The National Theatre Schools were founded by Miss Gertrude Johnson OBE, a dynamic figure in the performing arts in both London and Melbourne.
Gertrude Emily Johnson was born in Hawksburn, Victoria, in 1894. Her grandfather had been an operatic tenor and her father sang with the Melbourne Liedertafel. Gertrude was only six when she made her first public appearance. Her later concert and opera appearances received glowing reviews, and because local training was limited, Dame Nellie Melba advised her to go to London to further her career.
She was 25, tall, dark and beautiful. A natural and affecting actress, she possessed a voice of remarkable richness, liquidity, and power. Soon she was tackling principal roles with the British National Opera Company and starring in the BBC’s first opera broadcast. In 1926 she sang with Melba in La Bohème, the great diva’s Old Vic Farewell. This was a fundraiser for Lilian Baylis’s pioneering attempt to establish a national theatre and training school in Britain. ‘I saw the wonderful work being done there for young artists,’ said Johnson, ‘and I thought how wonderful it would be to have something similar in Australia.’ In 1935, soon after her return to Melbourne, she formed ‘The National Theatre Movement, Victoria’, an enterprise dedicated to nurturing the talents of young Australians in the performing arts. Gertrude was the National’s director – an honorary position she held for the rest of her life.
With a solid body of subscribers and the support of several prominent citizens, Gertrude launched the venture in December 1936 with ‘A Joyous Pageant of the Holy Nativity’ at the Princess Theatre, where she had auditioned for Melba 25 years before. Six months later the National was presenting As You Like It and The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and its first opera, The Flying Dutchman.
In the church hall of St Peter’s, Eastern Hill, Johnson established schools of drama, opera and ballet, headed by, respectively, William P. Carr, Dr Herman Schildberger and Jean Alexander. The National’s initial ballet performance, at the Princess in 1939, included the first works created in Australia by Edouard Borovansky, who later formed a company that eventually morphed in the Australian Ballet.
During the war the National staged its student performances in the 350-seat hall at its Eastern Hill headquarters, giving young actors, dancers, singers, musicians and designers the opportunity to develop their talents in a professional yet fostering atmosphere. Ticket sales benefitted war charities.
After the war, Gertrude inaugurated a series of important Arts Festivals at the Princess Theatre, showcasing her locally trained talent and demonstrating the value of her teaching methods. She was awarded an OBE in 1951. Her proudest moment came in 1954, when the National Theatre presented The Tales of Hoffmann at the Princess for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
After the establishment of the Australian Elizabethan Trust and the introduction of television, most of the National’s theatrical presentations were smaller-scale student productions. The schools survived a series of re-locations and a string of disastrous fires and continued to attract top-line teachers and to produce countless future stars of Australian stage and screen.
In 1969, Gertrude appointed Melbourne music identity John Cargher to be the schools’ administrator. Three years later the organisation moved into the old Victory Theatre in St Kilda and renamed it the National. It was Cargher who devised the innovative scheme that located the National’s schools and offices in what had once been the stalls, while the dress circle was converted into a fully equipped 780-seat theatre for student and community use.
Gertrude Johnson died on 28 March 1973. For almost half her 78 years she had laboured, unpaid, to provide aspiring youngsters with training in the performing arts. Her work continues, though the National’s opera school was absorbed by the Victorian College of the Arts in 1978.
Today the National still embraces Gertrude Johnson’s distinctive blend of arts training, experience and support – an affectionate and fitting tribute to the selflessness, determination and inexhaustible enthusiasm of a truly remarkable woman.
Frank Van Straten AM
Frank is a performing arts historian. His book National Treasure – The Story of Gertrude Johnson and the National Theatre was published by Victoria Press in 1994. This article is adapted from an article on Gertrude Johnson written by Frank for Live Performance Australia’s online Hall of Fame, and we are grateful to LPA for permitting us to use it.