Calamity Jane directed by Gloria Birdwood-Smith
Gloria Birdwood-Smith was a prominent figure during the 1950s and 1960s influencing repertoire and directing over 30 productions for the company.Her last production for Brisbane Repertory was Calamity Jane with Rowena Wallace in the lead. It was a roaring success.
From 1953 directing was increasingly dominated by just two women, Babette Stephens and Gloria Birdwood-Smith. A talented director with considerable professional stage experience, Birdwood-Smith also possessed an engaging and commanding personality to almost rival her colleague’s. From the 1940s she had worked as a character actor with Will Mahoney’s Company at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal, but musical theatre was her great passion and she was much sought after as director, choreographer and performer for The Musical and Theatre Guild of Queensland during the 1940s and 1950s. The Stephens/ Birdwood-Smith domination became complete when, in 1956, they directed all six major productions between them, a pattern which continued with very few exceptions until 1965. In that ten year period they directed an extraordinary fifty of the fifty-six mainhouse productions. This was a deliberate move by Stephens and Birdwood-Smith to ‘quality control’ productions, to develop a ‘house style’ that would always guarantee the audience a polished and entertaining evening at the theatre.
Whilst Stephens was overseas for part of 1964 and 1965, Gloria Birdwood-Smith made a move that was calculated to ‘trial’ Brisbane Repertory Theatre at an auditorium in a commercial building located at the Petrie Bight end of Adelaide Street. She and her brother Alex Francis-Smith had leased this auditorium and turned it into a theatre, the TAA Theatre. Wanting a guaranteed success for the opening show in this new venue, she had persuaded Stephens to let her do a musical, only the second time Repertory had attempted this particular theatrical genre (the first was 1066 And All That in 1940).
Birdwood-Smith chose Calamity Jane, a clever choice as this musical had been made popular by the 1953 film version starring Doris Day. An experienced musical director, she cast seventeen year old Rowena Wallace in the lead, supporting her with an experienced team of versatile performers including a young Barry Otto in the men's chorus. She had a hit on her hands. It seemed that at least some Brisbane Repertory Theatre members and the general public were willing to abandon the usual Albert Hall venue and venture down the less salubrious end of Adelaide Street to attend a hit musical. Despite her reservations at the time, Stephens allowed the next three productions to have their seasons in the TAA Theatre, although Calamity Jane was the last production Birdwood-Smith was to direct for Brisbane Repertory.
Post-Brisbane Repertory Theatre, Birdwood-Smith focussed her attention on her TAA Theatre productions and remained active in Brisbane theatrical circles for many years, directing for the Brisbane Youth Theatre, Queensland Light Opera Company, Brisbane Arts Theatre, the Brisbane Choral Society and Spotlight Theatre at the Gold Coast. She is fondly remembered by many Queenslanders from that era as a demanding but inspirational director and a stalwart of Brisbane’s theatre scene.
Writer: Christine Comans