The First Decade: 1980 – 1989

1980 – the company was first founded and named as TheatreWorks while members of its founding ensemble were still in their final year at the Victorian College of the Arts Drama School, under founding Dean Peter Oyston.

1981 – TW was formally incorporated as the Eastern Suburbs Community Theatre Company.

People: Founding company members/performers included Caz Howard, Susie Fraser, Peter Finlay, Peter Sommerfeld, Hannie Rayson, Amanda Ma, Mary Sitarenos, Steve Scully and Tony Kishawi.

Directors in its early years included Richard Murphet, Robin Laurie, Mark Shirrefs, Nancy Black, Merfyn Owen and company members. Writers included Hannie Rayson, Peter Finlay, Paul Davies, Susie Fraser, Caz Howard, Andrew Bovell, Paul Brown and Bill Garner. Designers and technicians included Peter Sommerfeld, Peter Aland and Kevin Mortensen.

Artistic Directorate established mid 1980s – Caz Howard, Paul Davies, Peter Aland, Peter Sommerville, Wolfgang Wittwer (company administrator).

Highlights – early work included ‘popular professional’ theatre: Hannie Rayson’s touring play Please Return to Sender (1980), and seasons at the Phoenix Theatre Burwood including Peter Sommerfeld’s Dee Jay View; group devised work The Go Anywhere (within reason) Show; and site specific ‘location theatre’ including Paul Davies’ Storming Mont Albert by Tram (1982). Several projects evolved from workshops in community, including Rayson’s Mary (1982).

1982 – the company’s name was officially changed to TheatreWorks Inc, while in its Annual Report, the company reaffirmed its commitment to two strands of work in community and ‘the staging of professional, original Australian theatre’.

In 1984, CEP (Commonwealth Employment Program) funding allowed the formation of The TheatreWorks Troupe, a second ensemble of formerly unemployed young people including Leonie Hurry, Phil Ceberano, Debbie Helloran, Helen King, John Wood-Ingram, Louis Dingemans and Kate Kantor.

1985-86 – the company began to explore a move from the suburban East to the grunge of St Kilda. Successes in the transitional period included Hannie Rayson’s Room to Move; Paul Davies’ Living Rooms, performed at nearby Linden Gallery; and The Pub Show at the Esplanade Hotel.

1986 – lease signed on the Christ Church Parish Hall in Acland St.

1986-87 – the first show staged in the Parish Hall, Cake! an Acland St Comedy opened on November 5 1986 – script Bill Garner, directed by Mark Shirrefs with a cast including Caz Howard, Paul Davies, Chris Barry, Lynda Gibson, Val Lehman and Brian Nankervis. It was followed in 1987 by other political and community-based plays including Errol O’Neill’s Popular Front, Paul Davies’ Last Train to St Kilda? and Peter Sommerfeld’s Why People Go to Traffic Accidents, the first play in Australia about AIDS, with performers from the local community and design by visual artist Kevin Mortensen.

1988 – was a high point for TW. The Tram Show was reimagined as Storming St Kilda by Tram, with the first departure launched with champagne by St Kilda Mayor Elaine Millar; the company hosted an extended season of Andrew Bovell’s first successful play After Dinner and a groundbreaking production of Aboriginal playwright Bob Maza’s The Keepers by South Australia’s Mainstreet Community Theatre Company; the year finished with TW’s own locally based ‘Christmas panto’, Paul Davies’ On Shifting Sandshoes.

1989 – saw the company’s governance formalised, and its connections to artists of the previous New Wave generation of Australian theatre artists cemented,

with the establishment of a three person Artistic Directorate: Caz Howard, Paul Davies and Administrator Wolfgang Wittwer, plus a group of Associate Artists including Susie Fraser, Peter Finlay, Mark Shirreffs, Andrea Lemon, Leonie Hurry, Bill Garner, Nancy Black, Rob Meldrum, Jenny Kemp, Cliff Ellen, Ian Scott, Shirley Sydenham, Dennis Moore and Rosie Tonkin. Audience numbers also peaked. By the end of that year, the company had produced 34 original Australian plays since 1980 and established a pattern of alternating its own productions at the Parish Hall with works by guest artists and companies.

TW’s ongoing commitment to community engagement, to process and to cultural politics with a strong emphasis on feminism was shown in works like Hairpin Bends – script by Susie Fraser, Caz Howard, Peter Sommerfeld and Paul Davies – which traced its origin in the Women of Three Generations project at the Canterbury Gardens Centre in 1982. The year finished with a double bill: Bill Garner and Sue Gore’s Perfecting My Nature Strip and Tes Lyssiotis’ A White Sports Coat featuring Mary Sitarenos, directed by Robert Draffin, who went on to become the company’s first sole Artistic Director the following year.

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