The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
An organization tuning out world-class actors Talking with the Director of The National Institute of Dramatic Art of Australia
Aubrey Mellor
Aubrey Mellor
Now, NIDA is an educational institution attached to the University of New South Wales. But, though it is on campus, it is quite independent. It was set up in 1959, and the original vision was to have both an academic course and a practical training school. In addition, part of the original brief was the all-important production company. From the outset, NIDA has stressed production. Our courses are concentrated on the goal of producing plays, and I think this makes us unique in theatrical education in the world.

Back in ’59 the university gave us land. NIDA then set up the Old Tote Co., where the staff directed the plays and the students ran things. I myself, by the time I got there, did ASMing, lighting design and even acted…third spear carrier from the left, if I recall. This was great, because it gave me a lot of insights which I was able to use as a director. So many of our directors these days don’t have this kind of background and are ignorant, sorry to say, of the ins and outs of lighting, design, etc. I was fortunate to run the gamut of jobs, getting hands-on experience.

Let me jump to the present for a minute. Now, as head of NIDA, I want to re-establish our tie with the professional theater. The Old Tote eventually folded; and then there was the Nimrod and now the Sydney Theatre Co. But we at NIDA have seen our ties with the professional stage become rather tenuous. I am trying to redress this. I have asked the STC for more free tickets for us. I want to do plays with them. I want our students to go on secondment there, as interns or whatever. I’m talking with the unions so that the students can work for free for a term as part of their academic program.

So, what I am trying to do is prioritize the practical aspects of training, so that students will go out there and do what they have been learning. We also need a lot of work on the new technology that the theater is using. We have fallen behind in that; but there are a lot of good people in Sydney who I want to bring in to enlighten us.

The weakest point right now in our program would probably be writing and directing. Next year I am turning the one-year directors’ course into a two-year course, and we will be training directors in acting, lighting, sound, etc. As for our writing course, it now lacks rigor. There’s just too much nurturing of writers’ feelings, coddling, if you will. I want the course to be more demanding and craft-oriented. I think we should force young writers to write in particular styles. For instance, we might say, “Do act one as if Ibsen were writing it, but finish the play like Chekhov.”

In addition, I want to make the writers’ course more practical, so we are going to work with The Australian Film Television and Radio School. We’ll have three courses: creative writing; theater writing; film and TV writing. The writing students can choose from these. But, of course they have to do theater writing. I want to excite students about the potential of the theater itself. In Australia, naturalism reigns supreme. This means that a lot of plays look all too much like television. What I have always been interested in is things that can only be done on the stage, for instance, two different time frames represented simultaneously on stage, or two actors playing the same character at different times of their life. I think it was Japanese theater that opened my eyes most to this potential. When I came here in 1972, I saw a kabuki actor gesturing over his head, moving his arms high in the air. You know, I had never seen an actor gesture above his head before to create an emotion. In Australia, the naturalistic theater dictates—and this is what we see on TV—that acting should look “real.” But what is real? Whatever an audience accepts is real. We have to be more open to all aspects of theatrical expression.

The problem, I suppose, is that many actors prefer their comfort zone, what they know. A lot of acting can feel pretty uncomfortable, particularly at first, I mean, if you do something that you think is “unreal.” When Tadashi Suzuki came to the Playbox in Melbourne with his method, many of the actors got pretty tired at first. They couldn’t sustain the energy level. But after a while they really got into it, and I think it helped their communication skill and lent complexity to their interpretation of roles.
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