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  • Writer's pictureART HISTORY

Bell Shakespeare Theatre Company

Andy Muir, MA (Museum and Heritage Studies) student
Alexandra Stewart, MA (Art Curating) student

All the world's a stage - oral history interview set-up in the Fight Room. Photograph courtesy of Andy Muir.

The following internships were conducted through Bell Shakespeare’s partnership with The University of Sydney’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. John Petersen, Museum and Heritage Consultant and former Powerhouse Museum head of the NSW Migration Heritage Centre, supervised both internships – one that focused on the Company’s vast costume collection, and another that focussed on Bell Shakespeare’s institutional history through a series of oral history interviews. Once Alexandra Stewart from Art Curating, and Andy Muir from Museum and Heritage Studies were selected as interns, the stage was set for a rich period of professional learning. Jane Johnston, Placement Officer.

Bell Shakespeare Oral History

Andy Muir

Not every internship sees you engaging with living legends. But, then again, this was an extraordinary internship. After three decades, Bell Shakespeare was preparing to move into its new home, a purpose-built premises for the first time, at Pier 2/3 in the Walsh Bay Arts precinct. In the lead-up, Bell Shakespeare was realising that thirty years of performances, people, and memories hadn’t been documented anywhere near as much as ideal. Also, with key members of the company approaching retirement, it was important to record that material while a crucial and closing window of opportunity was still open.

My first task, under the supervision of museum professional John Petersen and Bell Shakespeare’s Partnerships Manager Elle Hrobat, was to prepare for the recording of a series of oral history interviews by researching the Company’s history as already documented by Bell Shakespeare staff and others. These interviews were to include John Bell himself, Artistic Director Peter Evans, Executive Director Gill Perkins, and a former Board Chair, Tim Cox AO. I compiled and analysed company documents to sketch out a company history in preparation, and, in doing so, realised that a tight focus on the first ten years of the company could provide the best outcomes. My proposal to do so was accepted, and I set out to capture a narrative arc from the decisions around the company formation, to the first 1991 performances in a circus tent, and then to headlining the Olympic Arts Festival in 2000.

My research took me to archival collections at the State Library of New South Wales, National Library of Australia, and the Seaborn, Broughton, & Walford Foundation, this last one being a small archive of Australian Theatre in Neutral Bay. The research also indicated other people who would be interesting to interview, leading me to add to my ‘wish list’ of interviewees, including the actor and director Anna Volska, and the first chairperson of the Bell Shakespeare Board, Virginia Henderson AM.

Ready to record. Photograph courtesy of Andy Muir.

The beauty of an oral history series is in the raw material that they provide for later analysis and interrogation. Naturally, people remember things differently, they see events with different importance, and they forget things and make mistakes. The interviews were an excellent tool to record Bell Shakespeare’s history and now form part of the Company’s archives for future historians and researchers. The recordings are filled with details, such as the difficulty that Anna Volska experienced when running in high heels across gravel in the first performances in Canberra, the financial challenges which the fledgling company faced in the early years, and memories of rehearsals and performances with different guest directors. None of those memories have previously been documented in this way.

At the end of the internship, I was able to hand over the detailed history of the Company’s first ten years that resulted from my initial research and that had informed my questions and conduction of the oral history interviews, along with the recorded interviews with logs and selected transcripts.

It was a real privilege to work on this project and to help Bell Shakespeare to begin documenting their past in this way. To be asked back after the placement to conduct follow-up oral history work was a real bonus. I thank Elle Hrobat and all of the Bell Shakespeare staff as well as John Petersen for the opportunity, guidance throughout and continued mentoring. Also, thanks to my fellow intern Alexandra Stewart who worked on the Company’s costume collection. Being able to share our work and ideas throughout the project made for stronger and complementary outcomes. Tea room chats sharing our discoveries often triggered new and unexpected connections.

Researching and working with archival, personal and non-traditional collections, using oral history techniques and processes, and planning and recording primary research for future researchers are all vital museum and heritage sector skills that I was able to successfully apply to an unconventional GLAM environment. In doing so, I broadened my appreciation of where my Master of Museum and Heritage Studies can take me in the future.

Interviews were recorded on ProTools using the same equipment Bell Shakespeare uses for their podcast ‘Speak The Speech’. Photograph courtesy of Andy Muir.


Undressing Bell Shakespeare: An Internship in Costumes

Alexandra Stewart

Through tattered clothes great vices do appear;

Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,

And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.

Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.

- William Shakespeare, King Lear

Examining John Bell’s epic coat from King Lear (directed by Marion Potts, 2010). Photograph courtesy of Alexandra Stewart.

In 1991, the iconic characters of Hamlet, Richard III, and Juliet Capulet took to the national stage in a homespun Elizabethan dress-meets-T-shirt-and-jeans ensemble. John Bell’s contemporary take on Shakespeare spoke to the zeitgeist, reclaiming the epic iambic-pentamered prose in a new Australian vernacular. In 2021, I set out to research and assess the significance of the Bell Shakespeare costume collection, unravelling the golden thread of pivotal flashpoints across an astounding 31-year performance history.

Eagerly awaiting me on day one was a marvellous rack of two dozen, mostly unlabelled costumes on wire hangers, some bent double under the weight of fur or sequined damask, others still sheathed in the plastic-wrap of a post-production dry-clean. With gloved hands, I lifted the first candidate off the rack, spreading the rich folds of a giant bearskin coat out on the table, reimagining John Bell’s famous and formidable King Lear.

Unravelling Significance

To research and catalogue a collection of 50 pieces from a grab-and-go dress-up box of over 1,000 undocumented costumes, I stuck to the Significance 2.0 method endorsed by the Collections Council of Australia. It was an incisive selection process. Costumes had to demonstrate two or more criteria in spades: technical virtuosity; historic weight, worn by famous faces (Joel Edgerton, Anna Volska or Wayne Blair, just to name a few) or exemplary of iconic designers (early Deborah Riley, who would go on to design the wardrobe for Game of Thrones); or reminiscent of artistic flashpoints in Bell Shakespeare’s history. For example, there was a rare first-season original, when the company traversed the nation in a bell-shaped tent.

A part of this Significance process was to talk with the Bell Shakespeare team, to seek news of the memories, recent history and social significance of the costumes from the Company. The team carries a vivid knowledge of them, with an instinctual awareness of which costumes are particularly special and why.

Sector networking

I also travelled to make a comparative analysis with some Bell Shakespeare costumes in the Australian Performing Arts Collection at the Arts Centre Melbourne, so that I could understand the rarity and representativeness of the larger group of costumes still held with the Company in Sydney. Networking with the generous staff of some other sector organisations with clothing collections, was fascinating and helpful too. Aside from further building knowledge and my confidence for sector networking, it helped to create a path to my second internship – with curatorial staff at the Museum of Applied Arts & Science, in assistance to the development of a fashion exhibition.

Spotlighting the Archive

Everyone has their favourites. I can’t look past the repurposed firefighter’s jacket worn by Andrea Demetriades in the 2010 production of Twelfth Night. Marked with black, ashy brushstrokes, the highly original design by Anna Tregloan referenced the mass devastation of the Black Saturday bushfires and struck a chord with audiences. But then, there was the luscious honeycomb witch’s dress from Macbeth in 2012 – a beguiling piece by Anna Cordingley. Each one so different from the next, but together such a potent material archive of the Company and its edge-defying, visionary output.

Material Legacy

I recommended that the history of these costumes be made accessible to the public in an online database to give the sartorial spectacle an afterlife. Now, via e-Hive, an echo of their performative power lingers long after curtain call. Details of a gladiator skirt stitched onto warrior armour tell of the comic repurposing of a tragedy, the red lining of a cape speaks to the dramatic reveal during a swordfight scene, and the many-named tag on a cloak from Hamlet is the hallmark of a crowd-favourite costume.

Highlights of the collection (clockwise, l to r): witch dress (Macbeth, 2012, Anna Cordingley); red tulle skirt (The Merchant of Venice, 2006, Gabriela Tylesova); donkey mask (The Dream, 2014, Teresa Negroponte); brocade bodice (Romeo and Juliet, 2016, Anna Cordingley) and firefighter’s jacket (Twelfth Night, 2010, Anna Tregloan). Photograph courtesy of Alexandra Stewart.

Shakespeare is remarkable for its timeless truth. It still speaks to the human condition, four centuries later. Bell Shakespeare continues to place these works in conversation with contemporary Australian audiences through the visionary history of these costumes.

My thanks to Andy Muir, my fellow intern, for all the vital titbits of insight along the way, gained in your project of oral histories to spotlight key figures, critical developments, and some best-kept memories of the Company. And for your comradeship, as we each found our part to play in documenting different sides of Bell Shakespeare’s history.

Immense gratitude also to John Petersen — my guide and mentor across the scope of tasks, including for the many costume assists, critical second opinions and conservation DIY, right down to the very last curatorially-approved calico coat hanger.

Would you like to know more on the costumes? See the catalogued collection on e-Hive.

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