The illustrious life of Sydney's New Theatre


By Frank Enright

SYDNEY — "It is a fantastic ideal to introduce people to the fact that you're not a working stiff, but you are a person that has talents you probably don't know you have, or you've got an appreciation of all sorts of other things outside of earning your living. I think that still goes", says Marie Armstrong, vice-president of New Theatre.

New Theatre is the oldest in Australia in continuous production. It has been through five successive premises before settling into its current home in Newtown. Behind it are nearly 400 productions.

It was back on August 6, 1932, that the Sydney Morning Herald announced the launch of the Sydney Workers' Art Club: "[A club] has been established with the object of bringing within reach of the working classes various advantages in the way of lectures, musical recitals, art classes, and the exhibition of pictures. The president of the movement is Mr George Finey and the committee includes a number of artists.

"Organisers have laid down for themselves a wide and ambitious programme. They have begun by providing a cheerfully furnished clubroom and small library where members may meet and hold discussions on various questions related to arts and crafts."

The New Theatre movement was born in the US in the late 1920s and grew amid the hardship and poverty inflicted by the depression. The earliest productions were rough and ready, with an agitational and propaganda flavour. Australia followed the US lead with a number of workers' theatre groups blooming across the country. Often the short plays, like the street theatre of today, were performed outside factory gates, beside dole queues and at Labour and Communist Party meetings.

The Sydney players' first production was an adaptation of Robert Tressal's stirring novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. By 1936 the group had adopted the New Theatre League as its name, which was shortened to New Theatre in 1945.

"In the earlier days most of the people who joined would have been very left-wing, politically committed", explains Armstrong, who began her long association with New Theatre 47 years ago at the age of 18. Membership of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) followed shortly after.

The New Theatre's history mirrors closely the political times it has lived through. It was often at the forefront of the battles for free speech and democracy and in opposition to war and fascism.

"In 1936, following German [fascist] government representation, Clifford Odets' anti-fascist play Till The Day I Die met with police intervention on stage.

"Immediate audience demand that the play be allowed to proceed uninterrupted was amplified in subsequent press coverage which was extensive and largely sympathetic", recalls a New Theatre news-sheet.

There were other occasions when the state stepped in to suppress the theatre's work, even as late as 1968 with the play America Hurrah. A highlight of Armstrong's association with New Theatre "was the censorship struggle around America Hurrah". In the third and final act of Jean Claude Van Itallie's play, a satirical look at US society, huge wooden dolls scrawl obscenities on the wall of a motel. After complaints, the show was banned.

Armstrong, one of the "dolls", relates that the company organised an illegal performance in the Teachers Federation auditorium. No advertising was necessary; everybody knew. There was an electric air of expectation as hundreds of people were turned away from the bulging arena.

For the three actors in the wooden doll frames, an escape route was organised to allow them to elude arrest: burly building workers and wharfies hung around the doors "accidentally" obstructing the police as they moved in to arrest the "dolls" at the end of the act. This allowed the performers to get out of the frames and mingle nonchalantly with the rest of the cast — nobody was arrested, although the police confiscated the offending parts of the set as evidence.

Many prominent Australians lent their names to the ensuing campaign against this censorship. Later, New Theatre took the play on the road to Tasmania.

"The Communist Party was a tremendous support to New Theatre because it used to have block bookings for all the shows, bookings from the branches of the party. After the war, there were a lot of branches because servicemen were coming back and Russia had been the ally ... this was before the Cold War period.

"This in a way spoiled us because we didn't have to worry about publicising outside of Tribune [the CPA's paper]. We used to run an ad in the Herald, and trade union papers used to give us free publicity and review the plays. It was like we were sitting pretty those days."

The Cold War cut back CPA membership and support for the New Theatre.

"We performed a fantastic production of The Star Turns Red, and one of the hierarchy in the Herald came to see it and saw the politics in it. The first edict that came from him was no more reviews, and then later they would not let us advertise, wouldn't take our money. For 12 years we had to fight the Herald for the right to advertise." Eventually, it is said, the wharfies' leader went to the editor and pointed out that newsprint came via the docks.

Another highlight in the New Theatre's history was a 1952 performance of The Candy Store, the story of a strike in a US department store. This was an underground performance — literally. The Glen Davis shale miners began the first sit-in strike in a NSW colliery, and the Miners Federation invited New Theatre to perform the play down the mine.

Smuggled in, at the junction of five shafts, an improvised stage with hessian curtain was set up. Small and inadequate lights rested on a table. Then, as the players stepped on stage in the murky half light, the miners switched on their hard hat lights and bathed the stage in a dusty glow.

"That's a hard one to beat", says a jubilant Armstrong, one of the players that day.

In November of that year the theatre performed Stay Down Miner by Len Fox inside the Great Greta coal mine in NSW to an audience of 32 stay-down miners.

All through this period the theatre retained a close relationship with the trade union movement. The wharfies, seamen, metal workers and many more would come and review the plays. "That era is long gone", says Armstrong with more than a tinge of regret. "I'm quite emotional about this because I know what it was like and it's gone. You can just see many of these strands going."

But some of the strands survive. "I can remember not so many years ago going to the Seymour Centre and seeing a production about the life of Paul Robeson, which had been sponsored in its writing and promotion by building workers. And I was walking past a building site last year and saw a poster advertising a lunchtime show about AIDS."

"Despite the tendency of press publicity to ebb and flow, Sydney New Theatre reiterates its determination 'To continue its role as a socially relevant and committed theatre' a policy that is harder to carry out today than in the past because of the continuing difficulty of obtaining first Australian rights for the sorts of plays that not many years ago only New Theatre would have performed", reads the souvenir booklet The New Years 1932 - .

New Theatre presented the Australian premiere of The Crucible by Arthur Miller in the 1960s, and many other productions too hot for professional theatre to touch.

Armstrong says the New Theatre still broadly adheres to humanist values. "If something has a radical left-wing bias and it's well written, we'll want to do it. But gone are the days when the message is more important", says Armstrong. "If a play is not well written and performed, then the message suffers."

The New Theatre is a democratic organisation with around 300 members; each one, from the moment they walk in the door, is equal with the oldest stalwart. Everything is done on a voluntary basis, and there are quarterly meetings and elections for all positions. There's a lot of professionalism in this amateur company.

The New Theatre embodies much that is big and proud in the working class history of this country. After 62 years it continues to bring good theatre, performed from the heart, to Sydney.