In recent years there has been a veritable explosion of student theatre groups encompassing all genres of theatre and modes of performance. Each year a handful of new companies crop up and have a shelf life as long as the average undergraduate degree! In years past there were fewer companies but many of the major groups producing theatre at the University did so for up to 40 years.
In years past many students of the University who had an interest in the performing arts, continued to perform in student theatre shows long after they had graduated. In fact the Tin Alley Players was formed as a theatre group for graduates and post-graduate students.
Tin Alley Players
Tin Alley Players formed in 1939 and had their first solo production, Judgement Day in May 1940. Their first president was Professor Maurice Belz (then Professor of Statistics) and many of their productions were directed by Associate Professor Keith Macartney. For almost forty years TAP churned out three major productions a year, as well as holding monthly play readings for audiences of up to 200 people. TAP were also involved in the wider arts community, partaking in the annual Victorian Drama League competitions, touring shows to army bases and rural locations and assisting college groups and smaller amateur companies with costumes, direction and props.
Tin Alley Players were the most active theatre group on campus during World War Two. In their Minute books around that period there are many entries that refer to the substantial difficulties TAP encountered in mounting productions over the course of the War. Specifically, the players had great difficulty in finding scripts, as there was a prevailing shortage of books throughout the period. Many notes in the minutes also refer to the problems in putting on plays during enforced ‘blackouts’. They tackled this problem by putting on shows by moonlight in the outdoors, however the cold winters meant that there was often a lull in shows over the winter period.
Throughout their colourful history, the Tin Alley Players nurtured many budding actors and performed many plays of the classical and modern canon; From Checkov to Ibsen, Shakespeare, Priestley, Coward and Shaw. TAP did not often produce works by Australian authors, although they did premiere Ray Lawler’s now famous play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
The Marlowe Society was established in 1947, with the aim of producing plays that were “rarely or never performed” in Melbourne. Their first production of Chrisopher Marlowe’s Edward II was opened by a “prominent art critic” and played to solid audiences. While they were not nearly as prolific as other groups on campus, by the 1960’s they were gaining excellent reviews for their interpretations of difficult plays such as Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. The Marlowe Society also produced a season called Theatre of the Absurd, which tackled Beckett, Ionesco, Genet and Adamov as well as showing Absurdist films.
Some of Australia’s finest actors began their illustrious careers treading the boards with the Marlowe Society, including Max Gillies, Graeme Blundell and Hilary McPhee.
By the mid 1960’s the Marlowe society merged with the Melbourne University Dramatic Club (MUDC) to form the unified Melbourne University Student Theatre. (MUST)
Melbourne University Dramatic Society (MUDC)
The MUDC began life as a collection of students who performed a yearly revue under the umbrella group ‘Students of the University of Melbourne’, and continued to produce performances right up to the mid 1960’s.
During the 1930’s the annual revue was one of the most popular theatrical events of the year, and the performances were a grand affair with a cast of up to 80 actors, dancers and singers. One of the first of these events in 1933 was titled Stude Prunes and was described in the program as ‘A kaleidescope of beauty and ballyhoo in 27 1/2 radioactive scenes’.
The MUDC also tackled more weighty works produced by writers as diverse as Oscar Wilde, James Bridie, Shakespeare and Strindberg. While MUDC and Tin Alley Players shared a healthy rivalry, they were quite similar in the works they chose to perform and the deep respect they both held for a tradition of naturalistic performance techniques. Neither company really performed any local works, nor did they initiate group devised performances, apart from the annual revues.
This may explain the overwhelming popularity of the revues each year, as students were able to exert creative licence and create a performance relevant to the climate and fancies of their peers.
MUDC often collaborated with other student theatre groups to put on joint productions, a tradition they carried on right through until they merged with Marlowe Society in 1966 to form the Melbourne University Student Theatre (MUST).
The Colleges have contributed greatly to the rich tradition of performance at the University – in fact many of the earliest theatrical productions were organised by and presented at the Colleges – in the chapels, dining halls and common rooms. During the period 1900 – 1920, a number of productions were mounted by The University Colleges, which at that time consisted of Trinity, Queens and Ormond Colleges. In 1906 the colleges performed The Wasps of Aristophanes as part of the University’s Jubilee celebrations. They collaborated again in 1918 to perform The Twelfth Night.
Queens College was very active in drama even in the 1890’s. The first master of Queens, Mr Edward Sugden was a keen amateur dramatist and writer, and encouraged his students to perform regularly, much to the consternation of the conservative Methodist establishment. The first performance at Queens appears to be Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in 1896. There is little information about this production apart from a wonderfully evocative cast photograph, held in the College archives .
Queens College also put on a number of pageants around 1913 – 1920 to raise funds for the building of a Women’s Hall of Residence at the College. One lively event, which made a report in The Leader newspaper, was the 1914 Pageant of Ancient Nations. This included a grand character procession of the Egyptian, Persian, Roman, Briton, Semitic, Greek and Incan Nations, as well as sideshows of Greek ball games, classical poses and breathing and conjuring.
The other Colleges also performed regularly and this tradition has been maintained with each college performing at least one major production each year. Surprisingly, many College productions were more ambitious or radical than those presented by the Union theatre groups. Ormond College produced The Crucible as early as 1956 and Queens College produced Clifford Odet’s controversial Waiting For Lefty in 1938. Newman College’s first public production was noteworthy in that they presented new work by an Australian author. The Staircase, by Niall Brennan was performed in 1947 in a joint production with St Mary’s.
More recently the Colleges have all presented a wide variety of productions encompassing straight dramas, musicals, cabaret, student written works and group devised productions. These productions provide an incredibly valuable opportunity for young artists, actors, directors, writers and technicians to hone their skills, gain experience and perform works in a public setting.
Dance Groups at Union Theatre
Dance has always been an important and popular artform at the University. During the 1930’s and 1940’s there was a ballet troupe at the University that performed at all the revues and in many of the plays at Union Theatre.
By the end of the 1960’s a new emphasis on dance began to emerge. In 1969, when Ron Field was Theatre Manager, the Modern Dance Ensemble first appeared in the Union Theatre under the direction and choreography of Margaret Lasica, an early pioneer of modern dance in Australia. The company was actively producing work throughout the 1970’s. One student who worked with Lasica during this time was Lloyd Newson. He subsequently left his studies in psychology to found the innovative physical theatre company DV8 in London.
In the mid 80’s a young administrative assistant Caroline English was instrumental in raising the profile of the student group Guild Dance and in involving mature age students in dance.
Choreographer Anastasi Siotas became involved in campus theatre during this period and by 1990 he was working with Guild Dance. This productive period for dance eventually led to a position being created in the Theatre Department for a Dance Director and a continuing collaboration between Guild Dance and the Theatre Department evolved.
Felicity MacDonald was employed as the Dance Director from 1996 to 2001. The Theatre Department began producing an annual dance production, which cemented the important connection between theatre and physical dance/performance at the University. After five years of creation and collaboration Felicity moved on and Annette Evans took on the position of Artistic Director – Dance and Movement from 2001 to 2004. This position was discontinued in 2004, however, there is still a strong dance presence in the student productions.