This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first season of one of Australia’s most important theatre’s-the Old Tote.

What? I hear some of you ask.  We have never heard of it.  Well, maybe not, but no doubt you have crossed its path.

But first a bit of background.

In 1958 the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) was established at UNSW and began teaching in 1959.  NIDA, started by two ex-pat English stage Directors Robert Quentin and John Sumner, was the first professional teaching academy for the dramatic arts.  With TV just beginning, a small film industry and a theatre industry trying to find its Australian voice, the new school was just in time.

Polo at the Kensington Race Course c1920s. The Tote building is in the background

Actors, directors, stage managers and other professionals began to be trained, but they had no theatre to work in.  In 1962 the UNSW offered NIDA three buildings for their home; the White House, the totalisator building and an ex-army tin barracks building.  The White House and the totalisator were remnants of the former Kensington Pony Racing course that had operated on the site from 1893 until 1942.  The totalisator was the betting house, with an automated betting machine (the tote) formulating the odds for the races.

The White House building was used for the NIDA offices, a library and kitchen, the Old Tote held the only rehearsal space, wardrobe store, sound room, properties workshop, music room and change rooms, while the ex-army barracks (dating from the sites WWII use as an army camp)  became the theatre.  Its proximity to the tote saw it informally named the Old Tote Theatre.

Soon the name was formally taken on.  The first production was staged in February 1963 to a full house and a run of four weeks.  The theatre could seat 120 people, but was acoustically challenged if rain fell on the tin roof or figs dropped from the fig trees around it.  Four plays were produced in the first season, all by NIDA staff and students.

The new theatre served as a professional outlet for the students and staff of NIDA.  It was a place where they could test their ideas and where Australian plays could be staged.  This was a new and radical idea.  That Australian voices could be heard on stage and we didn’t need to rely on imported and classic stories was exciting.

Staff and students would attend NIDA during the day, then worked at the theatre at night.  First years worked as stage crew, second years as stage managers.  Everyone learned all aspects of the trade.

In 1964 they went on the road with a national tour of Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe-which was banned in some parts of Queensland.  In 1968 the theatre put on an all Australian Season.

Old Tote Theatre Co. production of Lasseter in 1972

By then (1968) the theatre had outgrown its humble beginnings and moved into a new building across Anzac Parade which could seat 320.  NIDA continued to occupy the Tote and White House.

In 1969 the Old Tote Theatre separated from NIDA and the old army barracks, now called the Old Tin Shed became the NIDA Theatre.  People such as John Bell, Jackie Weaver, Thomas Keneally, David Williamson, Robyn Nevin, Pamela Stephenson all came through or worked for the Old Tote or the Tin Shed.

The Old Tote Theatre Company itself closed in 1977, morphing into the Sydney Theatre Company, which continues to provide Australian voices in theatre worldwide.   The Old Tote theatre, later Tin Shed theatre continues to operate as a theatre, now the Fig Tree Theatre.

Check out the events on this weekend (9 March) at NIDA to celebrate the Old Tote.

Break a leg.