The Theatre with the Grand-Sounding Name
The Ballarat National Theatre, Gertrude Johnson, and the Australian National Theatre Movement by Lucinda Horrocks.
The Ballarat National Theatre is a local amateur dramatic society with a surprisingly grand-sounding name. It is one of the longest-running community theatre groups in Australia, for which it deserves celebration. But the company’s name reveals another fact worth celebrating. It has a rare, ongoing connection to a foundational episode in the cultural history of Australia – the Australian National Theatre Movement.
Nowadays when Australian content is mandated on TV stations, and we have a wealth of government and privately funded performing arts institutions filling every conceivable niche, it is difficult to see why the Australian National Theatre Movement was such a big deal. But before the 1930s, Australia was not seen, nor did we see ourselves, as a nation which deserved its own cultural icons or forms of cultural expression. We were at the edge of the British Empire. Culture came from there, and that was where the best, the only, culture was found. At the time there was little sense that Australia had any form of identity outside of England. And it was simply expected that the brightest and most talented Australian performers would go overseas.
This attitude was challenged by a formidable Australian opera singer called Gertrude Johnson. Johnson had studied under the famous Nellie Melba and enjoyed a successful, though not stellar, career in England in the 1920s. On returning to Australia in the 1930s she argued for a National Theatre in all states of Australia which would give talented Australian artists performance experience in their own country. The Australian Broadcasting Commission had just been formed and though there was little formal government support of active cultural institutions Johnson and others had high hopes of a national strategy to keep young talent in Australia.
In 1935 Johnson founded the Australian National Theatre Movement and set up a theatre in her home base of Melbourne to train young people in music, opera, ballet and drama to a professional level. Part of her genius was to found supportive branches of the Movement, beginning with the Melbourne suburbs but extending outwards.
The first regional branch was founded in Ballarat in 1938. The Ballarat National Theatre was formed at a meeting convened by the Mayor of Ballarat, J H Trekardo. Gertrude Johnson was there and over 100 people attended. The excitement in the contemporary articles is palpable. Ballarat felt it was at the vanguard of a flowering of Australian culture. The first performance in Ballarat by the Melbourne company of the popular ‘Barretts of Wimpole Street’, was a crowded success, although the conditions in the Alfred Hall were freezing, prompting a call for better venues in Ballarat.
Gertrude Johnson’s network of theatres and branches took hold in Victoria and flowered in the 1940s and up to the 1950s. During this time Melbourne’s ‘National’ became known as a source of sometimes rowdy, but often surprisingly high calibre performances.
The Ballarat National Theatre started producing its own performances in 1939 (‘Smilin’ Through’). As other groups existed locally for music and dance, ‘The National’ in Ballarat focussed almost exclusively on drama. A lively troupe with a dedicated local audience soon formed. And when the intimate 100 people venue the ‘Little Theatre’ was built in the basement of the ANA Building and Plaza Cinema in Camp Street in 1949, the company flourished.
Counter to Ballarat’s local success story, the broader National Theatre Movement began to fizzle out after a peak of activity and critical acclaim in the 1950s. It never achieved its grand aim of creating a network of theatres across Australia. Instead, Gertrude Johnson’s goal of a truly Australian national theatre was realised in the 1950s when the ‘Elizabethan Theatre Trust,’ a national group, was formed. From this organisation developed a State Theatre network and the two institutions the Australian Ballet and the Australian Opera. Johnson herself, sadly, chose not to be part of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, an organisation she helped initiate but which she felt was compromised. Instead she kept her Melbourne-based Australian National Theatre separate and, while it remains a Melbourne cultural fixture to this day, it gradually declined in influence and prestige and in numbers.
The Ballarat National Theatre kept going, producing play after play, developing and extending its repertoire and drawing strong local audiences well up to the 1980s when the Little Theatre was forced to close to meet new stringent safety regulations. Undeterred, the company remained active and eventually relocated to a new venue – the Courthouse Theatre in Lydiard Street Ballarat in the 1990s, where it still puts on four productions a year to this day. At some point in its journey the Ballarat ‘National’ lost its contact and connection with the Melbourne ‘National’ and became essentially an independent amateur theatre company.
Now as memories recede we don’t really know how many branches of the Australian National Theatre Movement were set up in its heyday (the Melbourne movement apparently did not keep records of branches as they formed). In 1988 three other regional National Theatre branches still existed: metropolitan Heidelberg, and Yallourn and Swan Hill in regional Victoria but gradually they severed their ties to the movement and the name. (The ‘National Theatre’ in Perth is not connected to Johnson’s Movement). Today there exist two solitary reminders of Johnson’s dream. One is the Australian National Memorial Theatre in the glorious old renovated silent cinema on the corner of Barkly and Carlisle Streets, St Kilda, the heart of the Movement since the 1970s, and which has trained and continues to train generations of performers, struggling for every dollar to keep its legacy alive. And the other is the Ballarat National Theatre, the community theatre company in regional Victoria, putting on four shows a year in the Courthouse Theatre near the Old Ballarat Gaol.
Neither company keeps in touch with the other – they are linked only through the thread of the name, a bit of history, and remarkable longevity. It’s probably time they started talking.
Lucinda Horrocks, 2014.
Wind & Sky Productions was commissioned to produce a history of the Ballarat National Theatre in 2013. This article is based on some of the history we unearthed whilst researching the story.
To watch the film, visit http://www.windsky.com.au/ballarat-national-theatre/
Ballarat Courier, ‘Meetings’, March 19, 1938, p. 15.
Ballarat Courier, ‘Enthusiasm at Meeting’, March 23, 1938.
Ballarat Courier, ‘Amusements’, June 18, 1938, p.14.
Ballarat Courier, ‘Alfred Hall Appointments’, June 20, 1938, p. 4.
Ballarat Courier, ‘National Theatre – Ballarat Effort’, June 20, 1938, p.7.
Sonja Kinnersly, 1988, The Ballarat National Theatre: 50 Golden Years, Henksan Printers, Ballarat, p.4.
Geoffrey Milne, The ‘National Theatre’/’National Theatre Movement’, Flinders University Academic Commons, 21 July 2010, http://dspace.flinders.edu.au/xmlui/handle/2328/15055
Frank Van Straten National Treasure: The Story of Gertrude Johnson and the National Theatre. Victoria Press, South Melbourne, 1994.