It’s extraordinary to look back, over all those years. I remember, as a child, looking forward to a stretch of time that seemed endless, a point that, as I gazed at the nearest elderly relative, was beyond her comprehension, or possibility of attainment. Well, I’m there now, or almost, and this exercise in recollection, albeit purely in the professional areas, will be interesting and, given my current feelings (disappointments, still lingering hopes?), quite salutary.
I remember, vividly, the first moment, entering what was then the St James Hall. Later it became the Mercury Theatre and, finally, its greatest glory, the Phillip Street Theatre. A beautiful little Playhouse with a horseshoe gallery and a perfect intimacy. And, of course, they pulled it down.
I walked in one day in drab, wartime Sydney, myself drab and young but sensing, I think, that the occasion would set a course to be adhered to fairly faithfully for the next forty years a generation’s span, I now see. It was such an unimportant occasion on the face of – it an amateur production of one of those plays beloved by amateurs. It was called George and Margaret and I haven’t the faintest idea what it was about other than that it was faintly amusing, and that it showed a group of people having such an extremely happy time, even in wartime Sydney, that it seemed imperative to join their ranks. What on earth became of the six members of the tiny orchestra, providing a sound remembered more for its enthusiasm than its musicality the small boy in short pants, the elderly man on flute (the males in between were scarce on the ground just then), and the spinster refugee from an earlier Palm Court combination? The others have faded. This was the Modern Theatre Players, one of a number of such amateur groups flourishing at the time. They varied in quality but never in enthusiasm, nor in any of the other close attachments, spiky jealousies, and a loyalty which precluded more than token acknowledgement of any other group’s activities. These attributes and liabilities have transferred with remarkable ease to the professional scene!
The Modern Theatre Players was run by Edna Spilsbury with a softly iron grip. Her group would have been at the middle rung. Edna Spilsbury was a teacher of elementary voice production, mime and movement. Her teacher, Elsie Fogarty, had taught the greats ‘over there’, Olivier amongst them. I am eternally grateful for her groundwork, particularly in the areas of voice. She operated from a Studio in the old Palings Building next to one occupied by Frances Scully’s Academy of Dance. These days as I proceed to rehearsal in the Elizabethan Trust’s building there is a dance group going full pelt in the rehearsal room next door. Nothing changes! This continuing proximity, I tell myself, has much to do with my totally unfulfilled desire to be a very famous dancer. Never can I resist a sideways glance at straining bodies. The thump of the piano is the same, the faces are still as pale, but the mothers don’t seem to be around as much.
The other groups that flourished about this time, 1943, were Bryant’s Playhouse (perhaps a little earlier), May Hollinworth’s Metropolitan Theatre and Doris Fitton’s Independent Theatre. These were the top flight groups, and they were all run by women. I am sure this was not just to do with the war, as some would have operated before the war, but never has there been such a formidable band as that group of women who virtually controlled serious theatre in Sydney in the 1940s. These groups presented almost the only serious, or ‘straight’, drama available. The professional arena was dominated by Williamson’s with a policy of presenting popular musical theatre. Williamson’s was set fair to enjoy the rewards of the musical boom about to take off in America, with the mandatory imported ‘stars’ firmly built into the system. Williamson’s dominated the commercial theatre, but there was another professional theatre, the Minerva, run by Kathleen Robinson, whose director was yet another woman, Yvonne (Fifi) Banvard. The Minerva Theatre at Kings Cross subsequently became a cinema and is currently a film studio. It presented drama, in particular the fine American writing of the period. The Company was relatively small, however, and the competition to find a place intense.
The aspiring professional actor in Sydney in the 1940s and 1950s faced a dilemma that few can now envisage. Apart from that small, fortunate group at the Minerva, professional earnings came solely from radio. Radio flourished because a war had dried up the inevitable imported programmes and a vacuum was waiting to be filled. And filled it was. When I had my first professional engagement for 2CH in 1945, the leading performers in Sydney were already household words. They were beamed into every living room in the land! It is my firm opinion that Australian actors, forced into supplying an enormous market at home and abroad turned themselves into the most proficient exponents of the art in the world. Those working flat out would race to and from studios that were scattered throughout the city, and further. Many actors were recording up to eight or ten soap operas each week, with a morning’s work being devoted to each serial, and up to six episodes being recorded at a time. At the EMI studios at Homebush, where the George Edward organisation recorded, the episodes were invariably being written, or at least altered, whilst recording was in progress. Australian actors have always been adept at handling the emergency and the deadline.
Soap it may have been, but I venture to say the substance was a little weightier than the current television versions, with people like Morris West and Eleanor Witcombe, to name but two, participating in the writing. And there was Lyndall Barbour, Sheila Sewell, Neva Carr Glyn, John Cazabon, Alan White, Alan Trevor, John Tait, Max Osbiston, Nigel Lovell, Thelma Scott, Frank Waters, John Meillon, Lloyd Berrell, John Ewart, June Salter, Dinah Shearing – the list could go on and on. We presented three weekly commercial one-hour plays live (Caltex, Lux and GMH). For these we got ourselves up into evening dress for the benefit of the studio audience. We didn’t have to bother for the ABC for their dramas were sent out live from the seclusion of a studio in Market Street and no audience was permitted anywhere near this hallowed ground. As a somewhat timid observer-participant, I forever marvelled at my colleagues’ wit, stamina (two or three bars in town had direct links to their agents), prodigious ability with cryptic crosswords, and their light and easy talent. Peter Finch may have had the edge, but not by much.
A group of actors, and no professional stages for them. Radio was bread and butter, and sometimes jam and cream, but, in the main, not artistically rewarding. This was where the top amateur groups came into their own, and why the theatre they provided was first-rate. The casts were made up of professional radio actors who just had to get onto a stage. They were amateur solely in the matter of no money for the actors. Sydney theatre-goers could have a rich diet at these small theatres, and I longed to take the next step and be with the greats. Joining Doris Fitton’s Independent Theatre Drama School was a first step, but even then one waited an interminable time before getting even a small role in one of her major productions. In fact I don’t believe I ever made the grade. I came fairly close in one production, but arrived late to the final Sunday rehearsal, due to understudying in a Radio play, a professional engagement. I was promptly sacked. The status at the Independent may have been amateur, but the discipline was super professional.
There I was plodding nervously from radio studio to radio studio as the engagements came in, and earning extra money to keep body and soul together in various business establishments ranging from stockbrokers to cheap furniture upholsterers (this one was opposite a brothel and afforded much good research material), to book and magazine publishers. A variety of sympathetic employers allowed me to work as and when I could. Mind you, a splendid facility with Pitman’s shorthand insisted upon by my parents, was no handicap.
In theatre two men edged the ladies aside. John Alden formed his Shakespeare Company, and at last I was included. He presented seasons at the Independent (Doris Fitton and I able to speak to one another again), and I was allowed to understudy Mistress Ford and Portia. Then, great day, I was actually cast in a role one of the goddesses in The Tempest. Finally, there was Goneril. King Lear was Alden’s greatest success. He played Lear and the season ran for six months at the St James Hall, playhouse of my first memory, to full houses and much fainting in the audience, the eye-gouging scene being played with enormous realism! Thus encouraged, Alden formed a professional company and toured Australia. But, not with me! Abandoned! Simply abandoned! I couldn’t believe it. Had not one critic commented on that voice like a golden bell? I took myself off for a solitary holiday, and decided life could be continued just.
So here we are, round about 1950, and the rise has not been noticeably meteoric. Tenacious, though. And on the principle of one door closing . . . that other man had started his wild scheme. Sydney John Kay had the somewhat revolutionary notion that actors in his employ could be paid. He had formed his Mercury Theatre earlier and with Peter Finch as linchpin had toured factories presenting lunch-hour theatre and done encouragingly well. Peter had by that time been snapped up by the Oliviers. John Kay leased the St James Hall, turned it into the Mercury Theatre, formed his Company, and presented the first and only theatre en repertoire Sydney has seen. We played, amongst others, a double bill of The Comedy of Errors and the source play, The Twins, by Plautus, Arms and the Man, and a production of Strindberg’s The Father, in which , at a still early age, I played opposite Alexander Archdale, who also directed. This repertory system, a different play each night, is something that works extremely well. With the current Sydney production of Nicholas Nickleby playing two plays over a week, something of this system has been experienced, and I think it has a deal of merit. The difficulty these days is in gathering a group of actors together for a long enough period when television and film compete so effectively for their services. In the early fifties there was no television and little film. It was possible to form a company of actors that could tour Australia under the banner for example, of the recently formed Elizabethan Theatre Trust, and such actors were more than happy to make themselves available for extended tours. The film industry has changed that dramatically. Actors today wish to work in all media and to be available always for that magical major film role.
Who of us working in theatre at that time would have imagined the extent of subsidised theatre as it exists today? The subsidies, of course, are never enough, and we always, genuinely, need more, but the existence of the subsidies was never, then, part of our wildest or most improbable dreams. As they are here to stay, this can be counted very real progress.
The production of The Father in 1952 was my last in Sydney before the mandatory trip overseas to fame and fortune. This journey was not simply a return to one’s racial origins. I am happy to say I was never guilty of reporting that I was taking a trip ‘home’ not with my burgeoning nationalism! The journey simply had to be made by all working in creative fields of endeavour for the simple reason that their labours were largely unrecognised and unsupported. The question most frequently asked and it became a tired joke amongst us was ‘But what do you do for a living?’ There was obviously something ludicrous, not to say faintly indecent, about expecting remuneration from an activity that should have been merely a hobby. The arts were pleasant pastimes, and not to be taken seriously. When taken seriously they ceased to be pleasant in the eyes of some. Post-war painting was thought to be obscene when not totally unintelligible, and writers, unless published abroad, unimportant. What a climate in which to be attempting to reach one’s zenith! It is difficult for today ‘s artists to comprehend. Of course, it is still a nightmare for young actors to find work, particularly in theatre, but the quest is not looked upon as an aberration. The Australian public is delighted with its own, and it is difficult for actors in 1984 to imagine the problems attached to not being taken seriously unless reading a script into a microphone.
So, one removed oneself from the local scene. Without any doubt the major item of news about the local scene to filter through was the emergence of some strange venture called The Phillip Street Theatre which seemed to be presenting all-Australian intimate revue to ecstatic audiences. The news kept coming, the phenomenon was remarked upon by the expatriates, but it wasn’t till family reasons brought me back earlier than intended in 1954 that I saw for myself. The Phillip Street Revues changed the whole Sydney scene. Whereas earlier ventures had come and gone with varying degrees of success, this formula, devised by William Orr and Eric Duckworth, with Paul Riomfalvy, took off wondrously. Sydney flocked to these Revues and long runs became the order of the day. The timing was perfect television still a few years off and going to take a while to encroach. Australians, eager to look at themselves at last, saw the emergence of some fine writing talents, of which the foremost was, unquestionably, my good friend, John McKellar. The Phillip Street was the stamping ground for everyone in those days – Gordon Chater, Lyle O’Hara, Jill Perryman, Ray Barrett, John Ewart – the names could go on for pages. Later, Gloria Dawn was to join, and my debut, with Cross Section in 1957, saw the first stage appearance of a youthful Reg Livermore. And those days introduced Sydney to an equally youthful Barry Humphries. The most successful of the Revues ran for over a year, invariably toured. It was the sweet smell of success year in, year out.
When I returned to Sydney I was still regarded primarily as a dramatic (not to say downright tragic) actress, and revue was not in my sights at all. It was back into radio successfully. The returning expatriate was always welcomed with a degree of respect not necessarily accorded today. At the Independent I appeared in the Peter Ustinov play, The Good Fairy. English director, Lionel Harris, saw this, and for some obscure reason, the roles being completely dissimilar, asked me to play the title role in The Duenna. This was a leap into pure comedy, and revue, I am happy to say, followed. The change of direction, prompted by Lionel Harris, is something for which I have always been profoundly grateful. What follows, for me, is out of the time span set for this reminiscence, which is concerned with my experiences for those first ten years which began as an ‘enthusiastic amateur’ in 1943.
In retrospect, it was a time in limbo. Theatrically, in the professional sense, it was all waiting to happen, but in that limbo we were flinging ourselves about with such enthusiasm, such energy, that obviously something had to emerge. If the high-flown fancy can be forgiven, I believe we forced the wheel to inch forward. We won ‘t ever go back now to those bad old days of all work no pay, and that’s a very good thing. But we enjoyed a matchless, light-hearted period.
Ruth Cracknell (1925 – 2002) was an Australian character and comic actress, comedienne and author, her career encompassing all genres including radio, theatre, television and film.