It would probably be more exact to say ‘My life at Canberra Repertory’ because that’s where I spent the greatest part of my waking hours over nearly half a century.
Before coming to Australia in 1968 my theatrical experience had been as an audience member in the King’s or Alhambra theatres in Glasgow, very minor chorus roles in school concerts and secondary roles in university student presentations in French.
And that was it.
To Canberra and Rep
Thence years later, to Canberra, Australia for, we thought, two years. My father retired at that time and my parents took over the granny flat in our rented house. We had built-in baby sitters! What to do? With my extremely limited theatrical experience and my husband Don’s absolute zilch, we joined Canberra Repertory Society, a well-respected group with a professional ‘manager-producer’ and talented amateur performers, many from the diplomatic and public services—this was Canberra after all.
We were made very welcome by then m-p Laurence Hayes, Vice President Elizabeth Ferguson and other members. Like theatre groups everywhere, the society was top heavy in females and lacking in female acting roles. Before we could turn round Don was cast in a vacant part in East Lynne and I was asked if I’d like to help out with props. Next production up was The Caucasian Chalk Circle with a huge cast all to be dressed in scratchy but cheap hessian. Don got a leading role and I got crowd bits and we both helped with the dyeing of miles and miles of hessian.
And so it went: I was soon in charge of the props cupboard and we were both proving efficient backstage at the Playhouse where Rep staged short seasons of its mainstage productions. In 1969 we were joint stage managers of Hedda Gabler. Hayes was extremely demanding which, along with his training workshops, improved the quality of his productions and these were extremely well received. But they did not make him popular. So much so that when he decided after dress rehearsal that he wanted the whole Hedda set repainted, mutiny ensued. That evening coincided with the gala opening of the Balcony Room restaurant which leading Rep members were attending and enjoying next door. We refused en masse to repaint the perfectly presentable set—only, as we left, to discover Laurence alone on stage wielding paint brush and roller. We did not give in, though some of us did suffer guilt pangs.
When Laurence left to take up a new post, a past manager-producer, Alan Harvey, was invited to return and my lot improved. I was cast in the rewarding role of Annie in When We Are Married and as hatchet-faced virago or tearful mother in Alan’s popular end-of season melodramas. All great fun and I got to sing entr’acte numbers like ‘Away with Rum By gum’ with Rosemary Hyde, later Queen of Rep’s Old Time Music Hall.
Time to cut a very long story short. By 1972 I was Vice-President of the Society and cutting my directing teeth off-Rep and off Mainstage.
For Alpha Theatre I staged my own in-the-round adaptations of children’s stories at the Methodist church hall. I was to refer to this as my P-period: Poppenkast, Pinocchio and The Pied Piper—this last during some down time at Rep’s own Theatre 3 (the old Canberra High School hall acquired in 1973 and transformed into a theatre by a dedicated band of Rep volunteers, led by Russell Brown, of whom more soon).
(Much later, in 1985, I added another P-production, directing a huge musical version of Peter Pan for Rep: music by Vivian Arnold, set by Russell Brown and Andrew Kay and an amazing team of musicians, technical, props and costume designers, an enormous crew and a cast including Pirates and Indians and two teams of Lost Boys. The orchestra was cramped into a stage-left corner up a steep, narrow stair. What a task for a stage manager! Fortunately we had one of the best in Gil Whan. Rep has always been blessed with superlative stage managers, male and female.)
Wagga Wagga Festival
Another teeth-cutting experience for me was the Wagga Wagga Festival of One-act Plays to which Rep had been submitting entries for several years. In the late seventies, early eighties, I put on Lloyd George Knew my Father, The American Dream and Shall we Join the Ladies? For this last I wrote a second scene for J M Barrie’s cliff-hanger. It won every award it was eligible for. Adjudicator Rodney Fisher did have one negative comment: my ultra-suave, evening-suited Captain Jennings was wearing red socks! His excuse: he’d forgotten to pack his black ones for Wagga. But since I hadn’t even noticed and Rodney was quite amused, the sin was overlooked. Ladies went on to a short season at Theatre 3.
Don took part in Ladies as the non-speaking but crucial butler. By this time he disliked acting especially with words and he was heavily into computers and desk-top publishing. Our roles at Rep were reversed: I was the active stage person and he the producer of all props that required printed work: bottle labels, old or foreign or fictional newspapers and journals. His banknotes of all denominations were so good that one $20 note was stolen. From then on banknotes were cleverly disguised.
By 1982 I was ready to put my hand up to direct a mainstage production. Every year only one of these was allotted to a member, all others were the responsibility of a professional, now called a resident director, an administrative manager being a separate paid appointment.
‘My’ play was Romanoff and Juliet, Peter Ustinov’s take on Romeo and Juliet. I was blessed as I was always to be, by having a dedicated production team. The highly-gifted Russell Brown, who had been Rep’s principal set designer almost since his arrival in Canberra in 1969, undertook the design and construction coordination of the huge three-part set. It comprised Russian and American embassies on trucks, central square with practical fountain and twelve ‘saints’ striking the hours on the mediaeval clock tower. I cannot name the whole team but Russell, stage manager Joyce Gore, wardrobe mistresses, Lynne Ashcroft and Maureen Newman and pyrotechnic expert, Tony Ashcroft were to be Rep stalwarts forever. R and J was well received although I nearly lost my burgeoning career and one of my closest friends by deciding to ‘help’. Alone in the theatre behind the set and after careful measurements between struts, I cut out a practical window of one of the embassies. Then I looked at my handiwork from the front, audience side. It was in completely the wrong place. Despair. How was I going to confess to Russell, a man not known for his equable temper? However, I did and, perhaps because he saw my desperation, he couldn’t have been kinder. The window was fixed and I had learned a very useful lesson—several lessons.
In 2010 I appeared as the tetchy Emily Brent in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, type-cast again.
By then, due to my long corporate memory, I had followed my now late friend Margaret Fead as the Society’s archivist, a post now filled by Rosanne Walker who, with her assistant Jude Schou, has patiently traced photographs for this site.
I will not go into a play by play account of my subsequent career but I will mention a couple of favourites.
First up in 1983, the year Bob Hawke became Prime Minister and I became President of Canberra Repertory, I acquired the rights to Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, a play set in a very Eton-like English public school, and the imagined school days of Guy Burgess and John Cornforth. I loved this play. It couldn’t be done in Australia of course, too English and who could find a cast of school-age boys able to adopt the accent and act 1930/40ish gay communists?
Well, I was naïve enough to believe I could, and I put it to Rep Council. Miraculously, with the enthusiastic support of Vice-president Warwick Ongley, I was awarded this gem. I must forego the details, but it was a wonderful success playing to a 99% capacity audience. Again, of course, it was 99% due to a superb team, this time including an accent coach, Marilyn Ford, and an unbelievable cast with future ‘Doug Anthony Allstar’ Tim Ferguson and Berlin Symphony conductor and Benjamin Britten authority, Paul Kildea (See both of these in Wikipedia). They became known as ‘Corille’s boys’ and I am proud to relate that not long ago I was in touch with most of them, now in successful careers and with grown families.
Other favourites? Season’s Greetings (one of the five Alan Ayckbourn plays I took on), and two independent, non-Rep productions I staged at the Ralph Wilson theatre in Braddon: Salt-Water Moon, by Canadian David French, a beautiful two-hander and Men Should Weep by Ena Lamont Stewart, set in Depression era Glasgow. This latter was awarded the Canberra Critics Circle drama award in 1992.
My last two shows for Rep were Humble Boy by Charlotte Jones (2011) and, unsurprisingly as my 30th Rep mainstage production and swan song, Alan Ayckbourn’s Improbable Fiction.
I have joined the local Drama and Musical Society and U3A Armchair Theatre and have participated in both in a minor way. The future? We’ll see.