Brisbane Arts Theatre: 1000 Not Out

brisbane arts theatre

BRISBANE Arts Theatre has been the home of many a cultural milestone in the River City’s history, but July brings a landmark more prominent than most: the company’s 1000th production.

British bedroom farce Noises Off fills the momentous slot on the theatre’s calendar, with a tale involving – somewhat fittingly – a touring theatre company’s efforts to bring a show to the stage.

Reaching 1000 productions gives staff and fans of the much-loved Petrie Terrace theatre a chance to reflect on its history, recognise its prominent place in Brisbane’s arts scene, and recall some of the famous thespians who have passed through the ranks.

After being founded in 1936 as Brisbane Amateur Theatres by Jean Trundle and Vic Hardgraves, the burgeoning company staged its first production, Tell Me the Truth. Plays were staged at Brisbane’s Albert Hall, a 600-capacity auditorium which was soon demolished to make way for what is now the Suncorp building. In 1951, the company changed its name to Brisbane Arts Theatre, and at the end of the decade the board of directors made an offer of £6,000 to purchase a second-hand junk shop on Petrie Terrace, converting it into a small theatre. With the help of £3,000 worth of renovations, the 144-seat auditorium opened on September 1st, 1961. The theatre company became the first in Brisbane to operate its own venue; one of many key firsts in Brisbane’s cultural heritage.

The theatre thrived until a fire gutted the building in 1964, but the hard work and dedication of volunteers and design skills of architect John Dalton combined to put it back together. When the theatre’s 50th anniversary was celebrated in 1986, artist Kevin Grealy was commissioned to create ceramic masks for a new facade concept; these remain a prominent feature of the theatre’s exterior today.

While thousands of actors of all ages and backgrounds have graced the Brisbane stage, it is testament to the company’s consistent eye for talent that so many thespians who have gone on to have professional careers have passed through its doors. Where to start with the list of well-known alumni?

An early visitor to the theatre was actor and celebrity chef Bernard King, who appeared in many productions before going on to host a cooking segment on Good Morning Australia and have his own programme, King’s Kitchen. Brisbane’s Carol Burns’ early appearances at the theatre gave her experience to use in tackling her role in Prisoner, for which she won a Logie. In a serendipitous move, Burns returned to the theatre in 2013 to direct Picnic at Hanging Rock. Steven Rooke is perhaps best known for his role as Terry in the 2006 film Footy Legends, while his television credits include All Saints, Home and Away, and Always Greener. Michael Caton, Judith McGrath and former premier of Queensland Wayne Goss have also made notable appearances.

The most well-known of the theatre’s former actors is of course Barry Otto; the Strictly Ballroom and Australia star began his performance career treading the Petrie Terrace boards before going on to do big things in film. He picked up an AFI Award for Best Supporting Actor in Strictly Ballroom and has recently worked with Baz Luhrmann for the third time on The Great Gatsby.

As an amateur and self-funded arts company, Brisbane Arts Theatre is – and always has been – a place to see the best of the up-and-coming talent Brisbane and South-East Queensland has to offer. The 1000th production, Noises Off, will be no different. A classic tale of love triangles, overindulgence and belly laughs, it is set to mark the occasion in grand style.

As Brisbane Arts Theatre powers forward in the 21st century as an iconic, thriving performing arts community, it still holds just as much of an essential place in the cultural fabric of Brisbane as it did when it opened in 1936. If you haven’t paid a visit in a while, maybe now is a good time to get reacquainted and join in the celebrations.

Noises Off runs from July 4 to August 15. Tickets from

For Scenestr

Katie Noonan: “A lot of the themes are of sisterhood, solidarity and looking after each other”

katie noonan

WHAT DO YOU GET when you cross a renowned Brisbane singer-songwriter, a contemporary circus group and a slice of lesser-known Australian history?

The answer is ‘Love-Song-Circus’; a show featuring the voice and music of Katie Noonan, the acrobatics of Brisbane’s Circa and a new way of looking at sometimes uncomfortable aspects of our past.

“I was inspired by an exhibition called ‘Love Tokens’ at the National Museum,” Noonan says. “It’s a collection of coins which have beautiful messages on them; inscriptions that convicts would write for the family they were forced to leave behind. The romanticism of that imagery really captured my imagination and I decided I wanted to find out more about these people. As a woman and a mother, I wanted to find out about the stories of the women; stories which have been explored by precious few people. I started a long journey of research into these women’s lives and came up with a song cycle of sixteen pieces that formed the basis of this body of work called Fierce Hearts, which became ‘Love-Song-Circus’ in collaboration with Circa as an ode to these incredible women. It was very different and challenging, but also very rewarding.”

Originally, I wanted to try to find the love letters of the women; to explore their love, lust and longings, and put their words to music. Unfortunately literacy was a gift bestowed generally upon the wealthy and generally men, so many women – particularly convicts – were illiterate. That made me rethink everything. I read lots of books, PHD reports and prison records, then wrote a series of poems which became lyrics to the songs, from the point of view of the women. In doing that, I wanted to make sure everything was factually correct, and I went on trips to get a sense of the physical world they would have seen; places like Tasmania where the bulk of the women went, and around Sydney. A lot of these stories are quite sad, but many of the women overcame adversity and became very strong. They were the original boat people, but they were forced to come here. England and Ireland at the time had incredible poverty and desperation which led to women stealing the loaf of bread, which is the quintessential convict tale. Rather than getting a helping hand they were sent to a place that was so alien to them.”

Joining forces with circus group Circa brought a new aspect to the telling of the stories.

“When I think of modern examples of strong women, I often think of physical theatre and the circus,” Noonan says. “Obviously, contemporary dance and ballet portray the strength of women in a really different way, whereas in circus you have these incredibly strong women in a physical sense. I really admire Circa’s work; I think they take circus work to a different place than most; it’s certainly not from a cabaret or burlesque point of view in any way. The directors come at it from a theatre background and there’s a sense of narrative and drama, and they add a really interesting element to these stories. A lot of the themes are of sisterhood, solidarity and looking after each other, and they are reflected beautifully by the bodies of the women in Circa. It feels like a really lovely combination and has been a successful relationship.”

Performing ‘Love-Song-Circus’ at a series of hometown gigs is just the start of a busy year for Noonan.

“I’m doing lots of writing and working with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra,” she says. “I’m also writing my next record with my band The Captains, but these songs are my main focus as the album is coming out. We’re opening in Brisbane, then a week at Adelaide Fringe, then Sydney. I’d like to get it to Perth, but my big dream is to bring it to Tasmania, where most of these women were based. In fact, I’d love to do it at the Cascades Female Factory on the earth on which they worked.”