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Vale Doreen Warburton

In the year 2017, in what I feel is a year of a cultural murmur of social progress, with the arrival of WONDER WOMAN, at out local cinemas, where many of my ‘girlfriends’ have been seen, or have reported, that they wept, because of some deep stirring in their human/female psyche, Evelyn Doreen Warburton O.B.E. (Doreen Gabriel), on the 17th July, passed away. I believe Doreen Warburton was a real life Wonder Woman of her time. In my living through theatre history I have benefited from contact with Five Wonder Women, without whom, I have often wondered how my life would have been different. I wonder, really, how different Sydney Theatre would have been without their determined presence.

There are, in my experience, five Wonder Women of the Theatre of Sydney:

1. Doris Fitton and her extraordinary forging of a Performing Arts industry based in the Independent Theatre, in North Sydney, in the time of the lively cultural tentacles of the British Empire, the Commonwealth that followed and, Menzies’ Liberal Party Kingdom – remember her groundbreaking Professional Repertory Season in the 1960’s – it included UNCLE VANYA, MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA – I was a school kid and remember and was inspired. I, also, briefly, attended an acting class, upstairs at the Independent, run, I think, by Keith Bain – my first one.

2. Elizabeth Butcher, who beginning as the Bursar at the National Institute Of Dramatic Art, in 1969, has had an extraordinary influence on the shape of the Sydney (Australian, International) scene, not only with her enterprising nurturing of her students in all the practises of the theatre crafts, but in her influence to found the Sydney Theatre Company (with John Clark) in its transition from the Old Tote Theatre Company, to find the Wharf 4 venue. Besides her presence in senior administrative positions at The Australian Council for the Arts, the Sydney Opera House, Council of the University of NSW, the Seymour Centre, the NSW Advisory Arts Board, and even to today, as an active member on the NAISDA Board, working with the Indigenous dance community.

3. Doreen Warburton, an actor and one of the co-founders, and leader of the Q Theatre, first, in a 14 year commitment to a lunch time theatre that was made ‘glorious’ in the AMP Auditorium, at Circular Quay, in the 60’s and early 70’s. Then, with her leadership and founding of the Q Theatre, in Penrith in 1977, which she took boldly, and against great advice to what Sydney proper called the cultural desert of the outer Western suburbs (still, in 2017, a prejudice in some minds of the ARTS Institutions!!)

4. Wendy Blacklock, actor and entrepreneur in the founding of the touring theatre organisation, Performing Lines.

5. Sandra Bates, and her cossetting of the artistic and financial fortunes at the Ensemble Theatre, after the ‘reign’ of Hayes Gordon, without government support – how did she do it?

All of these women with a missionary zeal, in a tight patriarchal society, were the visionaries and founders of much industry for actors and other artists, in the recent history and even present theatrical scene, in Sydney. They ought to be celebrated and have their contribution indelibly memorialised.

My first memory of Doreen, I think I was still at school, so, maybe, when I was 16, was in an Australian play called THE CELL, in which she played a nun (those of us who remember Doreen can only smile at Doreen in a nun’s habit!), at the Independent Theatre, in North Sydney, run by, one of the other Wonder Women of the Sydney Theatre, Doris Fitton. (Co-incidentally, it was at Ms Fitton’s theatre that I made my professional debut, in 1971, in a David Mercer play, AFTER HAGGERTY, Directed by Aarne Neeme).

Doreen was born in a ‘rough’ suburb of London in 1930, was blitzed out of London during World War II and evacuated to the country, separately, from her siblings. Doreen had a Quaker education that stimulated her endless curiosity about the world and led her to the wonder of the theatre. One of Doreen’s seminal experiences was her work with Joan Littlewood and her theatre company – where she met the musician Ewan MacColl. All of this was a profound shaper of Doreen’s theatre philosophy – a sense of responsibility to community and a belief that the theatre opens the doors and windows to the world for all, and that it needed to be both ‘accessible’ and ‘affordable’, for all. Doreen followed her family to Sydney, Australia, and as a young actress began to build a career. Radio, theatre – in her career arc it included such stuff as A TASTE OF HONEY, YOU NEVER CAN TELL, GETTING MARRIED, THE MATCHMAKER, IRENE, A HARD GOD, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. She was a member of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust Company that used to tour around Australia, presenting Shakespeare. Television and film followed (infamously, remembered for her scene-stealing presence in THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB – 1966). She, also, met Ben Gabriel, a Sydney actor of great reputation. They were temperamental opposites that was the bond of their great love in a marriage that lasted until the passing of Ben in 2012.

I came into the ‘gravitational’ pull of Doreen’s vision in 1975, when after deciding that acting was too hard, had decided to give it up, and whilst working as a guide at the Opera House, began helping out front-of-house at the Lunchtime ‘Q’ Theatre. I was invited onto the committee of the theatre and was given my first professional production as Director, of a one act play by Michael Cove. I’m not sure why I was given the job other than, perhaps, as Doreen was to play the leading role, no-one else was prepared (or available!) to take it on – I, an innocent, led to ‘danger’. Whatever transpired, it all, for me, went well. This was when Doreen presented to her committee, the idea of setting up a theatre in the outer suburbs of Sydney.

Doreen had come up with a plan.

In 1975 and 1976, ‘acolytes’: Richard Brooks, Michael Cove, Tony Ingersent, and myself, were sent out to the ‘wilds’ – what some called the ‘cultural deserts’ – of Sydney, as far west as the Blue Mountains, as far South as Wollongong, as far North as Newcastle, to provide Ten Week Free Acting Classes in different communities whose Councils had been persuaded by Doreen to provide a space/hall for us to do it in. I remember sometimes arriving at 7pm somewhere, say Blacktown, and meeting a group of people up to the number of 80, aged anywhere between 8 and 80 and beginning an introduction to acting – I learnt, quickly, in the first classes, to give vigorous physical exercises, that sifted some of the participants out of their inspiration to be want to be actors. From these classes we would choose the most interesting (promising) to attend an “Advanced” Acting Workshop, on Saturdays, which, organised by Doreen, I took charge of, based in the Parramatta Psychiatric Hospital, just across the road/park from the present Riverside Theatre site, today. We were building a loyal and enthusiastic cohort of citizens from many diverse backgrounds from all over the Sydney Metropolitan area.

In the meantime Doreen, whilst playing nationally in the J.C Williamson’s musical IRENE, was becoming familiar with the different Councils and lobbying the Arts Funding organisations to support her vision. Doreen was a life-force of irresistible scale. Her personality was charming, masking her determination, and who was not afraid to use her flirtatious nature and robust, often bawdy, sense of humour to help persuade authority and Government, to her vision. Into, what was the highly charged testosterone 1970’s political world, Doreen strode with all the glamour and strategy of an Amazonian warrior and seductress, usually dressed in a figure covering, multi-patterned and coloured mumu dress, large hoop earrings and her blonde hair in a bun on the top of her head with a triangle of cloth tied in it. Her great virtues were her open-hearted generosity and straight-forward common sense logic. She was a tough and demanding leader but I never ever heard her speak disrespectfully or with cruelty to any individual in her professional world. She none the less was a formidable force of determination, which is not to say she was not vulnerable – watching her prepare in a Tech week and on an Opening night as a Director of work, and especially as an actor, and meeting her before any of her major meetings with the authorities that could provide or prevent her vision to come to life was to see a nervous girlish child, laughing, and shallowly puffing on a cigarette  – she never seemed to ever inhale – to mask her fear of failure or rejection. She never was ever rejected, in my experience. She always was inflamed, exhilarated, by the ‘battles’ she found herself in. Blazing bravado!

After two years of seeding community support all over Sydney, Doreen proposed to certain Councils the idea of having a Professional Theatre Company within their midst. The successful council was Penrith who gave the ‘Q’ Theatre the local Railway Institute Hall, at a small rent, just across from the railway station, and although they couldn’t give money, gave support in kind with plumbing, electrical work and re-assembling of the spaces, for the theatre. We were also in there, beside the tradesmen with sledge hammers, and tools of carpentry, often in the raw heat of 40 degree Emu Plains heat. The local blood-house pub, The Red Cow, was part of our daily recovery from Doreen’s supervisory urgings – sometimes the community of the local bikies, part of the permanent scenery of The Red Cow, became part of our audience – friends were made through all startas of the local community.

In the meantime Doreen (actor/director/teacher/leader/politician/boss) had selected an organising force about her: Richard Brooks (director/actor/teacher/Red Cow denizen), Tony Ingersent (actor/director, administrator) Arthur Dicks (designer/director) Max Iffland (academic/dramaturge) and myself. We auditioned a group of professional actors. We could afford 5 and chose Ron Hackett. Vola Van Dere, Alan Brel, Linden Wilkinson and Ron Rodger to augment the artistic core (other actors became members of the company over its history e.g. Elaine Hudson, Alexander Hay, Bill Conn, Gae Anderson, Ben Gabriel, Judy Davis). Arthur Dicks had designed a portable, ‘Mechano’-set, three sided theatre space that sat in the space of the Railway Institute, and in the first season we pulled down and transported to our other community centres (it nearly ‘killed’ us and we only did that for a year): Parramatta and Bankstown (a few years later to Orange). Two weeks in Penrith, a week in Parramatta, a week in Bankstown, a week in Orange. We all took on all tasks and if we were not performing we were front-of-house, stage management, constructors and set painter, etc. We were all paid the same amount of money – just above equity minimum. An instance of our jobs: was performing Wednesday to Sunday, rehearsing the next production Tuesday to Friday, and teaching in the ‘Q’ Acting Workshop, Saturday from 9am- 3pm (Shows at 4.30pm and 8pm). It was hard work but we all loved it and Doreen was our patient and diligent leader, task master.

We opened, the ‘Q’ Theatre, in Penrith, in March, 1977 – forty years ago – with a musical LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS. With Equity permission, to celebrate, the acting company, was expanded by members of the Q Theatre Workshop from our community. The audiences were thrilled to have their own professional theatre and be able to see friends on stage, as well – a coup de theatre in Doreen’s strategy. A loyal and enthusiastic audience was captured. To subsidise the company’s work – to support up to two productions – the ‘Q’ also played a Music Hall/Melodrama/Sing-along Theatre Restaurant season in Bankstown Town Hall for the Christmas season from October to late December, every year. This was a vital part of Doreen’s plans and she cared for it with extra vigilance.

Doreen was a great supporter of the  new Australian writers of the time and included work by David Williamson, Peter Kenna, Bob Herbert in her seasons, and new work from fledgling writers including Martin Sharman and Noel Hodda, and commissioning musical theatre e.g. Phillip Scott’s SAFETY IN NUMBERS, and several rock musical’s including, ST MARY’S KID, from young people of the local communities, which she took to Sydney proper, to condescending appraisal. The ‘Q’ Theatre won the Sydney Critics Award in 1979.

Doreen provided creative and work opportunities for an astounding number of artists, entertained and ‘educated’ a local audience and laid the foundation for the presence of the Joan Sutherland Arts Centre in Penrith, which houses the latest iteration of the ‘Q’ theatre still today.

Whilst acknowledging the Riverina Trucking Company (1976) and the Hunter Valley Theatre Company (1976), Doreen Warburton’s philosophy and hard practical actions for the ‘Q’ Theatre marks her out, for me, as a Woman of Wonder. Along with the other women I have mentioned above, who have made an integral contribution to my theatre experiences, Doreen Warburton, along with Elizabeth Butcher, were/are my theatrical mothers. I have much to be grateful for her life force energy that propelled and sustained my own career. Many of us do.

In Sydney, with the recent founding of the Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS), it is important to point to the women who have/are leaders of Theatre, who, without, I wonder where our industry would be today. What careers have been realised from their hard work and inspiration? Let us champion their history. Doreen’s nephew, Darren Warburton at the Celebration of Doreen’s Life, mentioned there was a rich collection of Doreen’s papers stored in his garage. Is there someone able to tackle her lifework into a book?

Thank you with great love, Doreen.