Were you aware The Adelaide Repertory Theatre is the oldest surviving amateur theatre company in the Southern Hemisphere?

The First One Hundred

An Adelaide Rep Portrait

From humble beginnings in piano teacher/composer Bryceson Treharne’s classroom in the Elder Conservatorium, North Terrace, Adelaide, the organization now known as The Adelaide Repertory Theatre (The Rep as it is now affectionately known) began in 1908. Treharne’s students met to read and discuss plays, and to learn of the exciting European modern drama movements of the day. After six months, they decided to stage W.B. Yeats’ Land of Heart’s Desire and George Bernard Shaw’s A Man of Destiny in the North Hall at the Elder Conservatorium, calling their fledgling company The Adelaide Literary Theatre, a name which was to remain for six years. Interest and curiosity from most of the audience inspired the class to stage further productions. Experienced outsiders gave assistance – curtains were added and candles and acetylene lights assisted by reflectors made very passable footlights. The season was a crowd pleaser and more of Adelaide’s amateur players came to join the group. Residents of Adelaide, realising the value of the project, offered to pay subscriptions to see more plays. A committee was formed.

A hundred years on, The Adelaide Repertory Theatre is the oldest surviving amateur theatre company in the Southern Hemisphere. Not surprisingly perhaps, on many occasions throughout its hundred-year story, it has been on the brink of collapse, usually financial in origin. Amateur theatre in Australia, like its professional counterpart, has never been high on the list of the country’s Arts’ priorities. They are simply not where governments, the corporate world and individuals have lavished their money. However, the last third of the twentieth century has seen a change in public and private thinking towards financial support of the Performance Arts – to join the visual arts,  long the recipients of substantial public and private philanthropy.

An attitude, a Lifestyle

Patronage of any kind is an attitude and a lifestyle; giving is about participating and contributing to important aspects of life and society and helping to make a difference. More Australians, especially those with an abundance of disposable wealth – and there are increasing numbers of those – need to recognise and accept the challenge, the responsibility even, to support the Performance Arts as their U.S.A., European, Canadian and Asian counterparts have been doing for decades, in some cases centuries. For a raft of reasons, aired frequently in the print and electronic media, this is a good thing to do in a society that considers itself advanced, civilised. There are, in fact, so many philanthropic opportunities – not just in the world of the Arts – that part of the challenge is to ascertain just where one wants to be involved.

No mercy for late-comers

During 1909 and the following year, performances moved between Walkerville and Unley Town Halls. Over five hundred subscribers each paid five shillings per year for two tickets to each of the year’s productions. Sixpence was the price of a programme. All seats were one price and it was ‘first in, best dressed’. Here no “Premium Reserve”. Everyone was equal and neither money nor social position could buy a better seat. Late-comers were left standing in the street, so strict were the rules for a prompt ‘curtain up’ – something that has been lost today after some half-hearted, short-lived attempts at punctuality when the Festival Theatre opened in 1973!

World War I

Realising the company was in competent hands, Bryceson Treharne returned to Paris. The company prospered, and at the beginning of 1914, changed its name to The Adelaide Repertory Theatre. The change was effected, regrettably in the view of its first Board Chairman, Ronald Finlayson. He wrote: “It seems a pity to exchange an expressive title for one which, without explanation, is obscure. Yet, ‘Repertory’ is so firmly fixed as the adjective of a movement in the theatre, that it is best to fall quietly into line: ‘Communis error, facit jus’” [The common error passes current as right] (The Sunday Mail, 21 February 1914).

Every six weeks a new play was presented, but the First World War and a drought took their toll on both subscribers and players. “Love had refused to allow it to die”, said Muriel Craigie, secretary at the time. This sentiment has followed the theatre to this day.

The Literary Drama Scene

In 1917, an orchestra was hired to play between acts as The Rep struggled to maintain support and was trying anything to lure patrons. In 1919, Finlayson retired, for reasons of ill-health, to be replaced by South Australian born, Talbot Smith, whose tertiary education was at Cambridge University, England where he obtained a Masters of Arts and a Bachelor of Laws. In 1920, an outbreak of bubonic plague closed all theatres in Adelaide and by the end of 1921, the outlook was decidedly gloomy and The Rep came the closest to drawing the final curtain – at least up to that time. Meetings were held and the company survived, moving to the Unley City Hall in 1922 with a production of Pygmalion which was an overwhelming success. Still anxious to move to a central hall in the city, The Rep transferred to Victoria Hall in Gawler Place. In 1924, the opportunity arose to purchase The King’s Theatre in King William Street, but despite vigorous fundraising, The Rep had to wait another forty years before the illusive dream of a permanent home was realised.

Throughout the twenties, The Rep strengthened its position as leader of the literary drama scene in this State. “To those who are in search of the best Literary, Dramatic and Artistic fare, I can only say as often before: Become a member of The Adelaide Repertory Theatre and your search in this regard will be most satisfactorily and happily ended,” wrote one scribe. And another in his ‘Address given to the Commonwealth Club’: “I consider that The Adelaide Repertory Theatre is, in one respect, the most remarkable theatre of the kind in the world, in as much as it has paid its way from the first. While it produces solid drama which would otherwise not be seen in Adelaide, it occasionally puts on Australian plays: Adelaide is the Mecca of those interested in serious drama” (A.H. Adams in The Daily Herald, 27 November 1910).

How many of these fulsome commendations hold true today – 98 years on?

The Key of the Door

In 1928, The Rep celebrated its 21st year and was then referred to by The Advertiser as “the oldest of such institutions in the Commonwealth.” G. Crichton wrote of The Rep’s production that year of Chekov’s The Seagull, “Considering the utter misery of conditions under which the players laboured, they acquitted themselves commendably. The stage was pitifully small. It was without depth. The lighting fixtures were execrable. In an adjoining building, a froth-blowers’ chorus was in the process of execution. Rain was falling on the roof with the pent up fervour of a month’s denial.” Despite the terrible conditions, The Rep climbed, by the end of the decade, from near oblivion to a strong force in the Adelaide theatre world.

The Great Depression

1930 brought the Company to The Australia Hall, a modern hall not only eminently suitable for the staging of plays but also extremely comfortable from the point of view of the audience. Whilst the country was in the depths of the Great Depression, The Rep sought to present cheerful plays and acknowledged the ‘talkies’ with the statement that “no mechanical drama can give the degree of pleasure and artistic satisfaction provided by a good play, well acted and carefully produced,” and it was decided that “although talkies have much in their favour, they do not, for the most part, touch the same standard of appeal. Even when times are troubled and money scarce, people turn to the theatre for relaxing and entertaining evenings.” During this time, short plays were presented as a curtain raiser and playwriting competitions were popular.

Silver and Speeches

A party in the clubrooms celebrated the Silver Anniversary in 1933 with dancing, supper and, of course, speeches.

Kindly Light

1934 saw the production of Goethe’s Faust, with a cast of 60 and 19 sets. The director, Theo Shall, was a stage and screen star of Hollywood and European fame. Many people remember with great affection the stylish gothic staging, costuming and fine performances. The Centenary of South Australia was celebrated in 1936 with the staging of a play by Max Afford, Colonel Light the Founder, a romantic tale of Colonel William Light.

The War Years

In 1939, The Rep was on the move again, this time to The Tivoli Theatre in Grote Street, an era which lasted from 1940 to 1953, when most of the lavish and memorable productions were mounted. During the Second World War years, special performances were held to aid patriotic charities and considerable funds were donated to the Cheer Up Hut, Red Cross and Legacy. The war years required special staging and casting, as many stalwarts were away serving in the armed forces or support organizations.

Memberships soared after the War and there were names on a waiting list to join as subscribers. During these post-war years, a generous practice was introduced, inviting schools, colleges and other educational institutions to enjoy the final night of rehearsal for free, and many aspiring actors had their first taste of theatre at this time.

Now, in 2008, ‘final rehearsal nights’ are euphemistically called ‘Previews’ and admission is usually only a little less than a full-priced ticket – at least in the professional theatre world! But The Rep, for charity fund-raisers, charges a flat $6 per ticket, the charity sponsoring the performance to raise funds then sells the tickets to supporters for whatever it thinks they will be prepared to pay.

1940-1953 were regarded as the Golden Years of The Rep with generally good plays and fine performances from many well-known names like Keith Michell, Ron Haddrick, Ruby Litchfield, Mimi Mattin, Iris Hart, Margery Irving, Phyllis Burford, Roy and Joy Grubb, Meta McCaffrey and Vivienne Oldfield – many of whom went on to the professional theatre and radio drama.

A building begins

Still The Rep had no permanent home, until, in February 1950, the site at 53 Angas Street was purchased and a Building Fund Appeal launched. 1951 was the Jubilee Year of Australian Federation and as a part of the celebration, a Commonwealth Drama Festival was held. The Rep was asked to organise a South Australian entry which it duly did and went on, in Hobart, to win the National Prize with Stephen Church’s production of The Little Foxes. Meanwhile, strained finances required a move back to the suburbs when The Rep played in the Unley Town Hall (where, despite technical difficulties, some of The Rep’s most exceptional productions were presented). Later it returned to The Tiv and finally to Australia Hall adjacent to where the theatre was to be built.

Pouring the Foundations

The Building Fund slowly grew, but, not surprisingly, costs of construction escalated. Happily in 1963, the foundations were laid and patrons and past supporters urged to contribute to the building of their own theatre, The Adelaide Repertory Theatre Arts Theatre. A commemorative plaque was unveiled by the Governor, Sir Edric Bastyan in February 1963 and The Advertiser reported “it will be a significant event in the history of Australia’s oldest community theatre for it will be one of the final steps in the attainment of the Society’s lifelong aim, occupation of its own theatre.” The play chosen for the opening production was Romanoff and Juliet to be directed by Rep legend, Dame Ruby Litchfield.

The Litchfield Legacy

Ruby Beatrice Litchfield (née Skinner) was born in Subiaco, Western Australia on 5 September 1912. She grew up in Adelaide, attended North Adelaide Primary School and Presbyterian Girls’ College. Her work and interests spanned theatre, tennis, and service to many community and charity organizations. She directed 35 plays for The Adelaide Repertory Theatre up until 1983, and acted in several plays. Litchfield was the first woman appointed to the Board of the Adelaide Festival Trust (1971). She was also a board member of the Adelaide Festival of Arts and chair of the Youth Performing Arts Council.

For her community work, Litchfield was appointed OBE (1959). She was later awarded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal (1977) and further honoured in 1981, being appointed DBE, this time for service to the performing arts and the community. She died on 14 August 2001. To commemorate her legacy to the State and to honour the outstanding contribution and achievements of South Australia’s artists and cultural industries, a new award for the State’s arts community, known as Ruby Awards, was introduced by the State Government in June 2006.

Disaster narrowly averted

In 1989, due to serious financial difficulties, The Rep’s home, The Arts Theatre, faced the danger of being sold. However, after several meetings, the decision to sell was overturned – but in hindsight it was more a stay of execution than a reprieve! Since then, countless productions have been mounted with style and elegance at “The Arts” and the theatre has become a popular and functional commercial venue used by a number of other amateur companies, schools and the occasional interstate performer.

Securing the future

As it reaches its centenary year, The Adelaide Repertory Theatre’s future is uncertain – but there are still firebrands who think it should and will survive. Lofty ideals and dreams of times long gone are not enough, however. There is a need for a large number of like-minded people to contribute – with cash, on-going sponsorships and fresh ideas. Although in its infancy in Australia, this is the age in Arts’ philanthropy by the individual entrepreneur and the world of business. Governments can no longer be depended on. That time has passed.

While The Adelaide Repertory Theatre continues in its endeavour to present entertaining, high quality performances which reflect its position as Australia’s longest continuously-performing, non-professional theatre company, it knows it cannot rest on its past glories. They are the foundation but now, for a successful second century, much hard work – ever the lot of amateur theatre – will again be required.

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