Theatre of Australia

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Sydney Opera House. Sydney Opera House - Dec 2008.jpg
Sydney Opera House.

Theatre of Australia refers to the history of the performing arts in Australia, or produced by Australians. There are theatrical and dramatic aspects to a number of Indigenous Australian ceremonies such as the corroboree. During its colonial period, Australian theatrical arts were generally linked to the broader traditions of English literature and to British and Irish theatre. Australian literature and theatrical artists (including Aboriginal as well as Anglo-Celtic and multicultural migrant Australians) have over the last two centuries introduced the culture of Australia and the character of a new continent to the world stage.

Performing arts art forms in which artists use their body or voice to convey artistic expression

Performing arts refers to forms of art in which artists use their voices, bodies or inanimate objects to convey artistic expression. It is different from visual arts, which is when artists use paint, canvas or various materials to create physical or static art objects. Performing arts include a range of disciplines which are performed in front of a live audience.

Australia Country in Oceania

Australia, officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a sovereign country comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands. It is the largest country in Oceania and the world's sixth-largest country by total area. The neighbouring countries are Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and East Timor to the north; the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to the north-east; and New Zealand to the south-east. The population of 26 million is highly urbanised and heavily concentrated on the eastern seaboard. Australia's capital is Canberra, and its largest city is Sydney. The country's other major metropolitan areas are Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide.

Australians nationality

Australians, colloquially known as Aussies, are citizens and nationals of the Commonwealth of Australia, although some dual citizens, expatriates and permanent residents may also claim Australian nationality. Home to people of many different ethnic origins, religious and national origins, the Australian culture and law does not correspond nationality with race or ethnicity, but with citizenship and loyalty to the country. Australia is a multicultural society and has the world's ninth-largest immigrant population, with immigrants accounting for 29% of the population.


Individuals who have contributed to theatre in Australia and internationally include Sir Robert Helpmann, Dame Joan Sutherland, Barry Humphries, David Williamson, Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Jim Sharman, Tim Minchin and Baz Luhrmann. Notable theatrical institutions include the Sydney Opera House, and the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney.

Robert Helpmann Australian dancer, actor, theatre director and choreographer

Sir Robert Murray Helpmann, CBE was an Australian ballet dancer, actor, director and choreographer. After early work in Australia he moved to Britain in 1932, where he joined the Vic-Wells Ballet under its creator, Ninette de Valois. He became one of the company's leading men, partnering Alicia Markova and later Margot Fonteyn. When Frederick Ashton, the company's chief choreographer, was called up for military service in the Second World War Helpmann took over from him while continuing as a principal dancer.

Joan Sutherland Australian soprano

Dame Joan Alston Sutherland, OM, AC, DBE was an Australian-born coloratura soprano noted for her contribution to the renaissance of the bel canto repertoire from the late 1950s through to the 1980s.

Barry Humphries Australian comedian and actor

John Barry Humphries, is an Australian comedian, actor, satirist, artist, and author. He is best known for writing and playing his on-stage and television alter egos Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson. He is also a film producer and script writer, a star of London's West End musical theatre, an award-winning writer, and an accomplished landscape painter. For his delivery of dadaist and absurdist humour to millions, biographer Anne Pender described Humphries in 2010 as not only "the most significant theatrical figure of our time … [but] the most significant comedian to emerge since Charlie Chaplin".


Early history

WR Thomas, A South Australian Corroboree, 1864, Art Gallery of South Australia WR Thomas - A South Australian Corroboree, 1864.jpg
WR Thomas, A South Australian Corroboree , 1864, Art Gallery of South Australia

The traditional ceremonial dances of indigenous Australians performed at corroborees comprise theatrical aspects. At a corroboree Aborigines interact with the Dreamtime through dance, music and costume and many ceremonies act out events from the Dreamtime. [1] Corroboree in many areas have developed and adapted, integrating new themes and stories since European occupation of Australia began. Academic Maryrose Casey writes that ‘Australian Aboriginal cultures are probably the most performance-based in the world – in the sense that explicit, choreographed performances were used for a vast range of social purposes from education, through to spiritual practices, arranging marriage alliances, to judicial and diplomatic functions’. [2] Casey suggests that 'corroboree' could also be called 'aboriginal theatre'. [3]

Indigenous Australians are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia, descended from groups that existed in Australia and surrounding islands before British colonisation. The time of arrival of the first Indigenous peoples on the continent and nearby islands is a matter of debate among researchers. The earliest conclusively human remains found in Australia are those of Mungo Man LM3 and Mungo Lady, which have been dated to around 50,000 years BP. Recent archaeological evidence from the analysis of charcoal and artefacts revealing human use suggests a date as early as 65,000 BP. Luminescence dating has suggested habitation in Arnhem Land as far back as 60,000 years BP. Evidence of fires in South-West Australia suggest 'human presence in Australia 120,000 years ago', although more research is required. Genetic research has inferred a date of habitation as early as 80,000 years BP. Other estimates have ranged up to 100,000 years and 125,000 years BP.

Corroboree event where Australian Aborigines interact with the Dreamtime through dance, music and costume

A corroboree is an event where Australian Aboriginals interact with the Dreamtime through dance, music and costume. "Their bodies painted in different ways, and they wore various adornments, which were not used every day." The word corroboree was coined by the European settlers of Australia in imitation of an east coast local Aboriginal Australian word caribberie.

Dreamtime sacred era in Australian Aboriginal mythology

Dreamtime is a term devised by early anthropologists to refer to a religio-cultural worldview attributed to Australian Aboriginal beliefs. It was originally used by Francis Gillen, quickly adopted by his colleague Baldwin Spencer and thereafter popularised by A. P. Elkin, who, however, later revised his views. The Dreaming is used to represent Aboriginal concepts of "time out of time" or "everywhen", during which the land was inhabited by ancestral figures, often of heroic proportions or with supernatural abilities. These figures were often distinct from "gods" as they did not control the material world and were not worshipped, but only revered. The concept of the dreamtime has subsequently become widely adopted beyond its original Australian context and is now part of global popular culture.

European theatrical traditions came to Australia with European settlement commencing in 1788 with the First Fleet. The first production, The Recruiting Officer written by George Farquhar in 1706, was performed in 1789 by convicts. [4] The extraordinary circumstances of the foundation of Australian theatre was recounted in the 1988 play Our Country's Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker - the participants were prisoners watched by sadistic guards and the leading lady was under threat of the death penalty. The play is based on Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker . [4]

First Fleet 11 ships that left Great Britain to found the penal colony in Australia

The First Fleet was the 11 ships that departed from Portsmouth, England, on 13 May 1787 to found the penal colony that became the first European settlement in Australia. The Fleet consisted of two Royal Navy vessels, three store ships and six convict transports, carrying between 1,000 and 1,500 convicts, marines, seamen, civil officers and free people, and a large quantity of stores. From England, the Fleet sailed southwest to Rio de Janeiro, then east to Cape Town and via the Great Southern Ocean to Botany Bay, arriving over the period of 18 to 20 January 1788, taking 250 to 252 days from departure to final arrival.

The Recruiting Officer is a 1706 play by the Irish writer George Farquhar, which follows the social and sexual exploits of two officers, the womanising Plume and the cowardly Brazen, in the town of Shrewsbury to recruit soldiers. The characters of the play are generally stock, in keeping with the genre of Restoration comedy.

George Farquhar Irish dramatist

George Farquhar was an Irish dramatist. He is noted for his contributions to late Restoration comedy, particularly for his plays The Recruiting Officer (1706) and The Beaux' Stratagem (1707).

The Theatre Royal, Hobart opened in 1837 and is the oldest still-operating theatre in Australia. [5] Noël Coward called it a Dream Theatre and Laurence Olivier came to its defence when it was threatened with demolition in the 1940s. [5] The Queen's Theatre, Adelaide opened with Shakespeare in 1841 and is today the oldest theatre on the mainland. [6] The Melbourne Athenaeum was founded in 1839 as the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute, and its theatre in its present form was created in 1921. [7]

Theatre Royal, Hobart performing arts venue in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Theatre Royal is a historic performing arts venue in central Hobart, Tasmania. It is the oldest continually operating theatre in Australia; Noël Coward once called it "a dream of a theatre" and Laurence Olivier launched a national appeal for its reconstruction in the 1940s.

Noël Coward English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer

Sir Noël Peirce Coward was an English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, known for his wit, flamboyance, and what Time magazine called "a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise".

Laurence Olivier 20th-century English actor, director and producer

Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier, was an English actor and director who, along with his contemporaries Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud, dominated the British stage of the mid-20th century. He also worked in films throughout his career, playing more than fifty cinema roles. Late in his career, he had considerable success in television roles.

The Australian gold rushes beginning in the 1850s provided funds for the construction of grand theatres in the Victorian style. A theatre was built on the present site of Melbourne's Princess Theatre in 1854. [8]

Australian gold rushes

During the Australian gold rushes, significant numbers of workers relocated to areas in which gold had been discovered. A number of gold finds occurred in Australia prior to 1851, but only the gold found from 1851 onwards created gold rushes. This is mainly because, prior to 1851, the colonial government of New South Wales had suppressed news of gold finds which it believed would reduce the workforce and destabilise the economy.


A ballet performance of John Antill's Corroboree Corroborree.jpg
A ballet performance of John Antill's Corroboree
Dame Edna Everage, comic creation of Barry Humphries, had her stage debut in Melbourne in the 1950s and has featured at the West End and Broadway. Dame Edna at the royal wedding cropped.jpg
Dame Edna Everage, comic creation of Barry Humphries, had her stage debut in Melbourne in the 1950s and has featured at the West End and Broadway.

After federation in 1901, theatre productions embodied the sense of national identity that had tormented in Australian literature since the 1890s. On Our Selection (1912) [9] by Steele Rudd told of the adventures of a pioneer farming family and became popular and was adopted to film.

His Majesty's Theatre, Perth opened in 1904. The building remains a rare example of Edwardian theatrical architecture in Australia. [10] Sydney's grand Capitol Theatre opened in 1928 and after restoration remains one of the nation's finest auditoriums. [11] The State Theatre (renamed the Forum in 1963) and the Regent Theatre both opened in Melbourne in 1929, originally as cinemas.

During the 1940s, John Antill composed the music for his Corroboree ballet based on the Aboriginal corroboree. The production was first performed in 1946 and toured Australia during the 1950s and featured on the schedule of Queen Elizabeth II's first Royal Tour of Australia in 1954. It represents an early example of the fusion of Western and Aboriginal theatrical forms in Australia – now regularly expressed, as seen in the work of the Bangarra Dance Theatre. [12] [13]

In early 1955, the Union Theatre Repertory Company invited a young Barry Humphries to tour Victoria with a production of Twelfth Night directed by Ray Lawler. On tour, Humphries gradually invented the character of Edna Everage as part of the entertainment for the actors during commutes between country towns, imitating the Country Women's Association representatives who welcomed the troupe in each town. [14] By night Lawler worked on a new play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll , his tenth but most acclaimed work. Both creations represented historic milestones in Australian theatre. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was the first Australian play produced by the MTC and portrayed resolutely Australian characters and went on to international acclaim. At Lawler's suggestion, Mrs Everage made her first appearance in a Melbourne University's UTRC revue at the end of 1955, as the city prepared for the 1956 Summer Olympic Games. The sketch involved a houseproud "average housewife" offering her Moonee Ponds home as an Olympic billet. [15] Humphries left for London in his early 20s and enjoyed success on stage, including in Lionel Bart's musical, Oliver! . His satirical stage creations – notably Dame Edna and later Les Patterson – became Australian cultural icons. Humphries also achieved success in the USA with tours on Broadway and television appearances and has remained a stalwart of British and Australian theatre and been honoured in both nations. [16]

Growth of non-commercial theatre

The Melbourne Theatre Company, originally the Union Theatre Repertory Company, formed in 1953, is Australia's oldest professional theatre company. Over the years, MTC has championed Australian writing, introducing the works of writers such as Alan Seymour, Vance Palmer, Patrick White, Alan Hopgood, Alexander Buzo, David Williamson, John Romeril, Jim McNeil, Alma De Groen, John Powers, Matt Cameron, Ron Elisha, Justin Fleming, Janis Bolodis, Hannie Rayson, Louis Nowra, Michael Gurr, Jack Davis, Michael Gow and Joanna Murray-Smith and many others to mainstream Melbourne audiences. In The One Day of the Year Alan Seymour studied the paradoxical nature of the ANZAC Day commemoration by Australians of the defeat of the Battle of Gallipoli.

The National Institute of Dramatic Art was established in Sydney in 1958. This institute has since produced a list of famous alumni including Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Mel Gibson and Baz Luhrmann. [17]

The Australian Ballet was founded by the English ballerina Dame Peggy van Praagh in 1962. It is Australia's foremost classical ballet company and is today recognised as one of the world's major international ballet companies. [18] It is based in Melbourne and performs works from the classical repertoire as well as contemporary works by major Australian and international choreographers. As of 2010, it was presenting approximately 200 performances in cities and regional areas around Australia each year as well as international tours. Regular venues include: the Melbourne Arts Centre, Sydney Opera House, Sydney Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre and Queensland Performing Arts Centre. [19]

From the 1960s, major cities across Australia developed new government-owned performing arts centres, often housing not-for-profit theatre, opera and dance companies. Examples include the Canberra Theatre Centre, the Sydney Opera House, Arts Centre Melbourne, the Adelaide Festival Centre and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane. Most major regional centres and many outer metropolitan areas have a professional-standard performing arts centre typically run by the local council, either newly built such as the Riverside Theatres Parramatta, Wagga Wagga Civic Theatre or the Frankston Arts Centre, or a refurbishment of a heritage theatre or cinema such as the Newcastle Civic Theatre, the Theatre Royal, Hobart or the Empire Theatre, Toowoomba.

With the completion of the Adelaide Festival Centre in 1973, Sir Robert Helpmann became director of the Adelaide Festival of Arts. [20] [21]

The new wave[ clarification needed ] of Australian theatre debuted in the 1970s with the works of writers including David Williamson, Barry Oakley and Jack Hibberd. The Belvoir St Theatre established by John Bell and Richard Wherrett originated in Sydney around 1970 and presented works by Nick Enright and David Williamson.

The Sydney Theatre Company was founded in 1978 becoming one of Australia's foremost theatre companies. Players associated with the company include Mel Gibson, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Geoffrey Rush and Toni Collette. It operates from The Wharf Theatre near The Rocks, as well as the Sydney Theatre and the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre. [22]

In 1979, two impoverished young Sydney actors, Mel Gibson and Geoffrey Rush, shared a flat and co-starred in a local production of Waiting for Godot . [23] Gibson had studied at NIDA and made his stage debut alongside classmate Judy Davis in a 1976 production of Romeo and Juliet . The 1979 Australian film Mad Max carried Gibson to the beginnings of a global film career. [24] Rush joined Jim Sharman's Lighthouse Theatre troupe in the 1980s and built a reputation as one of Australia's leading stage actors before becoming known internationally in film.

Arts Centre Melbourne in the Melbourne Arts Precinct was designed by architect Sir Roy Grounds, the masterplan for the complex was approved in 1960, and construction of the Arts Centre began in 1973. The complex opened in stages, with Hamer Hall opening in 1982, and the Theatres Building opening in 1984. The centre now hosts regular performances by Opera Australia, The Australian Ballet, the Melbourne Theatre Company and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as well as a large number of Australian and international performances and production companies. [25]

The Belvoir St Theatre was established by John Bell and Richard Wherrett in Sydney around 1970. Construction of the Adelaide Festival Centre was completed in 1973. In the same year, the Sydney Opera House was inaugurated in Sydney – becoming among the most famous theatre buildings in the world.

The Bell Shakespeare Company was created in 1990 by John Bell. The company specialises in the works of William Shakespeare. It is Australia's only national touring theatre company touring each Australian state in each year. [26] A period of success for Australian musical theatre came in the 1990s with the debut of musical biographies of Australian music singers Peter Allen ( The Boy From Oz in 1998) and Johnny O'Keefe ( Shout! The Legend of The Wild One ).

Ngapartji Ngapartji, by Scott Rankin and Trevor Jamieson, recounts the story of the effects on the Pitjantjatjara people of nuclear testing in the Western Desert during the Cold War. It is an example of the contemporary fusion of traditions of drama in Australia with Pitjantjatjara actors being supported by a multicultural cast of Greek, Afghan, Japanese and New Zealand heritage. [27]

Eminent contemporary Australian playwrights include David Williamson, Alan Seymour, the late Nick Enright and Justin Fleming. [28]

Theatre today

Theatre in Australia today includes a diverse range of performances of different scale and contexts.

Commercial theatres like the Lyric, Capitol and Theatre Royal in Sydney and the Regent, Princess, Her Majesty's and Comedy in Melbourne, and other major venues in these and other cities, host Australian productions of popular musicals and other large-scale events. Resident professional theatre companies in Sydney (Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir, Griffin, Ensemble), Melbourne (Melbourne Theatre Company, Malthouse), Brisbane (Queensland Theatre, La Boite), Perth (Black Swan), Adelaide (State Theatre Company of South Australia), and some other cities on a smaller-scale, produce mainstage seasons of Australian and international plays and, occasionally, musicals.

Some professional companies focus on particular genres like classical theatre (Bell Shakespeare), theatre for young people (Windmill, Barking Gecko, Patch, Arena, Monkey Baa), music theatre (The Production Company, Harvest Rain) or circus and physical theatre (Circa, Circus Oz). Other companies specialise in areas such as artists with disability (Back to Back), Indigenous artists (Yirra Yaakin, Ilbijerri) or specific communities (Urban Theatre Projects, Big hART).

Performing arts centres across the country like the Sydney Opera House, Arts Centre Melbourne, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Adelaide Festival Centre produce, present or host Australian and international theatre productions of various kinds. Venues in smaller cities like the Theatre Royal Hobart, The Arts Centre Gold Coast, Darwin Entertainment Centre or Geelong Performing Arts Centre, or outside the CBD of major cities like Frankston Arts Centre, Riverside Theatre Parramatta or Sunnybank Performing Arts Centre, also present seasons of touring productions. Non-traditional spaces Carriageworks in Sydney and Arts House in Melbourne have a focus on contemporary and experimental works. Independent and fringe theatre is fostered by venues such as La Mama and Theatre Works in Melbourne and the Old Fitz in Sydney.

Opera companies include Opera Australia which performs major seasons in Sydney and Melbourne, and West Australian Opera, Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia and Victorian Opera based in individual states. Sydney's Pinchgut Opera, for baroque and early classical works, and Sydney Chamber Opera, for twentieth century and contemporary works, perform opera in chamber settings.

The national Helpmann Awards are the major live performance awards in Australia. Major cities also have their own theatre awards, such as the Sydney Theatre Awards, Melbourne's Green Room Awards and Brisbane's Matilda Awards.

Publishers of Australian playscripts include the non-profit Australian Script Centre ( ), Currency Press, Playlab Press and Full Dress Publishing.

Theatre companies

Sir Robert Helpmann of the Australian Ballet. Robert Helpmann.jpg
Sir Robert Helpmann of the Australian Ballet.
Dame Joan Sutherland of Opera Australia. Dame Joan Sutherland colour Allan Warren.jpg
Dame Joan Sutherland of Opera Australia.
Cate Blanchett of the Sydney Theatre Company. Cate Blanchett Cannes 2015.jpg
Cate Blanchett of the Sydney Theatre Company.
Geoffrey Rush. GeoffreyRushTIFFSept2011.jpg
Geoffrey Rush.

Plays and theatre

Musical theatre

Circus and physical theatre

Opera companies

Performing arts festivals

Major performing arts festivals

Single genre

Fringe festivals

Theatre education

The National Institute of Dramatic Art, Sydney Nida sunset.jpg
The National Institute of Dramatic Art, Sydney

Awards and competitions

Performing arts publishers

See also

Related Research Articles

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Ceremonial dancing has a very important place in the Indigenous cultures of Australia. They vary from place to place, but most ceremonies combine dance, song, rituals and often elaborate body decorations and costumes. The different body paintings indicate the type of ceremony being performed. They play an important role in marriage ceremonies, in the education of Indigenous children, as well as story telling and oral history. The term corroboree is commonly used to refer to Australian Aboriginal dances, however this term has its origins among the people of the Sydney region. In some places, Australian Aboriginal people perform "corroborees" for tourists. In the latter part of the 20th century the influence of Indigenous Australian dance traditions has been seen with the development of concert dance, with the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts (ACPA) providing training in contemporary dance.

The Arts in Australia refers to the art produced in the area of, on the subject of, or by the people of the Commonwealth of Australia and its preceding Indigenous and colonial societies. Indigenous Australian art, music and story telling attaches to a 40–60,000-year heritage and continues to affect the broader arts and culture of Australia. During its early western history, Australia was a collection of British colonies, therefore, its literary, visual and theatrical traditions began with strong links to the broader traditions of English and Irish literature, British art and English and Celtic music. However, the works of Australian artists – including Indigenous as well as Anglo-Celtic and multicultural migrant Australians – has, since 1788, introduced the character of a new continent to the global arts scene – exploring such themes as Aboriginality, Australian landscape, migrant and national identity, distance from other Western nations and proximity to Asia, the complexities of urban living and the "beauty and the terror" of life in the Australian bush.

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