Melbourne Theatre Company’s highest honour, for an MTC Donor who has shown extraordinary support and loyalty to the Company, has been awarded to Patricia Burke.
Pat has been subscribing to MTC since the company was founded as The Union Theatre Repertory Company (UTRC) in 1953.
After 64 years of attending MTC plays, Pat still remembers the early productions vividly.
As a recent graduate of Physiotherapy at Melbourne University, Pat clearly recalls when the Vice Chancellor, Sir John Paton, sent a letter asking students, alumni and the theatre community to subscribe and champion UTRC (forerunner to Melbourne Theatre Company) under the Artistic Direction of John Sumner.
After years of attending student productions with her friends, and even performing in a University Review herself, Pat said she didn’t think twice about signing up.
‘While I’d been a student we were always going to the Union Theatre and watching the student productions. Some of the people in those plays went on to become very famous, such as George Fairfax,’ she says.
‘We were used to going to the theatre and we loved it very much. So when we got a letter… we all subscribed, and I just kept on subscribing,’ she says with a laugh.
For Pat, it’s the great American playwrights of the 20th century that burnt the brightest – Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. ‘I’ve seen their plays performed two, three, four times over the years. Plays such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [by Edward Albee], which was considered extremely controversial.’
Pat can still remember when Moby Dick – Rehearsed by Orson Welles was staged in 1959. ‘That was my favourite of them all…it had Frank Thring in the lead role, and a terrific cast, most of whom went on to be successful stage, screen, and later, television actors.’
It was the contemporary and provocative works that Pat was drawn to when the Company started, and that remains the case today. Simon Phillips’ production of Macbeth has been a highlight of the 2017 season so far. ‘I’m not a mad Shakespearian student but every time Simon [Phillips] puts his hand on any of them, and adapts them into another genre or another age, it’s just been brilliant,’ she says.
Pat’s passion for the arts began very early on when she was taken as a small child to the opera and ballet. ‘We didn’t have baby sitters in those days, so I went everywhere.’
With an aunt working as a rehearsal pianist for J. C. Williamsom, Pat was able to attend musical comedies frequently with her parents. ‘I was surrounded by artists, including Sheila Helpmann, who was a great friend of my aunt’s, and Robert Helpmann who I do remember seeing at my grandmother’s place once. My parents were also personal friends of Gladys Moncrieff, the Thrings and Charles Wenman – a producer in Dame Nellie Melba’s company.
When the Ballets Russes toured Australia just before the war in 1939, many famous dancers stayed to avoid persecution in Europe, establishing a Russian Ballet school on Elizabeth Street and creating a vibrant ballet community in Melbourne. Pat’s memories of attending the ballet as a girl left a strong impression and inspired her to offer her children and grandchildren similar opportunities to appreciate the arts from a young age.
It doesn’t come as a huge surprise then, in the early 1990s when MTC started to struggle financially during its occupancy on Russell Street, that Pat began her philanthropic journey to support the theatre family she had become a part of.
‘When Roger Hodgman was Artistic Director, as I remember it, there wasn’t a lot of money around. I’d suggest to Roger that we revive plays we’d performed earlier, and he’d say, “Yes Pat, I’d love to do that, but we haven’t got the money for that cast.” Of course, there were many wonderful actors around then like Helen Morse and Freddy Parslow. That’s when I started to donate to the Company and become a patron of the arts in Melbourne.’
Pat has continued her backing of MTC since, championing the need for new Australian work and improving theatre accessibility for less advantaged young people.
‘I’m interested in helping disadvantaged children. Whether they’re disadvantaged by distance because they live in the country, or disadvantaged otherwise. I think it’s important that young people get to experience the theatre early.’
Pat says she was shocked, delighted and entirely flattered to be receiving MTC’s 2017 Lifetime Patron Award. When asked why she is passionate about supporting the arts, she says, ‘people in the arts can’t just ask government for more money. So if we want the arts to continue it’s up to us.’