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I had been wondering what to write for this edition in the absence of having seen anything since the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, when a friend sent me down a rabbit hole looking at all my old photos. Memories came flowing back so I thought I’d tell you about my own life in theatre and why it is so important to me. The only thing I have really missed during the pandemic has been the ability to sit in a dark space with others watching together as another world opens up.
My first stage experience was at Parramatta Town Hall in the early 1950s doing the Sailor’s Hornpipe and after that seeing Julius Caesar as part of my Leaving Certifcate studies. My mind was blown away by the experience of seeing the top actors of the day bring Shakespeare to life. I started seeing some musicals and I remember My Fair Lady, Bye Bye Birdie, Lock Up Your Daughters, Once Upon a Mattress and many more. I was in awe of the stagecraft in these shows. Of course, I aimed to be a star despite the lack of acting or singing ability.
When at Bathurst Teachers’ College I studied Dramatic Art with Oliver Fiala and was given the opportunity to perform in Green Pastures (which I would later direct at Randwick Boys High) and to play Androcles in George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and The Lion. For some unknown reason I decided to try my hand at directing and chose The Seven Year Itch by George Axelrod. It was the first time I made a bold decision and cast a woman in the Marilyn Monroe role who was not of the Monroe type. It worked. Thanks Ruth.
While teaching in Goulburn I played a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz and in Tumbarumba I was the lead in The Boyfriend. At Monaro High I helped to direct Oklahoma! and realised these were my happiest times despite suffering acute anxiety each time I was involved in a show. At Randwick Boys I did both Oh! What a Lovely War and Green Pastures. This was a massive show with a band, a celestial choir, a jazz group and a cast of more than 40. It was exhausting but so fulfilling. It played multiple performances, winning the award for the best production for the High School Drama Festival 1974. It also caused me grief years later when I was investigated for dressing some boys in girls’ clothing. Yes I did, they were the boys from the footy team in Cabaret’s Willkommen scene. They loved it and were really good.
I increased my theatre going, with regular visits to Nimrod (later Belvoir), The Old Tote, Sydney Theatre Company and the New Theatre. I knew The New from its reputation as a ‘Communist’ theatre and its production America Hurrah, which was banned. A performance at Federation’s then auditorium in Sussex Street attracted crowds and the police. I had found my new family and it provided me with a haven. Nobody questioned my sexuality. It also taught me about the scenes behind the stage. I did sound, props and stage management as well as taking positions on the committees.
I performed in The Feet of Daniel Mannix and from this I learnt more about real Australian history than I would ever learn at school or in the newspapers. I eventually directed The Pirates of Pal Mal; Reedy River twice and Oh What a Lovely War! . I did two productions of On the Wallaby; First Class Women; No Room for Dreamers and Coming Attractions. I also did street theatre, and lots of politics. When you direct a show you need to know everything about it and so I taught myself the real history of events such as The First World War, the Great Depression, the shearers’ strike in 1983 and women’s’ detention in Parramatta.
I was mainly involved in shows that had a political bent. I also loved directing big casts. But I am a political animal and while I could have continued at the New (I did an interview for the position of director at The Ensemble) I wanted to get elected to a position at Federation. When I succeeded it became my new family and I could not do it as well as theatre, so theatre had to go. I was only able to do one more show, which was Maurie Mulheron’s One Word ...We, the story of Pete Seeger and Friends. It was a smash hit.
I still travel from my home in Tuncurry to Sydney on a regular basis to see theatre. I have missed it so badly during lockdown and can’t wait to get back to it. I suspect my first show will be the New Wharf Revue’s Can of Worms, which my friend Lorraine saw in Canberra and loved.
Wow! What a time I have had. I saw Glenda Jackson at The Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown, Judi Dench at The Theatre Royal on Broadway. I have seen more than 40 shows including Chicago and Rent when they were first on. Likewise in The West End of London I saw The Book of Mormon and The Threepenny Opera and at home I was able to see Cate Blanchett, Rachell Griffiths and Toni Collette at the beginning of their careers.
I hope my reviews have encouraged you and your students to enjoy the world of theatre.
Frank Barnes is Frank Barnes
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