Ballarat National Theatre celebrates its 70th Anniversary

 Ballarat National Theatre celebrates its 70th Anniversary

The regional Victorian town of Ballarat is steeped in history. It’s famous for its Gold, the Eureka Stockade, Lola Montez and for being the birthplace of the flag of the Southern Cross. What isn’t so well known is the town’s remarkable theatre company –Ballarat National Theatre – now 70 years young.
Douglas W Koschel reports.

In 1936 Miss Gertrude Lawrence OBE had just returned from London after appearing with Dame Nellie Melba in La Bohème in Melba’s farewell to the Old Vic. Gertrude had become inspired by the formation of a national theatre and training school in the United Kingdom by Lilian Baylis and was determined to form a similar enterprise in Victoria.

Two years later it came to pass. At a meeting in March 1938, Bishop of Ballarat, Rt. Rev. W. H. Johnson, proposed the following motion, which passed unanimously.
That this meeting of citizens of Ballarat affirms the desirability of forming a branch of the National Theatre Movement in this city.
Over the years following many other branches of the movement were formed, including those of Heidelberg, Swan Hill and Yallourn.
But then World War II intervened and further growth of the movement was halted.
Of course, many community or amateur theatre companies still exist today in the areas where the original branches sprang up, but none of these have maintained the National Theatre Movement concept.

The first production, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, was staged at the Alfred Hall in Ballarat in June 1938. Other productions quickly followed, with the company appearing at various venues around Ballarat and often on tour.
In the early years BNT found its biggest ‘stumbling block’ was finding a suitable venue for rehearsals and productions. In 1949 the company found the first of its ‘permanent’ homes … The Little Theatre in Camp Street.
At the official opening of The Little Theatre, the then Mayor, Cr. F. C. Wray, commended the Ballarat National Theatre for “…giving real public service.” He noted the meritorious work the company achieved during the war, in raising many hundreds of pounds for the war effort and also for entertaining the troops.
Many successful productions took place in The Little Theatre over many following years, but sadly, in 1984, the company had to vacate their comfortable premises.
It was not until 1988 that the University of Ballarat, with the help of funds provided by the Ballarat National Theatre, decided to convert the old courthouse at the SMB (School of Mines, Ballarat) into a performing arts venue.
BNT’s contribution toward the conversion of the old courthouse was on the understanding that BNT would retain a ‘preferred user’ status and first refusal for any periods that the university did not require the venue.

For many years BNT has presented four productions annually, starting with an Easter production of a classical or serious piece of theatre. Following that, in July, they present a selection of ‘shorts’ or one-act plays, out of which one or two are taken on the one-act play festival circuit in the following month.
The company now also co-hosts the Her Majesty’s Theatre One-Act Play Festival in August, this festival being a part of the annual Royal South Street Society Competitions.
Spring (September) leads to a lighter offering, while the final production (in November/December) is usually something farcical, which lends itself to bookings for pre-Christmas parties or office breakups.
As a regular part of each season, the company also offers up three or more shows which can be utilised for fund-raising or charity purposes.

In this special year, after a Civic Reception in March, BNT has again put forward four seasons of plays, starting with The Edge of Darkness (Brian Clemens) in March/April, followed with Tangled Tales (a Season of Shorts) in July, The Staffroom (Steve Wheat) in September/October and finishing up in November/December with an extended season of Noises Off (Michael Frayn).
In addition to that, two celebratory dinners (with guest speakers) were set down, one in May and one in October, and an exhibition called Ballarat National Theatre: Entertaining Ballarat since 1938 was held at The Gold Museum, Ballarat (opposite Sovereign Hill).
At the dinner in October, members – past and present – had an opportunity to ‘strut their stuff’ in an entertainment segment called Party Pieces.
Over the Ballarat National Theatre’s 70 years of presenting productions both for and by the local community, the company is acutely aware of the fact that, without the ongoing help of many local businesses, organisations and individuals, they would not have been able to reach this amazing landmark.
They are also justly proud of the fact that by offering private fundraising performances, they have enabled many groups and charities to raise many thousands of dollars.

The Ballarat National Theatre is hoping to catch up with many of its members – past and present – in 2008, and is now busily planning ahead for its next 70 years.