Photo: MTC archives
Photo: MTC archives

Ann Tonks' top 10 MTC experiences

MTC’s Executive Director for 18 years, Ann Tonks left a huge legacy when she exited the building in 2012 – including the Southbank Theatre, which she was instrumental in establishing. Before she left, she shared some of her favourite MTC memories.

Tonks used to joke that having lost her waistline and all the colour in her hair through the stress of getting the theatre built, the least that Company could do would be to name one of the bars after her. ‘And finally, they took me seriously,’ she wrote in a rumination on leaving MTC.

The Tonks Bar is located on the level 1 foyer of the theatre, and offers theatre-goers a selected menu for pre-show dining.

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Ann Tonks at the bar named after her. Photo: Pam Kleemann

Below are some of Tonks’ favourite MTC memories, in a piece she penned as she was finishing up her impressive stint as the Company's Executive Director in 2012.

When I was asked to put together my top 10 MTC shows, my first response was to say ‘no’. Just imagine how many members of the theatre fraternity I would insult if I didn’t list the show they wrote, directed, acted in, lit, designed?! However, having been discrete for 18 years, it’s probably time to break free – so let’s be bold. The one thing I haven’t done is put them in any order because each was as good as the other for different reasons.

Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
Directed by John Sumner

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Frank Thring as Falstaff. Photo: Newton & Talbot Pty Ltd

This was the first MTC show that I saw. It was part of the Perth International Arts Festival and one of the shows that opened the Octagon Theatre on the campus of the University of Western Australia in 1969. I was a teenager and won a ticket to see it. I had a centre aisle seat and was absolutely thrilled to see Robin Ramsay, star of TV’s Bellbird, live on stage. It was a show that stayed with me for years even though I had no idea it was an MTC production until I joined the Company.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler
Directed by Robyn Nevin

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Steve Bisley, Valerie Bader, Franke J Holden and Genevieve Picot. Photo: Jeff Busby

Much as I enjoyed Neil Armfield’s production of The Doll this year, I still have to put Robyn’s version in my Top 10 list. Set in Tony Tripp’s wonderful naturalistic set, the performances by Genevieve Picot, Frankie J. Holden, Steve Bisley, Valerie Bader, Sophie Lee, Lois Ramsey and Fred Whitlock were compelling. I remember going to a dress rehearsal with low expectations: an old play, I thought, and one that I knew. But like every generation that discovers the emotional and lasting power of The Doll I was blown away.

A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Roger Hodgman

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Ruth Cracknell, Lisa McCune, John O'May and Helen Morse in the MTC marketing image

Roger worked with Tony Tripp (designer) and Jamieson Lewis (lighting) on many shows but this was the one that absolutely captured the heart of the play and the audience. It had an extraordinary cast including Ruth Cracknell, Helen Morse, John O’May, Pamela Rabe and Greg Stone. The show sold out within days and we eventually transferred it to the Princess Theatre, where the production looked as if it was made for that elegant old space.

Julius Caesar or Comedy of Errors or The Tempest or Richard III or Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Phillips

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Ewen Leslie as Hamlet. Photo: Jeff Busby

Yes, I know. That’s cheating. But Simon is such a brilliant director of Shakespeare that I just can’t decide. What’s your favourite?

Inheritance by Hannie Rayson
Directed by Simon Phillips

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Geraldine Turner in Inheritance. Photo: Jeff Busby

MTC has produced over 200 Australian plays and this was a commission. Simon asked Hannie what she really wanted to do and she said write a big play’. He said yes and she did – a cast of 12. Hannie spent months researching the state of the land in regional Victoria and created a sprawling, vibrant play that audiences adored.

Dinner by Moira Buffini
Directed by Julian Meyrick

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Pamela Rabe in Dinner. Photo: Jeff Busby

It’s a battle for dinner table moments between this production and Simon’s Festen. And it’s an equal battle between Pamela Rabe in this one and Jason Donovan in Festen. Ultimately it came down to the way the Fairfax was used in Dinnerwith the audience on every side, sharing the meal.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Directed by Simon Phillips

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Natalie O'Donnel, Marina Prior and Magda Szubanski. Photo: Jeff Busby

I went to see this musical in New York reluctantly. It contained all the elements that I loathe – adults playing children, audience participation and a subject that doesn’t appeal: spelling. And I walked out of the theatre with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. Next day, I raced into the writers’ agent to ask for the Australian rights. On returning back to Melbourne, I presented Simon with a fait accompli: it had to be in our next season and he had to direct it. Having not seen it, he was reluctant but succumbed. And the result was smiles all around as the season ran and ran and ran.

Adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman

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Metamorphosis. Photo: Jeff Busby

Usually, we get the rights to a show and then give it to an Australian creative team to develop a new production. In the case of Metamorphoses Mary Zimmerman, an American writer/director, had created such a magical work that we asked her and her team to come to Melbourne and re-create her great vision with a group of young Australian actors. We created a shimmering pool of water in the VCA’s Space 28, provided towels for the audience members in the front row so that they wouldn’t get too wet in the middle of winter, and let the tales of Ovid speak for themselves.

Bombshells by Joanna Murray Smith
Directed by Simon Phillips

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Photo: uncredited, MTC archives

Caroline O’Connor has the trifecta: she can dance and act and sing. Under Simon’s encouragement, Joanna Murray Smith created six wonderful characters full of life, warmth and humour for Caroline to play. With the exception of one night (Opening Night audiences are sometimes too knowing for their own good), Caroline played to standing ovations – in the initial season; in the return season; in Edinburgh and London too.

Sylvia by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Roger Hodgman

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Rachel Griffiths and Caroline Gilmer in Sylvia. Photo: Jeff Busby

For those who didn’t see it, Sylvia is a play about a dog. I’m more of cat person than dog person but I fell in love with Sylvia, realised to perfection on roller skates in the initial season by Rachel Griffiths. We invited lots of vets to see the show and the word spread wide and fast about what an engaging production it was. Two years later, it toured all over Australia with Genevieve Morris and Mary Coustas playing Sylvia and I saw audiences fall in love with that very special dog in Alice Springs, Sydney, Toowoomba and Hobart.


And I should confess to the one that I hated the most…

During the process of creating the 2007 season, I read Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. Whilst I admired the sheer genius of the writing, I loathed the content and said to Simon Phillips that if he programmed it, I was going to take a very very long cruise to avoid having to see the play. As it turned out, I didn’t get my extended holiday because my mother came to the rescue. She had a fall and I spent weeks travelling to and from Perth and in the process managed to miss the dress rehearsal, and the previews, and the opening night, and the closing night, and I never did get to see what people assured me was a great production. Even now, there are people who suspect that I actually caused my mother’s fall just to have an excuse to avoid The Pillowman!

Published on 22 November 2012

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