Saturday, September 02, 2006

New England Theatre Centre & Brian D Barnes - Happy 75th birthday, Brian

Postscript: Some time after writing the following story I had the pleasure of receiving an email from Brian to thank me for my birthday greetings, thus re-establishing contact after forty years. I wrote the orginal story based on a mix of web searches and personal recollections. However, in doing so I made a number of errors. I have now edited the story to remove those errors, retaining my personal reactions.

Before writing this story, I wanted to share a frustration with you. I have been trying to upload photographs to illustrate this story. I uploaded two, but they were in the wrong position so I deleted them and tried to reload. Now, as happens from time to time with Google e-blogger, the system has thrown a tantrum and will not let me upload any photos. After several hours trying, I have given up.

I have just learned on one of my web searches trying to compose another article that Brian D Barnes has turned 75.

Brian appears largely forgotten in Australia, as is Harold Bennett and the theatre company they founded. If you search on New England Theatre Centre you will get few hits. Brian himself does not mention it anywhere that I have found, referring only to taking his one man shows around Australia.

I suspect I understand the reasons for this. Yet this was to my knowledge the first attempt to establish a fully professional theatre in Regional Australia and deserves to be remembered for that reason alone. But Brian and the Centre also occupy a short but special position in my life. Having found Brian's birthday by accident, I thought that I should celebrate it and the Centre.

I have not been able to find a proper bio of Brian's life. I originally recorded based on web searches that Brian's formative years were spent in English and Australian repetory and in France and Switzerland. I know now that at the time he sailed for England in 1953 there was no Australian repetory theatre as such - there was what was known as the "The Little Theatre Movement", the two principal ones in Sydney being the Independent and the Metropolitan. In 1958 he turned his attention to solo performing, touring Europe, Greece and India with the works of Elliot and Fry. He returned to Australia in 1961.

In 1962 Brian established the New England Theatre Centre in Armidale with Harold Bennet. His dream was the creation of a fully professional country based touring theatre company. This was a big ask at the time, because even Australia's main regional centres were then very much smaller in population.

He was joined in this dream by Harold. The two were a complete contrast. Brian was relatively small and nuggety, sometimes explosive. Harold, who had I think honed his acting skills through London pantomime, was a bigger man with a sonorous voice and a calmer, more relaxed, public presence.

In 1964 I went to a Centre performance at the Methodist Hall in Armidale. I enjoyed it, and met Brian at the end of the performance. He invited me to visit them the following Sunday at the house the company was renting in East Armidale.

I was just 19, knew nothing about actors, and so arrived around 10 o'clock, which seemed a reasonable time to me. Everybody was still in bed! We worked that out, and I spent the rest of the day there.

They were rehearsing the next play at the time, and we spent the afternoon in the lounge room on a single scene. There was a door with a top and bottom section. The top section had to be pulled open one way, the bottom pushed open with the actresses hip. So a shove, pull movement.

My job was to hold the script folder. As individual actions were decided, Brian would write them down on the opposite page. I was hooked. For the next twelve months I spent every moment I could with the company.

How do I describe this? Well, I did everything, dragging in friends such as Philip Brown to help. I painted sets in the garage, I helped load the VW Kombi when the company was going on school excursions, I helped with rehearsals, I collected tickets. In return I had just so much fun. I do not know what the changing members of the NETC (a substantial number of actors worked with the Centre during its brief existence, although never more than six in one show because that was all the Kombi would hold) thought of this student who kept on dropping in, but certainly they were tolerant and friendly.

Australia has changed enormously since the sixties. The country is so much bigger and wealthier, there are so many competing opportunities. It is hard now for people to understand just how much impact something like the NETC had, what it was like trying to pioneer in the face of adversity with very limited cash, why the NETC deserves to be celebrated. Let me try to paint a picture for you.

The Centre rented a weatherboard house in East Armidale owned by Professor Letters' house, at minimal rental. All the male cast lived there (the girls lived in a flat a few blocks away), so things were a bit crowded and chaotic. Rehearsals took place in the lounge room. Set construction was done in the adjoining garage. Limited cash combined with limited space when on tour made for a minimalist approach to sets. Simplicity was a necessary virtue.

While a university city, Armidale then had a population of only 13,000. This was too small to support a professional company, so the intention from the beginning was to use the city as a base for touring other centres including schools. Most tours included included an evening show for adults with a seprate show for children. Payments from the Education Department provided a thin and in the end inadequate drip feed.

Production was active. Unfortunately my posters (I had a poster for most plays) and notes were lost in the later family move from Armidale to Sydney, so I do not remember now how many different plays I went to nor do I remember all the names of the various casts. I have been wracking my brains here and must see if I can find other sources to remind me. Another problem is that there were productions by others during the period as well, making it difficult to disentangle from my mind which play was produced by whom.

I do remember Brian's one man show Under Milkwood. I was amazed that one man could present so many different charcters and I loved the sound and the taste of the words.

I knew that the Centre was in financial trouble. As I remember it, Brian tried to respond by introducing cooperative arrangements under which all actors shared in what was left after expenses.

Brian and I talked about fund raising. I did have local contacts, but at 20 I did not know how to use them, nor did I properly realise just how serious the problem was.

The Centre closed. I remember the small closing party. I do not remember all there. I do remember, and very fondly, Carole Skinner who had been with the Centre while it was in full flourish and stuck with it to the end and who went on to a long and distinguished career in Australian theatre.

Brian left town, putting the Centre behind him to go onto a long and distinguished career as a solo performer working across many countries with a special English focus. In 2004 he was awarded an MBE for services to English drama

One small postscipt before I go on.

A little later that year (1965) the Elizabethan Theatre Trust came to Armidale in its distinctive bus to present a Noel Coward play. One of the previous NETC actors who was now stage manager for the production contacted me in advance. I went down to meet him and the company at the Royal Hotel where they were staying. We had a beer and he gave me a free ticket to the play.

After the play I went back stage and we went out for a beer and he then suggested that we should go to the after party being put on by some of the locals connected with the Trust. I hadn't been invited, but agreed. My social stocks then went up and down at the same time. Down, because here was a twenty year old local crashing the party. Up, because I was clearly with the cast and nobody could work out why!

To finish this post.

The NETC is only a small element in Brian's long career. However, I think that it deserves to be recognised. The NETC brought professional theatre to tens of thousands of Australians who would not otherwise have experienced it. Whatever the arguments and problems at the time, I do not think that it should be forgotten.

Happy birthday, Brian.

Note on Sources

As indicated, I could find no web information on either the NETC or Harold.

Brian is spread all over the place in small snippets. Because search engine recording is variable and changeable making it sometimes hard to find specific items again, I thought that I should record sources:

  • , the "not for profit" free online guide to modern playwrights and theatre plays, records one Brian D Barnes play, Pickwick's Christmas Party, produced 1972 Bush London. Following through from the doollee site I found that Abebooks had a Brian D Barnes CD, "A Christmas Carol following the version as condensed by Charles Dickens for his own reading; Amazon showed a published version of the same story in both German and English.
  • In May 2003, UNESCAP and Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit Hotel in Bangkok UNESCAP co-hosted in Bangkok a one-man theatrical performance to benefit HIV/AIDS orphans. Their e-newsletter records: "Noted actor Brian D. Barnes will present a matinee performance of Kenneth Grahame's classic The Wind in the Willows on 25 May ...All proceeds from the event will go to the Kevorkian Foundation (Baan Nor Giank) which cares for HIV-positive children. Known as the jet setting minstrel, Brian D. Barnes has performed in more than 80 countries and is heard regularly on the BBC World Service."
  • The Pattaya Mail review of the Bangkok performance said in part: "Brian held a totally spell-bound audience at the Arts Theatre, using no props, only voice impersonations, facial expressions, body movements, a chair or two and a sheet. How different to the fare spooned out on movies, television and other weapons of mass distraction where the actors are buoyed by so many accoutrements, gadgetry and gimmicks. "
  • On 29 September 2006, the Mira Cultural Society will host a one man show by Brian. This followed a previous and very successful visit by Brian in September 2004. This second story is in Finish, but includes a range of photographs.
  • A story in the Baden Germany newspaper records that Brian will be doing a special performance on 4 March 2006: "To celebrate his 75th birthday year, Brian wants to take you on a trip down memory lane recalling his visits to the Wallgraben over the years since his first performance (THE PICKWICKIANS AT MANOR FARM) in the old theatre in December 1969. In this special programme, the Birthday Boy will link together anecdotes about his world travels with vignettes from the various shows in his repertoire. These include a crazy episode from THREE MEN, the Coronation of Charles II from PEPYS, the Spinster Aunt from PICKWICK, Wilde's SELFISH GIANT, the Mad Tea Party from ALICE and something choice from WILLOWS." The story also notes that Brian was awarded an OBE in 2004 for services to the Theatre.
  • The Finnish Rakastajat Theatre Company records a recent (date uncertain) performance by Brian for the English Club Pori of Douglas Stewart's "The Fire in the Snow." The program notes that this is a revival of the presentation which Brian gave in Pori 40 years ago when he was on tour for the Finnish-Brittish Federation.
  • ACTS (Anglo-German Cooperative Theatre & Media Stuttgart/Anglophone Collaborative Theatre of Stuttgart) records a performance by Brian of "Readings from Oscar Wilde" on 16 October 2004. The show report by Stuart Marlow says in part:

"Led in song by British actor Brian Barnes and artistic director Susanne Heidenreich, October 16 2004 saw the audience at the Theater der Altstadt singing Happy Birthday to Oscar Wilde, who has reached the age of 150. At least for cast and audience, Wilde's spirit is still very much alive and with us.

Brian D. Barnes is himself celebrating 250 stage performances in Stuttgart. His popular one man shows The Provocative Oscar Wilde have featured selections from Oscar's work here for over 31 years. Furthermore, this autumn Stuttgart is a key location for celebrating Wilde's historical legacy. The recent publication of new biographical material by Oscar's grandson Merlin Holland has placed Stuttgart centre-stage. Not only is Brian Barnes adding this material to his shows, but Merlin Holland decided to attend the Stuttgart Book-Week to present his material.

Brian Barnes link with Stuttgart, his artistic home as he calls it, goes back to 1973, when Theater-der-Altstadt was in Charlottenplatz. The erstwhile dramaturg Christoph Stahr, who did a lot to promote English language drama in Stuttgart, encouraged him to perform Stuttgart on a regular basis. This he has been doing successfully for thirty one years. Touring various locations in Germany now accounts for between, 70% and 80% of his earnings.

Works featured by Brian Barnes are; the story, Lord Arthur Saville's Crime, the children's story The Selfish Giant, scenes from the play Lady Windemere's Fan and excerpts from the poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Brian Barnes presents the story of Oscar Wilde's rise and fall through the eyes of Oscar's literary executor Robert Ross, who remained in love with Wilde throughout his short but turbulent life.

Barnes shows trigger off an interesting debate on the Irishness of Wilde's work. For example, the cold hearted and comic manner in which Lord Arthur Saville attempts to kill people (so that he may control his own fate after a fortune teller predicted he would commit a murder) led directly to the Arsenic and Old Lace genre which has proved so popular.

What few critics seem to underline however, is that the origins of both stories, Lord Arthur Saville's Crime and The Selfish Giant are to be found in the rich traditions Irish oral culture, with their subtly ironic uses of the understated-grotesque and rich surrealist folk-tale imagery. Many Irish critics including Holland stress that the Irishness of Wilde has been totally underestimated. But it is there. ... Wilde's mixture of British and Irish humour gave him a firm standing in the history of Anglophone literature. Oddly Brian Barnes has noticed that German audiences who are able to appreciate Wilde's form of humour are quite often advantageous to the performer: The English tend to laugh inside more whereas the Germans laugh outwardly. Which really makes it much easier for an actor if you are playing comedy. "

  • Brian's links with Finland are clear from the earlier references. Here I found one report from the Finnish-British Societies of a visit to Brian's home in England at Burwash, Eeast Sussex. Another Finnish story records a performance by Brian of "The Pickwickians at Manor Farm" and gives Brian's address as BRIAN D. BARNES, One Man Theatre, Vines Cottage, BURWASH, East Sussex TN19 7DZ.
  • In March 2006, Brian performed in Stuttgart to celebrate his 75th birthday(here)
  • December 2006 will perform Christmas Carol at the Wallgrabben Theatre, Germany
  • Bermuda Musical & Dramatic Society Under Milkwood June 1968, The Pickwickians at Manor Farm February 1970, The Incredible Samuel Pepys August 1973
  • On an English Theatre Weekend in Freiburg (5-6 April 2003) Brian gave two lectures on T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral.


Unknown said...

Brian cast me as Ondine, performed at the first live theatre to be built in 26 years, the Footbridge Theatre, Parramatta Road, Sydney, Australia. Part of the oldest University here, Sydney University. I played Sylvia in Le Joux de Lamour et de L'Hazard,(we were still translating the text into English on the opening night at Wauchope) and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, to rave reviews(the most successful show of all, for decades, according to Con Fardouly, the proprietor of the best cafe in Inverell.) These two latter productions were directed by Brian for NETC, with Carole Skinner playing Nelly in WH.

Lisa Ritchie said...

I saw Brian perform Three Men and a Boat in Stuttgart at few years ago and absolutely loved his show. I think it was the following year that I saw him perform A Christmas Carol at the same theatre - again, an excellent show. Working as an English teacher at a bank at the time, I recommended his shows to some of my students, who not only went to see one, but returned to our next class, quoting some of the lines. I really hope Brian returns to Stuttgart.

Jim Belshaw said...

I missed this comment all that time ago, mop. My apologies. I hope that you do see him back in Stuttgart, Lisa.

Siegfried Scheller said...

I saw Brian D. Barnes perform Under Milk Wood as a student at Wuerzburg University in the 1960s and even had the chance to assist him . I must say that I was very much impressed by his one-man performance, and have never forgotten those hours. I hope he is still able to continue his work and wish him all the best.

February 2nd, 2013

Siegfried Scheller

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you Siegfried. How interesting.

hazel barton said...

We have recently come into ownership of a box which was originally owned by Brian D. Barnes and has painted on it "Brian D. Barnes - one man theatre" together with worn shipping labels and instruction "to be called for at St. Leonards". We were curious as to who he was so looked him up and found your blog.

Jim Belshaw said...

It is nice to think, Hazel, that a post I wrote so long ago should still be useful and give you a context for that box. Any chance of getting a photo of the box?

Unknown said...

Hi Jim, Brian was my mother's closest oldest friend. She died many years ago, and so we have no contact with him. I am happy to have found this article on him. I saw him in Zambia when I was much younger and he was doing his Three Men in a Boat tour. I would love to find a location to see his latest performances.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a nice story, Nosizwe Martin. I don't know if Brian is still performing. Searching, I found a reference to a German performance in November of last year.

Unknown said...

Jim, I remember you, in the garage at 68 Mosman Street, collating pages of the script of Wuthering Heights. (Brian's Mother lived at Artarmon-- the station up from St Leonards-- the first NETC cast met there & she had just completed the blue curtains for our set. We had to carry heavy buckets of water to steady the set & one night the curtains fell down. Tony Geappen-- Charles 'Bud' Tingwell's nephew -- ad libbed 'Papa, you have brought the house down about our ears with your news!' Thereafter we used weighted sand bags -- had to stitch the damn things! I also remember having to screw the legs on the table that was Cathy's 'desk' where she sat doing the household accounts. I always got it wrong & got blasted by Mark Edwards, the actor who played Edgar. Carole Skinner is the same age as you. She bought a house in Charlotte St., near Taylor Square. Some wag.removed the 'C', so then she was living in Harlotte Street. One memory of bringing theatre to thousands who hadn't experienced it before, particularly the children. We arrived at Willala to waist high grass & a note from the organiser 'I live 4 miles due West'. ...15 minutes before 'curtain up'-- an old Venetian blind-- there wasn't a soul to be seen .... Then lots of swanky American cars rolled up with farmers & their kids & we performed to a packed house & tumultuous applause! My stage name-- after an ancestor who was the Captain of a clipper 'The Ellora' in early days of the Colonie's history-- was Christine Clayton, I changed it when I discovered that 'Claytons' was a cheap drink. Jeanie Drinan -- so wonderful as Muriel's mother in the movie.Muriel's Wedding -- played the Princess in The Adventures of Ping Pong & Pang, one of the plays for Primary Schools, & Lisette, the maid, in The Game of Love & Chance in the first NETC tour. We all lived in the house in Armidale then & when our funding hadn't come through during the rehearsal period, we lived on apricots from the tree out the back. for breakfast, lunch & dinner. It was a great relief when Peggy Leask, the local librarian, brought us a gift of quinces!

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for the memories, I remember you by your stage name!

PeterA said...

Your blog takes me back to another time, part of my life that has long gone but well remembered. I was part of The Armidale Theater club in the early 60s and we had a fair amount of contact with the NETC. Right at the end of thier time in Armidale some members of the club and Harold Bennett put on Look Back in Anger, as far as I can remember I stage managed the production (certainly put up the set). It was my one and only experience with a professional actor, and it was a truly memorable event. After about 4 years of theater activity I turn my energies to being a professional scientist, a different but still exciting way of life.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Peter. Glad to bring back memories! I went to that show and for many years had a poster.