A most exciting exhibition will be coming to the National Library of Australia in March for theatre lovers .
A performance is fleeting and no two are exactly the same.
What does a performance tell us ? It can be challenging and ask difficult questions , extremely moving , enthrall and delight or terrify or disgust us.
The exhibition opens with an acknowledgement of all the backstage staff that help make the theatrical magic happen – a photo of Ange Sullivan , head of lighting at the Sydney Opera House , preparing a ‘ghost’ light at the Joan Sutherland theatre in 2020.
On STAGE combines items that have never before been on display with the earliest surviving Australian printed document,(a playbill),selections from the extensive JC Williamson theatre archives, and other contemporary live music and theatre posters.
We see how ballets, musicals , plays , operas, circus , magic and concerts have been produced : all the business of production behind the scenes .The library’s collection includes the papers of designers Kenneth Rowell , Desmond Digby and Kristian Frederickson , Dame Nellie Melba and the towering talent of Sir Robert Helpmann.
The library also holds the papers of Bobby and Gracie Le Brun , Jim Sharman, Patrick White ,the papers of Rose Quong and the massive PROMPT collection ( the Australian performing arts and ephemera collection – tickets , posters , programs etc ) as well as musical score , books, plays and manuscripts and a 153cm lagerphone with its ‘whacker’, associated with the 1950s musical group, The Bushwhackers.
In her introduction to the ‘’exhibition companion’, the curator of the exhibition Dr Susannah Helman takes us through the history of Australian theatre from 1796 to now and the impact of Covid. There were eminent visitors such as Lola Montez in the 1850’s and Sarah Bernhardt in 1891 and highly rewarding opera tours during the 1860’s and 1870’s.
We then follow the rise of actor-manager entrepreneurs , such as George Selth Coppin and Bland Holt but the dominant name was J.C. Williamson , who arrived in 1874 and his fortune took off with his presentation of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas . His company, affectionately known as ‘The Firm ‘ also fostered Australian talent such as actress Nellie Stewart. JC Williamson’s company operated in some fashion from 1874-1976 and the Library has a stack of documents , cables, designs, photos etc as wellas what was left after a show closed such as scripts , scores , stage manager’s notes etc . for a multitude of productions.
The exhibition also documents the life and times of for instance Dame Nellie Melba, Oscar Asche (who produced Kismet and Chu Chin Chow for example) , the dancer Saharet and Melbourne based Rose Quong.
Then there was the enormously successful Tivoli vaudeville and variety touring circuit with “ Stiffy and Mo’ for example. It is also interesting to note that famous pianist Winifred Atwell toured the Tivoli circuit too , settling in Australia in the 1970’s. Mention must also be made of the Sorlie’s productions that captured the travelling tent show scene for decades.
For ballet lovers The Firm – by then under the direction of the Tait brothers – brought out on tour Anna Pavlova and then later the Ballets Russes , both of which greatly influenced Australian ballet history.
That is not forgetting opera tours and musicals that toured after World War 11 , in particular Annie Get Your Gun with Evie Hayes and then the rise of home grown Australian talent with the great Toni Lamond , Jill Perryman and Nancye Hayes.
A segment of the exhibition is devoted to the history of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust as well as ‘classic’ Australian plays such as On Our Selection , Summer of the Seventeenth Doll , and One Day of the Year .This then leads to a look at the ‘little theatre’ companies possibly more independent and experimental such as La Mama, The Pram Factory and the Nimrod . In 1973 came the opening of the Sydney Opera House. The stories told by Bangarra and other Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander companies are also mentioned. Outdoor performances , festivals and rock concerts are also included in the exhibition.
On Stage runs at the National Library of Australia 4 March – 7 August 2022