama and serials with either the ABC or commercial networks.)

During one of my evening classes, Miss Fitton called me aside and offered me a bit part in her forthcoming production of Galileo. On the bus going home to Manly, I fantasised that one day I might become a leading lady in the Fitton mould, or, better still, her arch rival and my namesake, Dame Judith Anderson. The following week, however, my hopes were dashed when Miss Fitton called me aside to announce in a sonorous tone, 'We've had to make drahhhstic cuts'.

An audition for Robert Quentin and Tom Brown in 1961, gained me a place in the two-year acting program at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), Kensington.

I dreaded breaking the news to Miss Fitton who had been supportive of my work. Her cold response, 'What can they possibly teach you?', came from a bitterness toward Quentin and Brown who had received substantial backing for their NIDA venture from the University of NSW, the ABC and the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT).

Memories flood back of rehearsals for my first NIDA production Our Town directed by John Clark, and of dance drama classes with the demanding but charismatic Margaret Barr.

In February 1963, the Old Tote Theatre (now Figtree Theatre) at the top end of the UNSW campus, began to showcase its first play season with a cast of professional actors. Together with walk-on roles in Hamlet and The Playboy of the Western World for the Old Tote, I featured at the end of the year in my NIDA graduation production Ballad of Angel's Alley, directed by Richard Campion.

In October 1966, I put my acting and singing skills to good use. I masqueraded as a quartet of characters for Robin Lovejoy's production of Edward Geoghegan's colonial comedy The Currency Lass. This play - first performed in Sydney in 1845 - formed a trilogy of short plays with The Pier and I've Come About the Assassination which opened the inaugural season of Australian plays at the Jane Street Theatre, Randwick.

Jane Street formed part of an ambitious attempt by the Old Tote Theatre and the UNSW Drama Foundation to introduce Australian works-in-progress on a professional basis. The theatre, an old Anglican church leased from the ladies of the Order of the Eastern Star, retained much of its character, but had been modified to accommodate about 100 patrons.

In the early seventies, I appeared at the Community Theatre, Killara in Peter Collingwood's production The Girl in the Freudian Slip. The survival of this little theatre, launched by Alexander Archdale in 1965, and later known as the Marian Street Theatre, can be attributed in large part to the creative energy of John Krummel, the theatre's director for 18 years. John bade farewell to Marian Street  when it ceased production after the final performance of Nick Enright's 'A Poor Student' in October 2001. Directed by Jennifer Hagan (another graduate from our NIDA year), it starred Tony Sheldon.

John and I were educated in Wagga Wagga, and from an early age shared aspirations to 'tread the boards'. When I chanced to meet John in Double Bay in 1962, I asked him what he was doing in Sydney. He announced, 'I'm going to NIDA,' to which I replied, 'So am I'.

In 1978, I returned to Kensington for a Q Theatre audition on the top floor of NIDA's Old Totalisator building. Despite my recollection of gruesome 'swinging into back-bend' exercises with Margaret Barr many years earlier, I got the job.

Contracted to the Q for 15 months, I appeared in How the Other Half Loves, The Good Soldier Schweik, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Father, The Department, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber and Absent Friends.

The Q Theatre began its life as a Lunch Hour Theatre Group at the A.M.P. Theatrette, Circular Quay on 2 December 1963. Its members comprised six professional actors: Ben Gabriel, Edward Hepple, Robert McDarra, Terry McDermott, Walter Sullivan and Doreen Warburton.

In 1977, the Group abandoned its Quay venue and based all future work in the Railway Institute building in Penrith, near the Railway Station. Doreen Warburton, the Q Theatre's dedicated artistic director, ran the company for an impressive 26 years, 1963-1989.

Although I abandoned my acting career when I entered La Trobe University in 1982, it's encouraging to know that, apart from the demise of the Jane Street and Marian Street theatres, the others remain:  Cell Block, Darlinghurst; Q Theatre now at Penrith's Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre; Independent, Ensemble; Old Tote (now Figtree Theatre), and Nimrod, later SBW Stables now Griffin.

In an age where Sydney's large-scale theatres, such as the Tivoli opposite Belmore Park and Her Majesty's near Central Railway have disappeared, the smaller ones still stand the test of time, defiant against the developer's ball and chain.

For the record, the rescue of the Independent and the original Nimrod is solely due to the generosity of the Seaborn, Broughton & Walford Foundation (SBW).