Programming for Rep's Success in the 1950s & 1960s … Her Way
It was in the ‘50s that Babette really emerged as the major ‘influencer’ for the direction Brisbane Repertory Theatre was to take, particularly in relation to programming choices which were not always to everyone’s satisfaction. In 1951, for example, Daphne and Carl Roemermann, active members for many years, resigned in protest over Barbara’s choice for Rep’s Commonwealth of Australia Jubilee play. She chose Berkeley Square, a ‘costume’ drama by an American playwright set in London, which she directed. Hard to argue that this play was grossly unsuitable for the celebration of the nation’s 50 years since Federation!
But this small hiccup did nothing to deter Babette or the Brisbane Repertory’s Council, who recognised her star potential as actor, director and organiser par excellence. The plays that she chose were mainly British or American, and drew heavily on what was successful in London’s West End or New York’s Broadway. She favoured new, contemporary plays – dramas, thrillers, comedies, romances – and box-office wise, this was a winning combination. Gone were the Ibsens or Shaws or risky Australian plays!
You see, in those pre-Government subsidy days, amateur groups could program what they liked, answerable to nobody except their members and audiences. And it was Stephens’ talent for choosing well-crafted, audience-pleasing works, which were achievable within the many constraints posed by an amateur organisation, that kept Brisbane Repertory’s reputation high and the organisation artistically and financially successful during her long association.
Sharing directorial duties with Babette was another ‘star’ and great personality, Gloria Birdwood-Smith. The Stephens/Birdwood-Smith domination became complete when, in 1956, they directed all six major productions between them, a pattern which continued with very few exceptions for the next ten years. In that period, they directed an extraordinary 50 of the 56 mainhouse productions. This was a deliberate move by Babette to ‘quality control’ productions and to develop more of a ‘house style’ that would always guarantee the audience a polished and entertaining evening at the theatre.
The success of her artistic leadership can be gauged by the number of actors from her era whose professional careers were generated and developed out of their Repertory experiences and her inspiring mentorship. She was committed to stagecraft training for young actors and directors, and developed an apprentice actor training model that she and Gloria ran. Professional careers that they nurtured included Barry Creyton, Elaine Cusick, Ray Barrett, Rowena Wallace, Barry Otto, Nonie Stewart, Timothy Cohen and Rosalind Seagrave.
By 1957, she’d been appointed Rep’s Council President, and under her astute stewardship the organisation certainly prospered: theatre membership increased from a healthy 509 to an extraordinary 920; she doubled the number of performances per play from four to eight nights; and between 1958 and 1965 she and her Council had purchased four adjoining houses in Hale, Sexton and Sheriffs Streets, Milton.
Having been Rep’s defacto Artistic Director throughout the ‘50s, a new role of Theatre Director (with an accompanying annual fee of £250) was created for her in 1960. As she chose to interpret it, this position went far beyond artistic matters and for the next eight years she dominated all aspects of Repertory’s artistic and organisational life, including the vexed question of finding a home of its own.