Christopher Ross-Smith, CEO and Artistic Director of the Armidillos Theatre Company, shares his life in theatre.
>How long have you lived here?
I have been in Armidale for 31 years, coming here from a very interesting job as Deputy Director of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), Sydney. I was asked to develop the Theatre Studies Department at the University of New England and felt a rural university city was a better place to bring up my two young daughters.
Most of my working life had been confined to big cities, and I thought it was fortunate to be able to work in the professional theatre area in the country. There was also the excitement of building a department almost from scratch, putting into practice certain ideals that I had been developing whilst working in other tertiary institutions.
> Have you always been involved in theatre?
Apart from a two year stint as a primary school teacher after graduating from university, yes.
I returned to England from South Africa, where I had spent my school days, in order to take up a scholarship at a London drama school. My first job was to be an acting coach for the former director of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), working in a theatre conservatorium which was part of a new large professional theatre company at Oakland University in Michigan, USA.
In 1974 I came to Australia to take up the position at NIDA, where I was responsible for the administration of all the courses, the supervision of staff and directly responsible for developing and teaching the Student Directors course. I was also able to develop and expand the film, radio and television courses, in the process working closely with the ABC at a time when many of our current film and television stars, like Steve Bisley, Peter Cousens and “All Saints” John Howard were our students.
It was fascinating to be part of NIDA at that time, with students such as Mel Gibson and Judy Davis, who later became world theatre stars.
All this aside, I was glad I came to Armidale. It is a unique rural city, full of interesting people and organisations, where it is possible to attend different artistic events on almost every night of the week.
> Tell us about the Armidillos Theatre Company and your present project.
The company’s original purpose was to act as a bridge between talented members of the Armidale and regional communities and the professional world of the theatre.
We aimed to give people of all ages the opportunity to develop further a variety of skills in a professional environment, encouraging committed local talent from the community or university to go into the theatre profession or undertake further training at NIDA or elsewhere.
We presented several large and small cast quality productions open to the public, and with the help of visiting agents and directors, the company played a part in launching several careers in the professional theatre.
Former members of the company are now working as directors, actors, designers, and stage managers in the Australian TV, film and theatre industries.
Armidillos has now shifted its emphasis from nurturing local talent to taking on an entrepreneurial role. For example, we presented the musical theatre star Nancye Hayes in her one woman show, “Nancye with an ‘E’” and acted as local promoter for the Railway Street Theatre Company.
Along with such entrepreneurial ventures, the Armidillos, a non-profit company, has donated funds to assist local performing arts ventures.
For the past five years our biggest project has been to act as local presenter for the Oz Opera touring productions, and currently we are concentrating on bringing the Oz Opera’s production of ‘Madame Butterfly’ to Lazenby Hall at the University of New England on Tuesday, September 9.
One of the most popular of all operas, this great work by Puccini has been directed by Australia’s very own John Bell. Officially titled one of Australia’s National Living Treasures, and founder and Artistic Director of the Bell Shakespeare Company, he is probably our most eminent actor/director.
He has set Madame Butterfly in Nagasaki just after WW2 and combined Japanese traditional design with topical modern western influences. It has a cast of 11 singers supported by a chamber orchestra of 11 musicians.
> This is your third opera brought to Armidale, were the previous two operas successful?
Initially UNE’s Theatre Studies Department presented the Oz Opera productions, which were successful from the start. As production costs increased, Oz Opera approached the Armidillos to become their local producer.
Puccini’s ‘La Boheme’ was our first venture, and proved a huge artistic success, playing to a capacity house. Performing in Armidale’s famously low temperatures gave a new meaning to the aria ‘Your tiny hand is frozen’! By contrast, three years later, the steamy, hot-blooded action of Bizet’s Spanish tragedy ‘Carmen’, again played to an enthusiastic audience that filled Lazenby Hall. We are lucky that now we can see one of these productions every two years.
Oz Opera is the touring arm of Opera Australia and has been operating since 1996 from its base in Melbourne. The support of their principal sponsor, Australia Post, enables the company to stay on the road longer and to visit more centres in rural and regional Australia. This year’s tour is the longest ever, visiting every state and involving 46 performances in 29 towns over a 13 week period.
> And what is your next project?
Along with others, particularly my wife Judith Lamb, to promote and raise funds for a performing arts centre in Armidale.
> Thank you Christopher.