It’s that time of year again: New Year. A time for reflecting on the year that has passed and forging well-intentioned resolutions for the twelve months to come. We can all agree, however, that 2020 has been no ordinary year. Above all, it has laughed in the face of any plans we may have formulated last New Year. This year, our resolutions are more likely to be tempered by an air of cautious conservatism, with an emphasis on salvaging what we can from the wreckage of 2020, and perhaps even considering another direction altogether. When looking back over the year in musical theatre, it has of course been a drama in itself. Understandably, for players within this drama a sense of perspective may be obscured by more immediate concerns. For that reason, when cogitating over this year’s reminiscences it may be worth considering that – catastrophic as it has been – we should view 2020 within the context of the expanse of Australia’s theatrical history, with the challenges it has faced and the obstacles it has overcome.
A Cast of Criminals
On 20th January 1788, after 252 days at sea, HMS Sirius (flagship of the British First Fleet) disgorged its 96-strong cargo of criminals at Botany Bay, signalling the commencement of Australia’s function as a penal colony. The crimes committed by the First Fleet’s human freight ranged from petty theft to highway robbery to prostitution. This multitude of miscreants would ordinarily have been bound for one of North America’s Thirteen Colonies, but the outcome of the American War of Independence meant that the newly formed United States exercised their right to refuse admission of British convicts. In this sense, the discrete histories of Australia, Britain and the USA are inextricably linked, although their theatrical journeys diverge quite markedly. An alternative location for a penal colony was the quarry of the British government, and it is easy to imagine some London-based bureaucrat proclaiming, ‘I say, what about that New Wales place – or is it New South Wales now? You know, the one our fellow Cook stumbled across a few years back? That jolly big place in the Pacific somewhere? A whole Hemisphere away, at any rate. That should keep that darned ne’er-do-wells out from under our feet!’ And so it came to pass.
It is unlikely that any of these law-breakers predicted that the following year they would form the cast of the first official theatre production in Australian history, designed exclusively for the entertainment of George III for his birthday on 4th June 1789. The play, The Recruiting Officer, was a comedy but set in grim surroundings – the mud-wall convicts’ hut – and performed in front of an audience of around sixty, largely comprised of the garrison’s officers.
By 1796 the first permanent theatre had been established in Sydney, owned and managed by the colony’s first baker and one-time London burglar Robert Sidaway. In lieu of entrance fees, flour, meat and spirits were acceptable tender. Rumour has it that one convict even killed a guard’s dog and tried to pass it off as kangaroo meat in order to gain entrance. Of course, it has been noted that the frivolity of theatre and the penchant for law-breaking of Australia’s new ‘theatre community’ make for strange (in other words, dangerous) bed-fellows; unsurprisingly, theft and pick-pocketing were rampant, as was riotous, drunken behaviour. Unattended homes were robbed while the owners patronised the theatre, ultimately leading to the theatre’s closure. This colourful venue now lies beneath thirty feet of concrete on the highway approach to Sydney Harbour Bridge. What had been ignited, however, was a hunger for live entertainment that had already been thriving in Britain for centuries. Aussies, however, were set to carve their own brand of theatre, setting it apart from that of their British and American counterparts.
A Distinct Identity
The nineteenth-century saw a growth of the middle classes, many of whom were free settlers, in Australia. The raucous immorality of convict theatre was not for them. In fact, the middle and upper classes were of the opinion that theatre could function on an educational level and could be a medium for moral edification – ‘legitimate’ theatre. This movement coincided with the 1850s gold rush and a demand for ‘popular’ theatre and more frivolous entertainment, such as that provided by American touring companies. This brand of popular theatre reflected the racial prejudices of the day; most miners were of an anti-Asian disposition and revelled in the minstrel shows, replete with blackened faces, which were in demand. The minstrel shows had crossover appeal, too, as the managers of these shows eschewed controversy and aimed at being what we would now describe as ‘family-friendly’. Historian Richard Waterhouse describes this period as ‘the bifurcation of Australian theatre’, in which both popular and legitimate theatre (Shakespeare, morality plays and suchlike) existed alongside one another. Audiences were often crossover, largely due to limited choice of venues and performances; at Melbourne’s Olympic Theatre, newly opened in 1855, it would not be unusual for patrons to watch the conjuring tricks of Wizard Jacobs, followed by a performance of serious drama. This was a huge departure from British and American audiences, whose tastes were somewhat less egalitarian. Australian did develop one particular habit during the 1900s to match that of their British peers: superstitious rituals. A full house meant that the cast would be given chicken to eat after the show. Audience members would be counted before curtains-up and if there was a large audience someone would shout ‘Chookas!’ to let the cast know that they would not go hungry that night. The word ‘chookas’ stuck and became a way of wishing good luck, in much the same fashion as ‘break a leg’.
By the 1880s theatre was a hugely popular form of entertainment. In Melbourne alone, five performance venues had been established. Among others, international star Sarah Bernhardt had toured Australia as the century drew towards its close. By 1900, the popularity of theatre was cemented – both popular and legitimate varieties. In 1910, Sydney was a city of only 600,000 inhabitants, yet boasted twenty public entertainment arenas. In The Stage Year Book of 1910, Eardley Turner declared that Australia boasted ‘the best theatre-goers in the world’ – and also ‘the most critical’.
An Australian theatre-going identity was by now firmly entrenched – Aussie theatre became ‘a unique institution for a unique land’ and was set to survive even the popularity of cinema in the twentieth century.
The egalitarian nature of ‘cross over’ theatre has expanded significantly over the past century, as the Australian entertainment industry has welcomed the manifestation of diverse groups and ideas into the dramatic arena. Uniquely Australian drama made its mark with the likes of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1955, which helped lead to a more creative and professional era for Antipodean theatre in the 1960s. Australian theatre has also embraced the outcome of the Aboriginal civil rights movement, including Kevin Gilbert’s The Cherry Pickers (1971), the first written Aboriginal play, and 1989’s seminal Bran Nue Dae, which marked a turning point in Aboriginal theatre. In more recent years, the industry has sought to advocate for all manner of under-represented groups, such as transgender performers.
All Plans Are Provisional
It may seem like 2020 has condensed all the drama of the past 200-plus years into twelve angst-ridden months. The year ends with the absorption of a uniquely Australian theatre production organisation into an international concern. On the positive side, this year has highlighted the resourcefulness of the theatre community and its capacity to adapt. Social media has been utilised, to both positive and negative ends; its potential has become patently clear. Ironically, this year has not given us 20/20 vision or any kind of insight into the future, but rather the opposite is true: all plans are provisional and therefore resolutions are futile. Some may anticipate a year of Soviet-style drabness ahead, characterised by austerity. But why not learn the lesson that 2020 has really taught us – live for the moment as tomorrow’s events can never be guaranteed.
So throw those resolutions out the window. And chookas.