Celebrating 75 Years of Student Theatre

31 August 2012

Okay, Dig are downstairs, is anyone using the stage? Doll are putting makeup on, and we’re on in 10. CTG have worked out their surtitles and Gus has the changes. No, I don’t know what happened to the flowers, last time I saw them they were by the sink. Bella and Gabi to the stage please, we have five minutes before the house opens. Josiah can you lead vocal warm-up. Clynton’s in the bio box, and he has my script, so this run needs to be energized, snappy and on cue. From the top please Doll. Good. Vettie, you can make much more noise than that? Eric and Bella, no hand-sex and pash like you mean it. Pearl’s looking sweaty Gabi; well done! Josiah, keep that dialogue flowing. Best run I’ve seen. Two minute call and places people. Audience are in. Fuck, where are the flowers? Lights are going down. Tom is on stage. Showtime.

On 26 July, Union House Theatre and the University of Melbourne Theatre Board paid homage to student theatre and hosted the Melbourne University Theatre Gala. Of all University theatres, it could be argued that the University of Melbourne’s Union Theatre has had the most profound influence on the development of theatre which celebrates an Australian identity. The night was a celebration of the past 75 years of student theatre and the contribution made to Australian theatre by students of the University of Melbourne. Over the years, many prominent Australian actors, comedians, writers and directors have trod the boards of the Union, Guild and Open Stage theatres whilst studying at the University. For others, involvement in student theatre was part of the freedom of student life; a chance to try something new, make new friends, have fun or (if I know my fellow thespians) a chance to show off.

In 1953, this rich culture of theatre at the University gave birth to the Union Repertory Company, which would later become Melbourne Theatre Company and still continues on as a department of the university. Through the ’60s and ’70s, an increasing number of new Australian works were performed at the University and many new writers were able to gain valuable experience. By the ’80s, with the appointment of a Union Theatre Department Artistic Director, theatre at the University found a sort of unity and common purpose. Artistic directors such as Ewa Czajor, Rose Myers, Kim Hanna and Jane Woollard each assisted the student population to produce theatre works of innovation and experimentation.

At present there are around 30 affiliated theatre groups on campus. These include the Chinese Theatre Group, Chinese Music Group, Flare Dance Ensemble, Medleys (who produce the Medical Faculty’s revue), Melbourne University Shakespeare Company, the University of Melbourne Music Theatre Association (UMMTA) and a number of College-based companies.

The Gala brought some of the most well known former students, including Joanna Murray-Smith, Max Gillies, Lally Katz, Sue Ingleton and Rod Quantock together for an evening of speeches and discussions as well as performances by current students. Performances included an excerpt from Ray Lawler’s The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, first performed in Union House in 1955, an original short play from Chinese Theatre Group (who are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year) and a performance by Dig Collective, a physical theatre company that formed at Melbourne University.

In conjunction with the Gala, the Melbourne University Student Theatre Archive was launched. A new online resource, the Archive features a history of theatre on campus with production and cast lists, copies of original programs and press.

The past 75 years of student theatre have nurtured many celebrated actors, writers and directors; it’s curious to think whom we will celebrate at the next Gala. You perhaps?

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