It is a chilly Dorrigo morning as past and present Dorrigo Dramatic Club members gather in the foyer of the Don Dorrigo Theatre. The group huddle around a bar heater. Tea pots are wrapped in hand-knitted tea cosies. Home baked goodies set the scene for what looks like a quintessential Dorrigo get-together.
However, what transpires is more a creative journey spanning many decades. A wondrous reliving of the golden, hilarious, intense, heartbreaking and uplifting moments shared by this thespian family. The effusiveness and sheer enthusiasm that fills this space over the next two hours is remarkable.
“When I walk through the theatre entrance creativity comes alive and everything else falls away” says current Dorrigo Dramatic Club President Dina Luciani. Smiles all around and knowing looks convey the shared emotion. One is left with no doubt as to how this group and their colleagues have ‘kept the stage alive since 1955’.
“One of my favourite memories was when we flew Ken (Hartley) out in a basket in the Wizard of Oz” says Bob Denner, life member, actor, set-builder and previous secretary from 1998 until 2005. Ken was playing the Wizard. “He just got smaller and smaller as he rose up into heavens. The stunt involved a lot of illegal blocks and tackles. The cast were out the back on the pulleys. Couldn’t get away with it these days,” says Bob.
When asked if he needed a stunt man, Ken just shrugged. But all present roared with laughter, shouting- “Ken was our stunt man”.
Ken Hartley is also a Dorrigo Dramatic Club Life Member, being a member since 1966 and Treasurer from 1971 until 2002. “Although I had a few stage appearances, I wasn’t really a front man” says Ken. Ken worked as a technical officer at the television transmitter and brought his skills to lighting and sound effects. “I’m still called upon today if there are problems with the audio.” In fact, Ken built the first lighting board for the theatre, which is now a true museum piece.
The Dorrigo Dramatic Club was conceived in 1955 with 32 foundation members. Their founding aims were 1) to foster an appreciation and understanding of drama in all its forms and 2) to entertain the public through the production and public presentation of drama and other cultural activities and entertainment. Earliest productions were staged in the Dorrigo Memorial Hall (since condemned) and the Dorrigo Community Centre Hall.
In 1973 club members were able to purchase the current premise, which had housed the Don Dorrigo Gazette newspaper since 1914. With a government grant and a lot of donations and hard work by the whole community, the building was transformed into a theatre. The Old Gazette Theatre opened its doors in 1978 and hasn’t missed a beat since.
The success of the Dorrigo Dramatic Club is attributable to its members and also its isolation. “The Dorrigo Plateau is isolated. Self-sufficiency is bred with isolation. We have always had a ‘make-do’ attitude up here,” says Lynn Burke, long-time member, past President and former lead actor and director.
Lynn admits that directing a 3-act play is a six-month commitment, with most of the work being achieved outside of normal working hours. “You really need a love of the theatre,” says Lynn.
Fortunately Lynn’s wife Cathie and their three children were also integral members of the theatre for years. “If we wanted to see each other I had to be involved. Our children were often snuggled up in sleeping bags at the back of the theatre,” says Cathie. “It was worth it. We were creating magic.”
The club has now been staging theatre for 64 years continuously. Shakespeare, youth theatre, musicals, radio plays and operettas. The youth theatre continues to flourish today, being driven by the hard work of Dina.
And of course the play can’t go on without a dedicated team working behind the scenes. Current Vice-President Kate Smith was a teacher at Dorrigo High School and now ‘mans’ front of house. Gail Young is one who has worked both on and behind the stage. “I was very involved in the Youth Theatre but have also managed make-up and costumes,” says Gail.
Shirley Moran is the current fastidious wardrobe operator. “In the past few months I have washed, mended, pressed and hung every costume from our collection,” says Shirley.
Shirley doesn’t call herself a seamstress, but does admit “I sewed my first dress when I was 8 years old.”
“Shirley can turn a bra into a royal cap,” says Dina to fits of laughter.
The collective skills amassed in this theatre foyer are impressive. Everyone multitasks. No one complains. “But we do need more directors,” says Dina.
Dina is the current primary director. She has been involved with the theatre since 1999 when she was recruited to dance the Tarantella but ended up as the lead actor, playing an English Gentleman by the name of Frederick Blunt in ‘Banish’d Cavaliers’. “Go figure” says Dina.
So how does one become a director? “Just put your hand up!” shout all present.
The upcoming One Act Play Series ‘The Other Side’ opens Wednesday 28th August. “We are using local playwrights and welcoming some directorial newcomers. These plays explore confronting issues with punchy dialogue and black humour. Issues of death and euthanasia are dissected. Timely, considering the current political debates,” says Dina.
“When acting, we will often have to confront our own demons. Whatever character you play there will be an element of ‘you’. This can be very confronting. You don’t know how you may react,” says Dina.
“But this makes for very powerful theatre if it works,” says Lynn.
All agree the theatre ‘after-parties’ are cathartic. “That’s when we come down from the high emotions of acting” says Lynn.
“And there’s absolutely no truth in the rumour about shoes and car keys,” says Bob to peals of conspiratorial laughter.
On this Winter’s day in Dorrigo, the warmth emanating from this close-knit family comprising the Dorrigo Dramatic Club is inspiring. “Reliving it has been so much fun” says Gail.
There is no doubt this ebullient team will keep the stage alive for many more years to come.