Dictionary of Sydney

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Marian Street Theatre, Community Theatre and Northside Theatre

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Marian Street Theatre, Community Theatre and Northside Theatre

This theatre operated in the former Soldier's Memorial Hall in Marian Street, Killara on Sydney's north shore. In 1906 the building of the hall was undertaken through a company financed by local people. The architect was Oliver Harley and the builder a Mr Gazzard. It cost £1,500. It was, and still is, a rectangular brick and stucco building with a pseudo-crenelated façade. In 1910 a veranda was added on the east face with a balcony and supper room below. This cost for this extension was slightly less than £600.

As a community hall, the company had to struggle to make the building to pay and was just beginning to prosper when World War I began. Then business became so bad that, in 1916, the company had to liquidate and sell the building. It raised £1,600 from a sale which included 400 chairs and a new piano. After the war, the hall came under the control of the Ku-ring-gai Council as the 'Soldiers' Memorial Hall'. The classical-style portico with Doric columns, still the entry, was built to house the Roll of Honour on its marble surround.

The building was used for the next 50 years as a community hall. It hosted dances, parties, lectures, theatrical performances and school breakups. The Bodenweiser Ballet played there, actor Vivien Leigh opened a flower show, and the writer remembers it for the mass gatherings of school children taken there to receive the Sabin poliomyelitis vaccine. Then in 1968 it underwent alterations to become the home of the Community Theatre.

This Community Theatre was founded in 1965, on the initiative of English-born actor Alexander Archdale. It emerged from the framework of the Ku-ring-gai Theatre Guild, which had formed in 1944 and operated until the middle 1950s. This Guild occasionally used the Killara Hall for its productions. It then took Archdale nearly seven years to revive local support and formally establish his Community Theatre. There was an echo of the older actor-manager theatrical tradition in Archdale's aim for the Community Theatre, namely to 'bring the theatre to the people', provide work for actors and to teach. The structure was a non-profit company, limited by guarantee, with the aim of attracting 5,000 subscribers contributing £5 each.

The theatre operated first out of St. Alban's Church Hall in Lindfield, then moved to the hall in Marian Street, Killara, on 14 September 1966, with a production of Romeo and Juliet. Just over a year later, in 1968, a combination of financial support from Ku-ring-gai Council and a one-off subsidy of £9,500 from the state government provided capital for the conversion of the hall to a theatre. The stage was modified and equipped with twin revolves, one of the few theatres in the country to have such a facility. The auditorium was refurbished, the floor was raked and seating provided for 311 people. A vestibule was constructed at the entry with box office facilities, and the lower floor was renovated to hold a restaurant, kitchen, two dressing rooms, a green room, prop room and space for set construction. There was also a manager's flat (probably an upgrading of the existing caretaker's accommodation). Archdale, an inveterate 'do-it-yourself'-er and proud of the skills he claimed to have acquired during World War II naval service, was directly involved in much of the work. Time later brought other modifications, with the veranda on the east expanded and in 1982 the floor of the auditorium re-raked.

The Community Theatre signed a formal lease with the Council and opened its first season on 27 March 1968 with John Osborne's The Entertainer, starring Archdale as Archie Rice. The company's structure was that of a professional repertory, with a monthly schedule of performance. The original group of actors included Archdale, Anne Haddy, Max Meldrum and Joan Bruce. The initial plan was to stage the 'classics' of the stage, but the need to attract an audience was a constant issue for the theatre, and the first season was a mixed bag. The program included Noel Coward's Hay Fever, George Bernard Shaw's Misalliance, Tennessee Williams' 1940s prize-winning The Glass Menagerie, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and The Creeper, a contemporary thriller. Early seasons continued in similar vein, although adding works such as Colin Free's Cannonade of Bells, set in colonial Australia, and a topical revue Oh Killara (a not–so-oblique take on a contemporary 'shocking' revue named Oh Calcutta!) written by Peter Batey and Reg Livermore.

Reviews for the Community Theatre's productions were mixed, and audience attendance was always up and down. Shakespearean productions reliably attracted school audiences, but the Community Theatre was basically dependent on local support and this was not always forthcoming. Financial difficulties continued for the theatre.

Alexander Archdale was then injured in an accident and retired through ill health in 1970. There was a succession of artistic directors, including Peter Collingwood (1971–73), Aarne Neeme, the long-serving Alastair Duncan (1973–1980) who had financial success with a series of 'potted musicals', and in late 1982 John Krummel. Krummel changed the operating name to the Northside Theatre Company, and under his direction until 1989 the company had a series of commercial successes and achieved financial stability. Landmark productions included 84 Charing Cross Road (adapted from a popular book), Alan Ayckbourn's Season's Greeting and Rudolph Besier's The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

From 1990, the company's fortunes again waned. There were a series of artistic directors and a brief closure, until it reopened again briefly under a reappointed John Krummel in 1995. The major success in recent years has been in children's theatre. The company began operating a theatre school in 1968 but this only became successful from 1974 under Audrey Blaxland as director. This organisation has now evolved into the Marian Street Children's Theatre and Drama School.


Archives of Community Theatre, Killara

Ailsa McPherson, 'Archdale, Alexander Mervyn (1905–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 17, 2007, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/archdale-alexander-mervyn-12146/text21763, viewed 13 December 2012

Philip Parsons (Gen ed) with Victoria Chance, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press in association with Cambridge University Press, Paddington, 1995, p 341