Backstage

Decade Deep Dive: The History of Theatre Works – 1980’s

Theatre Works was founded in 1980 by a group of students graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts’ Drama School. As part of our Theatre Works retrospective series we aim to guide you through the historical events, past productions and creative leaders who shaped Theatre Works into the organisation it is today ~ Starting in the 1980’s.

In the 70s, community theatre was a grassroots activity centred on local communities and local interests. As such, it liked to distinguish itself from the larger mainstream companies such as the Melbourne Theatre Company, whose repertoire consisted of equal doses of new Australian writing, new work from England, America or Europe, and the classics.

Theatre Works was formed in 1980 by a group of students graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA)’s Drama School. It was VCA’s policy at the time that graduating students should form a company and take their work to the communities, providing an alternative to the mainstream theatre scene comprised mainly by American and British repertoire. Founding company members/performers included Caz Howard, Susie Fraser, Peter Finlay, Peter Sommerfeld, Hannie Rayson, Amanda Ma, Mary Sitarenos, Steve Scully and Tony Kishawi.

Theatre Works is one of the last remaining alternative theatre companies described as part of the Australia’s ‘Next Wave’ movement. Like its contemporaries (West, Murray River Performing Group now HotHouse, The Mill, Crosswinds) Theatre Works was one of a number of small, professional theatre companies active in Australia in the wake of the Next Wave’: a movement generally associated with the Pram Factory (Melbourne) and the Nimrod (Sydney). Throughout the 1970s, these two ground-breaking companies had provided a platform for the plays of David Williamson, Jack Hibberd, John Romeril, Alex Buzo and Stephen Sewell.

In its first iteration as a ‘Next Wave’ company (1980-1990), Theatre Works operated as an ensemble of actors, writers and directors concerned with producing work that both ‘celebrated and disturbed’ their suburban audiences.

The idea was to take live performance out of dedicated theatre buildings and produce it closer to the places where people lived and worked. Lacking a theatre of its own, Theatre Works sought to continue this tradition of new Australian work by staging plays ‘on location’ as early as 1981. Despite their experimental nature, these site-specific works soon found an immediate and popular response among the target audience.

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; a 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).

Theatre Works went through several years of development and funding struggles, but in 1982, the Victorian Ministry for the Arts more than doubled its grant to the company from $15,000 to $32,000. In conjunction with other small amounts, this funding ensured Theatre Works’ ability to flourish in the 80’s.

The production of Storming Mont Albert By Tram in 1982 was a huge critical success for the organisation. Almost from its first performance on the #42 line, the Tram Show caused a minor sensation. The limited seats available for each ‘journey’ to the city and back quickly filled and the season extended several times beyond the original Moomba Festival fortnight.

The play developed through improvisation with the cast and director Mark Shirrefs. It was based on a short story by Paul Davies of the same name published in The Springvale Journal in January 1981. ‘Storming Mont Albert By Tram’ generated a storm of media interest almost from the night of its first performance as people began to grasp the concept involved: a play about a tram journey done on a travelling tram.

It struck a cord with theatregoers and non-theatregoers alike. The original season, and each further extension of it, quickly booked out until collective exhaustion and Melbourne’s encroaching winter made external performances too difficult.

The Tram Show – as it became known – was the subject of much press and television coverage, even a live radio broadcast on 3AW (predicting the current trend of broadcasting live performances globally via the internet, in ‘real time’). The Tram Show also featured as an item in the French documentary Australie which screened in Cannes in 1983. It was ‘re-staged’ six times over the next dozen years, running to over 300 performances in both Melbourne and Adelaide.

After The Tram Show, Theatre Works re-evaluated its position and mission in the community. The company shifted from its original community-orientated starting point and moved towards alternative modes of production. Inspiration would still come from the suburban miller. and staging opportunities looked for outside traditional theatres. The social catchment for narratives would still be the suburban heartland, but the re-enactments of same would become more exclusively professional. The first years of Theatre Works were marked by works devised for and with various communities, and included unseen discussions on gender equity, unemployment, abortion and youth.

In 1984 Theatre Works was successful in gaining $100,000 under the Commonwealth Employment Programme to support a small troupe composed of young people, set up to work professionally as an ensemble within the larger company. This additional membership saw a considerable expansion of the company in terms of shows produced, audiences reached, and people employed.

In 1985, Theatre Works staged The Pub Show, in the Elsplanade Hotel’s Gershwin Room. Staging a play in the iconic St Kilda landmark was not just a continuation of Theatre Works’ on-going exploration of real sites in which to produce theatre, it was also designed to announce their arrival in St Kilda and pave the way for the company to move officially from its last eastern suburban location to Melbourne’s inner bay side. This represented a considerable demographic shift as there can be few more significant moves for a Community Theatre company than to change its community. After 6 years of creating theatre in temporary spaces, Theatre Works secured a venue in the Parish Hall attached to Christ Church in Acland Street, St Kilda.

The first production at the new venue was Cake! An Acland Street Comedy in 1986, written by Bill Garner and directed by Mark Shirrefs. In 1987 Theatre Works presented Why People Go To Traffic Accidents, the first play written about AIDS in Australia. It was written by Peter Sommerfeld and the production had been put off for a year because of funding. There were problems with Equity because not all the actors were professionals many were local St Kilda people. 

It was from 1988 onwards, perhaps, that Theatre Works began a more traditional trajectory. Under the artistic direction of Caz Howard, Paul Davies and Wolfgang Wittwer, the plays that were created in this period, such as Hairpin Bends: The Rise and Fall of the New Woman, by Caz Howard and Susie Fraser, and Tes Lyssiotis’ The White Sports Coat, a pioneering work about the experiences of Greek migrants in Melbourne, were intended to increase the appeal of theatre to a larger section of the public by dealing with the experiences of people who had existed on the margins, if at all, of more traditional theatre.

In 1989, Caz Howard became ill. By April 1990, she had taken some long term sick leave from the company leaving Susie Fraser and Mark Shirrefs to manage the Artistic Direction of Theatre Works in concert with the already established Associated Artists group. Caz passed away in May 1990. Caz was a central figure of Theatre Works’ history and her death came at a time when the company was going through profound changes which included finding new directors, seeking private sponsorship, increasing the company’s public and industry profile and targeting audiences more closely.

Theatre Works’ general philosophies of promoting community theatre and developing new Australian drama remained, and in its first 10 years it had given 30 original plays their first professional productions.

Find out more on our History of Theatre Works page.

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