Today I rise to celebrate an important milestone in the vibrant cultural life of my electorate and indeed all of Sydney: the 60th anniversary of the Ensemble Theatre. For six decades, the much-loved Ensemble has presented to audiences some of the finest international and Australian playwrights. This is a remarkable achievement. One of the keys to the Ensemble Theatre’s success is that it has held true to its vision of creating diverse, accessible live theatre of the highest quality that entertains, educates, enlightens and challenges. Some of our greatest actors have walked its stage—names like Russell Crowe, Rachel Ward, Jacki Weaver, Penny Cook, Max Gillies, Kate Fitzpatrick, Reg Livermore, Lorraine Bayly, Andrew McFarlane, Greta Scacchi, Garry McDonald and Georgie Parker, to name but a few. So many owe their first start to the Ensemble.
The Ensemble Theatre started with humble beginnings. It began with a series of short plays by Tennessee Williams at the children’s library in Cammeray in May 1958 under the guidance of its US-born founder, Hayes Gordon. This unnamed troupe of actors were quickly named the Ensemble Theatre in tribute to the fact that there were no stars, only an assembly of actors. Growing audiences meant that the company had to move to a hall in Miller Street, North Sydney, before it too became inadequate to meet the theatre’s growth. So Hayes Gordon went looking for a home for the group and found a boatshed in Careening Cove, Kirribilli. Lorraine Bayly has been quoted as saying that initially she was horrified because the Ensemble’s proposed new home was so rudimentary, you could see the harbour water through its floorboards. However, despite these objections, it was to become a wonderful venue, located as it is on one of Sydney Harbour’s most beautiful bays.
Hayes Gordon went on to be one of only three artistic directors that have served at the Ensemble Theatre, stepping down in 1986. The legendary Sandra Bates took over the reins and held the position for 30 years. Sandra stands as the longest-serving artistic director of any theatre company in the country and is rightly regarded as one of the greats of Australian theatre. In 2011, Sandra invited Mark Kilmurry to share the role of artistic director. Mark took over as sole artistic director in 2016, and the theatre has gone from strength to strength under his leadership.
The Ensemble Theatre has done so much to foster a love for theatre, whether it be by exposing audiences to the classics, presenting new plays or encouraging emerging and established directors and actors. Remarkably, it has survived and flourished without regular support from government. Indeed, when I took Senator Mitch Fifield to the theatre in 2016, it was the first time a federal arts minister had made a visit. While it has not called regularly on government for support, I am pleased that I was able to secure funding to help provide the solar panels which now adorn its roof.
Congratulations to everyone who has contributed, supported and performed at the Ensemble Theatre over the last 60 years. Long may they continue.