Dictionary of Sydney

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Old Tote Theatre

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Old Tote Theatre

The Old Tote Theatre Company was created by the National Institute of Dramatic Art in 1962, only four years after NIDA itself was founded. It was established with the specific aim of being a professional company charged to produce both classical plays and modern writing, and to provide an arena for young artists.

The project was not without a history. Ever since the establishment of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954 there had been attempts to create a national touring company, one such endeavour being notably the Trust Players, but it was the establishment finally of a professional drama school which provided the spur for this project.

NIDA ran the Old Tote until 1969, with its staff usually acting as the theatre's producers and its students as backstage and front-of-house staff. The seasons of plays were initially underwritten by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, and later subsidised by the Australian Council for the Arts and the New South Wales Government.

The Old Tote's first theatre was a converted army recreation hall on the campus of the University of New South Wales at Kensington. Supporting facilities were in surrounding buildings which had once been part of the Kensington racecourse, and one of these was the old totalisator building. Academic and Sydney Morning Herald reviewer Roger Covell is credited with bestowing the name `Old Tote' on the theatre, on the grounds that it would be a reminder that all theatre is a gamble. This celebrated `tin shed', which the company occupied for five years, had a very small foyer and auditorium painted a dreary brown, which seated 183 people on old and uncomfortable cinema chairs, was entered by a ramp, and had very few stage facilities. The theatre still stands, very little altered, as the Figtree Theatre of the University of New South Wales.

The `Old Tote' project enlisted many leading actors, including John Bell, Ron Haddrick, Brian James, Gordon Chater and Anna Volska. The opening production of the first season was Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, starring Sophie Stewart. Other plays included works by JM Synge and William Shakespeare, Max Frisch's The Fireraisers and Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Prima Donna. Later landmark productions included Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf starring Alexander Hay and Jacqueline Kott; Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane; Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten; and Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. The last production in the old theatre for this company was Richard Sheridan's comedy The Rivals.

The Old Tote's initial seasons were a great success with audiences. From 1964, touring became a regular activity of the company, and the Old Tote began a program of steady expansion. It revived lunch-time theatre with the Three Shilling Theatre at the Palace Theatre in the city, opening with a three-week season of Albee's The American Dream. This project soon became independent under the auspices of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. In 1966 the Old Tote converted a former suburban church in nearby Randwick into the Jane Street Theatre as a venue for experimental plays.

In 1967 the Old Tote Company separated from NIDA and moved its headquarters to the Parade Theatre, a building still on the campus of the University of New South Wales. They opened on 7 May 1969 with Robin Lovejoy's production of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The move was meant to be temporary, while a new theatre was built on the `tin shed' site, but other considerations intervened: the company was asked by the Arts Council at this time to take on the responsibilities of a state theatre company.

Administration had always been a demanding component of the activities of the company, and now theatre responsibilities grew rapidly. In 1973 their role was again expanded when the New South Wales Government invited the company to be the major producer for the Drama Theatre in the recently opened Sydney Opera House. A year later the content for the York Theatre at Sydney University's Seymour Centre was added to their administrative and artistic workload.

Three major production venues and regular tours were too much for the company to maintain. Both finances and artistic resources were overstretched, with a concomitant loss of direction, and neither state nor federal subsidy was continued. The company went into liquidation in 1978. Much of the talent, expertise and experience of the Old Tote re-emerged phoenix-like, however, in the Sydney Theatre Company, which was established the following year.


Josephine South and Harry Scott, Ten on the Tote, Old Tote Theatre, Sydney, 1973

Philip Parsons (general ed) with Victoria Chance, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press in association with Cambridge University Press, Paddington, 1995, pp 413–14