The Ripples before the New Wave

The Ripples Before the New WaveIt was a night of excitement, a little sadness and not a little envy. I boarded the small passenger ship Bretagne berthed in Circular Quay to farewell Anne O’Neill, my friend through childhood and university, who was sailing to London to marry Leo Schofield.

I wasn’t envious of the fact Anne was getting married … but I was a little envious that she was heading for London – Mecca for many new graduates from the University of Sydney.

I was surprised to find so many familiar faces from university days swarming over the deck … until I realised who Anne’s fellow travellers were going to be. Clive James was there in full flight. He was surrounded by fellow aesthetes from his Sydney University days, members of the Sydney Push, and his mother.

Others milled around Professor Bill Trethowan, with his wife, Pamela, who had directed many shows for Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS), and their three children.

They were returning to the UK for the professor to take up a new post at Birmingham University. A number of my fellow thespians from university drama productions were also there – well lubricated by the time the ‘all aboard’ whistle sounded.

We sang Auld Lang Syne on the ship’s deck to welcome in the New Year, and kissed our friends goodbye. Then with my good friend (and backstage worker) Julie Caldwell (Davis), we disembarked down the gangplank and made our way home in a cab through the quiet city.

The weather was balmy, the harbour sparkled with night lights, but there were no extravagant New Year Celebrations throughout the city of Sydney in 1961, and it would be many years before Bennelong Point was to display its iconic Opera House. – Robyn Dalton

This New Year’s Eve in 1961 marked a particular turning point, not only in the lives of these individuals, but ultimately for Australian theatre and the arts. It was a significant moment for Sydney University drama enthusiasts. Both the long-standing Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) and the rival group, the Sydney University Players, had been flourishing.

This was the high water mark of a period filled with ambitious programming of classical, contemporary and new Australian works, successful seasons in theatres ‘downtown’, mainstream critical acclaim and the opening of the brand new Union Theatre in September 1961. The year was ending on a real high.

Of the key players, Leo Schofield was already in London, so was Maggie Carroll (Blinco). They had set out on the same boat in May 1961, along with actress Patricia Conolly, also a former SUDS performer. The others setting sail that night would soon be joined by Robert Hughes, John Bell, Ken Horler, Mungo MacCallum, Bruce Beresford, Richard Wherrett, Madeleine St John, Germaine Greer and many more who were in the core group who so revitalised student drama at the University of Sydney.

This trip to England was a rite of passage for many young people of this era; as it was earlier for the actors Leo McKern, Ron Haddrick and Peter Finch. Some hopped on the boat straight for London, while others took a more circuitous route: Mungo MacCallum and Mike Newman went overland via India.

Mungo then installed himself and his new wife on the island of Hydra with George Johnston and Charmian Clift. They would look after the MacCallums – like they had Leonard Cohen before them – and their impending baby. Their island lifestyle sounded rather idyllic–and even more so from a tiny flat in grey London.

Yet so many university mates were in London, sharing flats and lives, including Mike Newman, Bruce Beresford, Ken Horler and Clive James all together in Holman Hunt’s old house in West Kensington (with Brett and Wendy Whiteley living in a studio out the back). Many more would come, and go, throughout the 1960s.

Some such as James and Greer would stay and become our most famous expats, but many of this generation came home and made significant contributions to Australia’s cultural and intellectual life, especially in the theatre. That would be a decade in the future, but for those boarding the boat on New Year’s Eve, they had already created the first ripple before the New Wave in Australian theatre and film rising from the late 1960’s.

This cohort of undergrads would then surf this wave, energetically creating the larrikin, irreverent, defiantly Australian and exciting theatre that was so revolutionary we still describe it as the ‘birth’ of Australian theatre. But Sydney theatre looked nothing like that when these students began university in the late 1950s.

Audiences then had such limited options. J. C. Williamson at the Theatre Royal was importing successful commercial shows and stars from overseas. The Tivoli was doing revue, and the famous Phillip Street Theatre started its intimate revues in 1954 – using two writers from Sydney University revues.

There was Doris Fitton’s Independent Theatre, which was semi-professional by 1955. Hayes Gordon would only open the Ensemble Theatre in 1958. The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust started in 1954, but the Trust Players didn’t get going until 1959, and then only lasted two years. The New Theatre had been radically political (and amateur) since 1932, and there were only a few other amateur companies such as the Genesian Theatre and the Pocket Playhouse.

Into this sparse landscape came this band of undergraduates who believed anything was possible.  Sydney University Dramatic Society – now the oldest theatre company  in Australia – and the University Players were a powerhouse in Sydney theatre. College dramatic groups, university departments, and the outrageous annual University Revues also blossomed.

SUDS and the Players produced the Australian – and even world – premieres of some significant new European works, plays by Beckett, Brecht, Pinter, Genet, Anouilh, e.e. cummings, and Borchert. Productions were regularly reviewed in the mainstream press (The Sydney Morning Herald, The Bulletin, The Nation, The Observer) – it is inconceivable that a non-professional, student-based company today could attract this kind of attention.

In contrast to the commercial and pro-am theatre of Sydney at that time, the theatre, revues and music hall produced at Sydney University were often ground-breaking and exciting – not just for enthusiastic students but for broader audiences and critics, and the professional or semi-professional actors who occasionally joined their casts. It was a time before arts funding and institutional training created a fully professional “industry” now largely separated from these grassroots.

It was a generation at Sydney University which arguably had a bigger influence on Australian cultural life than any single group before or since. Still others included Les Murray, Bob Ellis, Geoffrey Lehmann, Eva Cox and Jill Kitson, as well as actors John Gaden, Lyn Collingwood and Arthur Dignam and playwright Ron Blair. Film-makers who shaped the nascent film industry in the 1970s – like Bruce Beresford, Richard Brennan and Albie Thoms – also began their careers in university productions.

The Ripples Before the New Wave is about this under-researched area of Australian theatre history between that first production of Ray Lawler’s classic Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1955 and the emergence, some fifteen years later, of a distinctive, on-going “Australian” style.

Few have paid any attention to the period immediately preceding this time – it is as though the artists of the New Wave swelled up from nowhere. All three founders of Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre, for example, began their theatrical lives at Sydney University.  This whole extraordinary bunch of highly motivated teenagers changed forever Australian theatre and how we see ourselves.

This is an edited extract from The Ripples Before the New Wave by Robyn Dalton and Laura Ginters – republished with kind permission – to be launched on Wednesday 27 February by Currency Press. For more information, visit: for details.

Image: The Ripples Before the New Wave (supplied)