Since the late 1950s, when two new Australian plays, One Day of the Year (written by Alan Seymour in 1958) and The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (written by Ray Lawler in 1959), had proved both critical and commercial successes, the search was underway for both the next Doll and an authentic Australian national theatre.
Robert Quentin, a keen supporter of developing a professional Australian theatrical voice, first introduced a playwriting short course at NIDA in 1961. In its second year Professor Norman Philbrick from Stanford University led the course but ongoing funding was limited. In 1966, at the helm of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Drama Foundation, Quentin commissioned a number of new plays for production at Jane Street, including Thomas Keneally’s first play, Halloran’s Little Boat (1966) and his third, An Awful Rose (1972).
In 1972 and 1973 the NIDA Playwrights Studio course was resurrected, led by David Whittaker, and in 1974, NIDA commissioned two Playwrights Studio participants, George Hutchinson and Alan Simpson working with composers Mervyn Drake and James Cotter respectively, to provide the Season’s entertainment. Following workshops at the Australian National Playwrights Conference (established 1973, now Playwriting Australia), Alma de Groen’s fourth play The After-life of Arthur Craven and a first work by Ken Ross, Don’t Piddle Against the Wind, were produced at Jane Street.
During the 1970s, however, more opportunities for the development and production of Australian plays emerged as new theatre companies such as Nimrod (established December 1970) and, in Melbourne, La Mama Theatre (1967) and the Australian Performing Group (APG) at the Pram Factory (1970) started to feature new Australian theatre.
In 1978, NIDA, decided to move away from producing new Australian plays in favour of new interpretations of classic plays. However, one of the major hits of the 1979 Season was George Whaley’s On Our Selection, based on the writings of Steele Rudd: an enduring image of Australiana
Some highlights of the Jane Street Seasons are featured below:
First season 1966
The 1966 Season comprised three short plays performed as a trio and three plays, including Tom Keneally’s first play, Halloran’s Little Boat, directed by Alexander Hay and the premiere of A Refined Look at Existence, written by Rodney Milgate and directed by Robin Lovejoy.
Keneally’s first play, commissioned by Robert Quentin, is based on the subject matter of Keneally's 1967 novel Bring Larks and Heroes, which won the Miles Franklin Award that year. Both explore the early days of penal colony in the South Pacific. The play was well received and performed at a number of amateur theatres following its debut. In 1968, Keneally wrote Childermas for the Old Tote Theatre Company Season, and An Awful Rose(a religious comedy) in 1972, which was also critically acclaimed and transferred to a second season at the Old Tote.
Rodney Milgate started his career as a Channel 7 newsreader in the 1960s, and, while he continued to write, he was better known as Professor of Visual Art at the City Art Institute (now Arts and Design, UNSW). Perhaps the most challenging and engaging of the first season of plays, A Refined Look of Existence was reprised at the Old Tote in 1968 with a different cast. The director, Robin Lovejoy said:
‘It involved the audience in a most extraordinary, and for me, a most elating way. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever done on the theatre. To feel the audience response, this was the peak of everything I’d ever done.’
Don's Party 1972
Written by David Williamson
Directed by John Clark
Performed 29 June 1972–22 July 1972
Although not the premiere of this play, which was at the Australian Performing Group (APG) in Melbourne in 1971, John Clark’s production of Don’s Party was certainly more popular with audiences and critics and proved a more commercial success. The production transferred to the Old Tote Theatre with the same cast, where it continued to enthusiastic reviews and a national tour. While Williamson’s The Removalists, performed at Nimrod in 1971, is generally described as his breakthrough play, the success of Don’s Party helped to cement Williamson’s place at the forefront of new wave theatre.
A series of letters between Williamson and Clark, held in the NIDA Archives, documents the rewriting and rehearsal process. After opening night, Williamson wrote thanking Clark for his respect and sympathy for the play:
'To yourself & the cast - my sincere thanks - the opening night was one of the best moments I've had.'
The Jane Street set for Don’s Party, designed by second year NIDA production student Lindsay Megarrity is the sole remaining Jane Street artefact of its type complete with faux Marimekko design. The model is in the NIDA Archives.
Don't Piddle Against the Wind, Mate.
Written by Kenneth G Ross
Directed by John Tasker
Performed 20 June 1977 — 30 June 1977
Ken Ross’ play was first workshopped at the 1977 National Playwrights’ Conference Theatre Forum before being staged at Jane Street. Directed by John Tasker, whose grandfather had been a militant unionist in the Hunter Valley, the play deals with unionism and the personal toll that taking a stand – in this case against the union – has on family and friends.
Ross notes in a foreword to the play that the work was inspired by real events from some years earlier. Ross was interested in issues of identity and ideals, urbanisation and anonymity. Frances Kelly in The Australian (22 July 1977) reviewed it highly, suggesting it could rival ‘The Doll’. The critics Kessell and Kippax both lauded the performance of Ron Graham as Bob Davies. Kippax (The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 July 1977) declared the play was ‘honest and powerful’ and was deserving of a wider audience.