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Winter 2013 Issue
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Theatre Guild celebrates 75 years

The University of Adelaide Theatre Guild has enjoyed many highs and suffered some serious lows during a sometimes tumultuous history. Despite the challenges the guild has survived to celebrate its 75th anniversary - and is as robust and vibrant as ever.

Like the hundreds of actors who have graced its stage, the Theatre Guild has performed many splendid roles since its first show back in 1938.

It was a time when cinema was flourishing and Adelaide, with a population of just 325,000, was struggling to attract commercial theatre productions from interstate and overseas.

To help fill the void the University of Adelaide threw its support behind the creation of a not-for-profit community Theatre Guild.

It was an inspired decision taken at a time when the world was on the verge of war and when no other Australian university was supporting broad-based theatre ventures.

But the Guild flourished and has become an integral part of university life for thousands of students and staff and a vital link to the broader community.

Over the past 75 years it has staged more than 350 productions - each involving 30 to 40 people onstage and backstage - and it continues to be a key focal point for amateur production in the city.

The Guild has the distinction of being the only South Australian theatre company to regularly perform Shakespeare - Richard III is currently in rehearsal - and it has a great tradition of supporting Australian playwrights. Indeed, the 2013 season also includes works by Michael Gow (Away) and Andrew Bovell (Holy Day).

Some of Patrick White's first plays were premiered by the Guild, including his most personal production, The Ham Funeral in 1961, followed in later years by Season at Sarsaparilla and Night on Bald Mountain.

"We're always looking to push the boundaries and have that flexible wiggle room to look at plays and playwrights
who may not be as well known as others," said Theatre Guild Chair Dr Ben McCann. "That's always been part of our repertoire."

Life for the Guild started in a converted chemistry laboratory called The Hut, with a seating capacity of just 214, and it wasn't until 1958 that it moved to the larger Union Hall. This was at the beginning of government- subsidised theatre when the Guild's programming of experimental and intelligent drama played an important part in the growth of Australian production.

Opening of its current home, the Little Theatre, in 1974 allowed the Guild to once again stage smaller-scale productions.

These days it performs three main shows every year, with 11 performances over three lots of two weeks in May, August and October. Other smaller productions are also featured including stage readings for directors to trial new or overlooked plays.

Dr McCann, who is also Associate Dean for Student Experience and International for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, says the Guild and Little Theatre fulfil various important roles.

"For a start it's a great testing ground for student actors to perform with their peers and experienced guild members, and we give University creative writing students an opportunity to try out their playwriting skills with actors performing pieces to see if they translate effectively to the stage," he said.

"The Guild also provides a link with academic staff, many of whom are our most ardent supporters and sponsors. Most important though, the Guild helps break down walls by providing a connection with the wider community and demonstrating that the University is an accessible place for everyone."

Although badged as an amateur theatre company, the Guild is consistently winning awards and over its long history has built a reputation for high quality productions.

And while many amateur theatre companies are short- lived, the Guild is as strong and active today as ever.

But that hasn't always been the case and the drama hasn't always remained on stage. Over the years the Guild has been through periods when its future was far from secure.

As Many Lives As A Cat, the title of historian Kerrie Round's book celebrating the Guild's 60th birthday, provides an insight into the turbulent past.

Her research shows it almost self-destructed on seven occasions but each time it managed to bounce back by reinventing itself.

Today the Guild has a core membership of about 200 made up of people from inside and outside the University.

"Since 2000 we have been working very hard to ensure we remain in a stable financial position so that we can celebrate many more birthdays," Dr McCann said.

"But we're always facing a balancing act - we want to be bold and adventurous but we also have to be responsible and very careful about what we program to ensure we don't lose any more of our cat lives.

"Many smaller theatre companies struggle and several have closed in the last three to four years.

"But you don't get to 75 years and beyond without the skills and expertise of many people and without a strong and passionate support base. We're in a lucky, privileged position and we plan to be around for a long time yet."

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