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

A building begins

Established in 1908, 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

Reaching its centenary year in 2008, 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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