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Behind the red curtain


A successful theatre company is the sum of many parts. Therry Dramatic Society is powered by a troupe of devoted volunteers.

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It’s 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon and the industrial back streets of Beverley are quiet. Or so it seems. There, in a big yellow warehouse on the fringe of Adelaide’s CBD, a motley crew of thespians busy themselves with preparations for Therry Dramatic Society’s next theatre production.

Therry volunteers.

Back, from left, Therry volunteers Margaret Baker, Lorraine Wyatt, Cathie Fitzgerald, Jill Bartlett, Sandy Faithfull, Emma Grieve, Amanda Smith and Rosalie Hockley. Seated, from left, Nan Murray, Anne Baldry, Sr Kathryn Travers RSM and Bev McGregor.

There’s excitement in the air. Volunteers move with the determination of worker bees as they navigate two levels of props, actors, sets and costumes. Remnants of productions gone-by hang above the maze of workshops. There’s a giant elephant posterior, a mechanised pig, a hand-painted lion, a wall strung with wigs and bedazzled high heels, and a toilet full of flowers. One doesn’t know where to look first.

In the middle of the mayhem, a gaggle of volunteers stuff newsletters and promotional flyers into envelopes, ready to inform the community about Therry Theatre’s next show.

A Shortcut to Happiness runs at the Arts Theatre from April 10 to 20 and there’s a lot to do before then but they take it all in their stride. After all, Therry has more than 80 years of experience behind it.

Therry Dramatic Society was founded in 1943 by Archbishop Matthew Beovich and George Walton, a graduate of Newman College, Melbourne. It was named after an early Irish priest and Therry’s first meeting was in the Diocesan Catholic Education Building (later Fennescey House) on Adelaide’s Wakefield Street, with assistance from Fr Isodore Redden, the administrator of the Cathedral of St Francis Xavier.

Many a theatre bug has graced the stage and assisted behind the scenes. Among them, Mercy Sister Kathryn Travers who joined Therry in 1962, the year the Therry Schools Drama Festival was established. Sr Kathryn directed 11 plays in the festival’s early days, while teaching at Star of the Sea School, St Aloysius and Mercedes colleges. The festival ran until 1976 and provided a chance for Catholic school students to experience participation in a drama production.

One of many quirky props at made by Therry's set designers.

One of many quirky props at made by Therry’s set designers.

Sr Kathryn’s involvement was fuelled by a love of drama and the arts and, now aged 85, that passion continues. “Friendship kept me here,” she says.

It is a sentiment mirrored by Therry president Jill Bartlett OAM.

“It’s a social touchstone for everybody,” Jill says.

“I first became involved in 1975. That’s 50 years next year! I wasn’t involved in theatre before that but found a fabulous group of people here.”

Jill was awarded a medal of the Order of Australia for her service to the performing arts in South Australia. You won’t find her on stage, instead, she keeps cogs turning behind the scenes.

“I have no creative talent whatsoever.” She laughs. “I can’t sing, dance or act but I’m a very good organiser. I didn’t think there’d be something for me in a theatre group but there really is something for everyone. Age is no barrier, nor is gender.”

The hard work is ongoing, as is the buzz.

“We’ve got four shows to do each year,” Jill says.

“While you’re working on one, you’re planning the other. I love the continual change and the people that come in to work on a show. Some might not come back again for another two shows, five shows, or 10 shows.”

Jill finds the diversity refreshing. “There’s quite an enormous age range of people involved in any production. You could have a 12 or 14 year old in the cast, but the oldest person could be 92 like Heather Beasley who used to iron all the costumes.”

From left, set production team members Jeff Baker, Robert Wyatt, Don Oswald, Mark Rogers and Brian Voigt.

From left, set production team members Jeff Baker, Robert Wyatt, Don Oswald, Mark Rogers and Brian Voigt.

The current set production team, led by Don Oswald, boasts three ex-nurses and a retired doctor.

“We make things,” Don says.

“We recycle materials to create whatever we need for each production. Imagination is our only real restriction.”

One day, they could be making a set that looks like a Colonel Light Gardens living room, the next, they’re constructing a train.

“We’re fairly innovative,” he adds.

Essential to every production is the costumes.

“Costumes are the non-verbal way of placing the story with its characters in their place in time,” Sr Kathryn says.

“Gilian Cordell and Sandy Faithfull find, make, fit and adjust the costumes, according to the number of costume changes needed in a play or musical. This can mean hours of work in the costume rooms upstairs or at home.”

The new generation of volunteers includes Emma Grieve who oversees props for A Shortcut to Happiness.

“We lend props and costumes to other theatre companies, and they lend to us,” Emma says.

“It’s a beautiful community.”

When she’s not prop-wrangling, Emma’s day job is manager of clergy care and wellbeing at the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.

Joining a theatre company was a childhood dream. “I always wanted to be a costume designer,” she admits.

“But life got in the way. Even when I was working for a very busy hospital, it was always rattling around in my head.”

Emma is proof that it’s never too late to chase a goal. She was well into her career when an actress suggested she approach Therry and she never looked back.

“I fell in love with Therry and decided I was never going anywhere else,” Emma says.

Together, these volunteers are a creative force to be reckoned with.

“When you go to a show you don’t think about all the people you can’t see,” Jill says.

“Like the people who collated all the sound effects and play them at the right time. There’s so much happening behind the scenes.”

As the year rolls on, A Shortcut to Happiness (April 10-20) will be followed by the musical Jersey Boys (August 7-17) and the comedy The Actress (November 6–17). All performances are held at The Arts Theatre, 53 Angas Street, Adelaide. Bookings:

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