The First Opening Night

The large crowd at the Theatre Royal loved it, the Brisbane Courier loved it! It was the opening night of Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society's debut production of A.A.Milne's charming comedy, The Dover Road

From that night to the present, not once has the Theatre closed its doors, instead in the year of its 90th birthday Queensland's oldest theatre company celebrates over 1000 opening nights. So Friday July 31, 1925 is indeed a night well worth remembering.

The Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society announced its arrival on Friday July 31, 1925 with a two-night only performance of The Dover Road, a comedy in three acts by A.A.Milne, directed by Barbara Sisley. The following day, The Brisbane Courier greeted this debut performance with enthusiasm:

Nothing was left to chance. The cast was admirably chosen, and the large audience – a most encouraging start off for the society – was held by the splendid acting for two hours and three-quarters. There is something out of the ordinary in a body of amateurs who can do that, and the thanks of the theatre-loving people of Brisbane are due to Miss Barbara Sisley and the excellent workmanship she got out of her clever band of actors. The players, one and all, rose to the occasion, and satisfied the sceptics that the repertory movement in Brisbane has come to stay. (The Brisbane Courier, August 1, 1925.)

The venue was the Theatre Royal which went on to accommodate eleven of the fourteen major Repertory productions between 1925 and 1928. That the Society chose to open its first production in one of Brisbane’s most prestigious theatres says much about the stature and the professional standards it aspired to from the beginning. Well situated in Elizabeth Street in the city, the Theatre Royal was a favoured venue for touring companies such as J.C.Williamson Ltd., the Taits, the Fullers and the Allan Wilkie Shakespearean Company. With an audience capacity of 1350, the “large audience” reported for The Dover Road’s two-night season might well have been close to 1000 patrons, an astonishing achievement for the newly formed amateur Society. Prominent in the audience was the Governor of Queensland Sir Matthew Nathan.

In a Courier Mail article on Brisbane Repertory eminent Arts journalist Roger Covell reported on that first play:

... everybody with the remotest interest in theatre in Brisbane was there to see the curtain go up and the 12 members of the cast go through their paces. At the back of the stage, in a spirit of realism that can rarely be paralleled before or since, a three course dinner for use in the play was kept warm on a gas ring. Miss Sisley cooked it in her own flat for each of the two evenings that the play performed, and solemnly bore it to the theatre well before the audience were in their seats. (The Courier Mail, January 30, 1956)

Having successfully ‘tested the waters’, Repertory progressed to a two-night September season of Alice-Sit-By-The-Fire by J.M.Barrie, directed by Lewis Townsend, followed by a two-night October season of four one act plays directed by Sisley, Rhoda Felgate and Dr J.V.Duhig (the nephew of Archbishop Duhig). The three seasons, all staged at the Theatre Royal,  were conservative choices – “nothing any of the 175 foundation members could take offence over” noted Queensland playwright George Landen Dann. But Sisley and her co-founder Professor Stable were wise in not offending any audience members in that foundational year knowing that the Society’s survival depended on building membership and audience support. And by starting off with very short seasons in a fine theatre they cleverly evoked a sense of occasion and an aura of success.

Writer: Christine Comans

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