Our story begins in 1935 when Miss Gertrude Johnson OBE, a dynamic figure in the performing arts in London and Melbourne, founded 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. She established the National Theatre Drama School in 1936 and the National Theatre Ballet School in 1939.
In 1969, Gertrude appointed Melbourne music identity John Cargher to be the schools’ administrator.
Three years later in 1971 the National Theatre Movement purchased the 2500 seat Victory cinema, which opened in 1921. Preserving the building’s striking Beaux-Art architectural style, extensive renovations were undertaken in 1972 and the newly formed National Theatre opened in 1974.
Cargher devised the innovative scheme that located the National’s schools and offices in what had once been the cinema 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.
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.
GERTRUDE JOHNSON AND THE NATIONAL THEATRE MOVEMENT
Gertrude Emily Johnson was born in Hawksburn, Victoria, on 13 September 1894. Her grandfather, George Johnson, had been a tenor with the Lyster Opera Company and her father, a solicitor, sang with the Melbourne Liedertafel.
Gertrude was educated at the Presentation Convent, Windsor, where she showed an early aptitude for music. She made her first public appearance at the age of six in the Melbourne Town Hall.
As a 17-year-old student, Gertrude auditioned for Dame Nellie Melba, who advised her to train with Anne Williams at the Melbourne University Conservatorium, prior to undertaking further tuition in Europe. When the outbreak of World War I delayed Gertrude’s travel plans, she continued her studies, transferring to the Albert Street Conservatorium with Anne Williams in 1915. Here Gertrude often received personal guidance from Melba herself.
In 1917 Gertrude took up a contract as a principal soprano with Count Filippini’s opera company for a tour of Queensland and New South Wales. In 1918 she sang in Messiah with the Melbourne Philharmonic Society and then joined the Rigo Opera Company, which toured Australian and New Zealand cities in 1919.
Gertrude sailed to London in 1921. She was 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. She made her Covent Garden debut in May 1922 as the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute.
In 1926, Gertrude sang the role of Musetta to Melba’s Mimi in La Boheme in 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. Gertrude also recorded for the Columbia label and was broadcast on the BBC. She performed in recitals throughout Britain, working extensively with British composer Cyril Scott, as well as making many solo appearances and featuring where possible the work of Australian composers.
Returning to Australia for a visit in 1935, Gertrude soon decided to stay and dedicate her energies to founding an Australian National Theatre inspired by Lilian Baylis’ Old Vic in London.
‘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.
The constitution of the National Theatre Movement was officially adopted on 24 February 1936, with the primary aim being the training of young Australians in opera, ballet and drama. Gertrude was honorary director, a role she retained 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.
Although many National Theatre productions were staged throughout Australia, Gertrude’s hopes for a truly national company did not eventuate. The growth of government subsidised arts companies during the 1950s and 1960s, such as the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, The Australian Ballet and the Australian opera, eclipsed the efforts of the National Theatre companies.
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.
From 1969, with John Cargher as general manager, the National Theatre concentrated on developing its training program. Cargher, who remained at the helm for 20 years, guided the conversion of the Victory Theatre, St Kilda (a Hoyts cinema) into the National Theatre headquarters from 1974.
It is from here that the National Theatre continues its important role in training young performers through its drama and ballet schools as well as providing a venue for other companies.
Gertrude Johnson died in 1973 at the age of 78 years. For almost half of her life she worked without pay and provided training opportunities for several generations of Australian performers. Her outstanding contribution to the performing arts in Victoria is the result of her own remarkable passion, determination and dedication.
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.