On May 11 in 1958, a group of talented theatricals, who had been studying acting with American expatriate actor Hayes Gordon, assembled to present the first of two Sunday night performances in Cammeray Children’s Library under the banner Variations on Similar Themes.
The invitations to their premiere performance of a selection of Tennessee Williams’ works one of the actors noted, “We haven’t a name yet. Yes, we admit to training – Strasbergian, Stanislavskian, Meisnerian, Gordonian etc and we emphasise what might be referred to as the ‘ensemble’ values in production”.
In 1960, the company moved to the current premises in the old boatshed at Careening Cove. The boatshed was converted by the members of the company into a theatre in the round and for 20 years presented theatre in this format.
During the early 1980’s the venue underwent a major refurbishment during which time the company moved its base of operations to the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House which was being used as a cinema at the time. The Ensemble’s refurbished venue was re-opened in 1984 and the company celebrated 40 years in its Kirribilli home in the year 2000 with an extended season of 16 plays presented at four venues across Sydney.
Founding Artistic Director Hayes Gordon, who ran the theatre for its first 27 years, appointed Sandra Bates as Artistic Director in January 1986, a position she held for 30 years until January 2016. Sandra stands as the longest serving Artistic Director of any theatre company in the country and she led the theatre through uncertain economic times to establish it as one of the most successful theatre companies in Australia with the third largest subscription base in the country.
In 2011, Sandra invited Mark Kilmurry, who had been Associate Director from 2005, to share the role of Artistic Director. Mark Kilmurry took over as sole Artistic Director in January 2016.
Based in Kirribilli, on the edge of Sydney Harbour, Ensemble Theatre is the longest continuously running professional theatre in Australia, committed to performing and presenting the best of international plays, well-loved classics and new Australian works.
Since its inception, the Company has presented over 400 productions at its home venue in Kirribilli, as well as the Playhouse – Sydney Opera House, Theatre Royal and the Seymour Centre, featuring many of Australia’s favourite performers including Lorraine Bayly, Simon Burke, Michael Craig, Russell Crowe, Max Cullen, David Field, Max Gillies, Nancye Hayes, Reg Livermore, Garry McDonald, Todd McKenney, Amanda Muggleton, Caroline O’Connor, Georgie Parker, Marina Prior, Kate Raison, Henri Szeps, Jack Thompson, William Zappa and international performers such as Warren Mitchell and Greta Scacchi.
The most successful play in the theatre’s history is Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks by American playwright Richard Alfieri – a two-hander which in 2006, under then-artistic director Sandra Bates, pairing Todd McKenney, in his first non-musical play, with legendary Australian musical theatre performer, Nancye Hayes.
In collaboration with Christine Dunstan Productions, the play undertook an extensive Australian tour in 2007, winning the Helpmann Award for Best Regional Touring Production. In 2016, Hayes and McKenney reprised their roles, reuniting with Bates in her final directorial role for the Company.
For more information, visit: www.ensemble.com.au for details.
Image and words: courtesy of the Ensemble Theatre