Barbara Albury came to Armidale in 2000 because her husband, Randall, had been appointed Dean of Arts at UNE. Barbara had a lot of experience in theatre – mostly acting, but also some writing and directing …
The last two big projects in Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre Downstairs were Hungarian Sunday – Tales from the Corner Shop (stories of Hungarian migrants in Australia, which was part of the run up to the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000), and Women in Shorts (a collection of short plays by women writers which received Australia Council funding). Rosemary Mort talks to Barbara about her production experiences here in Armidale.
How did you get involved in theatre in Armidale, and what was your first production?
The first show in Armidale was Up the Creek, which was originally done at the Belvoir but was redirected for Armidale – a play with music and stories based on the factory and bush stories of Mary Gilmore and Edward Dyson.
Define your approach to theatre … Which productions have given you the greatest satisfaction and enjoyment?
I like storytelling and creating characters and creating a look; maybe that comes from doing cartoons and working in art and journalism. I like people to come out of a production and go “wow”. There are challenges, some failures and many wonderful moments. The Last Supper (with a mute, bespectacled but perfect Jesus) and most recently The Red Balloon were particularly special. When people come away with their eyes glowing, I feel I have done my job.
You are always breaking new ground. Tell us about some of the community based theatre you initiated and the difficulties and challenges you faced.
I just look around and see what is offering. I like to engage people’s talents – a good example is Ben Thorn’s fantastic musical skills. Mostly I want to get strong performances from the actors and quality design, sound and lighting from the crew. It has to be significant and important for both actors, crew and audience. I am persistent and push people to go beyond their perceived limits. I also expect to do strong publicity to get an audience – and I have to say Armidillians are wonderfully supportive.
You started the Saturday Magic Theatre here for people with disabilities and also a number of productions with young people. What has been the outcome?
I took over Saturday Magic Theatre from what was then known as Magic Circle (run by Gail Smith). I was hooked by the idea of giving people with disabilities a place to develop natural movement, mime and speech skills. I thought that they might be able to be drawn out of their shells and extend their physical, verbal and emotional range. I worked with Saturday Magic Theatre for over four years and we did three amazing shows – A Kind of Cinderella, Rockin’ Robin, which we took to the Chapel Theatre in Glen Innes, and The Last Supper. They looked and sounded good, were great fun and we had full houses.
My engagement with young people began with a drama developed with Aboriginal students at Duval High School (This Land Our Land, continued in Our Town (the story of Armidale), developed further in The Little Prince in 2016 (co-direction with Gordon Cope. An exquisite set – a mountain structure designed by Peter Szacsvay and an almost full size biplane built by Richard Tromp) and culminated in The Red Balloon, the story of an unusual friendship between a boy and a magic balloon.
There are always challenges in building an audience and working with inexperienced actors. What is your approach to engaging the community in your projects?
I have worked with very experienced actors such as Jan Wyles, Allan Wilkinson and Gordon Cope, as well as beginners. The former direct themselves; the latter need simple ideas to make things work. For instance, walking and talking is hard to do naturally on stage, so they might sit more. In Who is Frank Archibald?, the story of a much loved and revered Aboriginal elder, many of the performers were inexperienced. You find their strengths. If they can sing, you let them sing. If they dance, they dance.
You are also noted for choosing alternative venues for theatre. Tell us about some of those and the ways these venues defined the performances.
I love working in alternative venues – a sort of cuckoo syndrome. You don’t have to build a set and you can get a stronger reality infusing the production. Even with conventional theatres, I tend to reorganise them into alternative theatrical spaces. I like to enfold the audience in the mood and resonance of the play. Most memorable were Hildegard in the Ursuline Chapel, Away (both outdoors on the Booloominbah lawn and inside in the Arts Theatre, with a domed floor to represent sand dunes), Cabaret in the Armidale Showground (co-directed with Gordon Cope), Vincent in Brixton (Van Gogh at NERAM), The Last Supper (the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – using the whole of the Uniting Church), The Naming of Armidale (about the first Commissioner to Armidale in Macdonald Park), Armidale – Our Town (in the body of the Town Hall) and of course, The Red Balloon (Hanna’s Arcade).
Will you take on new projects in Sydney, and are there any you are considering?
Well, High Country Theatre, which we founded in 2014, is going to continue in Armidale with three projects in the pipeline – Animal Farm (script by Ben Thorn), Jack and the Beanstalk (script by Bob Thompson) and David Hare’s Copenhagen. I am an interested observer.
Randall and my main objectives in Sydney are to create a strong link with family for our son, and after that I will look around and see what might be possible.
I counted up about 49 projects since coming here. Apart from theatre, these include a photographic project called One of Us (four photographers created images of disabled people in the community), a calendar based on the NERAM exhibition, writing a column for the Independent Newspaper, being president of PCYC, helping create a television program on disability for ABC’s Compass, taking a performance to villages around the New England and to Budapest, the city of my birth. I have received two local Australia Day Awards for community cultural activities.