Born In A Trunk and Living Out Of A Suitcase: The Theatrical Family.
Born in a Trunk and Living out of a Suitcase: The Theatrical Family
the Arts Centre, Melbourne
Part of The Australian Family project.
the Arts Centre, Melbourne
Born in a trunk and Living out of a suitcase
The theatrical family
The Arts Centre, Melbourne
Whether bonded by blood or shared experience, 'family' strongly underpins the foundations of the performing arts industry. 'I was born in a trunk' is a familiar introductory phrase used by those born of theatrical parents. Many performers made their first appearances on stage as child extras in productions featuring their parents. Musical comedy actor Jill Perryman, for example, made her debut at the age of three in a 1936 touring production of White Horse Inn. The company toured the show around 10,000 miles of Northern Queensland, performing in Wirth 's Circus tent when there was no theatre available. Perryman joined her father Bill, mother Dorothy Duval and sister Diana on stage as a 'goat girl' dressed in a costume made from tiny scraps of material found backstage. The costume now forms part of the Arts Centre’s Performing Arts Collection.
From the turn of the century until the 1970s, the Australian cultural landscape was dominated by two theatrical managements: J C Williamson Ltd (The Firm) and the Tivoli Circuit. The longevity of these theatrical managements enabled many families to perform and travel together. Actor Tony Sheldon grew up surrounded by an extended theatrical family that included his mother Toni Lamond, father Frank Sheldon, grandparents Max Reddy and Stella Lamond and aunt Helen Reddy. During 1955, Toni, Frank and Tony travelled throughout Tasmania and Northern Queensland with Max and Stella's show, The Follies. In Queensland they travelled on the 'show train ', a train especially chartered by the Showman's Guild to transport performers throughout the region. Toni Lamond recalls:
“Most of the time we lived in hotels, with Tony in the bottom drawer. But once or twice the town was full and we had to stay on the show train. We didn't mind. It was like camping. The siding was grassy ,we could cook our meals on the trusty metho stove, and for Tony's bath in a bucket I got hot water from the steam engine.”
The difficulties associated with touring can also forge particularly strong bonds between performers and technical crew who are not related. Less obvious than the biological family yet crucial to the industry, the theatrical family evolves when a group of people are thrown together for a period of time characterised by intense and intimate interaction, shared passion, commitment and stress. Val Jellay met her husband Maurie Fields while travelling with Sorlie's, a rival to Max Reddy's Follies. Val well remembers how:
“In a travelling company, theatrical pros become very close; it's inevitable -the constant packing, unpacking, the formality on stage, informality off. The illnesses that must be ignored, the urgency of getting from one show to the next, ovations, deflations, heat, cold and a minimum of one year's commitment. With some it was three or four years. In my case it was seven. Romance was sparked by familiarity.”
Performers working for 'The Firm' or at the Tivoli seldom seemed to leave the theatre. Rehearsals in the morning were followed by a matinee and evening show which left cast and crew with little leisure time. Under such circumstances, rivalry and jealousy had to be carefully balanced with camaraderie and support. In this industry, where unemployment, failed auditions and box-office failure undermine performers' confidence, and constant touring and all-consuming rehearsal and performance schedules make relationships outside the industry difficult to maintain, the notion of apprenticeships and mentoring is of great importance.
Irene Mitchell, artistic director of St Martin's/Little Theatre, Gertrude Johnson, artistic director of the National Theatre and Betty Pounder, choreographer and casting agent for J C Williamson, provided just such role models for a generation of Melbourne actors. They were women of great determination and passion who nurtured and guided many careers. 'Miss Mitchell' and 'Pounder' often referred to their protégés as 'my children' , and provided them with support and encouragement in both their professional and private lives. Two of the Victorian Arts Centre's early visionaries, George Fairfax and designer John Truscott, both trained under the maternal eye of Irene Mitchell. She also actively encouraged her charges to gain broader experience and exposure to alternative theatrical traditions by working overseas. At the same time, she was welcoming performers arriving from Britain during the 1950s and 1960s to the St Martin's family. Miss Mitchell was a dedicated supporter of the Performing Arts Collection, heading up the Voluntary Guild from 1977, and passing on a lifetime's knowledge of theatre to the new staff.
Over time, it is inevitable that many members of this large international 'family' will lose touch with one another. Performers who have been overseas for sizeable chunks of their careers lose a sense of the context in which local theatre has continued to develop.
The Arts Centre’s Performing Arts Collection has therefore taken on the role of the industry's memory bank . The Collection is home to collections relating to J C Williamson, the St Martin's/Little Theatre, the Tivoli Circuit, the National Theatre, the Australian Performing Group, Handspan Visual Theatre and many other smaller organisations. Each of these collections is supplemented by a myriad of personality collections documenting the careers of individuals associated with these companies and managements.
From its inception in 1982, the Performing Arts Collection has also played an important role in reuniting performers with their peers. The need for such an institution is powerfully demonstrated at every public event, be it an exhibition opening, a tribute marking the passing of a colleague or an end-of-year party. Performers meet often after many years of separation; actors who have performed in the roles of husband and wife or mother and son are reunited; and younger performers get the chance to thank older performers and mentors to whom they owe so much.
From circus clowns to prima ballerinas, from opera singers to comedians, whether they were born in a trunk or are merely living out of a suitcase, the life of a performer is often a disjointed affair. The Arts Centre strives to provide performers with a sense of their own place amongst the tangled branches of the theatrical family tree.