Exhibition at the National Library of Australia, Canberra


When a theatre is empty, a single light is turned on to appease the spirits. The light is said to allow ghosts to perform their own theatrics on stage at night.


On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts

Ghost Light – Ange Sullivan – Head of Lighting, Photography by Daniel Boud. On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts


The opening image for the exhibition On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts shows Ange Sullivan – Head of Lighting at the Sydney Opera House – turning on the ghost light in 2020 at the start of COVID-19 lockdowns.


Although COVID-19 was a turning point for live entertainment, performance permeated Australian life prior to lockdowns. Whether it’s enjoying a local band at the corner pub or dressing to the nines for a musical theatre performance at the Royal Theatre, Australians love live entertainment.


There are thousands of items detailing Australian performing arts history in the National Library’s collections, including photographs, programs, tickets, posters, manuscripts, costume designs and instruments. And so, only some of the very best could be displayed in the exhibition.


Ghost Light - Ange Sullivan - Head of Lighting

This image was taken by Martin Philbey of the crowd at Falls Festival, 30th December 2007 in Lorne.


Dr Susannah Helman, exhibition curator and Library Curator of Rare Books and Music says – “It’s an embarrassment of riches but ultimately I wanted to take people on a journey through Australia’s performing arts history.”


“Live performance is an ever-changing medium. It is entertainment yet also art that responds to the times and challenges us. You can really see how people lived and how that’s changed over time as we have changed.”


Performance history takes centre stage


The exhibition explores many influential home-grown talents including Dame Nellie Melba, Sir Robert Helpmann and Dame Joan Sutherland. A salary book shows that one star, Gladys Moncrieff, was paid £3 per week in 1936 by J.C. Williamson Ltd. – more than $300 in today’s money. Dubbed Australia’s Queen of Song and referred to in the saying, “our harbour, our bridge and our Glad” – she was born in Bundaberg and became a huge musical theatre star in the 1930s.


On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts

Winter Garten, Saharet, created by Biais, Maurice, 1875?-1926 – On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts


J.C. Williamson and the company he founded also features in the exhibition. His company dominated the Australian theatre landscape for over a century. The exhibition features some of the productions and artists J.C. Williamson brought to Australia, from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in the late nineteenth century to Anna Pavlova in the 1920s, the Ballets Russes in the 1930s and musicals such as Annie Get Your Gun (from 1948).


A fragile theatre playbill from 1796 is on display and is Australia’s earliest surviving printed document. It advertises an evening’s entertainment at Sydney’s first purpose-built theatre. Alongside concert posters for rock band AC/DC and photography from the Falls Festival, the exhibition showcases a long and impressive history of Australian performance.


On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts

Houston Rogers, Portrait of Sir Robert Helpmann as Oberon [detail], 1937.


The National Library’s exhibition highlights unique and eclectic pieces that have managed to survive over the years. Many have never been seen before such as contracts, scripts and musical scores used by performers.


Visit the National Library from March 4th and enjoy a backstage pass to the inner workings of showbiz. Admission to the exhibition is free. For more information, visit nla.gov.au. If you love Australian performance make sure to check out our page, Aussie Stars.

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