The Q Story
The Q Theatre Company began its life in 1963 with a prolific lunchtime program at the AMP Theatrette at Circular Quay in Sydney. But increasing difficulties in the 1970s (such as a shortage of fresh short plays for lunchtime performances, changing audience demographics and a rapidly rising rent-bill for the venue) led to a reassessment of its policies and aims.
"From 1963 to 1984 is a long period in anyone’s life. But for a theatre company, consisting of six actors contributing five pounds each, to go on to become the longest-running lunch hour theatre company in the world and subsequently the largest regional theatre company in Australia, that time-span is more than just the proverbial milestone.
The six actors: Ben Gabriel, Edward Hepple, Robert McDarra, Terry McDermott, Walter Sullivan and Doreen Warburton, launched the Q Theatre Group’s Lunch Hour Theatre on 2nd December, 1963 at the AMP Theatrette (a comfortable, air-conditioned 250 seater) at Circular Quay."
Ailsa Carpenter, Q Theatre 1984: Q Turns 21: 1963-1984. Q Theatre, Penrith
Evening performances at Circular Quay helped diversify the company’s profile somewhat, as did the occasional tours to the outer western suburbs of Sydney after 1972. The Q developed a special relationship with the Bankstown Civic Centre for example, with regular tours there from about 1974
In 1977 the company’s artistic director, Doreen Warburton decided to quit Sydney altogether and re-establish the Q at Penrith as a regional company. Penrith City Council gave it (the Q) an old railway Institute building to convert into its new home as an intimate, thrust-stage theatre. Here it staged its annual subscription season of five or six plays and from here it fanned out with an increasingly diverse touring program. Richard Brooks, Arthur Dicks and Doreen Warburton were the creative drivers of the Q.
When the company settled in Penrith, Doreen became Managing Artistic Director and she invited two others to become co-artistic directors - Arthur Dicks and Richard Brooks.
Doreen had trained and worked with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in England, moved to Australia in 1953 and, by 1977, was highly regarded as an actor and director in this country. She had been the official Artistic Director of the Q since 1971 (she’d been an unpaid, unofficial one for a few years before that!). Arthur had vast experience as a designer in England and had been Head of Design at NIDA. He now became the Q’s Head of Design and was responsible for some ingenious (and economical) Q sets and costumes. Richard had trained as an actor in England but preferred directing and had worked extensively as a director in English Repertory companies before coming to Australia. They were all English and they brought with them the magnificent British theatre tradition.
There is no question that these three talented theatre practitioners, exceptionally strong in their own areas of responsibility, were an ideal unit and, in the late 70’s, drawn together by Doreen’s single-minded determination to keep focused on the objectives, all three were totally committed to the Q. We all were.
Bill Conn, Actor and historian
In 1983, a new Q Theatre - nearly twice the size of the previous venue - was opened, with the financial support of the NSW government and Penrith City Council. The Q was simultaneously able to celebrate its twentieth birthday and to begin what was in effect a third life.
In the beginning it was a dream, but, one hot evening in March, 1977, the houselights of a tiny theatre in the West were lowered, a packed audience hushed to an expectant silence, actors quietly took their positions, a cymbal began to toll, the Town Crier entered and uttered the first line in our first Penrith production - “Nine o’clock on a fine summer’s night and all’s well!” Doreen Warburton, 1984
Helmut Bakaitis becomes artistic director of the Q. Under his leadership the Q premiers many new Australian plays
An early NIDA graduate, with a period of working in England, Helmut had already established the prestigious Carclew Youth Arts Centre in Adelaide and the St Martins Youth Arts Centre in Melbourne, which he directed for five years. He was also director of the New Moon Theatre Company in Queensland for three years.
Helmut directed his first production for the Q, ‘Operation Holy Mountain’, in May of 1990. Toni Collette made her first professional appearance in this play, which would mark a new age for the Q. Many of the plays were provocative and Penrith was not necessarily ready for it after years of Doreen Warburton’s sensitive appreciation of community taste.
Towards the end of the 90’s, the Australia Council’s shifted its funding focus from infrastructure to individual artists. This shift would have a significant impact on regional companies throughout Australia. Many disappeared. The Q, however, showed it had lost none of the survival instinct and true to its somewhat Brechtian heritage, re-invented itself and lived to play another day.
“On Monday, the Premier, Bob Carr, will launch a new theatre company, Railway Street, in Penrith. But this launch is more than it seems. It represents a new game being played in regional theatre, and the game is called reinvention. The aim of the game is survival.” Sydney Morning Herald Feb 1998
Railway Street Theatre Company was formed by the merging of The New England Theatre Company and The Q Theatre Company. Productions played at the Q and toured on a regular basis to towns in regional NSW. The fourth life!
The new director, Mary-Anne Gifford had trained as a singer and had a first class Honours degree in Theatre Studies from the University of NSW. She graduated from the NIDA Directors Course in 1992 and had worked as Artistic Director for the New Theatre, as a lecturer at the University of NSW and as a dramaturge and director at the National Playwright’s Conference. She was the first Australian Artistic Director at the Q. Her co-director was Dallas Lewis, the first General Manager of the Q. Between them they split the job of making the ‘new deal’ work.
Mary-Anne Gifford and Dallas Lewis leave the company during this year and David Hollywood is employed as general manager.
In August 2005, the old railway institute building, home to the Q since 1977, was officially closed.
The new Q was born in October with "Somewhere - the Magical Musical of Penrith" in the newly refurbished Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre. Starring Geraldine Turner, Sharon Millerchip, Jo Turner, Nick Simpson-Deeks and Amie McKenna and a huge community cast, the musical paid homage to the Q's legacy and its place in the world of Penrith.
A highlight of 2006 was a very fine production of Gary Baxter’s new work Weather, directed byJennifer Hagan and starring Julia Blake, Terry Norris, Michelle Doake and Jo Turner.
The year commenced with a critically acclaimed production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Directed and designed by David Hollywood, this fine production would go on to receive three Sydney Theatre Award nominations.
In July 2007, Railway Street Theatre Company (RSTC) was integrated into the new cultural entity Penrith Performing & Visual Arts Ltd (PP&VA), with the aim of ensuring RSTC would (and could) present and produce theatre of excellence that engaged the communities of Penrith and the region.
As part of the integration process RSTC and PP&VA embarked on a comprehensive program of strategic planning and development to underpin RSTC as it moved into its next phase of operation. In late 2007, RSTC was re-launched as the “Q Theatre Company”.
The Q’s aim is to build new audiences and company resources by delivering performance and education programs that are diverse, stimulating and relevant to regional audiences and contemporary environment – and to rebuild the ‘Q’ as a pre-eminent performing arts company in the region.