The Guardian

The Guardian February 21, 2001


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Working class theatre

Sydney's New Theatre is the oldest functioning working class theatre in 
the world. It began life, on Communist Party initiative, as the Workers' 
Arts Club in 1932. Its motto was Art is a weapon.

Now, after a long and rich history, New Theatre is in danger of folding up. 
Growing commercial pressures (it receives no government funding), the loss 
of most of the volunteer labour which was vital to its survival, declining 
attendances, rising costs, the GST and a $50,000 debt, have placed the 
Theatre in a precarious financial position.

As a working class theatre, New Theatre had until recent years been based 
on its membership. The selection of plays and their political content was 
discussed at the regular monthly general meetings. Cast and production 
teams were drawn from the members too, with any member able to audition for 
any part.

Those who did not appear on stage helped to make the sets and costumes, do 
the lighting, or sell the tickets. It was a co-operative, voluntary, 
membership-based organisation united by their interest in and concern to 
develop working class culture.

After its first few years, those primarily interested in visual art, music, 
writing, etc, hived off to form separate organisations, such as SORA, the 
"Society of Realist Artists". The Club was renamed New Theatre.

It was still the Depression, and many of the Theatre's most active members 
lived on the smell of an oily rag. But it was also a time of intense 
political activity, against Lang, against the rise of fascism, for the 
rights of workers, for friendship with the Soviet Union, for the defence of 
Republican Spain, for democratic rights here in Australia.

The plays presented by New Theatre not only reflected this struggle, they 
were an active part of it. New Theatre supported weekly Communist Party 
meetings in Taylor's Square with mini plays or sketches performed on the 
back of a truck.

New Theatre's fighting repertoire attracted a militant, supportive 
audience.

When the Theatre's production of Clifford Odets' anti-fascist play Till 
The Day I Die was banned in 1936  at the request of Nazi Germany's 
Consul-General  the Theatre defied the ban by holding "invitation only" 
performances every week for the next three years!

Odets was himself a Communist, working with the US equivalent of New 
Theatre, New York's Group Theatre. When New Theatre sought permission from 
him to present his plays they received the reply: "Go ahead Comrades and 
change the world!"

Later, trenchant topical political revues became a popular staple of the 
Theatre's repertoire. The Theatre encouraged Australian playwrights as well 
as presenting the best working class plays from around the world.

It also presented the best of the past, with pioneering seasons of the 
works of Moliere, directed with sensitivity and understanding by Jock Levy, 
the brilliant actor/director and a New Theatre veteran.

But that was then. In more recent years the situation has been different. 
The previous members of New Theatre have found themselves outnumbered by 
more recent additions to its ranks, people lacking a working class 
political perspective.

The management of the Theatre has been operating without strong political 
leadership for some time, reflecting the turmoil and difficulties within 
the old Communist Party and the relative weakness of the Socialist Party 
(now the CPA).

Directors brought in from outside insisted on casting the plays themselves. 
"Experience", usually in commercials, seemed at times to become more 
important than political understanding.

The drift away from a membership with a commitment to the working class has 
accelerated over the last two decades.

The present artistic director, Frank McNamara, told the Sydney Morning 
Herald at the beginning of February that by ten years ago, the base of 
the Theatre's membership had become "people who had some kind of social 
commitment towards the left of politics".

But now, he said, "we don't have that commitment". Voluntary work by 
members has ceased: the Theatre must pay for everything.

The loss of New Theatre's working class base has meant a diet of plays with 
less of a working class focus (with the occasional Shakespeare to bring in 
the schools).

New Theatre can be saved.

Donations may be sent to New Theatre, 542 King St, Newtown, NSW 2042.

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