VALE: JOAN WHALLEY

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A picture of Joan Whalley, a woman with white hair and glasses in front of a door with blinds on it.

VALE: JOAN WHALLEY

December 1927 – August 2021

Stage Whispers Article

Remembering Joan Whalley – words from Robbie Nason:

Joan Whalley – well, I’d like to begin by reading a quote from Roger Covell who was the then theatre critic for the Brisbane Telegraph …….. “This is the most satisfying and exhilarating production by a little theatre group that I can recall having seen in Brisbane………who then is it we have to thank for this better than usual work? The answer is surely the director Joan Whalley”

This production, The Enchanted by Jean Giraudoux, and presented by Twelfth Night Theatre in the Albert Hall in 1957, was directed by Joan Whalley and designed by Quentin Hole (who became long time art director at the ABC) , the cast included Elaine Cusick, David Copping (art director of many major films such as Breaker Morant etc) and among others in the cast was one Stuart Benson who Joan married 20 odd years later.

The Enchanted was one of the first productions Joan directed after she returned from London where she had spent 18 months or so. She studied at the British Drama League and as she said in one interview “I often went to see 3 plays a day”.

Looking back to between the wars in Brisbane, JCW was thriving at His Majesty’s and both the Cremorne and the Theatre Royal were doing good bawdy business. The new theatre work that we know today was being brought into existence by three strong women – Jean Trundle (Brisbane Arts Theatre), Barbara Sisley (Brisbane Repertory Theatre) and Rhoda Felgate – Twelfth Night Theatre. To misquote Mary Gilmore – these were the women “who paved the way that we might act at our ease today”.

And it was Rhoda Felgate who gave us Joan Whalley. Miss Felgate (one would never call her Rhoda) travelled the state adjudicating at eisteddfods and examining for the AMEB. In her travels she spied this very bright, energetic and talented student at Blackheath College in Charters Towers. To quote Joan again “Miss Felgate told me many years later that every time she thinks of me playing Rosalind in broad my Australian accent, she bursts out laughing.”

Anyway, in about 1951, a year or so after Joan left school Miss Felgate lured her to Brisbane and set her up in a studio in the Twelfth Night rooms which were then in 51 Wickham Terrace – before they all moved to Gowrie at 39 Wickham Terrace. Other studios, apart from Miss Felgate’s, were occupied by luminaries like Therese Darcy, Ruby Edwards and Jean Hunter. During the next years leading up to her trip to the UK Joan acted and directed in many productions mostly in the Albert Hall – to name a few of her co-stars and directors as well as Miss Felgate – Blanche Lather, Marjorie Mant (later Marjorie Johnstone), Jack Hollingworth, Jacklyn Kelleher – of Rush, Blue Heelers fame (aka Mrs Ray Lawler), Gwen Harris, James Stevens, Stuart Benson, Gwen Wheeler, James Buchanan, Dawn Rees, Val Vallis, Eunice Hanger, and Betty Ross.

It was while Joan was away in the UK that Twelfth Night moved from 51 to 39 Wickham Terrace, so she returned to a new performance venue as well as to the Albert Hall where most productions had been held before then. She returned with a renewed vigour and enthusiasm for presenting the new theatre work that had so captured her in London and Dublin, and over the next few years she gathered new people into the theatre fold, people of the calibre of: June Murphy – who together with future husband Ron was in the 1st year NIDA, Bill Pepper, Patsy McCarthy, Bev Langford, Carol Burns, Judith McGrath and many others.

And the plays she persuaded Miss Felgate to schedule included Waiting for Godot, The Enchanted, Under Milkwood. She worked closely with Eunice Hangar to enlarge the Australian written repertoire, which included The Ham Funeral by Patrick White and Norm and Ahmed by Alex Buzo – both productions gave the Brisbane newspapers plenty of lurid copy! Robert Kingham is here today and I imagine that he remains as surprised as the rest of us that it was the first of the 2 words used to describe his character that caused the uproar and NOT the second word!

In late 1959 she had a phone call from Robert Quentin offering her the position of voice tutor at the new National Institute of Dramatic Art. As Joan herself puts it “Half an hour later Miss Felgate knocked at my door and said ‘I’d like you to take over direction of Twelfth Night Theatre’. I said I was sorry but I’d just accepted the NIDA position but that I would only go for two years and then I’d come back”.

Which of course she did, and contributed some of the most progressive and exciting theatre of the decade. Again, she gathered directors, actors, designers, all manner of theatre workers who were invigorated by the atmosphere of intellectual and artistic excitement she created. Among many others they included: June Murphy, Ron Finney, Michael Caton, Graham Foreman – later a senior script writer for Crawfords – The Sullivans etc, Judy Kelly – now Evans – who in a minute will tell us of Joan’s Maleny days, Ian Audsley, Robert Kingham, Brian Blain, Rex Cramphone, and Max Hurley. This thriving mass of dedicated theatre people – some who had been part of the Company since Miss Felgate’s days and now the new younger ones – were all clamouring for “a go”.

Joan and the Theatre Committee began looking at the need for a larger venue – the Albert Hall was due for demolition and the SGIO was still a still a piece of paper on a drawing board. A “Building Fund” was established, and during the time I worked as Joan’s PA at Gowrie in the mid-60s we had endless fund-raising events – I mostly remember Melbourne Cup lunches at the Mark Twain which were great fun, and helping at Sunday morning exhibition openings at the Johnstone Gallery in Cintra Road.

Marjorie Johnstone, who before her marriage was Marjorie Mant and she remained a close friend of Miss Felgate’s. She and her husband Brian owned the triangular piece of land next to their Gallery and with the utmost generosity they made it available to Twelfth Night Theatre to build their new home.

I can’t remember the production but while we were still at Gowrie Joan came down to the office one afternoon and said “We need some soft drink for this show and the father of one of the girls in Junior Twelfth Night owns Kirks soft drink factory, so come on we’re going over there to see if he’ll give us some.” So, we did, and he did. His name was Brian Sweeney and his co-owner was Trevor Cottee and they were immediately interested in what Joan had to tell them about her vision for the theatre. Now, it so happened that Joan had the architect’s plans in her car at the time (I’ve never known to this day whether that was a deliberate ploy on Joan’s part) but by the time we left Kirks Factory that afternoon, after a bottle or two of Verve Cliquot, Joan had a guarantee from those two men that the real fundraising for a new theatre was on the way.

From that moment there was no stopping Joan – she quite rightly had immense confidence in herself and in her ability to enthuse and organise people and, come hell or high water, she was going to have a new theatre building in which talented and well-paid actors would entertain and enrich the audiences of Brisbane.

During all this Joan sat on the inaugural Board of the QTC, she served on the Theatre Board for the Aust Council for the Arts, the State Board of the ABC Later on she served also on the Board of New Moon Theatre Co in Townsville.

She achieved so much – one of the most notable was that she was responsible (with a bit of help from Brian Sweeney and his political mates) for the Commonwealth Government giving tax concessions for donations to the arts.

And to a point, Joan succeeded in her courageous quest – she got the theatre building that we all needed, she paid the actors (I won’t bother you with another long list of them – we all know them) but Joan was naïve in her belief that the audiences would flock to this new venue. Se steamrollered The Courier-Mail into financing the Journalists’ Club downstairs, but then found that while journos might drink they don’t buy theatre tickets. Wthin a few years the debt was too big and Joan resigned and moved to Port Douglas. She and Stuart Benson were finally married, and they moved to Maleny.

Although Joan’s vision of the Company with its own theatre was fairly short lived, her influence on Brisbane’s theatre lived on and does so to this day.

Although the Company changed its name from Twelfth Night to TN in order not to be confused with a building, Joan’s idea of an ensemble theatre company was carried on by the following 3 Artistic Directors until the Company came to its final days during the time that all Brisbane audiences turned their eyes to Expo 88 and had no time or money left to spend.

But the fact that the Company had its final high days at The Princess was a legacy that came directly from Joan. I was working at TN during that time when we knew we had to move from Brookes Street and one day I had a phone call from an architect called Fred Kirkegaard who I remembered from Gowrie days as he had been a speech student of Joan’s. He told me the story of how Joan had changed his life by curing him of a speech impediment and how grateful to her he had always been. He was working with the developer of the precinct surrounding The Princess when he heard that the Company was in need of a new home and so he rang to see if we’d be interested. Well, yes, we were. And so Twelfth Night Theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary with Rhoda Felgate, Marjorie and Brian Johnstone and many others of the Twelfth Night family in attendance at The Princess Theatre – all thanks to Joan. And the really good news is that The Princess is about to become a live performance venue again.

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