Speaker: Susannah Helman

Good evening to all of you. Thank you very much for asking me to speak this evening.

COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on life performance worldwide. Though, digital technologies have made a world of entertainment accessible, they cannot replace the experience of seeing a show live. There is magic and possibility when people gather to be entertained, challenged, moved, transported, or uplifted by a story told in real time through sound movement. By its very nature, live performance is ephemeral, but its impact can be long lasting. On Stage shines a spotlight on Australia's performing arts history through the national library's collections and looks forward to the return of better days.

My talk this evening will be in three parts. First, an introduction to the library's collections. Second, an overview of the exhibition. And third, a focus on some of the stories and themes of the exhibition. People say that if you work doing what you love, you never work a day in your life. I'm not sure that's entirely true. But I think that I had that in mind when I suggested doing an exhibition about the libraries performing arts collections. This exhibition celebrates something many of us have missed over the last couple of years. That very human pleasure of watching live performance. Like many of you, I'm absolutely positive I love going out to see something live, even the rush to make it on time, the search for refreshment at interval. But most of all, it's the magic that happens in that often darkened communal space. I'm sure they're excited on the inside.

The moment before a performance begins, the excitement you can feel as you and your fellow audience members wait with bated breath. The conversation, the energy that develops with audiences in that space as the performers tell their stories through words, movement, or music, or a combination of both. The connections audience forms with the performers. The investment audiences have in how the story turns out. The rousing applause at the end as performers take their bows. Spilling onto the curb on your way home moved, uplifted inspired. I think that what I've learnt most from working on this exhibition is the power of the collections. The libraries collections document Australia's performance history in our lifetimes, but also those of many generations of Australians. While they can't capture exactly what it was like to be there, they are the next best thing, I think. In many cases, they're all we have in times before recordings. In scale, however, it's an embarrassment of riches. It's not a question of what to put in, it's what to leave out.

Just to give some scale. The music collections of J.C. Williamson, the dominant theatrical production company, for about a century in Australia's history runs to 180 meters. That's just the music collection according to our catalog. It consists of boxes for many productions that the company put on. The collection of photographs consists of 4,000 photographs, 161 transparencies, 110 negatives. The manuscripts collection consists of over 600 boxes and containers. Then there are many boxes of programs. Where to start?

In thousands, if not tens of hundreds of thousands, or tens to hundreds of thousands of objects, the libraries collections can tell us about the creative people who worked on productions centuries, decades to recent years. They can tell us in many instances how a production was put together, written composed, designed, or choreographed. We have production photos of productions as they took place. Posters to advertise a production. Programs and tickets used by audience members and newspaper or magazine reviews of a production. Oral histories let key players speak for themselves about their lives and careers. And also, obviously, our general collections show how historians and people who have worked in the performing arts themselves have interpreted the significance of their careers. So it's very much a collection in the round.

People often ask how you make a selection. I must say straight up that it was hard when you're so spoiled for choice. Only selection will fit into a gallery. I spoke to as many colleagues as I could to form a staff to glean recommendations. I read as much as I could and used a combination of serendipity and being targeted to find what I needed to weave an exhibition together. With exhibitions there's also the jigsaw of making a selection that will work. I also wanted to take advantage of having a slideshow to feature photographs from the collection, not otherwise displayed in the exhibition. But that again needs to work as a video, it has to flow.

I was also keen to take advantage of the fact that we all know how to use QR codes much more than we did some time ago. So watch out for the QR codes in the exhibition linking to publicly available content. Seven of them link to excerpts from our oral history and flow collect collection. Many oral histories in our collection are already segmented, so you can easily isolate a clip for playing. Please do have a go if you have a smartphone.

Now to a quick overview of the exhibition, The exhibition is organised chronologically, but it's also designed to suggest the experience of entering a theatre. And I apologise, I don't have photos of this, but I know that you'll be going up there in a minute. So please bear with... Our talented designer, Isabelle Trundle, conceived an up in lights wall at the entry, featuring many of the names you'll encounter in the exhibition. A mural suggests a theatre's exterior as you go further into the exhibition. Another set suggests an interior further along our velvet curtains.

The exhibition has six rooms, it's arranged roughly chronologically. The first deals with the period of the early colony. And just to run through a brief synopsis of each. In 1789, a year after the arrival of the first fleet, a play was performed on Gadigal Country, Sydney. George Farquhar was the recruiting officer of 1706.

A purpose built theater opened in Sydney in January 1796. Convicts organised and performed various programs for several years. From the 1830s, new theatres opened in Sydney in Hobart and from the 1840s in Melbourne. Moving to the next room, the gold rush of the 1850s lured many to the Australian colonies. More people and money meant a greater need for entertainment. Overseas performers took advantage of this ready audience. New theatres were built. Traveling actors, such as George Coppin became entrepreneurs, building empires that inspired successes such as Bland Holt, George Musgrove and J.C. Williamson. Actors, stars and entrepreneurs could be female as shown by the women featured in that room. Actresses, Lady Amelia Don, and Sarah Bernhardt. The dancer known as Saharat, and banjo player, Elizabeth "Bessie" Campbell known as the banjo queen. Irishman, Lyster, established what became Australia's first resident opera company.

Moving to the next room, theatres and halls built in the 1880s and 1890s continued to thrive after Federation in 1901. Variety shows, melodramas and musicals were very popular as were opera drama and ballet. J.C. Williamson's company came to dominate entertainment in Australia and New Zealand, absorbing rivals in owning theatres. It brought out great stars of the stage. Opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba; ballerina, Anna Pavlova; and the ballet, Russ. But Australians also told their own stories through performers, such as Bert Bailey, Edmund Duggan, Roy Rene, and Nat Phillips. And they welcome back homegrown stars, such as Melbourne and actor-producer Oscar Asche who had triumphed overseas.

After the end of the second world war, J.C. Williamson Theatres limited broad Austral American musicals to Australia. However, there was also a renewed push to tell Australian stories and to establish national performing arts companies. Australia had long had a vibrant amateur little theatre scene, which was perhaps more experimental than mainstream companies. But the federal government increasingly invested in the performing arts. In the late '60s and early '70s came, what was known as the new wave. Confident and provocative Australian voices and companies challenged attitudes and prejudices. The opening of the Sydney Opera House on Bennelong Point in 1973, gave Australian performing arts a dramatic centre stage.

And we have a model for the Sydney Opera House in the exhibition, which I'm sure some of you have seen before. The last couple of rooms deal with the last 50 years. The argument is this, that Australia has a vibrant performing arts industry that features a range of original artists and creative people who have forged exciting careers at home and overseas. In this global age, Australia's performing arts is sometimes characterised as bold and collaborative, but with a Larrikin spirit. Over the last 50 years, Australian performers and companies have continued to move and challenge audiences, inspiring us to laugh, cry, and dance.

Now I'd like to hone in on some themes and stories that really run through the whole show. In an exhibition where everything is drawn from the library's collection, a major motivation for me was to select strengths of the library's collections for display. For example, the wonderful prompt run in the Ephemera collection, which consists of an extensive collection. And I mean walls of programs, tickets and more relating to the performing arts. We have files and folders about performers, companies, festivals. It truly is a treasure of the library's collection and continues to grow.

We also have a collection of broad sides, a kind of poster that mostly features text. Many of them like these are beautiful. We have what we call large posters produced in the last few decades for rock concerts, fringe, comedy, and more. I couldn't resist to posters for AC/DC and the Hilltop Hoods that you see on the screen. Our manuscripts collections include the papers and works of playwrights, promoters designers, artistic directors, dancers, actors, and more. They are often vast, but incredibly rich. There are many music items in the exhibition. For example, we have collections relating to the company of W.S. Lyster, who I introduced earlier. An Irishman who ran Australia's first permanent opera company. It operated in Australia in the 1860s and 1870s.

Here we have on the screen, a score for Lurline. And this is one of the singers in his company. There are items representing a much larger collection, for example, this photograph of Ruth Cracknell. She's obviously perhaps best known for her role in Mother and Son. But we have some production photographs from the one woman show that she co-wrote, and she performed multiple characters in that show called "Just Ruth" in 1977. A series of sketches.

The libraries collections are extraordinarily diverse, but there are also some things we can't show as we don't have them. Costumes, for example, one of these genres. We do however, have the papers of numerous acclaimed designers, such as Kristian Fredrikson, Kenneth Ryle. Here's Kristian Fredrikson on the screen and Desmond Digby. All of these are in the exhibition. We also have costume designs by designers who worked around the turn of the 20th century in Britain. And these were sort of bought as packaged deals by J.C. Williamson's. We also have unexpected items. The libraries collections are primarily documentary that is on paper, but they are varied. And there are items you might be surprised to see. We have musical instruments, an accordion and a lagerphone that you see in use here. They're associated with the legendary 1950s musical group, the Bush whackers. We also have a brass company sign for J.C. Williamson, likely once attached to a building.

Following on from wanting to feature collection strengths, many of our strengths are actually familiar names to us decades after their death, such as Dame Nellie Melba, and actor/dancer/choreographer and artistic director, Sir Robert Helpmann. We hold substantial collections relating to both of them. For Melba, we have a fan given to her on her retirement that's signed. We also have a score that belonged to her for one of her signature roles, the Mad Scene in Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoore. She would often perform it in recitals. What is most exciting is that there's some music that's been pasted in. Did she do it herself? We don't know. But do take the chance to hover your phone over the QR code in that case. And you can hear her sing this part of the Mad Scene. I think it's very exciting.

In the papers of sir Robert Helpmann. We have 23 scrapbooks in the collection covering his life and work. These have just been digitised and will soon be available to view through trove and our catalog. I've decided to focus on two elements of his career. In 1955 Helpmann and Hollywood star, Catherine Hepburn led a tour of Australia for London's Old Big Theatre. The pair performed three of Shakespeare's plays, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, and Measure for Measure. Australian newspapers, however, were extremely fascinated by Hepburn's offstage wardrobe. She favoured slacks over dresses.

In 1964, Helpmann choreographed The Display, it's called The Display, the ballet for the Australian ballet. Starring Kathleen Gorham and Garth Welch, the ballet was Helpmann's comment on Australian masculinity. And you can see another scrapbook about that. Then there are those that were once household names, but are now not so much. Actors such as Nellie Stewart, and he's more about the skirts. Nellie Stewart, who trod the boards in Gilbert and Sullivan operators for J.C. Williamson, and then after losing her voice, specialised as a comic actor. Tittell Brun, does anyone remember her? She was American and she was very, very popular in the first decade of the 20th century. She played male and female roles, including the successful pantomime, Peter Pan. We have hundreds of items in the collection relating to these two. There's also Bland Holt, a particular favourite of mine. He was a comic actor and we have his papers in the library's collection, as well as a collection of programs in the ephemeral collection.

We also have material relating to people who had a great impact on the performing arts scene. They work packed a punch, and they had a lot of "get up and go". One of my favourites is Doris Fitton. She ran Sydney's bold experimental independent theatre for 47 years. In an oral history recorded by Hazel Berg in our collection she said, "When I started the independent theatre in May 1930, I had two objects. The first one was to present the world's best plays as well as we possibly could. And the other object was the development of Australian talent." We have an oral history that you can listen to.

Nugget Coombs, thanks to his dogged persistence, he was then governor of the Commonwealth Bank. As well as being a [inaudible 00:19:42] economist, he was an arts lover. It is sort of, I think, largely thanks to him that Australia had publicly funded national performing arts companies in the 1960s. He led the establishment of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, whose goal was to establish national companies. We have the records of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. I've also tried to include important moments in our life performance history. One room looks at some of the major plays and theatre companies after the second world war.

Returning to Doris Fitten, this is Rusty Bugles, which opened in 1948 at the Independent Theatre. It caused a sensation and was briefly banned for bad language. In 1979, Dame Doris Fitten wrote, "I still believe it to be the best Australian play ever written". Then we have plays like Summer of the 17th Doll, set in Melbourne's Carlton. It gave centre stage to the Australian vernacular. It opened in 1955 at the Union Theatre at the University of Melbourne and toured widely for the trust. This actually comes from a performance in Cairns.

Then there are also plays such as The One Day of the Year, first performed in 1960. And The Legend of King O'Malley that was directed by actor John Bell, then a tutor at NIDA, Australia's first drama school. Also, Alex Buzo's Norm and Ahmed first performed in 1968, which made Australians think. Buzo told the library in oral history, "It actually made my reputation. It put Australian drama on the front page of every newspaper." Then there's Basically Black, which was first performed at the Nimrod theatre in Sydney in 1972. It was produced by the National Black Theatre of Redfern, a company established by Bob Maza. It featured an all indigenous cast and used humour through a series of sketches to draw attention to the issues faced by indigenous Australians.

Then we have, I think, one of the treasures of what we can do here at the library, is that we can show how a production was put on. A behind the scenes look. I'm just going to show you a few items that are in the exhibition. This is a journal belonging to Hugh McIntosh, who is a manager for the Tivoli. And I've got it open to a page that really shows you the variety of performers that were on the books at the Tivoli in the early 20th century. It's quite extraordinary in the range of talents they had. This comes from the J.C. Williamson collection in the music part of it.

And we have all of these scripts for hundreds of productions that were put on by J.C. Williamson. And this is the one for Chu Chin Chow, which was written and produced by Oscar Asche. One of the great Australian stars of the stage, he was the Shakespearean actor. Went to work in London. And Chu Chin Chow was a great success during the first world war in London and then it was transferred back to Australia. It's based on the story of one of the tales of the Arabian Knights.

This is one of my favourites, it's a stage direction for the musical, Annie Get Your Gun, which is explored with several objects in the exhibition. It was the first big musical to be performed in Australia after the second world war, it starred Evie Hayes. And we have music, we have scripts, we also have this stage direction. And I think what's really great is it shows you when the sound effects were to go off and written in blue pencil.

This is another of my favourites, it's a contract for Anna Pavlova with J.C. Williamson for her second tour to Australia. The one that opened in 1929. And it's one of those legal documents that's quite brutal and hard to open up. We've actually got it closed in the exhibition, but I've opened it for you. So this in a type written contract shows you, "The said, Anna pavlova, shall appear at least twice during each performance making a total of approximately 30 minutes". So it says that each performance just above that was to be at least two and a half hours.

Then another great theme of the exhibition is really about collaborations and partnerships. And I think there are many examples that you could see in the collections, if not in the exhibition. I'm just going to point out some of those that are featured in the show. This partnership of Nat Phillips and Roy Rene/Harry van der Sluys, McCackie was his big character. And we have this poster relating to their comedic partnership. They were doing this kind of show for decades, really. And I have a QR code beside this so you can listen to one of their little snippets. But Bailey and Edmund Duggan, we have the papers of both of them, including a performing week, belonging to Edmund Duggan. They wrote together under the combined names of Albert Edmonds. Their greatest success was the play on our selection, which no doubt... You know, he's very famous today. But they also worked on a number of other things.

Then we also have this collection relating to Sorlies. So it was founded by Anglo West Indian, George Sorlie, who came to Australia in the late 19th century. And he was known as the J.C. Williamson of the road. Did anyone go to any Sorlie's shows? They went to regional Australia for decades. They had this road show. It was very inspiring, I think, to many people. They had pantomimes, but they also had a Tivoli kind of show. George Sorlie died in the '40s. And one of the comedians who had been a big star of the company in the 1930s took over and he partnered with George's widow, Grace, and with his own wife called Gracie. The company went on.

And we have the papers of Bobby LeBron and his wife, Gracie, and it's really quite extraordinary. It's colourful. We have lots of posters. We have lots of photographs. And so you can sort of see how they kept the company going over decades.

I'd like to speak also Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The continent's first storytellers have increasingly used the performing arts to express and share their culture and stories with wider audiences. The National Black Theatre, who we talked about earlier was established by Bob Maza and it reached a really mainstream audience, playing Basically Black at Nimrod in 1972. It put Aboriginal voices and issues at the forefront.

Founded in 1989, Bangarra, who I'm sure is well known to many to all of you, is Australia's premier indigenous dance company. And we have in the exhibition, this poster for their first full length production in 1992. It was created by Nunukul Munaldjali man, Stephen Page, the company's artistic director. It told the story of a young girl who travels from her country to the city, guided by Praying Mantis Spirit. We also are privileged to be able to show the collections of Noel Tovy, who in a one man show called Little Black Bastard based on his work of the same name. We have a [inaudible 00:29:04] for that production. And in it, he told of his extraordinary life overcoming at adversity. He's the first Aboriginal man to work as a professional dancer.

Another landmark is the first Aboriginal opera, Pecan Summer, that dates from 2010 by Yota Yota woman/soprano/artistic director and composer, Deborah Cheatham. I think that the exhibition also shows that the library's collections are more diverse than you might expect. Just to go back to the 19th century, I think that if you look closely at some of the details, you can see how involved women were in running theatres. For example, in the mid 19th century, there are numerous examples of extremely popular women stars of the stage. Some such as Sarah Bernhardt and Dame Nellie Melba also had great power to command.

Performers of Chinese Australian backgrounds, such as dancers Saharat and actor Rose Quong were also starring on the world stage. We have in the exhibition a wonderful, quite small journal of Rose Quong. She was born in about the 1880s. And in her 40s, in the 1920s, she went to study in London. She won a scholarship. And she lived to about a hundred. She never came back to Australia. She developed a niche as a sort of a recitalist. But you can see a photograph of her from a production in London where she starred with Lawrence Olivia and Ellen Terry. Her journal shows that she was extremely... She had a passion for the theatre and took that with her when she went.

The library also holds Winifred Atwell's papers. And I think this is one of my greatest finds. I'm amazed I hadn't heard of her. I mean, prior to working on this exhibition. Born in Trinidad, she had trained as both a chemist and concert pianist. She specialised as a Honky-Tonk pianist and was hugely popular in Britain and Australia in the 1950s and '60s. And we have her papers here at the library. She settled in Australia in the 1970s, and she died here in 1983. And we have also a lot of sheet music relating to her. There are newspaper clippings in her collection, music for her band. It's just very evocative.

Well, later in the exhibition, the focus is on Australian's performing either at home or overseas. I didn't want to ignore the fact that Australia has long attracted visitors from overseas. And so you can sort of see throughout the exhibition, particularly the early part, there are celebrated visitors, such as Lola Montez; actor, Sarah Bernhardt; and dancer, Anna Pavlova, whom I've mentioned earlier. They had great impacts during and long after their visits. Many of you may know the musical called Lola Montez that premiered here in the 1950s. The library also holds material relating to Australian tours of all kinds of performers. One item I saw when I was looking through the collections was a program from where David Bowie Tour, tickets and all. Unfortunately, I couldn't put it in the show. It's a subtle reminder to me of Australian's appetite for visiting performers and productions. A subtle reminder is that on the reverse of the Hilltop Hoods poster, I mentioned before, is actually a Pixies poster.

I want to end with how the exhibition begins. With an item I really should have mentioned earlier. It's a playbill that dates from 1796. It's a very small and humble document that you may have seen at the library before. But in this exhibition, I've contextualised it a bit more with some items that date from around the same period. It's on the UNESCO Australian memory of the world register. Not only is it the earliest document printed in Australia to survive, but it's also for an evening's entertainment at the theatre in Sydney. I think it represents also how performing arts has been a great love of Australians for many, many years is.

Before I close, I'd just like to say that like every exhibition and life performance itself, this was a team effort. And I'd like to thank everyone around the library and beyond who helped put it together under ever changing circumstances. Onstage is full of colour, life and detail. I hope you and our visitors will find in onstage connections to your own experiences of going to see a live show. Be it magic comedy, rock theatre, opera, or ballet. As Evie Hayes sang in the 1948 Australian production of Annie Get Your Gun, another story explored in the show, "There's no business like show business". I hope you enjoy the show as much as I have enjoyed immersing myself in the library's fabulously rich collections. Thank you very much.

The Library’s new exhibition On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts reflects on the history of performing arts in Australia through the Library’s vast collections and looks forward to the return of better days. With just over 180 objects, it surveys many key moments, people and productions by or for Australians. It is a rich and diverse history and one that deserves to be better known. Join Dr. Susannah Helman, curator of the On Stage exhibition, as she discusses collection highlights from the exhibition in this curator talk.

Learn more about the exhibition here