Homeless, Hopeful and Half Way to a Hundred

Townsville Little Theatre's Eric Blyth and Jacinta Ryan on set of 2018's 'In the Spirit of Murder' IMAGE: Sarah Joy Photography.

Like a travelling troupe of actors from enchanting stories of old, Townsville Little Theatre has no home to call it’s own.

The community theatre organisation – whose recent productions include The GraduateOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Calendar Girls and Steel Magnolias will celebrate it’s 50th year this month and until the recent Townsville floods utilised Castle Hill PCYC for rehearsals and Pimlico Performing Arts Centre (PIMPAC) for performances. With both venues temporarily closed following the floods, Townsville Little Theatre President Jacinta Ryan said the group would once again return to its long history of transience.

“Townsville Little Theatre (TLT) was an amalgamation of three theatre groups: they all got together because they were struggling with a bit of a decline in members and audiences, so became Townsville Little Theatre in 1969,” Jacinta said.

“We used to perform at the Civic Theatre and the old Theatre Royal, which hasn’t been around for a very long time. We had a permanent rehearsal space above Dancenorth in the School of Arts building – the Upstairs Theatre – and it was pretty good with raked seating, a lighting box, a small stage with a proscenium arch, and a bar. What more do you need?!

“When they started refurbishing the building we couldn’t stay, so began performing at the Hilltop Playhouse behind St James Cathedral. We performed there and called it our home base for quite a while, but then there were concerns with the heritage listing of it so since then, we’ve been a bit transient.”

Laura Coulton and Pam Snell in Townsville Little Theatre’s 2015 production of ‘Steel Magnolias’

TLT Vice President Eric Blyth said that while the half-century mark provided a nice opportunity to look back at where the company has been, it also drives home the importance of looking forward and future-proofing the group to ensure it lasts another 50 years or more.

“There is obviously an incredible history which we will be celebrating this year, but now is also about looking ahead and growing in the years to come. And not just on stage, but other areas as well,” Eric said.

“The nature of the group itself is changing: we’re actively fostering a new era, because we don’t want to just be this group of older people; we want new talent to start climbing the ranks and getting stage experience too.”

The group’s current performance venue, sitting on the Pimlico State High School campus, has assisted in this cultivation of talent.

“When past Pimlico teacher Karen Vane – may she rest in peace – was involved, she would set any play she directed as an assignment for her drama students. They’d sit in the audience and critique, and then afterwards would stay for a panel with the actors and directing team,” Eric said.

“They have a great program at PIMPAC called PALS (Performing Arts Lighting & Sound) who are the theatre’s techies, and there’s several students who have come out of that stable who continue to be involved and who know their way around the Centre.”

Luke Reynolds and Kath Hotschilt in Townsville Little Theatre’s 2018 Production of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ IMAGE: Martin Hodgson

While opening TLT up to the next generation of performers and technical staff, the Performing Arts Centre’s location has also meant the group’s productions fall subject to the school calendar.

“PIMPAC is brilliant and is what people associate as our home, but it’s difficult to plan ahead because of the requirements of the school: we would love to be able to confirm dates in advance, but can’t do that until towards the end of January each year when term one has started and the school knows when the space will be needed by students for the year. It’s a great venue, don’t get me wrong. But the uncertainty around when we’re performing does make things difficult at times.”

Jacinta said locking in a permanent venue for the company has been on the cards since shifting from the Hilltop Playhouse. They’ve purchased a block of land in West End which they hope will one day be the home of a permanent rehearsal and performance space.

“We’re constantly talking to different parties about a permanent venue. That’s obviously been our long-term goal ever since we vacated the Hilltop at least 20 years ago now, so it’s definitely a slow process. All we can do is try – we’re a small community group trying our best,” said Jacinta.

“It’s difficult to make any sort of commitment to a venue without a proper financial backing though,” said Eric. “Trying to create enough capital to move a building onto a site, you can only hold so many sausage sizzles in a year … and sponsorship is something everyone in this city is chasing, so it’s hard.”

Rachel Stockham, Marc Weston and Dylan Megaw in Townsville Little Theatre’s 2014 production of ‘Our Town’

Lack of a permanent space isn’t slowing TLT in the slightest: their 2019 season is as diverse and eclectic as they come.

“When we first started planning this season, we knew it had to be as broad as possible,” Eric said. “Initially we did look at the history of TLT and thought we could pick the best play from each decade – but then that’s not moving forward, which is the notion we wanted. We also had a discussion about involving more young people, so Picnic at Hanging Rock was brought to us by Director Alan Cooke and it’s Australian, which we thought was fitting for our anniversary.”

“Director Sonia Zabala came to us with The 39 Steps for our 2018 season but when there was a venue change mid-year it didn’t come about. In the end that was a blessing in disguise because it will make a great addition to the anniversary season. Then a pantomime – Cinderella Two: The Sisters Strike Back – at the end of the year which is exciting: not many pantomimes been done locally in a while. We have a couple of established directors running with that one, Barbara White coming back into the fold and Christine Scott.”

“Then before the panto will be Wolf Lullaby, directed by a new face to TLT, Shelley Keehn,” said Jacinta. “It’s a much darker play but is leaning towards that gothic Australian genre, which a lot of high schools tend to have in their drama curriculum – Shelley is a great foot in the door in that aspect, because she is a teacher, and brings that knowledge of what students are studying today and what would be relevant for them to watch or even perform in.”

Jacinta said she had no doubt Townsville Little Theatre would continue for at least another 50 years.

“When I joined in the 80s, there were only a handful of people involved so it had to rebuild from there, but it is theatre so it’s fun and people are drawn to it – it regenerates itself. People want to continue to see it thrive. And because it is fun, you get out what you put in.

Townsville Little Theatre will begin their 50th anniversary celebrations with a Gala Dinner on 16 February, before their first production of the year, Picnic at Hanging Rock running 20-23 March. For updated information about venues and tickets, visit townsvillelittletheatre.org.au

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