Fellowship Presentation The Colour of Fire 24-11-2022

*Speakers: Susannah Helman (S), Anne Pender (A)

*Audience: (Au)


*Date: 24/11/2022

S:         Yuma. Good afternoon and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Susannah Helman, Curator of Rare Books and Music. I’d like to begin by acknowledging Australia’s First Nations peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give my respect to the elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Thank you for attending this event coming to you from Ngunnawal and Ngambri country. This afternoon’s presentation, The Colour Fire: Australia and China in the Theatre, 1980 to 2020 is by Professor Anne Pender, a 2021 National Library of Australia Fellow.

Our distinguished fellowships program supports researchers to make intensive use of the National Library’s rich and varied collections through residencies of three months. National Library of Australia fellowships are made possible by generous philanthropic support. Professor Pender’s scholarship is supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust for Research in Australian Literature.

Professor Anne Pender holds the Kidman Chair in Australian Studies at the University of Adelaide where she lectures in Australian Literary and Theatre Studies and is Director of the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice. Anne is the author of six books exploring the lives and work of many Australian writers and performers including her most recent work, a collective biography, Seven Big Australians: Adventures with Comic Actors published in 2019 and her full biography of Barry Humphreys, One Man Show.

Professor Pender’s presentation will examine significant theatrical productions that have been important in the development of the cultural relationship between Australia and China and seeks to understand the complex cultural relationship between the two countries through the dialogue enabled via these cultural exchanges during a period of transformation. Please join me in welcoming Professor Anne Pender.


A:        Thank you very much, Susannah. It’s been a privilege to be a National Library of Australia fellow. I want to thank Sharyn particularly for her guidance throughout what has been a much longer project because of COVID and it has been a pleasure and a privilege.

I want to say at the outset that the visual record is not particularly strong for some of this history as I think you will understand as I work through my presentation but the oral record and the written record is strong and it’s been my pleasure to be able to work with it in the Library, so thank you.

In the years 1968 to 1975 Australian theatre transformed. A group of playwrights, directors and actors contributed to a major change. The key playwrights were Alex Buzo, Jack Hibberd, John Romeril and David Williamson and we call them the new wave.

The term new wave refers to a changed approach to theatre adopted by the practitioners at the time. John Romeril was particularly interested in Australian interactions with Asia and several of his plays demonstrate the challenges of those relationships for Australians. He observed that quote, “the Chinese sense of humour is the closest to our own that I have come across. Their sense of image and language is very earthy. Rooted in concrete images the subjects are often sex, power and money”, end of quote.

Buzo’s plays also featured an interest in Australian attitudes to those of other races and the problem of racism. The theatre at the Australian Performing Group in Melbourne where many of the playwrights and practitioners were working was blokey, highly physical, irreverent, comic with – and quite rough at times -with a nod to university review and street theatre, a kind of theatre the performers knew best. Many of the actors shared a keen interest in comic performance and vaudeville while others felt that theatre should focus on exposing class politics. All of them held to the ideals of the left but argued constantly about what they were and how they would apply in the theatre.

On an autumn night in 1972 one of the actors, Max Gillies, noticed the patrician figure of the leader of the federal opposition leader, Gough Whitlam, sitting in the front row of the audience and Max told me about this incident in an interview I did with him. So in other words he was a big supporter of their project.

Just one year earlier David Williamson’s play, ‘Don’s Party’, premiered at the Prahran Factory Theatre. It portrays the aggressive chauvinism of Australian men at an election night party where the host, Don, noisily laments Whitlam’s narrow election defeat in 1969.

So the years that we associate with the new wave as I said, 1968 to 1975, coincided with years in which Gough Whitlam led the ALP to power and to massive changes in Australia and its relationship with the world including its relations with China.

In 1971 Gough Whitlam travelled to the People’s Republic of China in his role as opposition leader in the Parliament and laid out a plan for a possible new relationship should the ALP rise to power in Australia. At this time the McMahon Government had refused to open formal ties with China. So Whitlam’s visit in 1971 was a bold and ambitious one. The man who would become his first Ambassador, Stephen FitzGerald, recalls that when the small delegation arrived in China they didn’t even have an appointment confirmed with the Premier and all of that has been available to me in the oral history records, the interviews with Stephen FitzGerald and the recollections which have been terrific.

Yet the visit turned out to be a milestone for Australia and for the world. Whitlam visited the People’s Republic again in 1973 as Prime Minister of Australia, the first visit to China by an Australian Prime Minister, ushering in a new era in diplomatic relations. He was determined to project a sophisticated, self-assured and mature image of Australia onto the world stage.

Well the most popular of the playwrights to emerge from the new wave, David Williamson, was amongst a group of Australians who travelled to China on an ALP study tour in 1976. Gareth Evans, a young Melbourne-based lawyer, later senator, foreign minister later on, led the delegation. The tour included extended visits to factories, hospitals and universities where the Australians engaged in lengthy talks with workers, with students and teachers about aspects of life in China. And David Williamson kept a diary of the tour in which he records the shock he felt as he grappled with the ideology and the material conditions of life in the PRC at the end of the Cultural Revolution.

So Williamson’s diary that I was able to read here, again a great privilege, in the Library records detailed descriptions of architecture, food and street life. Williamson notes the blank stares with which he was greeted by ordinary Chinese who were clearly unused to foreign visitors. The major preoccupation of the diaries however is Williamson’s reaction to what he sees as the rigid ideological culture of the country and its impact on the people he meets. The effect on him was extreme.

In one of his first diary entries Williamson records the fact that many of his compatriots on the tour regarded themselves as Maoists and that several of their number refused to abandon their dedication. The anti-Maoist contingent were asked to tone down their opinions and to show respect to their hosts. As the tour progressed friction developed among the group about the extent to which they should express their own views with Williamson recording his refusal to give in to such demands.

So the diaries are lengthy, they are comprehensive and they record details of speeches, conversations and statistics about living standards, factory operations and rich descriptive information about the education system, the curricula, the detail is extraordinary. And the whole organisational framework of the society. He was utterly fascinated.

Well if Williamson’s first visit to China aroused disenchantment in the one-time student Maoist as he called himself and some others in the group, it sharpened his understanding of Australian posturing amongst his contemporaries and his sense of purpose as a writer in portraying the competitiveness, dishonesty, envy and malice in the friendships between Australian men that the close living arrangements of the tour exposed. And it is like reading a play by Williamson, reading the diaries. So like the other key playwrights of the new wave Williamson did not engage in his work with politics or ideology directly but its presence is important in the play as it infuses all of the drama.

After the visit to China he kept his reactions to himself but his diaries filled two thick notebooks, detailing what he called the depressing society he observed in China with its mud grey buildings, heavy smog-filled cities and one factory where he noticed the workers labouring in unsafe conditions. But Williamson was circumspect once he returned to Australia and it would be 26 years before one of his plays was performed in the PRC with the production of The Club in 2002 and I’ll get back to that a bit later.

So there’s no doubt that the work of the new wave playwrights appealed to the Chinese from the beginning. The first Australian play to be performed in China was Jack Hibberd’s ‘A Toast to Melba’. John Bell toured with a group of actors on behalf of Nimrod to the PRC in 1983 but this tour was important in the history of Australian theatre and particularly in the budding cultural relationship between the two countries. It was the first time an Australian theatre group had travelled to the PRC to perform and it was the first time Chinese citizens were exposed to Australian drama in performance. There had been other visits but there hadn’t been performances.

At the invitation of the Chinese Ministry of Education and funded primarily by the Australia China Council the visitors in John Bell’s group offered English lessons by day and in the evenings they gave performances of scenes from Hibberd’s ‘A Toast to Melba’ as well as scenes from ‘Macbeth’, ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’ in addition to some American and Australian musical song performances so they were doing an awful lot.

The translation of a number of new Australian plays followed in China and marked a growing interest in Australian drama. Buzo’s ‘The Front Room Boys’, Ray Lawler’s ‘Kid Stakes’, Williamson’s ‘What If You Died Tomorrow?’ and ‘The Club’ and Louis Nowra’s ‘Cosi’ have all been translated and published in China. But they were not the first plays to be translated into Mandarin. Wilfred Burchett’s ‘The Changing Tide’ was translated and published in China in 1956, Dymphna Cusack’s ‘Pacific Paradise’ in 1957 and Mona Brand’s ‘Better a Millstone’ and ‘Strangers in the Land’ in 1957 as well. The point is though - that I’m making here is that the Nimrod educational tour led to an interest in plays that were not overtly left wing and so signalled a much broader opening interest in drama of all kinds.

Well it’s impossible to understand the relationship between Australia and China in the performing arts in the period of the new wave and up to the present without recognising a central figure and that is Carrillo Gantner who founded Playbox Theatre in Melbourne. It was - at first the company was called Hoopla and it was founded in 1976. Now Gantner had studied drama at Stanford, he’d worked with John Sumner at the Melbourne Theatre Company and developed an interest in China that dated from the early ‘60s when he was an undergraduate at Melbourne University.

Gantner organised tours to Australia by the Fujian Puppet Theatre in 1979 and the Guangzhou Opera in 1983. Playbox also toured the Hunan Puppet Theatre to Australia in 1983, the same year. Most importantly, I think, Gantner arranged for the Nanjing Acrobatic Training Program to visit Australia in 1980 and to train young Australian performers. It was a bold and truly ambitious program that Gantner had in mind and it was initially opposed by the Australia Council and the Chinese Ministry for Culture. After months of seeking to persuade the officials in both countries of the potential benefits of bringing the Nanjing Acrobatic trainers to Australia, Gantner succeeded in hosting seven leading members of the troupe to work with The Flying Fruit Flies, Circus Oz and some independent artists in Albury-Wodonga which was the home of the Fruit Flies.

And these exchanges were to have a major impact on Australian circus and physical theatre for many, many years to come and we can still see this influence. Australian theatre is known for the high quality of its physical theatre largely due to these exchanges and interest in circus as well as interest in the work of some Japanese practitioners that has continued.

Well as a result of these successful ventures Gantner was invited to apply for the position of Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing in 1984 and as part of a significant exchange that I want to talk about he directed Jack Hibberd’s ‘A Stretch of the Imagination’ in Shanghai in Mandarin and Jeff Hook directed Sha Yexin’s ‘The Imposter’ in English in Melbourne the same year.

This exchange remains the high point in the relationship between Australia and China in the spoken word theatre and I would say in the theatre more generally over the whole period since 1972. It was also one of the most open periods in the entire relationship. The Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, insisted that every Cabinet Minister travel to China during that period.

Gantner travelled with Hawke in his period as Cultural Counsellor under the ambassadorship of Ross Garnaut, perhaps best known as the ambassador who initiated the sale of Australian iron ore to China. And it was in the wonderful Beyond The Cables oral histories that I was able to listen to all of that from Ross Garnaut and to read some of his recollections of the period. I also interviewed Carrillo Gantner at length.

The thing about Garnaut though was he also supported cultural exchange so two rich intercultural productions of important plays that took place in 1987 demonstrate a capacity for cultural understanding that I think is unique in the cultural relationship.

In a letter held in the Library to the playwright Jack Hibberd, Gantner requested permission to stage the preferred play in Shanghai. It was Hibberd’s ‘A Stretch of the Imagination’. Gantner explained to Hibberd that he’d given the Shanghai People’s Art Theatre, Sha Yexin, the Director who was also a playwright Lawler’s ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ and a few other plays. But to Gantner’s great surprise the Chinese director chose the Hibberd play. And it would have been surprising if you know the play, it presents the elderly and terminally ill octogenarian Monk O’Neill living alone in a corrugated iron shack, a long way from company and comforts. He has rejected society as he faces his own death, he relives and re-enacts imagined and real episodes from his life.

He is, by turns, a representative of Australia offering sardonic references to Australian life and history and he’s a crude if erudite and witty maverick. Monk might be considered an everyman figure, condemning the destructiveness of society and making fun of human behaviour with wit and vivid physical humour. And at the end of the play he bequeaths all his worldly goods to the Australian Aborigines.

Well enter Wei Zongwan. He was the actor in China chosen to play the octogenarian and here is how Gantner described the actor who was chosen to play this strange old Australian. Gantner says ‘Wei Zongwan had been a member of the company for 25 years. When I first met him I was very surprised by his slight build, he became even thinner during the seven weeks of rehearsals but his face was expressive and his voice was strong. Speaking about the play he was practical and assured.Wei is intelligent’, said Gantner, ‘with a supple body and a quick imagination. Before we began rehearsals he had read Manning Clark’s Short History of Australia, in Chinese, of course, and any other book on Australia he could find’.

Now the level of difficulty for an English-speaking actor performing this tragi-comic play all on their own, it’s a one-man play, is high, with several Australian actors appearing in Australian productions over the years including Peter Cummins, Max Gillies, John Wood. For Wei the pressure was extraordinary. At 48 he was playing this strange octogenarian reliving episodes of his life as he waits to die. The rehearsal period over the summer of 1987 in Shanghai took place during the hottest time of year in a room with no air-conditioning.

Gantner’s experience as an actor gave him a strong connection with the challenges faced by the actor but the language barrier presented some obstacles. In addition, Gantner would have preferred to direct the play in The Round but no such theatre existed in Shanghai in which to perform it this way. On the other hand, Gantner was very pleased with the design, as you can see that picture for the play, he felt it was a suitably desolate outback setting, it was a galvanized iron shack and a torn beach umbrella as you can see. Playbox, his old theatre company in Melbourne, sent over an Australian Army greatcoat and a slouch hat, a tin billy and a water bag as well as some recordings of Waltzing Matilda and the sound of screeching cockatoos.

The playwright, Hibberd, travelled to Shanghai for the opening night and he notes in his report to the Australia Council, also held in the papers here in the National Library, that the Shanghai People’s Art Theatre was regarded as the leading contemporary drama company in China so he’s very pleased about this production. He reported that during talks through interpreters he was made aware that members of the audience, quote, ‘had responded to the deeper and universal levels of the play and not to it as a picturesque piece of Australiana. This was very pleasing to me’, he said, ‘as I had been vexed by some newspaper comments before I left stating that the success of such a play would be highly unlikely, presumably because Stretch was irredeemably Australian.’

Well Gantner wrote to Hibberd later on, Hibberd went home, explaining that on the last night of the first season, quote, people were screaming outside the theatre for tickets and they paid up to six yuan, three times the original price to scalpers. It was an extraordinary response. So the production was both a critical and a box office success in China and marked a really important moment of interculturalism in the theatre. Gantner, the director, the actor had achieved what many thought was impossible in spite of the many cultural, diplomatic and artistic challenges they faced.

A review in The China Daily described the reception by Shanghai’s fastidious audiences as warm after a run of 10 days. The reviewer referred to Monk O’Neill, the character, as a larger than life character encompassing many aspects of the Australian personality. Leonard Radic, the critic on The Age newspaper also travelled to Shanghai to review the production. He helped them by bringing three bottles of Fosters Lager beer as props and his fulsome praise of the production under the heading, ‘A Stretch of the Cultural Boundaries’, stated that Wei gives a performance which is remarkable both for its range and its comic inventiveness. In the course of bringing Hibberd’s bizarre recluse alive he draws in places on the conventions of Chinese opera and in doing so he gets a laugh from the Chinese members of the audience. But for all that he says the performance retains its strong Australian quality. So the production of Stretch, the first full production, an Australian play in China was clearly a significant event in the Australia-China relationship.

Well now I want to move on and talk about another production, the one in Melbourne, of ‘The Imposter’ by Sha Yexin. Now he was the same guy who was directing that theatre company so it was a very close exchange, a very close connection. Sha Yexin’s play, ‘The Imposter’, opened in Melbourne, the same year, 1987 on 11 September. Sha had invited Carrillo Gantner as I said to direct Hibberd’s ‘Stretch of the Imagination’ in Shanghai and Gantner set up the exchange of plays with Playbox who staged the Chinese play in Australia and it was part of the Spoleto Festival.

The script written by three playwrights was adapted for the Australian production by John Romeril who served as dramaturg using a translation by the Australian scholar, Daniel Kane. It was a very bold choice reflecting Gantner’s astuteness and the openness and confidence of theatre makers of the time. The scholar, Geremie Barme, identifies this play as part of what’s called the Scar literature of 1978/9 but with some new elements. Directed by Jeff Hook it featured actors Geoff Ravell, Charles Budd-Tingwell, Sheila Florance, Edward Hepple and Malcolm Robertson so some iconic actors in this production.

The play presents a young man who has been sent to a collective farm at the time of the Cultural Revolution and poses as the son of a high party official in order to secure a transfer back to the city and it is based closely on a real case that occurred in 1979 in China. Now in the same year, in 1979, the play had been performed in highly restricted circumstances and only for those who had official sanction after Hu Yaobang who was Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party at the time ruled that it should be revised and, quote, ‘performances of it should stop for the time being’. Effectively it had been banned.

The actual case on which the story of the play is based involved a young man who had posed as the son of Li Da, Deputy Chief of Staff of the People’s Liberation Army. The youth had pretended for some time to be the son of this official after trying and failing to get a ticket to see a production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ which I think is very ironic and very funny.

So Geremie Barme describes the play as conventional in some ways but significant because, quote, ‘it presaged the new range of expression of the Chinese arts in this period’. He says ‘the most important aspect of the play in this context was the fact that the writers had chosen to portray The Imposter in a favourable light, as a human being’.

So Monk O’Neill in Hibberd’s play and Li in the play by Sha are anti-heroes with whom audiences identify because they resist authority and they stand outside the society, drawing attention to its hypocrisies and injustices. And John Romeril who I said – as I said was dramaturg on the production told a reporter at the time, quote, ‘what drew me to the central character was that the character is in some ways a Ned Kelly archetype’. Romeril also said that he particularly admired the stage directions. He said they were very cheeky, self-aware, some of the best direction since Shore, and I thought there was perhaps a way of building them into the show to give an Australian audience that flavour. And so he created a narrator played by Bud Tingwell who frames the action but later becomes a character involved in it.

So ‘A Stretch of the Imagination’ and ‘The Imposter’ embody a sense of coverage and daring that appealed to their audiences. They offer potent satire and humour, subtlety of form and modernist vigour. ‘The Imposter’ is heavily influenced by Brecht in its style and structure, a playwright that inspired members of the new wave, particularly John Bell. Although the Australian and Chinese contexts of the plays are completely different the audacity of both works in their own settings goes some way to explaining their popularity and their intercultural appeal.

I think it’s fair to say that the two plays also that the two plays also feed into negative national stereotypes, the crude, rough, hyper-masculine Monk O’Neill as a typical Australian and the corrupt, oppressive, bureaucratic culture of China and its crippling officialdom. But both plays and importantly these productions of them also transcend these stereotypes in a number of interesting ways with Monk revealing his wit, his erudition, his compassion and his tenderness and the characters in ‘The Imposter’ highly attuned to the immorality of cronyism and the plight of individuals caught up in a web of corruption that affects every level of the society.

So both Hibberd and Sha were popular playwrights who were innovative in their approach to drama at a time of rapid change in theatrical culture and the exchange I think demonstrated a capacity for a shared sense of humour, appreciation for innovation in form and strong appetite for social and political satire.

Well the Chinese interest in the new wave, particularly satire, continued beyond the opening years of the theatrical relationship in the 1980s after a long period of strain that followed the uprising and protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the suppression of the protestors. Williamson’s ‘The Club’ was performed in Mandarin, opening on 26th of March 2002 in Beijing in a production by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre premiere theatre company.

A season of the production in June that year, 2002, coincided with China’s debut in the World Cup soccer tournament. The play was retitled ‘The Soccer Club’ and was directed by Ren Ming who I think still directs that company. According to Williamson the play was performed without any seeking of rights or royalty agreements as China was not at the time a signatory to international copyright conventions. The season was lengthy and successful in his view, perhaps because Chinese audiences are familiar with what he says, quote, committee meetings and this play was one ongoing committee meeting.

Interest in Williamson’s work continued in China. ‘The Removalists’ was performed in English with Chinese subtitles translated by Li Jianjun in June 2018 at Beijing Foreign Studies University by students from Peking University. It was directed by the American, Joseph Graves. And Li Jianjun stated that the play, quote, didn’t get approval to be performed as scheduled, it was to go onto a festival, because, as this man told me and he told me directly, I’ve had correspondence with him, because, it was because of the violence in it and the coarse language.

Williamson however suggested that, quote, ‘there was a theory amongst some that I’ve spoken to that the salty language and the violence wasn’t the real reason that the play was banned, there are big issues with police overstepping their authority and my play of course deals with police overstepping their authority in a big way’, end of quote. The Director confirmed Williamson’s view of the reason, the production was cancelled, but it’s impossible to find out the real reason for the cancellation of the student production of the play in spite of my attempts to do so.

The mere fact that the students were interested in the play however demonstrates the longevity of the appeal of the new wave and its inheritors. It also underlines the fact that the uncertainties around theatrical productions in China continues, whether they take place in professional or educational settings.

In spite of the cancellation of the festival appearance of Williamson’s play in 2018 the new wave plays as a set have clearly been important in a theatrical relationship between Australia and China in professional and educational settings. As I mentioned the impact of Chinese acrobatic exchanges on Australian theatre was immense and enduring beyond the new wave and beyond new circus. In retrospect however the high point of intercultural theatrical exchange in the spoken word theatre remains the exchange of Hibberd’s ‘Stretch of the Imagination’ and Sha Yexin’s ‘The Imposter’ in 1987 as I tried to set out.

Well since the mid-2000s dozens of Australian plays of all kinds have toured, with children’s theatre becoming a major success in China over the last 10 years or so until the disruptions of the last two years. Many of the children’s theatre companies still have collaborative ventures in their plans but prospects for touring and exchange are uncertain at the present. The importance of people to people diplomacy is well demonstrated by the success of the new wave in China and the more recent touring of a range of Australian theatrical works to the PRC.

Nicholas Jose, a scholar and writer, observed in a recent public lecture that, quote, ‘the arts keep communication possible when other lines are down. Artists and scholars can always take each other’s phone calls. These things are so obvious that they shouldn’t need saying’, end of quote.

The performing arts communities have created a robust and vibrant form of communication between Australia and the PRC in the theatre since the early 1980s. It may be the arts that allows theatre makers in both countries to reactivate the relationship so vibrantly established by playwrights, translators, directors, dramaturgs, actors, audiences and diplomats engaged with the work of the new wave as we move into the relationship in the next 50 years. Thank you very much for listening.


S:         Thank you very much, Professor Pender. We now have time for some questions. As this presentation is being recorded please wait for the microphone to reach you before asking your question.

Au:      Thank you, Anne, for a really interesting presentation today and it’s just lovely to have – to see you reach the end of your fellowship journey with us. I think – I’ve got so many thoughts running around my head about relationships with – between Australia and China and the role that the arts can play in developing those. You focused on a very blokey side to Australian theatre. Did you find in your research any evidence of some of our female playwrights having an impact and having a role to play in that cultural exchange through the period?

A:        Not so much although I did mention those earlier female playwrights were and are very important in you know China from the ‘50s. In the new wave it was a very blokey period of theatre and they were very taken with that comedy, I think, and that roughness, the humour they seemed to respond to. More recently I’ve also sort of looked at the touring that’s gone on in recent years and there are definitely female playwrights. There’s a - Red Stitch – this is very recently – from Melbourne took a play by a young woman playwright and that was very successful to a festival and there have been as I said a lot of children’s productions and they are – they’ve been very important, I think, in cementing the relationship because you know there’s a lot of physical activity in there, they’re not text-heavy, there’s music, there’s dance, the whole family can go along to them and many of them are female playwrights and a lot of young women actors are in those plays.

But yes, the new wave, blokey, it is blokey, they seem to really like that humour in Stretch of the Imagination which is really – some of it you know we just wouldn’t have it anymore you know where there’s the urination on the stage. The Chinese did not like that, actually, they got rid of that whereas that’s always in it in Australia. So yes, I hope that’s answered the question in some way.

Au:      It has, I was particularly thinking perhaps about Dorothy Hewett and whether her work – you’d found any evidence of her work touching a chord because she would have had some sympathies, I think, with the politics of the period.

A:        I haven’t found anything about Hewett’s plays being done. I mean they really liked her writing, obviously you know there’s great interest in Bobbin Up and those kinds of books but I didn’t find anything on play productions.

Au:      Great, thank you.

Au:      Hi Anne, that was fantastic. I was just hoping you might be able to talk a little bit about what some of the sort of challenges or barriers are to the research that you were doing on this topic and that kind of cultural exchange. What were the sort of challenges around getting all the different perspectives?

A:        Thanks. Look, one of the challenges was simply getting permission to listen to some of the oral history interviews ‘cause they’re closed, some of the – there’s a beautiful series, it’s Beyond The Cables with the ambassadors going to China going right back to the beginning and some of them are still not available so I would have liked to have heard all of them. I heard probably half of them and they are terrific because you get the whole relationship, not just the cultural relationship, you get the ambassador talking about all the things that were going on. But that was a challenge and there are good reasons why some of those are not available so that was one challenge.

Getting David Williamson’s permission to read the diaries. I was very, very grateful for that and I’ve corresponded with him about that but you know there are difficulties but really I mean the great glory of it is that all of this Carrillo Gantner’s material, Jack Hibberd’s material, all of these letters that were going backwards and forwards are all in here so it is well documented. So yes, there are some challenges and talking to that fellow in China who provided the pictures which is incredible from that production, that’s become more difficult because he’s back in China. So yeah, there are challenges but there’s also so much material.

Au:      Thanks Anne. What engendered your interest in Australia China cultural relations, especially in theatre?

A:        Thank you. Yeah, that’s a really good question and I think it was that – I’m an Australianist, I’m not a Chinese scholar so this is really quite new work that I’ve been doing now for about four or five years. It was actually the fact – well when I first heard about that production, that they chose the Jack Hibberd, I could not believe it, that the Chinese would choose that play and I talked at length to Gantner about this and he said I was sure they would choose ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’. He couldn’t believe they’d choose a one-man play that’s so difficult and so I found that so intriguing, I really had to know why and how and how did this happen and what was it like? So from the moment I heard about that production I was hooked so that was kind of the beginning of it and then when I realised that it was part of an exchange and that amazing play was put on in Melbourne I was even more interested.

I think it was also finding out about the strength of the touring to China over the last 10 years. I did a project on that and I interviewed all these actors and directors and playwrights whose work had gone to China and I found that so fascinating that I got more and more interested in the whole history so not just this recent period of exchange where the Australia Council’s put a lot of money in and these wonderful companies are going. It was then I thought well I’ve got to look back at how did this start and learning about the – you know that a lot of scholars had come to Australia from China and studied and they all seemed to have taken up either Patrick White or these playwrights. It was all just fascinating to me as an Australianist and so I really wanted to find out more about this relationship since the opening up. Hope that’s of some use to you.

S:         As we draw to a close some quick plugs before we leave. Our website is the place where you’ll be able to find recordings of interesting and diverse recent talks and performances from our fellows. These are also available on our YouTube channel. If you’d like to know more about some of our formed collections please search the guide to our collections on our website. Thank you very much for attending and please join me once again in congratulating Professor Pender for today’s fascinating presentation.

End of recording

Professor Anne Pender presents her 2021 National Library Fellowship research on Australian theatre productions touring to China from the 1980s onwards, and the development of this cultural relationship.

On 19 September 1987, the first Australian play, Jack Hibberd’s A Stretch of the Imagination, was performed in Shanghai, China, with remarkable success. This early performance was part of a transformational cultural relationship between Australia and China through the exchange of key theatrical productions from the early 1980s until the present.

Professor Anne Pender examines Australian productions touring to China, exploring the cultural context for such exchanges and tours, the reception in both countries for the productions, their generative effect on theatre in various settings, and the evolution of the cultural relationship between the two countries over the longer term. Her research also explores for the first time significant theatrical productions that have been important in the development of the cultural relationship between Australia and China, and seeks to understand the complex cultural relationship between the two countries through the dialogue enabled via these cultural exchanges during a period of transformation.  

Professor Anne Pender is a 2021 National Library of Australia Fellow supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust for Research in Australian Literature.

About Professor Anne Pender

Professor Anne Pender holds the Kidman Chair in Australian Studies at the University of Adelaide, where she lectures in Australian Literary and Theatre Studies, and is Director of the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice. Anne is the author of 6 books exploring the lives and work of many Australian writers and performers, including her most recent work, a collective biography, Seven Big Australians: Adventures with Comic Actors, published in 2019, and her full biography of Barry Humphries, One Man Show.