The Camden Theatre Group was one of a number of community organisations that existed in the Camden area in the post-war period. It mounted a host of productions over 20 years, mostly by non-professional members of the community.
The term community theatre refers to theatrical performance within and by the community. It can fit within the area of community arts which is wide and varied. Sometimes the community group works with professional actors and production teams. Community theatre helps build community development and community participation and engagement, which all contributed to the development of social capital.
Arts historian Katherine Knight reports that other active community theatre groups were the Castle Hill Players (1954) and the Henry Lawson Players (1969), both still active. In the local area the Campbelltown Theatre Group started in 1976 and is still very active.
The Camden Theatre Group was originally formed in Camden in 1953 and was extremely active from the beginning. In its first year the company staged three shows. It launched its first season 1954 with ‘Fresh Fields’, followed later in the year with ‘Gypsy Story’ and ‘Trial By Jury’. This was followed up in 1955 with ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ and ‘Maid of the Mountain’, with the highlight of 1956 ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ and ‘Our Miss Gibbs’.
One of the early presidents was local novelist and dramatist Charles Inglis.
Productions were held in the AH&I Hall in Central Camden and in 1966 the company mounted Irving Berlin’s famous musical ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ in October. The leading roles for Annie was played by Christine de Looze and Frank Butler by Frank Armstrong. Christine de Looze debuted for the theatre group in ‘The Drunkard’ in 1965, and followed this up in 1966 playing the part of ballet dancer Essie Sycamore in ‘You Can’t Take it with You’. Frank Armstrong was one of the most experienced members of the company and had experience with JC Williamsons for some years appearing in a variety of musicals including ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Kiss Me Kate’. In 1964 he entertained Camden audiences as Curly in ‘Oklahoma’.
In early 1968 the Camden press reported that Liz Kernohan was elected president at the AGM of the theatre group with co-patrons Dr RM Crookston, W Clifton, EC Britton, B Ferguson and W Sidman. The secretary was M Ferguson and B Clark, with vice-presidents C Manners and C Inglis, supported by general committee of eleven. It was reported that the group looked forward ‘to a full and rewarding programme with increased social activities and many opportunities for people who may be afraid of the footlights’.
Joyce Thorn recalled that Liz Kernohan was Bloody Mary in the company’s 1962 musical ‘South Pacific’ and says that she was ‘really spot on and the best Bloody Mary I’ve ever seen’. Joyce remembers that ‘she had confidence that she could do it’. Joyce and two car loads of friends would regularly come into Camden for theatre group productions and felt that the ‘theatre group did quite well’.
In 1969 the committee under the direction of president Liz Kernohan stated the theatre group enjoyed bringing forward their production and appealed for audience support by telling their friends. Local supporters could become an associate member for one dollar that entitled the holder to preferential bookings and inclusion in theatre parties. Productions were moved to the Camden High School hall in John Street, Camden.
The company kept up a busy production schedule from its foundation and between 1953 and 1971 there were 29 separate productions, and from 1972 and to 1981 there were 21.
In early 1974 the Stables Theatre Group got under way when the Camden Theatre Group signed an eight year lease on The Stables at Camden Park Estate. The signatories were the president Liz Kernohan, secretary Richard Echin and Quentin Macarthur Stanham of Camden Park.
In 1975 the theatre group was re-structured as the Camden Theatre Group Co-operative Society Ltd. The aim of the re-structuring was the establishment of the Stables Theatre under the chairmanship of Camden Mayor Bruce Ferguson. The co-ordinator of the Stables Theatre Group was Jean Burton, and secretary Janice McDonnell. The co-operative’s board was made up of 14 representatives made up of eight directors from shareholders and six representatives from the organisations. Amongst board members were representatives from a number of community groups which were the Arts Society, Chamber of Commerce and Macarthur Apex. The chairman of the board was F Hibble from Tahmoor.
In 1980 the theatre group was suffering financial difficulties and had revival plans in place. The restoration of The Stables had put the company under financial pressure.
The last production mounted by the theatre group at The Stables was the three act ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ was put on in 1981 in the round. Diana Sharpe played Burra, Sally Hogan took the role of Pearl, Jeff Ballinger played Barney, ably supported by a number of other local identities.
Joyce Thorn, Interview with Ian Willis, Camden, 7 September 2014
Read more about community theatre at The Association of Community Theatre here
Read about Arts activism in Western Sydney with Katherine Knight @ Western Sydney Frontier and her excellent history of the Arts in Western Sydney Passion Purpose Meaning, Arts Activism in Western Sydney (2007)