28 September 2022

For Canberra REP, life's still a stage - 90 years on

| Sally Hopman
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People outside a theatre entrance

Members of Canberra REP Society celebrate their 90th birthday this week. Photo: Sally Hopman.

There’s been a lot of romance in the air in Canberra REP’s 90-year history, and not just in the make-believe world that is the theatre.

As it marks the big birthday today (28 September), members and volunteers past and present, gathered at the theatre within the Australian National University to celebrate – Russell and Jeanette Brown among them.

Russell is the longest-serving member of the REP. He’s been there for 53 years.

“It used to be a bad habit,” said Russell. He has volunteered in almost as many capacities as there have been productions over the 90 years, from actor to president to set builder with the REP’s Dad’s Army group of volunteers.

“Now it’s just a group of old men building the sets, but none of them is as old as me.”

Russell, 82, who was a dentist before he retired, volunteers with his wife Jeanette, whom he married in 1960. Jeanette is in charge of the REP’s vast wardrobe department – thousands of garments from hats to gloves.

They actually met in a theatre – in Brisbane, not Canberra – and believe one of the recipes for their marital success is the shared love for the theatre.

Old couple

Russell and Jeanette Brown two of the longest-serving volunteers at Canberra REP. Photo: Sally Hopman.

Theatre had always been Russell’s passion, not so much for Jeanette, but she has learned to love it.

“The last time I was on stage was when I was 17,” she said, “the first and last time I have ever played the glamorous actress. Once was enough for me. I prefer to be behind the scenes. ”

She didn’t have much choice, really.

“Russell used to bring home bags of clothes for me to fix up.”

These days, Russell is happy to help build sets and stay behind the scenes – he’s done his dash with acting. “I just can’t remember lines anymore.”

But he said he was proud of his contribution to Canberra REP, particularly on its 90th birthday. He has been involved in more than 200 plays over the years. Noel Coward’s Hay Fever is among the favourites.

“It’s the one I’ll always remember,” he said, “because I’ve done it three times. First, when I designed the set, then again when I built it, and third when I performed in it and helped build the set.”

READ ALSO For Canberra REP’s ‘Dad’s Army’, the show will always go on

“Lasting this long doesn’t happen by accident,” he said. “It requires people, good people, to keep it going. We think of this place like a big family. Like on a Friday night, even if there’s no show, you can come here for happy hour and you will always run into someone you know.”

Canberra REP is one of Australia’s oldest community theatres, with only the New Theatre in Sydney – which is older by only about six months – and Hobart’s Royal about the same age. Theatre legend says that Canberra REP can credit its start to a pair of jazz garters – those things that held stockings up under theatrical garb – back in the 1920s. During Hay Fever’s performance, there was apparently some spirited debate about said garters, which sparked a walkout by some members of the then Canberra Society of Arts and Literature in September 1932. The “rebel” group was to become the Canberra Repertory Society the same year.

Today, Canberra REP has about 125 members, all volunteers except for a couple of paid employees and, as a not-for-profit, money raised from ticket sales goes back to the company. It receives no government funding.

Couple with photo album

Glen and Sue Gore Phillips with their wedding album. They were married on the Canberra REP stage in 1997. They returned 20 years later to renew their vows. Photo: Sally Hopman.

But it’s not only theatrical productions that grace the REP stage.

Two of its members, Sue Gore Phillips and her husband Glenn, were at this week’s 90th birthday celebrations, not only because they’re long-time REP volunteers – Sue as an actor, stage manager and lighting designer and Glenn as a singer, dancer and actor – but because they got married there – right on centre stage.

“We met here,” Sue said, “so we thought it would be a great place to get married.” And so they did in December 1997.

“It made sense for us to get married at a place that meant so much to us.”

They also renewed their vows at the theatre 20 years later in 2017.

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In its 90 years, Canberra REP has produced some impressive alumni, including San Francisco opera singer Karen Sourry, New York actress Lucy Taylor, former Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck, head of directing at the National Institute of Dramatic Art Peter Kingston and Canberra favourite Tim Ferguson of Doug Anthony All Stars fame.

Apart from weddings and other memorable personal occasions for its members, it continues to provide top-quality entertainment to its Canberra audience, thanks to its team of volunteers.

For more information about Canberra REP’s 90th birthday celebrations, go to its website.

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