The rise and fall of the Sydney University Dramatic Society

Patrick Morrow chronicles the life and death of student theatre on campus.

“…The sky is overcast
Here in the English autumn, but my mind
Basks in the light I never left behind.”

Clive James, “Sentenced to Life”, Times Literary Supplement, 2 May 2014

This year the Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) turned 125. To celebrate, Australia’s oldest continuously operating theatre company was ousted from The Cellar Theatre, our home beneath Holme, and shoehorned into Studio B. Due to the discovery of asbestos we were stuck for ten months (of a refurbishment scheduled to take three) in a mausoleum to a long-dead culture of performing arts on campus.

Studio B occupies the space immediately behind what used to be The Footbridge Theatre, because, in the days when Footbridge was still a designated student theatre, it used to be a part of it.  What was once Footbridge’s designated rehearsal space has a disorientingly high ceiling, which once accommodated mechanists, stage-hands, a catwalk and lighting rig, but now, in the absence of any of these resources, serves only to ruin acoustics.

The move was a poetic blow, as part of what many members of the society perceive to be an inadvertent attack on culture on campus; a war of belt-tightening attrition, waged by generations of exploitative bureaucracies that don’t appreciate they undercut one of the university’s greatest assets. And it is an asset that holds value despite being housed in a venue in which the damp will kill you, or the electrics will kill you, or the asbestos in the ceilings will kill you. (Or would have. These things are nominally fixed.)

Studio B was a draughty, hostile, cold and cavernous relic, but an exterior fire escape left ajar led to a whole world of impossibly spacious, but disused dressing rooms, no longer to OH&S standards. Rows of incandescent, Broadway bulbs skirt mirrors, hardly aged, which still boast the lipstick of sixties campus stars.

And what stars they were. It was the gateway to a time when the performing arts on campus were taken seriously – or so it seemed.

At the time of the commissioning of the Footbridge Theatre in 1959, the USU declared: “A university theatre is essential.” The theatre seated several hundred, was fully equipped, and was intended to replace the theatre-cum-lecture halls that had been used in the past. More impressive than the theatre itself was the SUDS cohort that attended it. Robert Hughes, Mungo Macallum, Germaine Greer, John Bell, Barry Humphries, Bob Ellis, Clive James, all interacted with SUDS in the late fifties and early sixties.

Dr. Laura Ginters, Senior Lecturer of The Performance Studies Department has been working on a history of the society for almost a decade, with a focus on these golden years. She praises the period as one in which “University was a genuine period of creativity and self-development”.

This was partly due to the nature of pre-digital coursework. “It was said that in first semester first years worked, in second semester not even they worked, in third semester everyone crammed,” Ginters explains. “The students only had exams at the end of the year – assessment was not part of the deal, so for two thirds of the year, everyone had masses of time, so the volume of productions they did was huge.”

And the programming was predictably impressive. Bob Ellis, prominent Labour Speechwriter (and slightly racist, girl-centric and still sometimes SUDS critic), starred in the first Harold Pinter play ever to be staged in Australia. Previously unperformed works by Brecht were almost common in 1961 and 1962.

In 1967, the breakaway Architecture Revue – The Great Wall of Porridge was founded by Graham Bond, who would go on to wear a dress and fake moustache as the immortal Aunty Jack, along with Geoffrey Atherden (writer of Mother and Son), Peter Weir (director of The Truman Show) and Peter Best (composer for Crocodile Dundee).

The incredible cultural output continues throughout the seventies and eighties. The USU’s current Head of Marketing, Alistair Cowie, was Publicity Officer for SUDS in 1989 and the list of those he met through the society is similarly staggering: Chris Mead, Vince Sorrenti, Julia Zemiro, Neil Armfield, Marion Potts, Lucy Bell and Anita Hegh have all gone on to success in their fields, via The Cellar.

 In 1986, Guardian Australia reporter David Marr would direct Spike Milligan’s The Bedsitting Room, while the stalled revue program of the late sixties had by now returned to the Footbridge Theatre, with the Union, along with the Law and Medical Faculties, staging variety shows similar to those given today.

Ian Maxwell is now a lecturer in Performance Studies, but in 1986, he was president of SUDS and received a terse letter from the Seymour Centre threatening a two dollar fine if first-time director Andrew Upton could not produce the key to the downstairs space.

Maxwell and Cowie both fondly remember their time in The Cellar. Both cited SUDS punch – brewed in a garbage can and laced with acid, a feverous attachment to political, post-modern texts that dealt with nuclear fallout, spectacular sustainable poverty, and an evening where all the society’s lighting equipment
was stolen by the Divinyls.

The successes of the period are attributable to a kind of insularity, described by Maxwell: “It didn’t feel careerist. I don’t think we had any sense of the future. I don’t think we had a notion of the history of the place. I can never remember us having people talk about the famous generation of the sixties. Maybe we were just completely self-absorbed. We were still in the notion of an opening up world.”

“The basic cost of living was smaller. They were much more innocent days,” Maxwell explains. The cohort lived in Glebe, and Newtown and Chippendale and rarely wasn’t on campus. While nobody had any money, nobody needed it, because there was the dole and free education and it seemed like nobody could take either away.

SUDS got three weeks of time in the Seymour Centre, twice a year thanks to the on campus Theatre Service – a protean iteration of today’s Performance Studies Department.

What could possibly have changed?

The introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism in 2005 left the USU predictably gutted. Where previously, every April, 8 million dollars (approximately $280 per student) would reliably line its coffers, current arrangements see the USU receiving $80 per student, and a further $70 should they buy an Access Card.

To stay afloat, the Union sold most of Footbridge, level 5 of the Wentworth Building, and a handful of other union spaces for $5 million, and $3 million per year thereafter – a decision that Cowie laments as necessary.

The increased financial burden is not felt only by the Union. The fundamental difference between now and the past, Ginters argues, is that “it’s all too easy for students to just bow down under the fact that they have to earn enough money to live, and to pay for their books, and their HECS – and to not be here very often. There are now pressures to balance in the getting of a degree”.

But these pressures don’t really constitute a new threat to campus culture. It seems that the performing arts have existed in a permanently precarious  position on campus,the Golden Days included. In fact, the degree to which our present obstacles are incidental becomes clear when we look to the past without rose tinted spectacles.

That vulgar reminder of the good old days, The Footbridge Theatre,  for example, was ultimately very rarely used by students. By all accounts, it was as unforgivingly unclean and under-maintained as The Cellar is nowadays, and was largely hired out by non-student theatre groups instead. According to Ginters, “everyone thought it would solve all the problems of student drama – it didn’t… the fantastic new, purpose built theatre was too expensive for students to use.”

The lack of administrative support, both at University and more broadly, resulted in what Howard Jacobson called “a seething cauldron of belligerence” among the student theatre community. John Gaden, now a member of Belvoir and Australian television aristocracy, confessed to Ginters that he spent much of his time in SUDS pilfering construction sites for set-sized lengths of timber, or breaking into The Wallace Theatre for wont of a performance space after hours or on weekends.

And the society was hardly any better off: twice bailed out by the Union in the eighties and nineties, the group operated out of facilities that were notoriously “flea ridden” and “rat-holey”, according to Cowie, “but everything is beautiful when you look back at your twenty-year-old self.” The Cleveland Street Theatre, PACT Centre for Emerging Artists, Manning, Footbridge and The Cellar – all were trying spaces that were whipped into produced magic.

Even as far back as the late nineteenth century the struggle for a sense of place was real. The society was allowed to perform in The Great Hall, “and then they’d do something horrendous like not clean up properly and they’d be banned for thirty or forty years,” Ginters explained.

Triumph in the face of logistical adversity is integral to the SUDS narrative – the incredible pressure exerted by VSU and increasingly finite budgets are new problems, but having problems isn’t.

SUDS perseveres, and many of its graduates from the past ten years, just as previously, are making their names  in Australian theatre. Former member Kip Williams this month directed Hugo Weaving in the Sydney Theatre Company’s Macbeth, while 2011 President Olivia Satchell has already founded a fledgling theatre company, Somersault, to cultivate and refine new Australian plays.

Fact is, as reflecting on SUDS’ notable alumni and the society’s flourishing comes closer and closer to the present, the narrative I’d previously accepted about campus performing arts – that they are victim  to a new, highly – successful, bureaucratic conspiracy to sink them- begins to look less convincing.

Ginters naturally dismisses the suggestion. “The perception that there is less activity, and less support for activities is a perpetual one. It was a constant struggle to finding funding for shows as well as for other activities.”

To say that the sixties were the glory days of campus culture is only to say that the period’s alumni have secured their notoriety. Those who graduated in the eighties and nineties are doing so now, and the current assembly of undergraduates will one day do the same.

“The University,” Ginters observes, “is very keen on cutting the arts left, right and centre but whenever they want to advertise how brilliant they are on their website, you always see someone playing an oboe, or people clapping hands.”

In an increasingly competitive tertiary education market, universities such as Sydney are looking to promote themselves to potential new students on the basis of activities and institutions such as SUDS, but until now have been hesitant to  facilitate their flourishing.  The Vice-Chancellor has this year provided extensive financial support to the SUDS 125th Anniversary Gala Dinner, which seems indicative of a new commitment by the University to the cultural institutions that differentiate it from other tertiary education providers. Cowie, moreover, plans to remodel the Wentworth Building into a campus culture hub by 2020 – at the heart of which would lie  a (clean) venue with the means to seat 250 people, exclusively for students.

But even in the event that this optimism is unfounded SUDS is, at the very least, home again. And history suggests that, come hell, or slowly rising damp, or asbestos, or faulty electrics, the society will make the most of it.