BRISBANE THEATRE HISTORY HIGHLIGHTS
Australian theatre history has tended to focus on theatrical endeavors of Sydney and Melbourne to the detriment of other regions within the nation. Theatre practitioners have been struggling in Brisbane against the popular image of Brisbane as a cultural backwater since it began to develop its earliest theatre. The significance of Brisbane as a site of theatrical activity has been undervalued. I aim to create a curated and fuller picture of its significance. A perpetual work in progress…
BEFORE WORLD WAR I
Since colonial times, Queensland cultural facilities, venues and events have benefited from state and local government support. The first buildings for performance were erected in Brisbane, Queensland’s capital, the 3rd most populous city in Australia well before World War I.
Popular city nicknames include “Brissie“, “Brisvegas“, “River City” & “Queen City“.
The oldest archeological site in the Brisbane region comes from Wallen Wallen Creek on North Stradbroke Island 21,400 years ago, however, settlement would likely occurred well prior to this date. The region was occupied by Aboriginal tribes, notably clans of the Yugara, Turrbal and Quandamooka peoples. The Turrbal word for the Brisbane area is Meeanjin (meaning “place shaped as a spike“).
Brisbane’s colonial history dates from 1799, when Matthew Flinders explored Moreton Bay on an expedition. The town was conceived initially as a penal colony for British convicts sent from Sydney, however, it became a free settlement in 1838 when Chief Justice Forbes gave it the name of Edenglassie. The town was re-named after the Brisbane River, which honored Sir Thomas Brisbane (a British Army officer and astronomer who was then Governor of New South Wales from 1821 to 1825) and remained part of the Colony of New South Wales until 1859 when Queensland separated. Over 20 municipalities and shires were amalgamated in 1924 to form the City of Brisbane.
It is believed that the first entertainer to work in Brisbane was ex-convict George Croft, a pastry-cook and theatre performer from Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre in London who was sentenced to 7 years for theft (of a portable desk) and shipped to Australia in February 1827. Having served his time, he then worked with the Victoria Theatre in Sydney, in 1847, he arrived in Brisbane only 5 years after the Moreton Bay colony was opened to free settlers. Croft built and performed the 1st live entertainment space Croft Amphitheatre in Russell St, South Brisbane (today ‘George Croft Lane‘ links Cordelia St & Merivale St). The performance was always the same. According to a Moreton Bay Courier ad on April 26, 1847, Croft commenced with a summersault 12 ft high through a fire balloon; danced a sailor’s hornpipe while balancing on his head on a candlestick, and walked up a perpendicular ladder, 10 ft high, and placed himself on his head, when the ladder falls into a complete cataract, leaving Croft on his head on one pole singing an obscene song, surrounded by fireworks. When it became known that nearby seamen and squatters were allowed in – patronage waned and the Croft Amphitheatre was closed.
The early colonial performers found that it was more economic to change audience than program and to change audience, they had to tour. In June 1855, La Rosiere’s licensed Traveling Circus travelled overland from New England to reach Moreton Bay. In December 1855, Adams & Melville’s National Circus & Hippodrome arrived by sea from Sydney.
Until the 1860s, concerts, theatrical performances, ballet and opera in Brisbane were staged principally in the School of Arts building in 1849/1851. The first purpose-built venue was the Masons Concert Hall/Victoria Theatre on Elizabeth Street, which opened in 1865. The theatre was successful and was entirely rebuilt in 1881 to increase the seating capacity to 1,350 and renamed the Theatre Royal. Also in 1881, the old School of Arts was remodeled and renamed Gaiety Hall.
The discovery of gold led to a boom which saw the population of Brisbane double to approximately 100,000 by 1880. People demanded entertainment. There were a number of local authors who wrote and staged their own productions, and there was a great deal of interest in all of the arts at the time. Of overwhelming concern to theatre-goers, was to make sure that they could reach their homes after a performance. The availability of good public transport was needed. In 1881 the Theatre Royal advertised that omnibuses leave the theatre for all the suburbs immediately after the performance.
The most significant advancement came with the construction in 1888 of Her Imperial Majesty’s Opera House (later known as Her (or His) Majesty’s Theatre). The theatre was lit with electricity and seated 2,700 people. Her Majesty’s Theatre became the principal venue for major performances in Brisbane for opera, musicals and ballet for almost a century.
Australia’s longest-running theatrical organization J. C. Williamson’s Ltd which began in 1882 through the triumvirate James Cassius Williamson, George Musgrove, and Arthur Garner became a Limited Company in 1910, when Williamson merged his interests with those of Rupert Clarke and Clyde Meynell. By 1913, the year that Williamson died, he and his partners had built “the Firm” into Australia’s premiere theatrical production company. J. C. Williamson’s Ltd held the lease on Her Majesty’s Theatre for more than 80 years bringing some of the greatest international and Australian entertainment and was instrumental in the development of live performance in Brisbane.
Other buildings erected or adapted for performance spaces in the late 19th century and early 20th century included Albert Hall (1881 and 1901), Centennial Hall (1888), Princess Theatre (1888), Empire Theatre (1911), Bohemia Theatre (1912) and Tivoli Theatre (1914). Occasional tent-based theatre companies toured to Brisbane. Philip Lytton’s Dramatic Company set up Lytton’s Canvas Touring Theatre in 1914 opposite the Theatre Royal on Elizabeth Street with a seating capacity of 2,500.
Prior to World War I, Brisbane was a city supporting its own vibrant theatre culture. It was the home of several permanent resident companies including the King’s Royal Dramatic Company, the Record Breakers, Edward Branscombe’s the Dandies, and Ted Holland’s Vaudeville Entertainers. Performances by touring companies still received major attention.
In 1905, Ted Holland decided that Brisbane could sustain a permanent vaudeville house when he acquired an extended lease on the Theatre Royal and set about providing a weekly change program of vaudeville for more than 6 years before making the decision that Ted Holland’s Vaudeville Entertainers needed a theatre with better facilities and a larger auditorium to accommodate his increasing audiences. The result was the opening of the Empire Theatre on Albert Street in 1911.
In 1909 English-born singer, composer, music director, businessman Edward Branscombe began establishing a circuit of open-air theatres around Australia including the Cremorne Theatre on the South Bank of the river near the Victoria Bridge, on the corner of Melbourne Street and Stanley Quay in August 1911. The Cremorne Theatre was an open-air venue and had a seating capacity of 1,800. This was used initially by Branscombe’s elegantly costumed Dandies companies.
Ted Holland and Percy St. John who were behind Ted Holland’s Vaudeville Entertainers, brought a continuous stream of variety programs to Brisbane throughout the opening decades of the twentieth century. Ted Holland’s first appearance in Brisbane was in 1883 when he performed with the Doyle and Lawton Vaudeville Company at the original Albert Hall. When he started managing his own company in 1899, Ted Holland put Brisbane on his touring itinerary.
FROM WORLD WAR I THRU WORLD WAR II
Legitimate theatre during World War I was primarily found on the stages of the Theatre Royal and J. C. Williamson’s His Majesty’s Theatre, while vaudeville and variety programs appeared at the Palace Gardens, the Cremorne Theatre, and at the Tivoli Theatre, the only theatre constructed during the period. Centennial Hall and Albert Hall were typically used by amateur performers for concerts and play productions and usually for patriotic purposes.
As the longest serving resident company in Brisbane, King’s Royal Dramatic Company, headed by Charles E. King, using the Theatre Royal as its base, offered an exclusively melodramatic focus at a time when variety was dominating, and which was given a new lease of life with the outbreak of the war. The King’s Royal Dramatic Company donated its Theatre Royal’s profits over to the Repatriation Fund which partially resulted in closure of the company at the end of 1916.
John Neil Clark McCallum was the first manager of the very popular Cremorne Theatre, which he later purchased from the original owner, Edward Branscombe on May 27, 1916, and under his ownership it became a Brisbane landmark for almost 40 years. His son John Neil McCallum Jr., was an actor, producer, director, and screenwriter who achieved international recognition. John Neil Clark McCallum operated the Cremorne Theatre until it burned down in 1954.
Patriotism, romanticism, and escapism were the defining features of live performance in Brisbane during World War I. Wounded returned soldiers were presented on the stage with their physical injuries displayed as marks of heroism. In Brisbane, injured bodies held pride of place in civic processions, were welcomed at reduced prices into the theatres, and appeared on stage to raise funds for patriotic causes or recruiting campaigns. The visual impact of the maimed soldiers’ bodies was profound and served as a theatrical costume making the performer as ‘heroic’.
From 1917 to 1919 John Neil Clark McCallum engaged variety companies to play up to 9 months without a break. By 1919 major alterations such as a roof, extended backstage areas and increased seating capacity to 3,000 enabled the production of large-scale spectaculars and operas at the Cremorne Theatre.
During the final years of World War I a British speech and drama teacher, Barbara Sisley, formed the Barbara Sisley Players to give her students opportunities to perform at the Exhibition Building on Gregory Terrace, benefiting charity. Barbara Sisley had performed regularly at the Theatre Royal prior to World War I and was instrumental in the formation of the Brisbane Shakespeare Society in 1920 where she directed AS YOU LIKE IT with Rhoda Felgate as Rosalind.
The 1920’s were a boom period for the cinema industry, with many cinemas being constructed. Visiting simple, less glamorous, cinema buildings in the suburbs was a commonplace event, yet the grander picture palaces in the downtown became a special event. Yet all cinemas generally continued the practice of inclusion of variety, vaudeville or live music accompanying the film programming. The theatricality of both theatre and cinema as forms of performance blended into each other, blurring the boundaries and consequently making the performance characteristics of the two art-forms less distinct.
The ventilation of theatres had always been a problem in Brisbane’s steamy climate. The early theatres had addressed this issue with sliding roofs or sliding side walls.
Between World War I and World War II, other initiatives included the formation by Barbara Sisley and Professor J.J. Stable in 1925 of The Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society, who chose plays to suit the talents of their acting ensemble and the tastes of their audience and, in a very short time, were attracting a large audience base, The inaugural production was A. A. Milne’s comedy THE DOVER ROAD which opened on July 31, 1925 at the Theatre Royal. Barbara Sisley organized tours of their productions throughout Queensland, and additionally was a part of the Dramatic Society of the University of Queensland, founder of the Art of Speech Association, the Dickens Fellowship, the Lyceum Club, Authors’ and Artists’ Association, C.E.M.A., and an advisory panel of the Australian Broadcasting Commission.
Jean Trundle, another student of Barbara Sisley, and who had appeared in plays directed by Barbara Sisley and Rhoda Felgate for the Brisbane Shakespeare Society and the Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society, by 1925 was running her own speech-training school in the city. She formed the Jean Trundle Players and presented productions to benefit charities in the suburbs and various country towns.
At it’s foundation, The Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society had 175 inaugural members each having paid an annual fee of £1.7.6. entitling each member to 3 seats for each production plus invitations to one act plays, readings and lectures that the Society held from time to time. Until 1942, The Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society performed in nearly all the available theatres in Brisbane: the Theatre Royal in Elizabeth Street until 1928, thence the Bohemia, His Majesty’s Theatre, the Cremorne Theatre, the Princess Theatre, the Rialto and finally Albert Hall in 1942.
As The Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society’s beginnings coincided with the Great Depression and the introduction of talking films resulting in less commercial theatrical offerings, The Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society became a driving force in the entertainment options for local audiences.
Barbara Sisley’s speech and drama student, Rhoda Felgate OAM MBE, also a founding member of Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society, directed her first production, A HAPPY FAMILY by Queenslander Vance Palmer, in 1926 at the Theatre Royal with Rhoda Felgate and Jean Trundle in leading roles. During the next 10 years she directed 14 more plays for the society, 3 of them Australian, largely presented at Albert Hall.
Amateur theatres were very lucky in those days. The royalty was 5 guineas for the first night and 4 guineas for the subsequent nights from Samuel French in Sydney. (a guinea was roughly equivalent to a £). Sometimes Brisbane theatres were putting on a play whilst a professional theatre was still playing in London. The gross potential box office was about £20.
Advertising the Cremorne Theatre for lease since 1929 in cinema magazines, by 1934, John Neil Clark McCallum responded to the increasing competition from the film industry and adapted (at a cost of about £20,000) the Cremorne Theatre to make it suitable for films, leasing the theatre to MGM as a cinema until 1940 when live entertainment returned with the arrival of large numbers of Australian and American military personnel. Many high-profile entertainers such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Gary Cooper played the Cremorne Theatre.
The Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society membership was almost five hundred; plays were presented every Saturday night for 30 weeks in 1936; a continuous lease of the Princess Theatre was held from 1934 until October 1941 and artistic standards were regularly praised in press articles. Barbara Sisley led The Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society for its first 21 years, dropping ‘society’ from its name in 1945 to become The Brisbane Repertory Theatre. Barbara Sisley died on 18 November 1945 the day after having been struck by a taxi on Adelaide Street, Brisbane.
Stimulated to give the flourishing theatre-loving audiences a chance to participate in theatre, The Brisbane Repertory Theatre, in a campaign led by Rhoda Felgate, started the Twelfth Night Theatre Company in 1936 who would put on a play on its 12th night of every month. If the 12th night fell on a Sunday when the law of the time did not permit entertainment but did allow “religious drama”, they would put on a religious play and make sure each of the “congregation” put as much in the “plate” as a ticket would have cost.
In the Empire Chambers, at the corner of Wharf and Queen Streets, a teaching studio was used as a rehearsal room for 30 shillings a week, and the Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society rented a small hall which had a stage and front curtain, and used the Empire Chambers boardroom-cum-Library for a dressing room which the thespians protected with bringing bed sheets and mirrors from their homes. These spaces continued to be used as theatrical space right through World War II.
The very first Twelfth Night Theatre Company play was TOUCH WOOD by C. L. Anthony which opened on March 12, 1936 at Empire Chambers and making £14. It was directed by Rhoda Felgate, with a cast including Babette Stephens.
In 1936, Brisbane Amateur Theatres was founded by Jean Trundle with her husband Vic Hardgraves to present plays with ‘popular appeal’. Jean Trundle directed (and starred in) their first production, Leslie Howard’s TELL ME THE TRUTH which opened on May 28, 1936 at All Saints Hall. It was followed by an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s OLIVER TWIST, starring her husband. As Brisbane Amateur Theatre‘s leading figure, Jean Trundle continued to direct and produce plays regularly until 1965 often utilizing National Mutual Buildings at 144 Edward Street as their venue.
On March 22, 1937, a group of ballet teachers, led by Phyllis Danaher, established the Queensland branch of the newly formed Australasian Society of Operatic Dancing, becoming the genesis of the Ballet Theatre Queensland one of Australia’s leading youth ballet company’s and a not-for-profit incorporated organization. Until 1953 the society concentrated on supporting talented Queensland dancers, Phyllis Danaher decided to appoint an artistic director to produce ballets for the society. Former pupil Cyril Johns was hired in 1953 and stayed until 1961.
The Twelfth Night Theatre Company staged Ödön von Horváth’s drama JUDGMENT DAY at the Princess Theatre in late 1938 and then settled in for a further 5 productions during 1940.
The University of Queensland Dramatic Society, the Workers Education Association Dramatic Society and the Brisbane Shakespeare Society also staged occasional productions at the Princess Theatre between November 1938 and June 1940, before ceasing operations for the remainder of World War II. Beginning with the comedy DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY in March 1939, The Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society mounted a further dozen productions at the Princess Theatre until May 1942, leasing the theatre for £9 per week. The Unity Theatre, a “working class theatre company” staged 4 plays between March and October 1939.
Later in 1939, Babette Stephens, AM MBE, whom had first appeared on a Brisbane stage in CHRISTINE by Vance Palmer in November 1930 at the Cremorne Theatre, ran a program of plays for Twelfth Night Theatre Company at All Saints Hall.
Cyril Johns created a theatre group which he named Brisbane Ballet Theatre. On 26 October 1953 the group presented their inaugural production of Swan Lake, at the Albert Hall. It was an unusual night as the program was shared with the Brisbane Arts Theatre who presented a performance of Noel Coward’s play HANDS ACROSS THE SEA. By 1954 Brisbane Ballet Theatre became an independent organization to be called the Queensland Ballet Society. In 1955 they presented Cyril John’s ambitious first complete performance event including scenes from Swan Lake / The Sleeping Beauty / Coppelia, with a live orchestra at the Brisbane City Hall.
The first play presented by the Twelfth Night Theatre Company at Albert Hall, THE TWO MRS CARROLLS by Martin Vale, was in 1941, produced and directed by Rhoda Felgate. Also in 1941, the Twelfth Night Theatre Company were able to lease a gymnasium from Dorothy Brockway’s father which had been built for her at the back of 51 Wickham Terrace. By 1946, under Rhoda Felgate’s leadership, the Twelfth Night Theatre Company had presented 43 productions.
During World War II, several significant government supported initiatives included the Queensland State String Quartet from 1944, and the Brisbane City Council public concert programs from 1941, both of which had a strong presence in the Brisbane City Hall which opened in 1930.
Also during World War II, the headquarters for U.S. General Douglas MacArthur was based in Brisbane commencing in July 1942, and with the U.S, Army renovating the sprung dance floor at Cloudland, it became a pre-eminent rehearsal venue by day and multi-use venue by night.
From 1942 to 1945 the Princess Theatre was used as the administrative and rehearsal headquarters for the Entertainment Unit of the U.S. Armed Forces.
AFTER WORLD WAR II
In 1945, Leon Black, a U.S. serviceman and experienced New York producer / director / actor, establishes a Brisbane Theatre Guild to develop and produce local Brisbane theatrical productions as a professional company. Brisbane musician Reubert Hayes joins as musical director. Leon Black had previously produced and starred in the Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society production of THE NIGHT OF THE SIXTEENTH OF JANUARY. Brisbane Theatre Guild’s first production of JUNIOR MISS opened on January 22, 1946 at the Albert Hall.
The Albert Park Amphitheatre was first used an entertainment venue in 1945, with THE PEOPLE’S MUSIC CONCERT on August 26, presented by Allan and Stark Limited which attracted more than 6,000 people.
Brisbane Amateur Theatres officially became known as Brisbane Arts Theatre in 1947, and 14 years later, the 144-seat Arts Theatre at 210 Petrie Terrace became the company’s long-term home. This made Brisbane Arts Theatre the first theatre company in Brisbane to operate within its own theatre premises. Before becoming the Arts Theatre, the property was known as Dan’s – a second hand shop, was purchased for £6,000 in June of 1956, and redeveloped with £3,000 worth of renovations. The first production to be staged at the Arts Theatre was THE MULTI-COLOURED UMBRELLA by Australian playwright Barbara Mary Vernon which opened on September 15, 1961.
In 1948, the Twelfth Night Theatre Company leased the large 2-storey Gowrie Hall at 39 Wickham Terrace. It was a converted church hall. The upper floor became a rehearsal and play-reading space seating 112, while the lower housed speech teachers and their studios. Rhoda Felgate invited Joan Whalley OAM to join the Twelfth Night Theatre Company in 1951 after seeing her in an outdoor production of AS YOU LIKE IT where she played Rosalind at Blackheath College in Charters Towers.
New post-war cultural organizations included the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in 1947, Brisbane Opera Company in 1948 (which did not have a long life, and was not connected to the later formation of the Queensland Opera Company as an offshoot of the Queensland Arts Council in 1970), and the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in 1956.
In 1948, the Villanova Players, a Roman Catholic theatre group founded by Irish priest John Louis Hanrahan of the Order of St. Augustin’s. He was one of four Irish priests sent to Australia in 1948 with the purpose of creating a boys’ school in Brisbane. Father Hanrahan was assisted by his friend Gabriel Fallon, an actor from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Donagh McDonagh, editor of the Brisbane Catholic Leader newspaper, and Pat and Vince Fogerty. Originally linked with Villanova College who funded productions. The Villanova Players devoted to morality in the relationship of drama and religion, launched a production of THE PROPOSAL by Anton Chekov at the Albert Hall. In 1954 a production of CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN played the Albert Hall performances followed by an extended season in the group’s new home a Parish Hall, St. James’ Hall in Coorparoo. Up until the 1990s the group had always operated out of church venues. In 1970 the group moved to a building at St Luke’s School in Buranda, where they converted the ground floor into a 120 seat theatre. Then in 2000 moved their productions to the McElligott Theatre, South Brisbane, with another move in 2004 to The Theatre at Seven Hills TAFE, Morningside, where they remain today. Well-known performers started their careers with the Villanova Players include Bernard King; Murray Foy, Margery Forde and Lawrence Hodge.
Beginning in 1949, the ABC produced a radio series of play excerpts, utilizing the talents of The Brisbane Repertory Society, beginning with Oscar Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST starring Babette Stephens (as Lady Bracknell), Gwen Wheeler, Keith Howard and Blair Hefferman.
Also in 1951, a new professional repertory theatre group call The Globe, opened their first production of Shaw’s CANDIDA starring Betty Ross OAM.
John Neil Clark McCallum’s Cremorne Theatre was used by the Brisbane Opera Society and the Queensland Theatre Guild until 1951. The last recorded program was for a production of THE DESERT SONG by the Musical and Theatre Guild of Queensland on 3 May 1952. On 18 February 1954 the Cremorne Theatre was destroyed by fire caused by the combustion of inflammable film. The fire attracted a crowd of about 41,000 who watched firemen battle the blaze. Damage was estimated at £100,000
In 1956, Gowrie Hall was acquired by the Twelfth Night Theatre Company. By 1966, all productions were staged at Gowrie Hall. Joan Whalley played the title role in the final production in Gowrie Hall in June 1969 HEDDA GABLER by Ibsen directed by Ron Finney.
In 1959 a quasi-professional performing arts group was formed under the name of College Opera led by director Bryan Nason AM a 2nd year University of Queensland Science student who wanted to produce Gilbert and Sullivan operas at the Albert Hall. The first was PATIENCE in 1959. Having no theatre of their own, Bryan Nason led the charge to establish a fully professional state theatre company after attracting attention throughout Brisbane and parts of Queensland. For 10 years The College Players formerly called College Opera operated until 1969. The College Players presented activities from Opera to Shakespearian presentations in Festival Hall.
Queensland’s first fully professional ballet company, The Queensland Ballet, was formed in 1960 as the Lisner Ballet, a private initiative of Charles Lisner. In 1961 the Lisner Ballet toured 9,000 miles of Queensland and NSW for the Australian Arts Council. The following year it became known as the Queensland Ballet Company but it was not until 1967 that it received its first State subsidy. In 1966 Charles Lisner was forced to disband the company because he and his wife Valerie, a Brisbane-born ballet dancer, could not continue indefinitely to produce ballet at their own expense. But Peggy van Praagh, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, came to the rescue. She recommended that the company receive a subsidy which resulted in the Queensland Government’s. grant of $7,000 which enabled the company to be reborn. As the Queensland Ballet Company has a similar name to Queensland Ballet Society it caused confusion and the Queensland Ballet Society had not thought to register its name, so in 1962 it chose to call itself Ballet Theatre of Queensland and has been known by that name thereafter.
In 1961, Rhoda Felgate marked her retirement from the theatre by directing and playing the leading role in a 25th anniversary production of I REMEMBER MAMA by John Van Druten. She continued to teach until the 1980s at her Kangaroo Point home, and was patron of Twelfth Night Theatre and of the Speech and Drama Teachers’ Association of Queensland. Never married, Rhoda Felgate died on September 14, 1990.
By 1961, The Brisbane Repertory Society, created the position of Director especially for Babette Stephens. She had been President for three years, 1957 to 1959. Babette Stephens continued as Director of the Theatre until 1968, directing the majority of plays in Albert Hall and occasionally in the TAA Theatre in Adelaide Street. During this period, Babette Stephens’ successor, Jennifer Blocksidge joined The Brisbane Repertory Society and began acting and directing.
In 1961 Warana Festival began and later this much loved bi-annual evolved into one of Australia’s leading international arts festivals, the annual Brisbane Festival. Warana is an Aboriginal word for “blue skies”.
Bryan Nason returned from an overseas trip in 1963 to produce YEOMAN OF THE GUARD for the College Opera at Albert Hall and the University’s newly acquired Avalon Theatre it St. Lucia in May 1963. Bryan Nason made all the men’s costumes, designed the sets, and played the leading role. Bryan Nason left his high school teaching job and with financial support from his Surat parents and a University of Queensland Dramatic Society loan of £75 for production of the musical comedy SALAD DAYS which toured Queensland and played in Brisbane 31 January to 8 February, 1964.
Gloria Birdwood-Smith director, choreographer and performer for The Musical and Theatre Guild of Queensland and over 30 productions for the Brisbane Repertory Theatre during the 1940s and 1960s directed her final Brisbane Repertory Theatre production of CALAMITY JANE at the TAA Theatre which opened on May 20, 1965, starring Rowena Wallace, with sets designed by Ken Lord and a young Barry Otto designing costumes and acting in the chorus. Following this production, Gloria Birdwood-Smith focussed her attention on her TAA Theatre productions and remained active in Brisbane theatrical circles for many years, directing for the Brisbane Youth Theatre, Queensland Light Opera Company, Brisbane Arts Theatre and the Brisbane Choral Society.
In addition to the tours of light opera and musicals, Bryan Nason began an annual production of a Shakespearian plays starting in with THE TEMPEST in 1965 at the Avalon Theatre, HAMLET starring David Clendinning in 1967 with audiences of over 2,000 each night at Festival Hall and in April 1968 The College Players changed from amateur to semi-professional status, ending with THE MERCHANT OF VENICE in 1969 and the disbanding of The College Players and formation of the Grin and Tonic Theatrical Troupe.
In 1967 La Boîte Theatre in Hale Street, Milton was one of the few early venues (in 3 converted adjoining cottages) which opted for a permanent in-the-round setting, in fact, the first in Australia. In 1968 Jennifer Blocksidge took over as Director. The Brisbane Repertory Theatre became Brisbane Repertory’s La Boîte Theatre and evolved between 1993 and 2003 to become simply La Boîte Theatre.
On January 17, 1968, Queensland was the first State to appoint a Minister for Cultural Activities, Sir Alan Fletcher, who gets a lots of credit for the formation of the Queensland Theatre Company, with all the advantages of statutory recognition by Act of Parliament. It was also in 1968 Queensland became the first State to establish and appoint a full-time Director of Cultural Activities (for the Queensland Department of Education). 51 year old English born Arthur Creedy, who had studied and lectured at Cambridge and taught English literature at the University of Leeds. Arthur Creedy became a beloved man state-wide with his finger on the theatrical growth of Queensland believing that drama should be the heart of culture. He served as an ex-officio Board member and as Acting Artistic Director until Alan Edwards appointment was made. He retired in 1978 due to illness.
Around this time, the Queensland Government received laurels from interstate cultural experts, including Dr Jean Battersby, executive officer of the Australian Council for the Arts, for its visionary promotion and financial support of the performing arts at the time. Queensland was the only state at the time to develop professional theatre, opera and ballet companies supported by State and Federal funds and coordinated at a regional level.
The SGIO Theatre (State Government Insurance Office) a 611-seat proscenium theatre, was built in 1969 for $1,750,000.
With the appointment of Sir David Muir CMG, Director of the Department of Industrial Development, as the 1st Chairman of the Queensland Theatre Company’s Board, the State’s first fully professional drama company launched into its first year, and for nearly 30 years, used the SGIO Theatre.
Queensland Theatre Company‘s inaugural presentation of Peter Shaffer’s THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN opened on 1 October 1969 at the SGIO Theatre, Produced, Directed and Designed by Bryan Nason, with Reg Cameron, Leo Wockner, Robert Kingham and Rod Wissler. The opening night saw processions along Turbot Street accompanied by band music and flaming torches. THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN had approximately 8,000 ticket buyers with a takings of $15,082.45.
During the first decade of its working life under the skillful direction and leadership of Alan Edwards AM MBE the Queensland Theatre Company operated with a resident company of artists. After 1979 this policy changed to cast actors for each separate production.
The first production Alan Edwards directed was the premiere of an Australian musical A RUM DO! which opened on April 10, 1970 coinciding with the day that Royal Assent was given to the Act of Parliament which incorporated the Company and its selection influenced by the Captain Cook Bi-Centenary Celebrations, A special performance on April 13, 1970 was held in the presence of HM Queen Elizabeth II, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH The Princess Anne. [See the Official Royal Itinerary Book in PDF].
As a statutory body, the Queensland Theatre Company’s wide-ranging brief, had a particular stress on state touring and theatre in education. In fact, the touring brief was part of the company’s operation from the very beginning; in the first full year of activity in 1970, 3 of the 4 productions toured the state. Likewise, theatre for young people have been an important part of the company policy right from the outset.
By 1970, Bryan Nason started producing and directing a variety of productions, including BACCHOI, the pop musical written to open the Schonell Theatre at the Queensland University; various Queensland tours and back in Brisbane, AS YOU LIKE IT in 1976 for the Grin and Tonic Theatrical Troupe, which evolved out of the demise of The College Players and continues to produce educational programs and mainstage theatre throughout Australia today.
With Rhoda Felgate’s retirement, coupled with a desire to build a fit-for-purpose theatre, Joan Whalley was selected as the incoming Artistic Director and Vitaly Gzell was engaged as the architect. To raise enough money to buy the land, containing an old tennis court adjoining the Johnstone Gallery in Cintra Road, Bowen Hills, a group chaired by Lorna Gell, along with Yvonne Bain who owned Gowrie Hall, had the task of raising the money via a building fund. The Twelfth Night Theatre complex, with a seating capacity of 408, was built in 1971, thanks in part to dollar-for-dollar State government support to the building fund but carried the debt burden of $150,000 into its new operation. It opened with Joan Whalley’s production of Feydeau’s A FLEA IN HER EAR on March 17, 1971.
Shortly after the Schonell Theatre was constructed in 1970 within the University of Queensland’s St Lucia campus, the University of Queensland Union (UQU) also built The Cement Box under the Schonell Theatre as a small studio theatre named after it’s cement bessa-block walls. The first production was Frame and Kennett Promotions of HAMLET ON ICE which opened on September 4, 1973. Directed by Ken Kennett, Designed by Gregory Gesch and starring Bille Brown and Geoffrey Rush.
A new La Boîte Theatre replaced the old cottage theatre in 1972 as the first purpose-built arena theatre in Australia. The construction was financed by a dollar-for-dollar grant of $40,000 from the Queensland Government in November 1971. The new theatre at 69 Hale Street opened on 11 June 1972, with a production of A REFINED LOOK AT EXISTENCE by Australian playwright Rodney Milgate. In 1976 Rick Billinghurst was appointed as the first professional Artistic Director of La Boîte Theatre Company.
By the early 1970s, the standard of major facilities for the performing arts in Brisbane was lagging behind contemporary venues elsewhere. The need for a new major performing arts centre in Queensland became more urgent in 1973 with the sale of Her Majesty’s Theatre. The new owners, the AMP Society, intended to demolish the building and redevelop the site. The imminent demise of Her Majesty’s Theatre became a key consideration in the decision by the Queensland Government in November 1974 to announce the development of a Cultural Complex incorporating a Centre for the Performing Arts at South Brisbane. The Cabinet submission noted that, with ‘Her Majesty’s Theatre closing, Brisbane will be really deficient in this area’.
Eight years after establishing the Queensland Theatre Company, Sir David Muir was appointed the 1st Chairman of the Queensland Cultural Centre Trust in 1976, after being involved with the earliest development of the project. The trust’s duties included facilitating activities in the arts, science, culture and performing arts throughout Queensland and the development of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre and the buildings that would comprise the South Bank cultural precinct.
The Gallery Theatre in Bowen Hills, seating about 150 people, opened on April 23, 1974 with a production of the revue HERE WE ARE directed by Arthur Frame and Ken Kennett. Frame and Kennett Promotions established the fully professional theatre company run entirely independent of Government funding. When Arthur Frame left The Gallery Theatre the space became a theatre and youth activity centre called the Treehouse Theatre which presented its final production, TWISTED DICK in May 1981.
In 1975, the Ipswich Little Theatre utilized professional directors such as Arthur Frame directing A DELICATE BALANCE by Edward Albee; and in 1977, Robert Kingham directed THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND, and Bryan Nason, workshopped and directed a musical STELLA for the Young Theatricals, the Junior group members of Ipswich Little Theatre.
Another professional company was founded in 1976 as the Brisbane Actors Company by David Clendinning and Bruce Parr whom were frustrated by the tendency to employ actors from interstate and by the disbanding of Twelfth Night Theatre Company‘s acting ensemble, the Brisbane Actors Company’s primary aim was to provide employment for local Brisbane actors. After an initial production of THE MISANTHROPE by Moliere in 1976. the group adopted its new name of the Actors Theatre in 1978 and proceeded with productions of mostly small-cast plays until it’s final production in February 1981.
By 1976 the Twelfth Night Theatre debts topped $300,000 and its dreams of establishing a full-time professional alternative to the Queensland Theatre Company ended. In 1977 the full-time acting ensemble of the Twelfth Night Theatre Company was abandoned, and the theatre went through a difficult spell until 1979, when John Milson was appointed as Artistic Director and programming reverted to a broadly mainstream policy, reviving the permanent ensemble idea. But the financial situation failed to improve and the Twelfth Night Theatre was sold to the State government along with the company name of Twelfth Night which remained with the theatre building itself.
A new entity adopted the name T.N. Theatre Company free from the physical and financial constraints of the Twelfth Night Theatre, the TN! Theatre Company based itself on the Kelvin Grove campus of the Brisbane College of Advanced Education (now the Queensland University of Technology) but gave most of its performances from 1980 to 1986 in The Brookes Street Theatre, formerly the Fortitude Valley Wesleyan Church on Brookes Street. Bryan Nason succeeded John Milson as Artistic Director in 1981. A year later, Rod Wissler took over in 1982 and for about 10 more years created a distinctive identity, while focusing its repertoire on contemporary writers and knockabout comedy. In 1986 the TN! Theatre Company took a 10-year lease of the Princess Theatre in Woolloongabba, and its last performance was in 1991 due to financial difficulties.
The first theatrical show set in the woodland Albert Park Amphitheatre was for A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM which opened in September 1979 produced by the Queensland Theatre Company. The success of that production encouraged the Brisbane City Council in 1982 to build a permanent outdoor amphitheatre erected for a cost of $600,000. This permanent open air Albert Park Amphitheatre opened with a production of AS YOU LIKE IT in September 1981, also produced by the Queensland Theatre Company.
Her Majesty’s Theatre was sold to the A.M.P. Society for $3 million in 1973 and the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government was responsible for allowing the demolition of Her Majesty’s Theatre on October 23, 1983 to make way for Hilton Hotel and the Theatre Royal in 1987 to make way for the Myer Centre. J. C. Williamson’s Ltd ceased operations in 1984.
The Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) broke ground in 1976 and opened on 20 April 1985. QPAC houses 3 major theatrical spaces including the Lyric Theatre for the presentation of opera, musical comedy and dance, a Concert Hall for performances by symphony orchestras, chamber music ensembles, solo instrumentalists and an all new Cremorne Theatre, a 200 seat experimental theatre. QPAC schedules over 1,000 performances annually and saw 1.3 million people through its doors in 2017.
By 1980, Gweneth (Gwen) Iliffe and her puppeteer son Peter Iliffe leased the gutted Twelfth Night Theatre from the Queensland Government as a home for The Puppet People productions. As the operators of the Twelfth Night Theatre, they sub-leased the theatre to other theatrical and puppetry groups, including the TN! Theatre Company for their various productions including THE THREEPENNY OPERA (1980), HAMLET (1981), ROMEO AND JULIET (1982) and presenting companies such as Clifford Hocking Enterprises, Michael Edgley International, Phillip Street Theatre Productions and Philip Edmiston’s Queensland Marionette Theatre. The Puppet People opened a revival of BEES HEY on May 21, 1983.
A number of new cultural organizations were born in the ’80s… The Lyric Opera of Queensland as a replacement for the Queensland Opera Company (1981 – the first season was in 1982), Dance North (1985), and Rock’n’Roll Circus (1986, renamed Circa in 2004).
The SGIO Theatre was renamed the Suncorp Theatre in 1986 and demolished in July 2007.
In 1988, the Queensland Government sold the Twelfth Night Theatre into private ownership to Gail Wiltshire who purchased the building, along with its debt of $1.3 million. Twelfth Night Theatre became the only privately owned theatre in Australia, not controlled by any commercially funded or government organization and received no public grants from either the Queensland State or Australian federal governments.
On August 31, 1997 the Queensland Theatre Company production of THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO opened the new 850 seat South Bank Playhouse (then called “Optus Playhouse“) built within the Queensland Performing Arts Centre complex incorporating a proscenium & orchestra pit.
Established by the Brisbane City Council in 2000, the Brisbane Powerhouse emerged from a repurposed industrial space with a variety of flexible spaces focused on independent groups and companies creating theatre, dance, music, film and visual art. Its primary Powerhouse Theatre seats about 500.
The Judith Wright Arts Centre (aka The Judy) was renovated and re-opened as an arts centre in October 2001. The venue includes performance spaces with 3 rehearsal studios for dance, theatre and music. The main 300 seat performance space is a flexible “black box” theatre.
By 2003, the La Boîte Theatre Company with a combination of ever-growing road closures and traffic issues in the area due to proximity to Lang Park Football Stadium (now Suncorp Stadium), coupled with the near 30-year old La Boîte Theatre maintenance issues and outgrowing its 200 seat capacity, the semi-professional La Boîte Theatre Company sold its Hale Street property for $1 million and sought a new performance space. Its final production was a revival of David Williamson’s THE REMOVALISTS, closing on September 6, 2003.
A new location was found for the La Boîte Theatre Company when the Queensland University of Technology agreed to include a theatre building in its plans for a Creative Industries Precinct within Kelvin Grove. The Queensland Government funded the company’s move to the Roundhouse Theatre at Kelvin Grove. By the end of 2003, the La Boîte Theatre Company moved into the $4.3 million purpose-built 400 seat Roundhouse Theatre complex with a 25 year lease.
In 2010 The Cement Box was refurbished and renamed the Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio in honor of the University graduate and Academy, Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor.
In October 2018, Queensland Theatre moved into its own purpose built premises at 78 Montague Road including the Bille Brown Theatre (351-seat) and the Diane Cilento Studio (228 seat) after a $5.5 million renovation converting from the former 228-seat Bille Brown Studio.
In May 2018 the Queensland State Government has announced a new $150 million 1,500-1,700 seat theatre to become the Queensland Performing Arts Centre fifth theatre that will collectively create Australia’s largest performing arts centre. The ‘Playhouse Green’ has been selected as the theatre location, which is in proximity to the Queensland Performing Arts Centre entrance on Grey Street.
The Princess Theatre reopened in August 2021 with a fully restored heritage building.
A new studio theatre intended for student classes, workshops and theatrical productions, the UQ Drama Pavilion was built in 2022 as a replacement for the Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio which is closed for multi-year refurbishment.