Dr Margaret Leask tells the story of a significant collection of Oral Histories.

The National Institute of Dramatic Art Oral History Project was initiated as part of a pre-existing project which began in 2004 to classify and preserve the largely unsorted National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) document and artefact collection in association with the Seaborn, Broughton and Walford Foundation.[1] NIDA, established in 1959, has a substantial history and these records include material relating to associated initiatives including the Old Tote (1963-1978), and Jane Street (1966-1982) theatre companies.

With an initial $70,000 support from Lady Nancy Fairfax, the Oral History Project commenced in April 2005, aiming to record performing arts practitioners with connections to NIDA and to help illuminate and complement, through personal recollection, the document and artefact collection. More broadly, the interviews were intended to record the memories of those whose experiences could provide insight and understanding into theatre’s creative processes. 

Margaret with Oedipus mask-corr

Margaret Leask holds one of Yoshi Tosa’s masks (part of the NIDA collection) from the 1970 Old Tote Theatre/Sir Tyrone Guthrie production of King Oedipus. Photo: Derek Nicholson.

I was employed part-time for two days a week to administer the project and research and conduct 20 interviews per year. Interview subjects included actors, directors, designers, costume makers, dancers, teachers, puppeteers, technicians, administrators, and benefactors. Some specialist researchers and interviewers were commissioned for subjects (such as theatrical millinery and costume design) outside my experience. The interview durations varied, and some were recorded over a number of days. They were recorded directly onto CD and digital copies made for access and preservation. The interviewee signed an agreement in relation to access and copyright. I wrote field notes describing the interview situation and ambience and prepared copyright and access details.

As NIDA approached its 50th anniversary, the focus was on interviewing NIDA graduates from the early 1960s including John Gregg, Edwin Hodgeman, Robyn Nevin, Elspeth Ballantyne, Penny Spence, Dennis Olsen and Elaine Cusick, along with NIDA teachers such as George Whaley, Helmut Bakaitis, Keith Bain, Jean Carroll and Betty Williams.  In early 2009 I took advantage of NIDA’s 50th anniversary celebrations to record interviews with graduates visiting from overseas and interstate, including Joanna McCallum, Jeanie Drynan and Allan Lander. These interviews provide fascinating insight into the early years of the Institute, in the days when its facilities and resources were limited and the idea of a theatre training school in Australia was very new.

Robyn Nevin in trelawny-1-smaller

Robyn Nevin in Trelawny of the Wells, Old Tote Theatre Company, 1972; crinoline designed by Anne Fraser.

Many of the stories provide a unique insight which can only enhance our understanding of what is left after the ephemeral theatrical event has passed. Without the voice of the participants or filmed archive material, costumes, photographs, designs and other artefacts can seem lifeless, or only significant to those who experienced the live performance. I found using collection items as aide memoirs needed caution. With a few notable exceptions, what is in the collection is inevitably an inadequate representation of any one career. Over the years, items from productions were ‘rescued’ on an ad hoc basis. Given space and financial constraints, practically every artefact in the performing arts is recycled or loses its provenance because it is used for another production or altered in some way.

In the 1970s the Old Tote, NIDA and Jane Street theatres were a significant part of my own studies and work in a heady period in recent Australian theatre history when playwrights and actors found an Australian voice and theatrical approach which spoke directly to audiences with energy and a larrikin style that was very exciting. I was obliged repeatedly to question my own memory and wonder if I had donned rose-coloured glasses or had my own agenda in terms of what I hoped interviewees would talk about.

It goes without saying that something in the vocal tone and emphasis can tell us a lot more about the moment or process when the protagonist speaks. I told actress/director Robyn Nevin that the collection held the blue crinoline dress she wore in the Old Tote 1972 production of Trelawny of the Wells. Suddenly she became the young actress again. Her voice lightened as she described her enthusiasm and joy, 36 years before: “I remember vividly putting it on in the dressing room and trying to find the director George Ogilvie – I wanted to say to him ‘Look at me in this beautiful dress!’ I came backstage, which was not easy to do – it was such an enormous dress, and he was backstage, and it was all dark and I remember calling out to him. He was very busy and preoccupied and he didn’t give me the kind of response that I wanted – it was like being a child and doing dress-ups and rushing to find the director and say isn’t this just perfect – it was very exciting to wear.”[2] 

 Designer Yoshi Tosa’s interview reassured me that, at least for him, describing the process from visual reminders aided the way he told his story of designing for the Old Tote. The NIDA collection contains some of the 80 masks and 55 costumes Yoshi designed for Tyrone Guthrie’s significant 1970 production of King Oedipus. His descriptions of preparing designs by correspondence with the director (who was based in Canada during the planning stages), and his respect and sympathy for the uncomplaining actors, among them Ruth Cracknell and Ron Haddrick, who had to wear heavy, primitive art inspired full head masks, hand-painted costumes and raised shoes, provide informative and stimulating insights for students of design and production techniques. They also provide an understanding of the character of this quietly spoken artist.

 A significant outcome of this project was the donation of papers and memorabilia from the interviewees. NIDA received material from Rob Adams (senior arts administrator), Keith Bain (dancer, choreographer and teacher), Alan Burke (TV producer, writer, director and teacher), actors Neil Fitzpatrick, Ron Haddrick, Jacqueline Kott, and Paul Weingott (whose donation included the papers and a hand-made, full of treasure, make-up case used by his father, NIDA teacher, Owen Weingott).

P.Weingtoo-L.Murphy 2

Paul Weingott (actor, teacher) with Lynne Murphy (actor) on the day of their November 2006 oral history to record memories of actor and NIDA teacher Owen Weingott (1921-2002).

Actor Peter Carroll donated his papers to the Collection in anticipation of his oral history interview, which extends to 17 hours. His sorting of his own material gave him the opportunity to be reminded of his wide-ranging and busy career. This fully briefed him for an interview which demands to be listened to alongside consultation of his donated reviews, programs, photographs, awards, and audiovisual material as well as cross-reference to the project’s interviews with his colleagues who included Robyn Nevin and John Gaden.

After NIDA’s direction changed, in December 2009 the NIDA Oral History Project was put on hold indefinitely. Today the project’s 84 interviews, together with field notes and questions, are catalogued and available in the NIDA library. Depending on access conditions, many can be copied and sent to researchers unable to visit the library.

by Dr Margaret Leask – with thanks to Graham Shirley

This is an edited version of a paper published in the OHA Journal in 2010.

A list of the 84* NIDA Oral History Project interviews can be found here:

*An 85th recording, which is part of the collection, consists of NIDA’s long-term general manager Elizabeth Butcher attending her final NIDA staff meeting in October 2008.

NIDA Oral History Project interviews which can be listened to via the educational website ClickView are listed here:
People wanting access to the online interviews should email library@nida.edu.au These interviews will increase in number as they are progressively digitised.

[1] For a number of years, the Seaborn, Broughton and Walford Foundation’s collection has operated independently of the NIDA collection.

[2] Robyn Nevin interview 16 October 2008, CD 2 track 3