At the ripe old average age of 70-something, they’re the stars of every Canberra Repertory (Canberra REP) show. But you won’t see them onstage.
They’re the behind-the-scenes stars, a band of about 12 men – the oldest who is 85 – who volunteer their time to build and install sets for Canberra REP’s shows.
“We’re not a bad bunch,” says team leader, Dr Russell Brown, a retired dentist. “We have a geologist, an engineer, we have members from the military, economists, academics – everyone has something to offer.”
One of the team members adds: “Russell offers the bad jokes.”
With Canberra REP, one of the oldest continuously running amateur theatre companies in Australia – which produces six productions a year – members of this ‘Dad’s Army’ volunteer their time up to four days a week when a show is in production.
They put the director’s vision into reality, working with tiny budgets, but with a passion that matches a full-scale production at the Sydney Opera House.
For Russell, who was declared a ‘Living Treasure’ by the Canberra Repertory Council in 2019 for his more than 40 years’ service, it’s more than just wielding a hammer onstage.
“Doing this has kept me sane,” says Russell, who has been retired for 18 years. “If it wasn’t for this, I’d probably go to the pub every day. Well, maybe not the pub…
“Seriously, my job is to make sure everyone has something to do. Of course, that’s just as long as they do it my way!
“But what I love about this work is it makes us feel we’re contributing something.
“I say to the new people coming in, it doesn’t matter what skills you have, we’ll find something for you to do.
“This fellow, a retired architect, came in. He was used to building things to last hundreds of years. We told him he only had to build it so it would last three weeks.”
Canberra REP’s ‘Dad’s Army’, working with the equally dedicated ‘Women’s Army’ in the wardrobe department, operates on a budget of about $1000 a show, and recycles everything that can possibly be recycled.
The workshop/annex next to the theatre on the ANU campus is testament to that – such as a baby’s pram hanging from its ceiling. It won’t be thrown out because “you never know when we might put on Mary Poppins“, according to Dennis.
There’s also an old lawnmower dangling from the roof. It won’t be going anywhere soon, unless it’s onto a set.
Canberra REP’s president, Michael Sparks, said the reason his company is well known for its professionalism, is due in great part to the work of the ‘Dad’s Army’ volunteers.
“What these guys do is what people see when they come in to see our shows,” he says. “Without this team, the quality of what we do, of what people see onstage, would be far inferior to what they see today.
“We are so lucky to have them.
“Many of them have been here so long they know where everything is. Something might have been siting in storage for 20 years, but what they do is bring it out for a particular use and make it look like it has never been used before.”
Next year, Canberra REP will celebrate its 90th anniversary.
“We are a real Canberra institution,” says Michael.
“More and more people realise this is an institution made for them – made up of people just like themselves.”
Canberra REP’s ‘Dad’s Army’ are clearly not in it for the fame – except perhaps for Russell who jokes: “I’m really a singer, I’m just waiting for the call.
“When I came to Canberra in 1969 to work as a dentist, one of the first people I met told me about a group of blokes who volunteered at Canberra Repertory’s building sets.
“I thought it sounded good so I got involved – and have been doing it ever since.
“Some of us just came along because our wives told us to get out of the house and do something useful.”