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Heritagememories of producer and choreographer Heather Gell
Heather Gell recorded her memories of the production of Heritage which are held as part of the Heather Gell archival record group in the State Library of South Australia as PRG 633. Extracts are reprinted here with permission of the Dalcroze Society of South Australia.
Prelude to production.
Early in 1935 everything began to stir in Adelaide, for the next year was Centenary Year - the 100th Birthday of the founding of the State of South Australia. Committees for this and that were being formed. Ideas for the decoration of the City, competitions in Art, Music, etc.... so many things - a seething stirring of the imagination in the minds of many. Beautiful Adelaide - beautiful South Australia.
I remember a spirited newspaper correspondence going on in regard to the pronunciation of the word Centenary. It was: Must it be "Cen-teen-ary" or "Centennery"? or "Centenary"? I believe I am correct in recalling that it was the Duke of Gloucester who favoured the short ''e' in the accented second syllable that settled the question for most people - that is, "Centennery".
At this time in 1935, a Women's Centenary Council was formed, its purpose being to organise events which could raise money for the Pioneer Women's Memorial in aid of the Aerial Medical Service.
I was amongst those who wanted to do something, and having produced several musical plays for children in Adelaide's Theatre Royal, I set about designing what I called a 'Fantasy of South Australia', seeing it as a spectacular musical presentation of the State and its history. I submitted this Script and description to the Women's Council. By then they had formed a Pageant Sub-Committee. The Honorary Secretary of this Committee was Miss Doris Beeston, Secretary of the Kindergarten Union of South Australia. One day she came to me and told me that Miss Ellinor Walker had submitted an Historical Pageant of South Australia for rescripting. She asked if I could see a combination of this with my own Fantasy. After due consideration I said, "Yes, I could". Doris, then, on behalf of the Committee, asked me if I would undertake to combine and produce such a theatrical event.
My delight and tremendous feeling of humility, responsibility and deep sense of honour extended to me was beyond description. Details, decisions, and even demands were to be solely in my hands.
I would like to acknowledge the first persons upon whom I was to depend in the coming months. First of all, of course, the Women's Council, who had so honoured and entrusted me with the Production.
Then, Doris Beeston, the Honorary Secretary, who, personally, was my steadfast guide and support throughout. In her own inimitable way, she was able to convince all connected with the Production as time went on, to also trust me and help me to do it my way.
I should like to insert here a tribute to this wonderful and heroic woman, for a few years later she had gone to England as winner of the Catherine Helen Spence scholarship. At the outbreak of World War II, while still in England, she had volunteered to return to Australia with a shipload of evacuee children from England. She was one of a small band of women in charge of these children, women who cared for and comforted these children on a dangerous voyage. In fact, it was called "The Singing Ship". A little while in Australia, and Doris again set forth to return to England, to come out once more with yet another shipload of children. Tragically, she was travelling on the fated liner RMS Rangitane, which was shelled and sunk by the Germans just off New Zealand. Doris was one of six who lost their lives. This, then, was the woman who was as much responsible for Heritage as I was.
Ellinor Walker as scriptwriter
Next I wish to acknowledge all that Ellinor Walker did for Heritage and for me. Her script was an excellent one, proving her very intense research, and clearly written, and a script which I found quite easy in which to insert the material that was my own, Ellinor, from the start, was a most wonderful collaborator. She was so quiet, relaxed, gentle and co-operative that being with her was a pure pleasure. She in no way asserted rights which she might have done when I would change the order of a paragraph, a sentence, so on, She was a most wonderful, as I have said before, collaborator. If I wanted added material,, Ellinor would research a little more. I have just found a letter from her in which she supplies me with four short paragraphs that I needed for special purposes here and there. It was just wonderful. And with all this as the, you might say, the main stuff of things, I was a very lucky person, who could then go ahead, approach people, make various plans in definite directions and really get things moving.
Now, there are other people who began, one by one, to come into focus also as tremendous forces in the carrying out of my ideas. There was Mrs. Trew, Mrs. Compton Trew, who undertook to make all the Costumes, That is to say, she got together nearly one hundred women, formed rosters for their help, and consulted me over every single stitch, you might almost say, that went on. I was continually in consultation with her.
These women worked voluntarily for some six months, daily, They worked in part of a floor granted to them by John Martin & Co., the North Terrace entrance, and loaned a number of electric sewing machines. You could go in there any day, any time , as it were, for that six months and it would be full of these women working really hard, measuring, choosing materials. Just who it was who went round to the shops gathering samples for the materials I do not remember, but that was one of the most amazing things.
Now, as well as the costumes, there were the accessories for the costumes, because some of the designs, of which I will speak separately, were such that they demanded specialised craftwork - handwork. For instance, if you were making a great bedicci collar with stalks of real wheat, sewing dozens and dozens of them into one collar - we called that the Accessories to costumes and to properties to be used, and this work was undertaken by Mrs. Lance Lewis, who also gathered a big band of helpers together, and they worked voluntarily also and produced exact replicas of designs that were given. The artistry of Mrs. Trew and Mrs. Lewis had much to do with the complete success of this side of the Production.
Thelma Thomas, later Afford
And now, of course, this leads directly to Thelma Thomas, artist and fine collaborator, who, for weeks, months, came almost daily to my home for lunch, when we sat on and discussed the designs she had drawn and painted perhaps just the night before. Now this collaboration, again, was such a feature of what happened in Heritage, I mean, in the production of it, because to me it was the most wonderful experience of complete, absolutely complete collaboration. If I wanted a design altered, Thelma would make that slight alteration. If colours I wanted different, she would make them different, and these other women who carried out the making of the dresses and accessories worked likewise. It was miraculous just how every detail was exactly as Thelma Thomas had designed them, in this respect.
I shall probably speak more about this wonderful unification as I go on with the description of scenes, etc., because it entered into the whole life of Adelaide. It was amazing, the co-operation that I got from all kinds of people in all kinds of professions, and expert skill in various directions. But this be as I approach each scene.
I don't remember exactly where I began. I think I put first emphasis on the Music. I was determined that the music for this event would be by at least Australian composers, and preferably those who were living, or who had lived in South Australia. I began by asking John Horner if he would take charge in a general way of the Music, in regard to getting an orchestra together, and his friend Clifford Lathlean agreed also to bring his choir, The Lydian Singers, also into it. And again, one hundred per cent co-operation. Then sorting out who would write this, and who would write that: how would I convey what I wanted? Because this music was not only to be descriptive at various points, but also the basis of movement and dance that was to play such an important part in the Production.
We got the co-operation of Miriam Hyde, who was wonderful in getting right into my mind, as it were, in understanding both the rhythmic structure and the style of the music I wanted particularly for movement work. Then John Horner did two or three compositions also for me - more of that as we reach each detail of a scene. Then we incorporated the already written music from a choice given me by the late Mr. Brewster-Jones. He at the time was very busy and just gave me carte-blanc with a whole lot of already written, but not published, material. From this I chose quite a number of short pieces eminently suitable for children's dance. I also gained permission from Percy Grainger to use his very beautiful 'UP-Country Song' at one special point.
So be it that I had a pretty good beginning for the Music, which had to be done early because it was going to require a tremendous amount of rehearsing.
Selection of the cast
Next came the selection of' the main characters, that is, the Cast. And first thoughts went to, "Who shall I have? How can I find The Spirit of South Australia?". Many young women were suggested to me. I thought about them all,, but finally settled on Miss Sheila Martin, a Kindergartener, who had had, as far as I know, no stage experience whatever, but she had an ethereal appearance, was fair, blue-eyed, and in her very simplicity, seemed to be just right. I think somehow her lack of experience was what I liked most, because I got her fresh, eager, and she proved to be right. Then, I think we must have had practically every good actor, the Repertory people, and some others who came in inexperienced, and somehow I developed, I say it myself, some flair in choosing the right people for the right part.
Then of course, there were the Pioneers, who were chosen sometimes by their appearance, etc., but in many cases folk who were actual descendants of pioneers of that time - 1836. This was quite exciting.... exciting for them and exciting for me. And with this cast, once we got it together, I asked Iris Thomas, who was an expert in speech-training, if she would undertake the job of helping all these people through their lines, sort of rehearsing, helping their diction, and becoming pretty near professionals.
Iris worked as hard as anybody. It was a tremendous job, and one of those jobs that was a bit in the background, as it were, but we owe Iris a tremendous amount of thanks for the splendid hard work that she did.
The Tivoli Theatre
Another one of the first things was, of course, to find the place to present Heritage. And the old Tivoli Theatre as it then was, in Grote Street, was decided upon. It was empty in that year of 1936, and when we went into it there was scarcely anything whatever in the way of electrical equipment to help us, or in any other direction. I remember our Electrician, who did a tremendous job - he even had to make dimmers - don't ask me the technical side of things - but he made dimmers for that Theatre completely on his own. And every other detail in electrical equipment was supervised by him, and however crazy my ideas, and they were considerable in regard to electrical effects, not just lighting, and this will be explained later, were due to this man, Mr Adamson.
There were no stage curtains, at least, if there were, they were pretty old, and I decided that they staging, would be absolutely simple, allowing all the space possible, therefore a permanent set of curtains was evolved. The material had to be bought, and in that direction, I must say that as far as I remember, the Government donated £1,000 for the buying of things like that. We acquired a tremendous amount of green and blue Japanese cotton crepe, a thing we can't get nowadays, but I have one of those curtains in my possession at this moment, and it seems as good as new.