The Arts Theatre Cronulla over the years.
The Arts Theatre Cronulla opened on 30 November 1963.
The School of Arts Dramatic Society had been formed in 1946, performing plays in various halls around the Sutherland Shire.
In 1958, a stage was built in the School of Arts auditorium, and the group changed its name to the School of Arts Theatre Group. However, the auditorium was not licensed for public performance, so only members could attend the subsequent productions.
When the auditorium was licensed in 1963, the Arts Theatre Cronulla opened for public performances with a production of 'Will Any Gentleman?'
Over 240 productions have been presented at the Arts Theatre.
SCHOOL OF THE ARTS DRAMATIC SOCIETY (1946 - 1957)
In September 1946, at the Annual General Meeting of the Cronulla School of the Arts, the incoming President expressed the opinion "that this institution should be more than just a library". He called for members to form clubs within the School of the Arts. One member, Beryl Austin, organised a Dramatic Club which became known as the Cronulla School of Arts Dramatic Society.
The group presented their first production, The Haxtons, on 30 April and 1 May 1947 at the Masonic Hall with a repeat performance on 23 June at the Sutherland School of Arts.
During its first 11 years, the group presented 20 plays. As they did not have a permanent home, they performed in a variety of Shire venues: the Masonic Hall, Thornton Hall, the Church of England Parish Hall and the Miranda School of the Arts. Most productions were for two or three night seasons though Mr Pimm Passes By in 1953 and See How They Run in 1954 were for one night only.
Beryl Austin was the driving force behind the society in its early years. She directed the first five productions and performed in four productions. Other prominent members were Lee Pederson, Harry Pincombe, Geoffrey Austin, Don Browne, Joyce Chalker, Betty Barker, Joy Barwick and Barry Jenkins (Barry returned to the Arts Theatre in 1997 to play Bardolph in Lettice and Lovage).
The aims of the Dramatic Society were stated in the program for the 19th production, Fresh Fields, as being "to bring to the people of Cronulla and the Sutherland Shire the best in the field of entertainment. We have presented many and varied types of plays in the last ten years all of a high standard..."
A major development came from the group in 1958. They changed their name to the Cronulla School of Arts Theatre Group and built a stage in the hall of the School of the Arts building in Surf Road.
CRONULLA THEATRE GROUP (1957 - 1962)
The Cronulla School of Arts Theatre Group presented their 21st production, The Happiest Days of Your Life, in an new and, hopefully, permanent home - the auditorium in the School of Arts Building in Surf Road.
With the change came a large turnover in personnel - none of the 1956 committee were still in office by 1959. A new group of people had been brought into the management of the Theatre Group. Among these were Ron Martin, Dick Moss, Monte Buchanan and Len Howes.
While their new theatre provided some security for the Theatre Group, it had a significant drawback - it was not yet licensed for public performances. The audience was restricted to Theatre Groups members. The program for Love in a Mist, presented in January 1959, states "This is our fourth production in the Arts Theatre.... In this production we have been restricted to a small performance for club members only because the hall has yet to be licensed. However, all efforts are being made to get the necessary alterations done and we hope for future shows to be public performances." It was to be another four years for that to be realised. In the meantime, some ingenious measures were taken to get around this problem, as shown in the program for their production, The Browning Version: "The Holder of this programme is an associate member of the Cronulla School of Arts Theatre Group.
Another threat to the long-term future of the theatre group came in the early 1960s. The Cronulla School of the Arts' Management Committee had broken up in 1956 and the body had been under the control of trustees since that time. The trustees had planned to hand control of the School of the Arts over to the Sutherland Shire Council. Faced with the loss of their performance space, the Theatre Group, under the Presidency of Ron Martin, was responsible for reconstituting the School of the Arts. A General Meeting was held in July 1961, attended by 60 members, at which the School of Arts Committee was re-established with Ron Martin as its President. Other prominent Theatre Group members on the newly established School of Arts Committee were Don Browne, Dick Moss and Len Howes. Over the next two years, the Committee had a difficult time negotiating with the trustees and the council before the control of the building was resolved in favour of the School of Arts Committee.
The Theatre Group members then moved to ensure its long-term future by making the necessary improvements for the theatre to be licensed for public performances. In November 1963, the theatre, under its new name, Arts Theatre Cronulla, opened for its first production, Will any Gentleman?
The Cronulla School of Arts Theatre Group, and its predecessor, the Dramatic Society, established a theatrical tradition that has continued to flourish for over more than 50 years at the Arts Theatre. Many of the members of the Theatre Group were prominent in the early development of the Arts Theatre - and it is clear in the early Arts Theatre programs that they did not see the Arts Theatre as a beginning, but as a continuation of what they had been doing for many years.
ARTS THEATRE CRONULLA (1963 - PRESENT)
The opening of the Arts Theatre Cronulla as a licensed public performance space took place on 30 November 1963. Doris Fitton, from the Independent Theatre, was present to officiate at the opening. Ron Martin's dream of establishing a theatre to serve the needs of the residents of southern Sydney had been realised.
The opening production was met enthusiastically with the Observer critic reporting that "every member of the large cast gave performances that showed the enthusiasm with which this dedicated band of players must have rehearsed and the skills of the producer, Mr Ron Martin."
However, the success of the theatre on a long-term basis was not immediately secured. Firstly, audiences had to be built up. This was not easy in the early days as finances were tight and widespread advertising was not an option. Theatre members were often seen parading down Cronulla streets in costume handing out tickets and attempting to draw people into the theatre.
One way of showing the quality of production and gaining publicity was to enter the drama festivals that existed at the time. The theatre's first entry in the Sydney Drama Festival, The Shifting Heart in 1965, was awarded the trophy for the Best Production of an Australian Play. The 1967 entry, Flowers for the Living, won the Best Actress award for Joyce Jacobs, her performance demonstrating "sincerity, warmth and depth of feeling". The production won second place overall. The theatre's only other entry in the Drama Festival, Duet for Two Hands in 1968 won the Best Producer award for Ray Ainsworth.
In the late 1960s, an innovative plan to advance the name of the theatre and to develop Australia drama was launched with the Arts Theatre's play competition. A wide range of plays were submitted, vying for the $200 first prize, and the eventual winner and runner-up were presented at the theatre. These productions were Hang Your Clothes on Yonder Bush and The Dinkum Bambino.
Many people were prominent in the theatre group in the 1960s, notably: Ron Martin, the founding President and Theatre Director; Dick Moss, his successor as Theatre Director; Joyce Jacobs, who gave many strong performances on the Arts Theatre stage and served on the committee for a number years; Lorraine Crane; Don Browne; Monte Buchanan; and others. They had all been involved from the first production (or before) and came to be the backbone of the theatre to the present.
New people gradually became involved in the theatre and it was this group of people who provided the continuity once the founding group of members had left that ensured the survival and success of the theatre to the present.
Some of those people were:
James Bruce, whose expertise and artistry in lighting and set design still make each of the productions a scenic delight for the audience.
Doreen and Syd Grant, who joined the theatre in 1964. Doreen began the Arts Theatre's first Drama School in 1966, and directed over 30 productions from 1967 until her retirement from the theatre in 1999. Syd, as well as being actively involved in the backstage work of getting the plays on, was responsible for many years for the finances of the theatre, as Business Manager and later as Treasurer.
Kathy Goddard, who was one of the first graduates of Doreen Grant's Drama School in the 1960s, continued performing and was actively involved in the Committee over the years.
Joy Baker, who performed a number of roles in her early years at the theatre gaining wide praise for her skills. Her major contribution to the theatre, however, has been as the director of 34 productions since Blithe Spirit in 1971.
There are many more people who have been involved in major ways over many years at the theatre: Denis and Mary Ramsbottom, Marjorie Chamberlain, Peter and Leslie Asher, John Keyworth, Dick Hyde, Pat and Ivy Coffey, Shirley Oberg, Brian Belcher and Bill Kleinman, to name a few of the many who have given hours of their time for the benefit of the theatre.
The theatre is currently served by a very dedicated Management Committee who are leading the theatre confidently through its sixth decade.