By Anne Boyd
Congratulations to author Ray Peace and the 1812 Theatre for producing one of the best local history books in a long time.
Behind the Curtain has been eight years in the making. The mass of material, accumulated over 80 years, offered a challenge to all concerned and the time taken to get it right has been well spent.
Any volunteer community group that has survived for 80 years has much to offer, but a theatre group makes a special contribution.
In his Preface, the 1812 Theatre’s patron Lawrence Mooney says it well, ‘The theatre. The place we go to see life and relationships reflected back at us . . . [theatre] helps us to identify with our world, make sense of the human condition and feel connected to humanity’.
One might think that Ray Peace and archivists Judie Morrow-Emmett and Marianne Moore, faced with such richness of sources – the archival listing of plays, minutes of meetings, promo fliers and programs – would have a hard task to structure a 240 page book. But of course theatre people are well practised in presenting complex structures.
In a way, Behind the Curtain is a performance in itself. And the team goes even further giving us the views of local and metropolitan theatre critics, as well as extracts from recent interviews with actors, directors, board members and others who took part over the years. (It is announced that podcasts of the interviews will be made available.) Added to this are the many photographs, well reproduced even if sometimes a bit small. Perhaps a selection of photos will be made available in an online gallery. All this detail needed a strong narrative and Ray Peace provides it. His journalist experience drives the story, the drama of events, from the earliest performances.
The origins of the company were usually traced from 1948 when the Ferntree Gully Arts Society Repertory Players first performed in the newly established Hut in Underwood Road. But Behind the Curtain traces connections further back to Lillian Lavender’s 1938 play, ‘A House to Let’, performed at the old Shire Hall. Many of the same players then continued as the Latimer Players in various halls around the hills, mainly fundraising for local charities. The playlist at the back of the book includes 21 plays performed before 1948.
By the late 1960s it was time for the Hut Players to come out from ‘the umbrella of the FTG Arts Society’, though few anticipated the thrill of the ‘night flit’ from the Hut to Lysterfield Hall, nor the disaster in June 1972 of a fire that in one night destroyed all their equipment. However The 1812 Theatre (as they were by then known) rose again to an even higher point. In 1985, now in their new premises at Rose Crescent in Upper Gully, became the first Australian theatre company (even first Southern Hemisphere company) to perform at the World Festival of Amateur Theatre at Monaco.
A talent for celebration
While the final chapters of Behind the Curtain track new directions and expansions to 2015, the account of the Fiftieth Anniversary in 1995 is a gift to any group wondering how to celebrate a big birthday. They partied in style all year with open days, with guided tours of the theatre, with promos, fridge magnets, members badges and life memberships, making the most of every opportunity to get together and have fun.
But is it significant that the first play for 1995 was Tennessee Williams greatest, A Streetcar Named Desire? First performed in 1948, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play has been revived in London and New York every ten years or so since.
As a recent reviewer points out, ‘From the moment that Blanche Dubois walks on to the empty stage her words are a metaphor of the journey of life: ‘They told me to take a streetcar named Desire and transfer to one called Cemeteries … and get off at Elysian Fields’.
Clashes of personalities continue throughout the play between Blanche, her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, her sister Stella and Stanley’s friend Mitch. Each character has flaws and values, thus giving great scope for actors to bring their own interpretations. But as Blanche says at the end of the play, ‘Whatever we do, life has to go on; no matter what happens, you have to keep going’. A great choice of play for an anniversary year.
On a personal note, ‘Streetcar’ has always been a milestone for me, since Maurice Latimer (founder of the Latimer Players) took my brother and me to its first overwhelming stage performance in Melbourne in the early 1950s.
The program for 2023 includes the following plays:
- Confusions By Alan Ayckbourn 9 Feb. – 4 March
- The Shoehorn Sonatas By John Mistro 23Mar. – 22 Apr.
- Waiting for God By MIchael Aitkins 18 May – 10 June
- Picnic at Hanging Rock By Tom Wright 3 Aug. – 26 Aug.
- Of Mice and Men By John Steinbeck 5 Oct. – 28 Oct
- Art By Yasmina Reza 16 Nov – 10 Dec.