Toby at the Queensland Theatre Company QTC

QTC was my family, the SGIO Theatre my sanctuary

For the first time in my life, working at the QTC, I felt normal, wanted and loved. The physical SGIO Theatre (State Government Insurance Office) became my personal temple.  I had the utter joy of working on an array of productions with tremendously creative and loving people. When I wasn’t paid to work on a particular show, I volunteered in the offices, or assisted stage management. I worked on 26 shows and saw another 20 or so. I could not get enough of learning and devouring every aspect of the theatre, I could not get enough of the feeling of warmth and creativity.

Heres why:
Toby at Brisbane Grammar School (1979) with drama awards
In 1976 after returning from Washington D.C., I was sent to Brisbane Grammar School where I skipped a year of school – my older brother was captain of the rugby team at the school. My parents then went through a messy divorce (I found my Dad in bed with our neighbors’ wife).

At school, I was bullied badly by another student for being a year younger, not into sports and for topping highest grades in Australia in the new ‘drama’ subject which at the time automatically made me a “poofta“.

I got involved in the school drama programs, and found myself hiding within them, since I could not live up to my sportsman brother, nor to my parents’ expectations.

Along with a smattering of other non-sports school friends, we collectively produced, directed, designed, stole the props, made the costumes, marketed, technically managed, found the sound effects, swept the floors, gestetner’d programs, sold tickets for and acted in various school productions including SWEENEY TODD; HOTEL PARADISO; CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA; TOAD OF TOAD HALL; DARK OF THE MOON; CHARLEY’S AUNT (I played Col. Sir Francis Chesney Bart) and THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND in the schools Centenary Hall. My first “resident” theatre.

My conundrum was the more successful at drama, and winning school awards for drama, made me a target for more bullying.  In a school solely focused on sport and manliness, I felt hopeless and worthless. Despite my protestations to the headmaster, I was sexually molested by the pedophile school counselor to whom I was sent to.

Starting in about 1978, every day at 3:15 pm, I would escape school and literally run away down the hill through the Brisbane city to volunteer at the Queensland Theatre Company Guild. Some days I would arrive in tears. The Guild’s Chairwomen, Magda Wollner, welcomed me with open arms, warm cuddles, fresh coffee & biscuits and gave me a sense of purpose working largely on handling subscription mailings and my helping support opening night and PR events.  I never told Magda the details of what I was enduring at the school, but she always sensed something was seriously wrong. She and my mum became lifelong friends as a result.

During my time at the QTC guild, I would support the QTC strategy of subscriber (season ticket buyers) engagement, where guild volunteers would stay in regular contact with season ticket subscribers (via telephone, hand written cards and letters) to subliminally keep them compelled to renew each year (although not a lot of effort needed, since patrons loved the QTC back then, so it was mainly listening to patron reviews on a particular show or actor). From a massive, sterile office space donated by a board member (I had the joy of decorating it with theatre posters and QTC props), we would also encourage happy subscribers to help put together subscription groups, or at least, convince neighbors to join them. The subscriber attrition rate was remarkably tiny. QTC patron loyalty was one of its secret strengths.

Additionally while with the QTC guild, I became a volunteer odd-job boy for the stage management and administration teams at the Queensland Theatre Company studying and taking in everything I could learn. I even loved watering the plants of Alan Edwards, the Artistic Director, at his home when he was on vacation. I considered it a high honor and serious responsibility since at the time, he was my god. Alan generously took me under his wing and often invited me to rehearsals and assist fellow creatives.

In my spare time, I acted in a couple of shows at the local amateur theatre, The Arts Theatre on Petrie Terrace, which was nearby the school, once in a leading role in a production of AND THE BIG MEN FLY.

Having just topped Australia with highest national grades in the new national school subject of drama, in October 1980, as a guest of presenter Clifford Hocking, I attended a performance Victor Borge at Brisbane City Hall, and his performance of ‘Phonetic Punctuation’.  When I met him backstage, in my mind I wanted to present him globally. To this day it is my absolute favorite memory of comedy brilliance, it further convinced me that theatre was the right place for me. My biggest career regret was not producing him.

I matriculated school and was full-time in the workforce at age 16.  “young, keen and green” as the QTC Production Manager, Arthur Frame described me.  Due to my hideous grammar school experience, I vowed never ever to go to any educational institution again. I had zero interest in any college or university, including NIDA.

Elizabeth Bequest Scholarship to Toby Simkin (The Courier Mail)With encouragement from many of the Queensland Theatre Company staff, I was awarded the 1981  ‘Elizabeth Bequest Scholarship’ which is essentially a paid hands-on mentorship with the best of the best. This led me to go on full time with both the T.N. Theatre Company and the Queensland Theatre Company thanks entirely to the mentorship of Bryan Nason (of T.N.) and Alan Edwards (of QTC) and his fabulous team of staff.

For the T.N. Theatre Company, I was an actor / designer / stage manager on productions including THE CHOIR; HAMLET; SKITZ N’ FRENZY and STARSTUD.

I also worked with the Queensland Marionette Theatre and Lyric Opera of Queensland, at a time when Brisbane Theatre was going through rather dramatic changes with the loss of major venues.

But it was the Queensland Theatre Company and the SGIO Theatre that was my safe haven and the fabulously creative people within it became my mentors and my chosen family, without many knowing it.