Non-professionalfunded theatre makes a welcome comeback – this time in Melbourne.

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I lived in Canberra in the mid-1980s and it was a magical time for amateur – or perhaps I should call it non-professional – theatre and music. Each year the Arts Faculty at ANU put on a Shakespeare play. I don’t know what they were like as lecturers but there were actors there who could not only act with the best of them but had remarkably deep, powerful, penetrating theatrical voices – like Richard Burton. If anyone can remember the name of the English (language not nationality) academic who (I think) lived at Bruce Hall and was often in the lead – please mention it in comments.

Early on in the 80s (if my memory isn’t getting the time wrong) the Doug Anthony All Stars would busk in the Monaro Mall. There were several good theatre groups which received some funding but also filled out their acting personnel with amateurs many of whom were good.

And Paul Thom – a lecturer in Philosophy at ANU and a remarkable fellow – put on a full scale Handel oratorio each year (a little before they became the latest thing). Usually there were four professional singers filling out the solo roles with amateur choirs singing choruses and kids from Boys Grammar doing some male alto singing.

None of these productions were flawless as you would expect. But they were marvellous nevertheless. Full of energy and enthusiasm, and directed by people with great passion and insight into what they were doing. One could forgive the odd person who couldn’t act to save themselves, in the circumstances in a way I can’t forgive it in professional performances. But almost invariably the important parts were not just well played. They were played much better than one would generally expect them to be played by professionals. By people with great abilities who were doing it for the love of it. (There’s a analogy with open source software here – the best quality around and it’s produced for love not money. But I won’t labour the point).

I remember seeing Tartuffe produced in Melbourne by the Anthill Theatre company complete with a fancy set and vivid costumes. (I recall – correctly or otherwise – costumes made of brightly coloured rubber, like multicoloured raincoats.) Anyway the production had nothing obviously wrong with it and got great reviews (which spent plenty of time talking about the costumes and the set) but I was bored to bits. I figured Moliere wasn’t for me.

Then I saw the Arts’ Faculty’s performance of it in Canberra a couple of months’ later. Bill Guinane’s philosophy lectures had always strongly suggested he’d rather be somewhere else. His performance of Tartuffe showed you where it was. He was marvellous as the mischievous, misanthropic Tarfuffe and brought out the comedy with passion – the passion of a true misanthrope perhaps. Bill Guinane did lots of acting after that performance and he was always marvellous.

Another year Manning Clark did a cameo as father time in The Winter’s Tale played in the open air in the strange angular buildings by the side of the High Court with his son Axel being comical in a leading role. Both Clark and his son have since died. The Dougies moved onward and upward. Paul Thom got jack of all the work he had to put in. And I don’t recall the Arts Faculty putting on much after the late 1980s. An era came to an end.

So I was grateful to see some of the energy I remember from Canberra in the 1980s returning to Melbourne with a production of Chekov’s Ivanov which has been produced by a cast of nearly twenty professional actors all working for nothing. They do a great job. There are some reviews you can click-through to here, here and here. The night I went (Friday) Helen Morse was absent and had her place taken by someone who read the part script in hand. It reminded me of Canberra. She did a great job in that remarkable way that actors can.

Go and see it if you can.

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boynton
2022 years ago

Non-funded rather than “non-professional Theatre” I’d say.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

nic

How very timely. I am thoroughly sick of being bored into oblivion by ‘theatre’. So encouraging to hear of your good recent experience. I was beginning to rethink my whole attitude toward the medium. Have I become so old and cynical that I am incapable of enjoying anything but food and sex?

We have just sat through another theatrical atrocity. Not unfunded either.

Grant one good performance and two others that were interesting at times. 2 & 1/2 hours of absolute self indulgence. If we had payed for the tickets it would have cost us about $30 each!

Lesson is, if you dream of parochial stardom and want to play expensive theatrical games, if you want to get your ambitions and capabilities all mixed up, Darwin audiences will pay and tolerate.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I knew Jen wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to have a comment box spray after the torture of last night’s appalling Darwin production of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. As she observed, there were three passable-to-good individual performances, but the rest were uniformly dreadful (even for amateurs).

Moreover, even though the actors were (almost) all amateurs, the production had a professional director, artistic and musical director, and reasonably lavish NT government funding for lighting, staging etc. The direction and staging were uninspiring at best, with none of the edginess and audience-confronting that were needed to make it gripping theatre rather than the crushingly boring, agonising experience it was.

You can certainly forgive amateurs being amateurish if a production is presented (and tickets sold) as amateur/community theatre. However, this Darwin Theatre Company production is being promoted as part of the current Darwin Festival as if it was a professional production, with tickets selling at $35 per head (a bit cheaper than some professional productions but certainly considerably more than the average amateur theatrical group effort – which is what it really was – and a mediocre example of the genre at that).

Melbourne is extraordinarily fortunate to have such a large group of professional actors devoting themselves to an unfunded production of a Chekhov play. I suppose it’s one of many benefits to living in a city of 4 million people as opposed to a provincial town with 110,000. Mind you, it isn’t necessarily a blessing even theatrically. Jen and I went to see a professional production of David Williamson’s latest play Influence while we were in Melbourne recently. It was well acted, but the direction was also uninspiring, and the play itself was the standard hackneyed Williamson recipe. Ho hum. If it was typical of the current Melbourne professional theatre mainstream, we Darwin hicks aren’t missing all that much (although it was still a big step up from the Threepenny Opera comes to Darwin – it would have been overpriced at a penny ha’penny) .

jen
jen
2022 years ago

Parish parish parish
one of the things I really love and admire about you is your total lack of generosity of spirit.
And your ability to blithely take my word and not check facts when it suits you.
The tickets were only $27.50!

Rafe
2022 years ago

You guys should have been in Hobart when John Lohrey produced “The Admirable Crighton” in the dining room at Hytten Hall. We built the sets in the warden’s garage. George Wilson was one of the great wardens, he came from NZ and played halfback for Tasmania at the age of 37. He also hosted the party after opening night.
I played the Second Servant in Lord Loam’s household, and also the Second Sailor who landed on the desert island to rescue the shipwrecked party.
They were both speaking parts (one or two lines) but nowhere as interesting as the lines I had in the role of Second Guard in “Antigone” at school.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Clearly there is a long tradition of halfbacks named George who hang on long after their talents have dimmed. I wish the other one would acquire thespian ambitions, however misplaced, and hang up the boots in favour of treading the boards. I’d even pay for a ticket, if only as a service to Australian rugby. And speaking of Antigone, what about our Eddie? He’d make an ideal Oedipus. After all, he’s a son of Australian rugby and he’s fucked the Wallabies completely.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

Ken Parish

Ouch, to both posts. Darwin may be behind the the big cities in performance but it is holding its own in bitchy reviews (theatre & sport).

Though it was only an aside your comment on Williamson interested me. Have not seen the play and I won’t. I think though that Williamson is a craftsman, and his mastery of his craft put him at the forefront of Australian theatre. Alas it is his opinions that have become hackneyed and standard.

Oh God, who will rescue the performing arts from aging polemicists? I don’t ask them to change their opinions I just ask them to not tell me what they are.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

James

I don’t think it’s bitchy to label a bad theatrical production as such. If they were truly amateurs and doing it at their own expense, it would certainly be bitchy (or at least uncalled for) to criticise. But these people are being funded by us taxpayers (including you, given the extent to which the NT is funded by the Commonwealth) to a quite considerable extent. As such they must expect to be accountable for their efforts.

In fact I think it raises the question of why amateur theatrical bodies should be funded by the taxpayer at all. I was involved in amateur theatricals in Sydney in my younger days, and we certainly didn’t receive any government largesse. Nor do I ask taxpayers to fund my blogging or other hobbies, so why should those who (misguidedly or otherwise) believe they have theatrical talents expect it? I support a degree of government funding to flagship professsional companies, because that allows for the creation of a standard of excellence and creative diversity that enriches Australian culture generally. But it’s much more difficult to mount that sort of argument persuasively in relation to amateur theatrical groups.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

Agree totally Ken. Thanks for clarifying and developing your point. My definition of bitchy is less nuanced than yours – I did not mean it to have quite that baggage.

Tony The Thespian
2022 years ago

“I loathe those Russian plays. Always full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow.”

— Withnail.

boynton
2022 years ago

Not to mention the samovar…

Nick, I know what you mean about that element of passion that is sometimes lacking, more evident in professional productions. But given the calibre of this team, I doubt such energy would be diminished if the actors were being paid.
Some projects just have it.

I think it says something yet again about the state of the middle-ground (which has often been the heartland of passion and craft in Melb) that companies have to subsist (or improvise) on a project-to project basis.
It sounds great. Hope everyone who loves Chekov can get along to this.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Yes Boynton I agree – I wasn’t suggesting that not paying actors made them better!

Btw, the Ivanov production wasn’t perfect. I found the young heroine who falls in love with Ivanov plumbed the depths of human emotion from A to B and kept reminding me of Delta Goodrem. (Not that I have anything against DG, but I wouldn’t recommend her for Chekov.

All other major characters were somewhere between good and terrific.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

In the immortal words of John Houseman (as partly paraphrased by Robin Williams) –

“The future of this craft depends on the next generation. The theatre needs you. Now please excuse me, I’m off to make commercials for General Motors.”

Bill Cushing
Bill Cushing
2022 years ago

I remember Paul Thom and colleagues putting on Purcell’s ‘King Arthur’in Childers St Hall, to a packed house, back in the 60s. Wonderful. Especially when Britannia (Sue Falk?), rising from a stage trap door, burst through a brown paper bag painted green, to the strains of ‘Fairest Isle’.

Who has ever performed this great piece since?

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Can I butt into the Canberra nostalgia and say thank you for a great laff over the cartoon. (My ageing fingers nearly wrote tarcoon but that would have been a dreadful thing to do so I didn’t).

Living in Darwin doesn’t stop audiences from being critical as Jen and Ken demonstrate. But it does make the chances of hashing a great play like the thrupenny very high. Once some bugger reads about “Verfremdungseffekt” you are doomed to a horrible tropic night.

They should have stuck with John Gay and The Beggar’s Opera, which can be hammed up without going rotten.

BTW – I just lerve bitchy reviews.