4 July 2022

Australia's rich performing arts history takes spotlight at National Library

| Evelyn Karatzas
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NLA poster from On Stage Exhibition

The On Stage exhibition at the National Library of Australia takes visitors on a journey through our performing arts history. Photo: NLA.

Lights, camera, action! The National Library of Australia has taken to the stage with its unique exhibition On Stage: Spotlight on our Performing Arts, a showcase of Australia’s rich history and identity behind the curtain.

Exhibition curator and library curator of rare books and music Dr Susannah Helman said the exhibition aimed to highlight Australia’s performing arts history and the nation’s passion for live performances.

“The exhibition focuses on moments in Australia’s performing arts history – people, companies and productions. We do that by featuring items from our collections. While the architecture and design of performance spaces themselves are not the exhibition’s focus, the exhibition tries to capture the feeling and the excitement of going to see something live,” Dr Helman said.

“Many theatres and venues are represented throughout the exhibition, from the earliest theatres in Sydney, Hobart and Melbourne to theatres and venues we may have attended in our lifetimes.

READ MORE: On Stage: Spotlight on our Performing Arts

“There’s wonderful original material in the exhibition I find very evocative. Everything is drawn from the library’s rich collections.”

On Stage is an exhibition like no other, displaying objects and memorabilia from the past including tickets, posters and photographs.

“As you enter the exhibition you see an ‘up in lights’ wall, listing names you’ll meet throughout the exhibition, then images of the outside and inside of a theatre and we have a real velvet curtain further in,” Dr Helman said.

Venues represented in the exhibition include Melbourne’s Royal Victoria Theatre, Theatre Royal and Princess Theatre, the Sydney Opera House, Ballarat’s Theatre Royal and Hobart’s Theatre Royal.

A red velvet curtain lures visitors further into the exhibition. Photo: NLA.

One of the highlights in the exhibition is a playbill from 1796.

“The playbill advertises an evening’s entertainment at Sydney’s first purpose-built theatre,” Dr Helman said.

“What’s exciting is that it is also the earliest surviving item printed in Australia.

“There had been a theatre before that, but this was the first purpose-built theatre.”

Advertisements and posters from all kinds of performances are also on display.

“There’s a broadside, a poster from the Theatre Royal in Hobart, which is basically an advertisement for an evening at the theatre,” Dr Helman said.

“That theatre opened in 1837, and is still running in Hobart.

“The broadside dates from 1873.”

She said the exhibition demonstrated the vast array of places and eras to explore in Australia’s performing arts history.

“Our collections are really rich resources for people who either want to study the history of performing arts in Australia or to reminisce about their own experiences going to live performance,” she said.

“These objects contain a lot of information about the past.

“Many of the objects in the exhibition are packed with information, detail about what the show would offer, how much tickets were and where you could buy them. Things that give you insight into the history of performing arts in Australia.”

READ ALSO Breathtaking performance art transmits true Indigenous storytelling

Dr Helman said the On Stage exhibition showed as much about what hadn’t changed in performing arts as what had changed.

“The objects show how our tastes in entertainment have changed, but they also show how passionate we are about going out to see something live,” she said.

“When I look at a program, a poster, a script, a ticket, I can just imagine what it must have been like to go to a performance. I think it’s amazing these often ephemeral things have survived.

“It’s been great fun delving into the collections.”

The free exhibition, exclusive to Canberra, will run until Sunday, 7 August. To find out more, visit NLA.

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