COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on live 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 and movement. By its very nature, live performance is ephemeral. But its impact can be long-lasting.  

A person stands in an empty darkened theatre, illuminated by a single light bulb.
Daniel James Boud, Ange Sullivan, Head of Lighting, Preparing a Ghost Light at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 2020, nla.obj-2976573618, Courtesy Daniel James Boud

On Stage shines a spotlight on Australia’s performing arts history, through the National Library’s extensive performing arts collections, and looks forward to the return of better days. 

Selected themes

Black and white photograph of a row of shopfronts. One facade reads 'Theatre Royal'.

Early Colonial Times

In 1789, a year after the arrival of the First Fleet, a play was performed on Gadigal Country, Sydney. A purpose-built theatre opened in Sydney in January 1796.

A dancer in red and black holds her skirts as she moves.

Gold Rush to Federation

The Gold Rush lured many to the Australian colonies, and more people and money meant a greater need for entertainment.

Advertisement for a magic show in black and orange.

Federation to the 1940s

After Federation, overseas stars toured – but Australians also told their own stories.

A woman at a keyboard smiles at the camera.

Postwar to the New Wave

In the late 1960s and 1970s, confident and provocative Australian voices and companies challenged attitudes and prejudices.

A man sings into a microphone. He is wearing a cap, sunglasses and tshirt.

New Wave to Today

In this global age, Australia's performing arts are sometimes characterised as bold and collaborative, but with a larrikin spirit.