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.
It is difficult to accurately state exactly when theatre began to be performed at the University, however the Queens College archives have photographs of productions as far back as 1897. Between the period 1897 – 1920 Queens College was a veritable hothouse of dramatic activity, with the works of Shakespeare, Sheridan and Moliere being performed regularly, as well as pageants, concerts and small revues that were performed a few times a year. There are other records that chronicle the development of a theatre culture at the University. Louis Esson writes in his letter to Vance Palmer in November 1920 about his wife’s involvement in a University theatre group, remarking on their selection of plays by British authors such as Shaw and Galsworthy.
The tradition of performance at the Union Theatre began after the refurbishment of the theatre in the 1930s. Prior to this time many of the student revues and productions were performed in theatres located in the city, or in the College common rooms. Sir Raymond Priestly, the Vice-Chancellor of the University from 1935 -1938 was responsible for the remodelling of the theatre within the old and inadequate Victorian-Gothic Union House. The Union Theatre in those days seated approximately 500 without tiered seating. There was little storage space back-stage and the lighting was limited. The seating was donated to the Union by the Australian Paper manufacturers, after they bought the old Garrick Theatre. The first theatre manager, Des Connor had been the previous manager at the Garrick, and there is no doubt he would have been instrumental in ensuring the seating found its way to the Union! The first production staged at the new Union was Melbourne University Dramatic Club’s production of Storm Song, directed by Keith Macartney. It premiered on April 6th 1938.
Des Connor and Joy Youlden managed the Union Theatre in the late forties. During this period the activities of the University thespians were severely restricted, but not obliterated by the upheavals of war and post war shortages. Even so, many productions were mounted at the Union, such as the premiere production of Douglas Stewart’s Ned Kelly. Des Connor worked tirelessly to bring a level of professionalism to student productions. His technical proficiency was both extensive and innovative and his creative scope was vast. He was once quoted as saying, “There is no production that cannot be mounted here at the Union Theatre.”
Des Connor was also responsible for organising the historic visit of the Old Vic Company, headed by Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh to Australia. That visit planted a seed of possibility within the minds of local artists, the notion that a similar company should be formed within the Australian theatre scene.
After Des Connor’s untimely death in 1951, the position of Theatre Manager was filled by John Sumner. Immediately preceding this post Sumner had been a stage director for H.M Tennats in London. This was to herald a new and important chapter for not only theatre at the University, but for Australian theatre generally.
Sumner was dismayed with the meagre opportunities available for talented and experienced actors. He felt young actors of immense talent, such as Barry Humphries and George Fairfax had no opportunity to develop a professional practice. Sumner submitted a proposal to the University that a professional repertory company be formed to perform at the Union during vacations and to tour during semester. The proposal was enthusiastically supported by the Vice-Chancellor George Paton and businessman Ian Potter. Within a year of commencing his post, Sumner had launched Australia’s first professional Theatre Company, called The Union Theatre Repertory Company, and had pushed the development of an Australian arts culture to new heights.
The years of occupancy at the Union by a professional company did not spell the demise of student theatre. In fact, during this period student activities in the theatrical arts blossomed and many diverse talents found their fledgling wings within student productions. Luminaries such as Graeme Blundell, Peter Corrigan and Sue Natress were all active within the scene at this time. In fact many student writers and performers from this time subsequently became established at La Mama as the Australian Performing Group.
During the 1960’s an increasing number of new Australian works were performed at the University and many new writers were able to gain valuable experience in this setting. In the mid – 1960’s Tin Alley Players produced The Indecent Exposure of Anthony East, David Williamson’s first full-length play. Another group premiered Jack Hibberd’s White With Wire Wheels, and in the early 1970’s the Melbourne State College Drama department worked on the musical Aeffluence with young writer Louis Nowra. This musical used over 160 staff and students and was described as ‘musical cosmorama’.
By the beginning of the 1970’s, many of the old groups had either folded or merged. The Marlowe Society and Melbourne University Dramatic Club (MUDC) merged to form Melbourne University Student Theatre (MUST). At the same time the college plays and faculty revues continued to flourish, and many comic talents such as Rod Quantock and Steve Vizard cut their performance teeth in revues such as The Architecture Revue and The Law Revue, later known as the Legal Joke Subcommittee. These revues proved to be an important stepping stone for many talented students who went on to careers in film and television. In many cases students who teamed up to write and produce these shows continued to work together on television shows. Almost all of the D-Generation team performed together at the University, as did actors and writers from The Comedy Company and The Late Show.
By the 1980’s, 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. Groups such as these provide a unique opportunity for students to grow and develop creative skills in a collaborative environment.
The arts scene on campus is supported and fostered in a number of ways. The Theatre Board meets monthly to assess applications from affiliated theatre groups for the underwriting of shows, with support up to the value of $1500 being offered. Union House Theatre provides professional support for students in all aspects related to theatre and dance. Staffed by six industry professionals from artistic, administrative and technical backgrounds, UHT aims to facilitate the creation of work by students. Aside from producing two theatre shows each year, it runs a number of heavily subsidised professional development workshops.
The most dynamic initiative on campus would have to be Mudfest, a biannual multi-arts festival that celebrates the artistic and cultural life of emerging student artists. Mudfest began in 1990 and continues to act as a showcase of student work in theatre, dance, music, and literature and visual arts.