Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Stella Wilkie: a life of dedication to the theatre

                                                                     Stella Wilkie 2004

Members of the Canberra Critics’ Circle are today mourning the passing of one of its most dedicated longtime members.

Estella “Stella Wilkie”, who passed away on January 30, aged 88, was one of the great ladies of Canberra’s theatre world.

Born in England, she was a scientist by profession and a formidable intellectual by disposition. In the UK after the war, she played in professional touring companies doing musicals and pantomime.
                                                 Wilkie in   "Song of Norway", c. 1950 in England

Once in Australia with her civil engineer husband John, Willkie spent a few challenging years in Condobolin, NSW, before moving to Canberra, where, widowed not long afterwards, she raised her young family - Jeanne, Michael and Matthew.

 In Canberra she had already joined Repertory and was in a number of plays at the old "Riverside Theatre".  It was during one of  these plays that   John died. She then had to go to work, and while she was working at Mount Stromlo Observatory she met Malcolm Miller, who became her partner for 37 years.

In the ACT she rapidly became a noted stage performer, continuing in demanding roles, sometimes professionally, with Eureka Theatre and the Canberra Theatre Company and other groups well into her later years, when ill health and several orthopaedic operations began to take their toll.

All the while, Willkie assumed an important role as a theatre critic for publications like Muse and Artook magazines. With Miller, she was a long time member of the Canberra Critics’ Circle and Canberra Repertory Society.

A dedicated subscriber to the Canberra Theatre’s seasons, she hated missing anything new and exciting. As well, as a generous patron of Free Rain Theatre, she and Miller awarded and supported young, emerging theatre artists.

In recent years she also acted as a dramaturg to playwright/director Tessa Bremner, who swore by her judgment.

Wilkie was into everything. Far more computer-savvy than most of her contemporaries, she learnt a desktop publishing program (which she then taught to this writer) and laid out community newsletters for arts organisations and even a cycling club.

A committed member of the Society of Friends (the Quaker movement), she was known for her high standards of personal ethics and her detestation of cant, claptrap and hypocrisy.

Though always praised as a gracious individual, those who knew Willkie more intimately were constantly delighted by her love of a gin and tonic, her sharp wit, her wicked sense of humour and her acute observations on the society she found around her.

She last participated in the Canberra Critics' Circle deliberations in November 2012 and was, quite coincidentally, honoured in absentia with a Peer Group recognition award by the Media, Entertainment and Arts (MEAA) Association at the 2012 Arts Awards held in the Canberra Museum and Gallery on November 27.

She is survived by Miller,  a grieving family of children and grandchildren, among the latter her grandson Kenji, who, she was proud to boast, now studies ballet at the Royal Academy of Dance.

Helen Musa 30 January 2013.
Stella Wilkie aged about 20 

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