Memories of a golden age
JOHN O’Donoghue shuffles across the Civic Playhouse stage, leaning on his walking stick, before he finds stillness. He looks up and squints at the space before him.
There is no audience, no sets or props, and no actors. The empty seats face a stage bare but for one immaculately dressed older man.
Yet in here, O’Donoghue sees a lot more than emptiness. After all, he made a name for himself by staring into the void and then populating it with characters and filling it with stories.
John O’Donoghue is one of Newcastle’s best-known playwrights. Where he stands, his words and imaginings were breathed to life, including the play considered a classic of Australian theatre, Essington Lewis: I am Work.
“It made me really,” the 87-year-old mutters, while surveying every angle of the little theatre.
John O’Donoghue was hardly alone in shaping his creative self on this stage. It launched many a career in the theatre. What’s more, in the Playhouse, Novocastrians heard their own voices and saw themselves emerging out of the darkness in ways that were funny and tragic, melodic and moving. This space was a community’s magic mirror. For the best part of 20 years, this was the Hunter Valley Theatre Company’s home. O’Donoghue says without the HVTC, “I wouldn’t have had as many plays done”.
“THE Hunter Valley Theatre Company has begun,” declared the Herald’s drama critic Bruce Knappett in the March 13, 1976 edition. Australia’s first professional regional theatre company had been launched the night before with a production of John Romeril’s The Floating World at the University of Newcastle’s Arts/Drama Theatre.
The company’s formation had been long, with a couple of years of planning and riding on a push by the Arts Council of Australia to “decentralise” theatre. It was born on big dreams and limited funds. The members’ newsletter was cheekily titled “Airs on a Shoestring”.
“If we live through the first six months, I think we will survive for a year,” the company’s founding artistic director Terence Clarke told the Sydney Morning Herald. “If we can do that, we can last for two years. After that, the company should be established.”
Within months, the infant company was on the brink of financial collapse. Under a headline ‘Who wants professional theatre?”, the company took out an ad, calling for “the support of every resident of goodwill”. The community responded. Membership doubled to 900. The company lived to play another day, and John O’Donoghue had his work, A Happy and Holy Occasion, staged in October 1976 at the university’s drama theatre. The coming-of-age story about a boy preparing to enter a seminary was a milestone for O’Donoghue as he embarked on his writing career, and it was a theatrical landmark in Newcastle. The play resonated with familiarity, as it was set in wartime Mayfield.
While living and working as a teacher in England from the late 1950s, O’Donoghue attended plays that were “very local”.
“I was very much taken by the plays that got into the regions of England, up around Yorkshire and places like that,” O’Donoghue said.
“I thought you could do that type of thing [in Newcastle]. You see at the time, most of the plays we were having weren’t even Australian plays.”
The company had not endeared itself to all theatre lovers. Its 1976 production of Equus divided opinion, with one outraged letter to the Herald’s editor thundering, “it is so close to hard-core pornography that it is no longer funny”. Adhering to the maxim there’s no such thing as bad publicity, HVTC used that quote in its ads for the play. Another theatregoer, Professor Dennis Biggins, was far more supportive in a letter to the editor, saying it shouldn’t be missed. But Professor Biggins may have been a little biased; his boy was in the production.
“I was a horse in Equus at the Griffith Duncan Theatre,” recalls Jonathan Biggins. “I think I was 16 when I was a horse, and, gosh, hasn’t my career progressed!”
He’s joking. Which is what Jonathan Biggins is often applauded for. He has had a celebrated career as an actor, writer and director. He holds fond memories of when he learnt his craft in Newcastle. Biggins was in a few plays while at university and was working towards a degree when, “much to my parents’ dismay”, he dropped out to join the Hunter Valley Theatre Company’s ensemble.
“The HVTC was effectively my drama school,” he says. “We were so lucky to be able to work at a repertory theatre company for two years. I couldn’t do it now because I wouldn’t have the strength, because we’d rehearse during the day and perform at night.
“It was a very demanding schedule, but we had but the most brilliant theatrical education anyone could have, and an opportunity not given to anyone in this country anymore.”
JONATHAN Biggins found his professional home in the theatre, and the theatre company finally found its home in the Civic Playhouse. For its first few years, the HVTC searched for a permanent base. Among the considerations were Newcastle railway station, City Hall, and the Mackie Building in King Street, before the council made available the Civic Wintergarden. Where dances and balls were once held was reimagined as the Civic Playhouse, with its 190 or so seats huddling around the small semi-circular stage. The theatre opened in 1979.
Biggins recalls the space – or lack of it – posed a challenge for set designers, and “once you got more than five performers on there it felt crowded”. It felt even more crowded one night when three Korean sailors wandered onto the stage, apparently thinking the Playhouse was a pub.
“It was the most bizarre little theatre to try and work in but there were some great things produced there,” Biggins says.
In the memories of audiences, one of the greatest things created on that little stage was Essington Lewis: I am Work, which premiered in 1981. When he set out to write the play, John O’Donoghue was telling not just the story of the man who presided over BHP; he was mining into the soul of a steel city.
“Looking back on it, I was very conscious I was writing a play about Newcastle in Newcastle,” O’Donoghue says. “People would have said to me, ‘You can’t do that in Newcastle’. It could be done, and we did pretty well.”
Nursing the play into the giant it became was Aarne Neeme. He had become the HVTC’s artistic director in 1980. “One of my main objectives was to make it a truly community theatre,” Neeme says. “I thought it was an important reflection of the people who lived and worked .”
The new artistic director wanted to stage at least one local work a year. That aim was only galvanised when Neeme arrived in the city and drove past the Star Hotel with its ‘Tonight Heroes’ sign, a souvenir of the closing night party that had exploded into a riot. He thought that would make a good story, and it did. One of his earliest productions for the HVTC was The Star Show.
Then the following year, Essington Lewis strode onto the stage with an authority that the main character applied to his work at BHP.
“I think it really hit the heart of Newcastle,” Neeme says. “That showed to me the spirit of Newcastle … the way that character of Lewis pushed through, his determination, his common touch.”
Yet Biggins, who was in the production, recalls how there was a struggle to fill the Playhouse, until Australia’s best-known playwright David Williamson saw a performance and wrote a letter to the Herald praising the production and decrying there were empty seats.
“From that minute on, it was full,” Biggins says. “It just needed the imprimatur. We all know, living in Newcastle, you need someone else to tell you how good you are! The rest is history.”
Essington Lewis: I am Work was performed time and again, and it has been staged around the country.
While the play about the man behind BHP soared, the Newcastle steelworks and the city that relied on it were shaken by a recession, and that rippled through to the HVTC. Aarne Neeme says with money tight in 1982, the board wanted the theatre to go into recess. The artistic director and actors formed a co-operative to finish the season, but by the end of the year, Neeme was moving on.
“It was sad. In the best of times, I would have liked to have stayed on,” says Neeme, who these days is a director and teacher based in Sydney but also works in Singapore.
It may not have been the best of times, but the company was restored in 1983. Through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, new work was produced, and local stories were shaped into scripts, including a play about the 1929 Rothbury riot and a co-production about the 1989 Newcastle earthquake. Careers were also created and nurtured. Among the young actors who inhabited the stage were Celia Ireland, David Wenham and Susie Porter. Others sitting in the audience saw their future.
Civic Theatre manager Vanessa Hutchins was a student at Jesmond High when her class was taken on excursions to the Playhouse. She distinctly remembers seeing Dags in 1987. In 1993, she was back in the Playhouse, only this time as a member of the company. Her roles included being a stage manager and lighting operator.
“It was where I met my peers and had conversations about theatre,” Hutchins recalls. “It was here that I discovered the magic of theatre.”
Her most memorable moment was during a season of Macbeth. She arrived to find the theatre flooded. Everyone in the company mucked in to clean up the Playhouse, and the performance went on.
Mucking in, mopping up, and getting on with it is what members of the HVTC did, when the company was confronted with financial crises. Three times the company had to go into recess, only to return. However, by the mid 1990s, as state and federal government funding dried up, the Hunter Valley Theatre Company effectively folded.
“The greatest thing that came out of all the years at the HVTC for my mind are the stories we did tell about Newcastle,” muses Jonathan Biggins.
The company that told local stories and helped preserve local history is itself part of history. Thousands of photos of HVTC productions are in the University of Newcastle collection. University archivist Gionni Di Gravio says the images are gradually being digitised, and the sum of those photos brings to light what the region lost when the company wound down.
“I like local history turned into local stories, local art, local culture, so they [Hunter residents] know where they came from,” he says.
Di Gravio views theatre as “the honest broker”. “It’s a form of community catharsis, it’s allowed to resolve things,” he muses. “Theatre is almost like community psychology; that needs to be done, otherwise society gets stupid.”
Aarne Neeme says the “great sadness” with the demise of not just the HVTC but a string of regional theatre companies was the removal of “the opportunities that gave young theatre people a start”.
It may be two decades since the HVTC inhabited the Civic Playhouse, but Vanessa Hutchins points out it is still home to theatre and is regularly used by independent companies. She says the council offers grants to help keep local theatre viable, so that artists can be paid and talent is kept in the region.
“You can’t expect everything to last forever,” Hutchins says. “I’m a strong believer that out of the flame, the phoenix rises. Theatre didn’t die here, and out of that what we’ve got is a very strong community theatre scene.”
REMINDERS of the HVTC are plastered, fading but defiant, on a wall flanking the stairs leading to the Playhouse. It is covered with dozens of posters from productions past. As they walk down the stairs, Vanessa Hutchins points out to John O’Donoghue the posters for his plays.
“Goodness gracious!,” O’Donoghue exclaims. “Essington Lewis was my biggest connection to you,” says Hutchins.
Having revisited the theatre, the man who has put the words into so many actors’ mouths and has helped a community express itself seems to be speechless, before he mutters, “It’s bringing back a lot of old memories. It’s very pleasant really.”