From the Back of a Ute to their Own Theatre.

From the Back of a Ute to their Own Theatre.

This year The Guild Theatre celebrates its sixtieth anniversary. From a group of wandering actors, sometimes at the whim of moralistic landlords, the company now thrives in its own venue in Walz Street, Rockdale near Sydney airport.

The Guild Theatre at Rockdale was formed in 1952.

Foundation member Ivan Dennis recalls that stages were difficult to find in the early days. Performances took place in scout halls, church halls, Masonic halls, or anywhere where organisations wanted to raise funds, and asked the company to perform.

The company made their own sets, transported to the venue in a ute owned by one of the members. Before performances the cast would load up the ute with set, props and electrics, head to the venue and, if lucky, get one bump-in performance beforehand.

Afterwards they’d take off their make-up and costumes, bump out, load the ute, and take everything back to the member’s garage.

Formed under the auspices of the Rockdale Musical Society, and known as the RMS Drama Class, the group was intended to give possible future actors experience, under the mentorship of Speech and Drama qualified mentor Miss Hazel Plant.

The first production, a collection of three one-act plays, was performed on a makeshift stage at Carlton School of Arts. Following a second collection of one-act plays, it was decided that the group was ready to tackle a three-act play.

The group subsequently became the RMS Drama Group, performing several three-act plays annually, then, following friction over casting, the Illawarra Theatre Group was formed as a separate entity at a public meeting.

The company performed at many venues over the years. During this period, their production of Rape of the Belt won the Annual Sydney Play Festival (the Waratah Festival).

One venue, the Congregational Church at Kogarah, saw a production of Worm’s Eye View terminated prior to its sold out second night performance. A delegation of Church Wardens called a halt to the season because, shock, horror, it had discovered that a mixed cast were using the same (only) dressing room.

When an impassioned plea to the wardens went unheeded, the theatre group’s leader Hazel Plant blasted the wardens for their evil minds, while defending the morals and integrity of her cast.

Penshurst’s Cathoics had no such qualms. The local priest thought it was all very funny indeed. Patrons were met at the Kogarah venue and ferried by car to the Penshurst venue.

The Guild later performed regular seasons at the Rockdale Town Hall, developing the large regular audience, and the firm relationship with the local council, which eventually led to the acquisition of their present home.

The company was fortunate to have a qualified architect, Jim Searle, as a member, during the establishment of the theatre at Walz Street. 

Now, forty-six years later, Jim recalls the trials and tribulations of establishing a permanent home for a local community theatre.

The Guild acquired the use of its premises in mid-1965. At that time the Rockdale Community Building, a substantial Federation-style building, dating from 1912, comprised a large hall, central corridor and four fairly generous meeting rooms. 

The local council agreed to lease two-thirds of the hall to convert the space into a theatre.

Enthusiastic Guild members set to work on a former billiard room. A section of the floor was raised to form the stage, hundreds of bricks were cleared and redundant cinema seats were purchased. 

Before long the first production was in rehearsal. The artistic director, Hazel Plant, had chosen J.M.Barrie's Quality Street to open the new theatre. Opening in March 1966, the play had a very successful season, running for about eight performances. 

 

These days a season runs 19 performances. Entry was straight from the street into the 84-seat auditorium, and dressing rooms, still mixed, were under the stage.

After several successful productions there was enough money in kitty to undertake further building works: a new toilet block and an awning roof over the front steps. Later one of the meeting rooms was converted into a dressing room. 

In 1980 it became clear that some upgrading of the theatre was necessary.

As the Guild was now something of an institution in the district – plays were now running for a fully booked season of around twelve performances – the group was in a strong position to expand.  

Incorporating extra space previously occupied by a nursing service to expand the stage and auditorium, the theatre in its current form emerged. 

A healthy bank balance enabled the group to raise a satisfactory loan, approvals were applied for and granted and work commenced. This time the Guild could afford to engage a builder. 

This work was completed by March 1980 and the newly refurbished and enlarged theatre was opened to the delight of enthusiastic members and supporters. For this new opening, the play selected was Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy.

Three of the four original meeting rooms were now exclusively for use by the Guild and became a store for furniture and bulky items, a dressing room and a store for smaller props and costumes. 

By 2001 community use of the last room in the building had diminished, allowing the council to lease this to The Guild. Today it fulfils various functions: Green Room, overflow dressing room, workroom, committee meeting room and rehearsal room.

Various improvements have taken place over time and no doubt the expansion plans of The Guild Theatre are not over yet.

Thanks to Bill Ayers.

The top three images of the Guild Theatre and lower two images - four foundation members (L-R): Eric Stelzer, Shirley Diamond, Merle Lummis and Ivan Dennis, and, foundation and early members standing - Eric Stelzer, James Searle, Elaine Dennis, Jennifer Gilchrist, Howard Courtney and Ivan Dennis & sitting - Mavia Timmer, Wendy Skelsey, Jan Heffernan, Merle Lummis and Shirley Diamond.at the 60th Anniversary celebrations.

Originally published in the September / October 2012 edition of Stage Whispers.