Collaborating artist Patrick Russell describes Goulburn’s Lieder Theatre artistic director Chrisjohn Hancock as a true Renaissance man. Reserved for the best artists, inventors and scientists, the title’s original holder was polymath Leonardo da Vinci.
Chrisjohn is today’s version, a genius with deep compassion and commitment to community building, as evidenced by his life and work.
“I have known him for more than 40 years, as a fellow student and subsequently as a collaborating artist,” says Patrick.
“Chrisjohn followed me as the artistic director of the Mustard Seed Project before he was appointed to succeed John Spicer at the Lieder Theatre. His quiet dedication to the Lieder Theatre during the past 30 years is remarkable, his achievements extraordinary.”
Lieder Theatre stalwart Sarah Harris says Chrisjohn did more than continue the Spicer legacy, he broadened it with a youth theatre.
Another behind-the-scenes theatre stalwart, Pauline Mullen, says the more limited his resources, the more Chrisjohn’s creativity rises.
His qualities are now being tested in his 30th year as Lieder Theatre’s artistic director. The threat hanging over Chrisjohn’s horizon is the new Goulburn Performing Arts Centre.
Where will it leave his beloved, ageing Lieder Theatre?
“That’s a horrible question,” says Chrisjohn.
“I think having a brand new theatre with modern facilities is exciting and will open up a whole lot more opportunities for the local community to see theatre that is toured.
“One of the reasons a performing arts centre is built is to attract touring companies. The challenge in Goulburn is for the performing arts centre to still support the local community and arrange itself to be accessible to the local community, which will potentially suffer if the venue only offers shows from out of town.”
A quandary for a man who has been campaigning for a performing arts centre since the Lilac Time Hall became a cinema, Chrisjohn nevertheless finds himself in a familiar role: fighting for the underdog.
That mission started in his 20s, leaving his parents, the Reverend Walter and Peggy Hancock while on a family holiday abroad, having met, through friends, Jonquil ‘Jonnie’ Wilson, an extraordinary woman who urged him to apply his gift for theatre in Edinburgh’s slum suburb of Craigmillar.
By this stage, Chrisjohn had majored in theatre, music and visual arts when obtaining his Diploma of Education at Goulburn Teachers’ College, and had a year of training under his belt from the National Institute of Dramatic Art.
After a year helping to run an arts festival and doing a weekly music, art and theatre program for children, Chrisjohn returned to Australia where he was offered a job with the Northern Territory education department as a theatre worker, but Jonnie’s influence never left him.
He spent time in Arnhem Land with Indigenous communities, returned to Goulburn where he teamed up with Patrick Russell working with people with disabilities, and disadvantaged and isolated children, before becoming artistic director at Coco Youth Theatre in Albany, Western Australia.
Taking 15 young people to an international children’s theatre festival in Christchurch, New Zealand, gave Chrisjohn a taste for international theatre work. He toured with young people to Holland, Turkey and South Korea.
In 1996, he attended a theatre festival in the Czech Republic.
More tours and awards followed abroad. The American Association for Community Theatre paid for the Lieder’s airfares to get them to Florida three times.
Travelling abroad energises Chrisjohn.
“Generally, it was a real inspiration to come back [to Goulburn] and do more interesting, more fun, more innovative projects,” he says. “Seeing other groups that love theatre as much as I do.”
Sadly, the Lieder Theatre won’t be able to afford to hire space in the new Goulburn Performing Arts Centre.
“But it’s early days,” says Chrisjohn. “It is important to give the venue a chance to settle in.
“Sadly, the opening keeps being moved back. Until the venue starts being used, and management are able to see how it’s working, there will be more negotiations with the local community to navigate necessary means to make it as much value for community groups as it is for touring groups.”
Chrisjohn believes the Lieder Theatre Company has enough local support, and keen and passionate members, to continue offering a more intimate theatre than the Goulburn Performing Arts Centre’s large space, which will suit touring shows.
Rest assured when the curtain lifts post-pandemic, the world and Goulburn will return as his stage.