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Highlights in Australian theatre history

European settlers brought Western traditions of theatre to Australia in the 1780s. Like other art forms, Australian theatre has built on previous traditions and developed over time, shaped by local and international artistic movements, events and trends.

Australian theatre history incorporates the stories of many actors, entrepreneurs, playwrights, directors and others, working behind the scenes and on stage, across many cities and towns. Countless performances have entertained, enchanted, bored, captivated and confronted Australian audiences. There have been amateur and professional groups, local performers and artists visiting from other countries, lavish large-scale productions and small community-based shows featuring plays and performances written by Australians and imported from other countries. Focusing mostly on professional theatre in Australia's capital cities, here are a few highlights.

Establishing theatre - the early years 1788 - 1849

Princess theatre, Melbourne 1892

Princess Theatre, Melbourne c. 1892.
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an7946263-8.

Early colonial drama consisted mostly of English-style musical theatre, comedies and pantomimes that took on local themes. The disordered fun of the theatre at this time did not match the idea of Australia as a penal colony, a place of punishment for convicts. Some authorities believed theatre to be a bad influence, others felt it was useful entertainment and these views affected the way theatre developed here.

The authorities struggled with issues such as badly-behaved theatre audiences, theatre licences and crime. Meanwhile, a few people set up theatres and presented performances, with varying, and then growing, success.

1780s

As part of the June celebrations of King George III's birthday in 1789, convicts performed George Farquhar's comedy, The Recruiting Officer, in Sydney. Governor Phillip attended the play with around sixty other people including Captain Watkin Tench, who recorded the occasion in his journal.

1790s

Robert Sidway established a theatre in Sydney where performances continued until at least 1800.

1830s

Barnett Levy established Sydney's Theatre Royal in 1833. Adelaide's Theatre Royal, the first in that city, opened in the same year as Sydney's Royal Victoria Theatre, in 1838.

1840s

The Pavilion, Melbourne's first theatre, opened in 1841. George Coppin arrived in Australia in 1843, appearing on a Sydney stage in the plays The Performer and The Loan of a Lover.

Golden years 1850 - 1899

1850s

The gold rushes of the 1850s brought a growth in population and increased trade and wealth from the goldfields. There was a growing demand for theatre entertainment, and Shakespeare and opera performances increased. Touring companies such as the New York Serenaders (1851) and the Backus Minstrels (1855) brought minstrel shows to Australia from California.

George Coppin brought actor G V Brooke to Australia in 1855, and also The Wizard Jacobs, sparking a stream of visits by English and American magicians over decades to follow.

1860s

The Lyster Opera Company came to Australia in 1861. Most touring minstrels now came from Britain. Actors Barry Sullivan, Charles and Ellen Kean and Walter Montgomery toured Australia. Walter Cooper's comedy, Colonial Experience, premiered at Sydney's Royal Victoria Theatre in July 1868, bringing an entertaining and recognisably local flavour to the stage. Cooper's play was acclaimed at the time by the Sydney Morning Herald as 'the most successful colonial play produced on the Sydney boards.'

1870s

In the 1870s, entrepreneur W S Lyster added Italian and English opera, and a variety of other acts, to his touring program. Visiting stars included Harry Rickards, JC Williamson, Maggie Moore and Adelaide Ristori. Improvements to transport brought more American companies to Australia, such as the Georgia Minstrels in 1877-80.

1880s

These were the heydays of Australian star Nellie Stewart. Alfred Dampier presented Sydney audiences with plays such as His Natural Life in 1886 and The Life and Death of Captain Cook in 1888. Janet Achurch, on tour from England, performed Ibsen's A Doll's House in 1889.

Many major theatres were built during the 1880s including The Princess and The Alexandra in Melbourne, Her Majesty's and the Criterion in Sydney, and the Theatre Royal and Her Majesty's in Brisbane.

1890s

The international star Sarah Bernhardt toured Australia in 1891. American touring ensembles brought vaudeville-style theatre to Australia. In 1893 Harry Rickards founded Sydney's Tivoli Theatre and the Tivoli vaudeville circuit.

Shifting concerns 1900 - 1949

Early 1900s

Nance O'Neill starred in a Melbourne production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabbler in 1900. Australian Federation in 1901 brought a new sense of nationalism - people looked for ways to express a unique Australian identity. The Squatter's Daughter, or, The Land of the Wattle (1907) by Bert Bailey and Edmund Duggan was a highly successful play of this time with a bushranger plot.

1910s

Theatre continued to take up Australian themes. Steele Rudd's landmark play, On Our Selection, and Louis Esson's play, The Time Is Not Yet Ripe, were highlights of 1912. Through the world of characters Dad, Mum, Dave, Joe and Sarah Rudd, the comic melodrama, On Our Selection, took a look at success, struggle and work in the lives of ordinary Australians. Director Bert Bailey also played the role of Dad in this runaway success, which played to over one million Australians and New Zealanders between 1912 and 1916. It is still performed by Australian theatre companies to this day.

During this period vaudeville continued on but fewer actors and travelling troupes could be imported due to World War I. Shows now rested on local performers such as Stiffy and Mo (Nat Phillips and Roy Rene). This duo starred in the highly successful Australian pantomime, The Bunyip (1916).

1920s

Musical comedy was popular in America at this time and Australia followed suit. Gladys Moncrieff starred in The Maid of The Mountains in 1921. Alfred Frith, Cecil Kellaway, Dorothy Brunton and Minnie Love were among other Australian musical theatre performers of this period.

Following the 1929 stock market crash, the Great Depression hit the Australian theatre world very hard. Live shows were taxed and had to compete with cinema and radio entertainment. However, many amateur, semi-professional and smaller theatre groups began springing up at this time.

1930s

In 1934 J C Williamson staged the spectacular musical White Horse Inn. In contrast, the international New Theatre movement was responding to political issues with radical theatre. Groups such as Sydney's New Theatre League (formed in 1936), Melbourne's New Theatre Club and Brisbane's Unity Theatre (both formed in 1937) took up this approach. This movement was active for many decades to come and involved writers such as Betty Roland, Katharine Susannah Pritchard and Oriel Gray.

1940s

World War II brought home many Australian performers who had been away in Europe and other continents, while many international performers waited out the war years on Australia's shores. Despite a shortage of male actors, materials and scripts for productions, Australian theatre fulfilled an important role providing morale-boosting entertainment.

New American musicals included Annie Get your Gun , which played in Melbourne and Sydney from 1947 until 1949, and starred Evie Hayes.

New foundations 1950 - 2000

1950s

The Festival of Perth was established in 1953 and The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust was founded in the following year. In 1955, the plays Rusty Bugles by Sumner Locke Elliott and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler marked a turning point in Australian theatre.

After its premiere with the Union Theatre Repertory Company at the University of Melbourne's Union Theatre, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll quickly gained acclaim and popularity for its uniquely Australian voice and universal themes. Australian bush legends and city life came to the stage with laughter and sadness through the memorable characters of cane-cutters Roo and Barney, and the women in their lives Olive, Pearl, Nancy and Emma. John Sumner directed a cast including Malcolm Billings, Carmel Dunn, Noel Ferrier, June Jago and Fenella Maguire.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll won a national play competition run by the Playwrights Advisory Board in 1955 and, playing in London, the Evening Standard Award for the best play of 1957. Lawler later wrote Other Times and Kid Stakes, creating The Doll Trilogy.

The National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) was established in Sydney in 1958.

Performance of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, 1956

Performance of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, 1956. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: A1805, CU226/2.

1960s

The biennial Adelaide Festival of Arts was founded in 1960. Brisbane's first Warana Festival was held in 1962. Betty Burstall founded Melbourne's La Mama theatre company in 1967. In 1968, the Australian government established The Australian Council for the Arts (later renamed The Australia Council). The Australia Council has helped to nourish Australian theatre by establishing major state theatre companies and providing arts funding.

1970s

Australia's new wave of theatre began in the 1970s. In 1970, the Australian Performing Group (based at the Pram Factory in Carlton, Melbourne) developed as an offspring of the La Mama theatre company. With writers such as David Williamson, Barry Oakley, and Jack Hibberd, this collective brought many new and significant Australian plays to the stage. Actors associated with the Pram Factory included Graeme Blundell, Lindy Davies and Max Gillies.

In Sydney, Nimrod Theatre (now known as the Belvoir Street Theatre) was also founded in 1970, its building later housing the Belvoir Street Theatre, home of the theatre company, Company B. With leadership from John Bell, Richard Wherrett and Ken Horler, Nimrod presented work of Australian playwrights including Alex Buzo, Alma de Groen, Nick Enright, Peter Kenna, Jim McNeil, David Williamson, and Stephen Sewell. Nimrod players also performed Shakespeare and other classics in new and sometimes cheeky ways.

In 1973, Australia's landmark Sydney Opera House opened. The Adelaide Festival Theatre opened in 1973-74. The Victorian College of the Arts was established in 1976. The following year Louis Nowra's acclaimed first work, Inner Voices, was presented at Sydney's Nimrod Theatre and the first Festival of Sydney took place. In 1979, Australia's first Theatre of the Deaf was established.

1980s

A number of experimental women's theatre groups emerged in the 1980s, such as Melbourne's Home Cooking Theatre Company (1981) and Adelaide's Vital Statistix (1984). The Melbourne International Festival of The Arts was established in 1986, under the name Spoleto Festival. Performances of Louis Nowra's Capricornia, Michael Gow's 1841 and Jack Davis's Honey Spot featured in Australia's bicentennial year, 1988.

1990s

Steele Rudd

Steele Rudd's On Our Selection at the Canberra Theatre, 1982. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: A8746, KN26/2/82/5.

In 1990, the dynamic musical Bran Nue Dae by Jimmy Chi and the band Kuckles premiered to impressed audiences at the Festival of Perth, before touring the nation. Set in the far north-western Australian town of Broome, Bran Nue Dae used original music, humour, serious issues and irony to showcase a range of stories and issues relating to Aboriginality.

What audiences respond to is the way the play invites them in to share the joy, the outlook and the resilient humour; through the music, which is a felicitous conflation of every style ever heard on a transistor radio in the bungalows of Broome.

John Bell established The Bell Shakespeare Company in Sydney in 1990. In 1993 Sydney held its first Asian Theatre Festival. Australian musical theatre experienced a revival during the 1990s with shows such as Bran Nue Dae, Hot Shoe Shuffle (1993) and The Boy from Oz (1998-99).

By the year 2000, Australian theatre-goers could almost take for granted the array of dynamic performance styles, theatre companies and venues available to entertain, delight and challenge them.

Useful links

Companies and venues

Actors and playwrights

References used in preparing this story

  • Love, H, The Australian Stage: A Documentary History, New South Wales University Press, Australia, 1984.
  • Parsons, P (ed.), Companion To Theatre In Australia , Currency Press, Australia, 1995.
  • Australian Archives, Scene Stealers: Australian Theatre 1870 - 1955, Australian Archives, Canberra, Australia, (undated exhibition catalogue).
  • West, J, Theatre in Australia, Cassell, Australia, 1978.

Last updated: 26th November 2007

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