Monday, July 14, 2014

Passionate about the theatre: Colin Anderson

THE untimely death of the popular director Colin Anderson last week has led to a round of reminiscences in Canberra's theatre community.

Anderson, who originally came to direct at Canberra Repertory while lecturing in drama at Charles, Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, was to stage 11 productions with REP, starting with the first production of "Gulls" in 1987.

He would  also direct “Pack Of Lies” in 1988; “Gulls” again in 1989; “Nude With Violin” in 1990; Old Time Music Hall in 1991; “Blithe Spirit” in 1994; “Dancing at Lughnasa”  in 1995; “Breaking The Code” in 1996; “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” in 1997; “Design for Living” in 2002; and “Don's Party” in 2006. Former REP manager, Evol McLeod, recalls him at his very best, remembering him as “one of my favourites…so witty, hugely encouraging and so quick to extend praise to cast and crew alike. All at Rep loved him for that.”

Geoff Pryor's 1990 impression of Colin Anderson at the "great debate"
I came to know him during his production of Noel Coward’s “Nude with Violin” in 1990, when McLeod organised a “great debate” against the Canberra  School of Art  in which Anderson and I held up the affirmative  on the topic “Art, like human nature, has got out of hand.” Canberra Times arts editor Robert Macklin described him as “the delicately diminutive director” and cartoonist Geoff Pryor was on hand to draw his impressions of the occasion.

Diminutive maybe, but not in argument. Macklin captured Anderson’s righteous anger thus: “Anderson jumped like a jockey onto the wild stallion of debate. ‘I am not opposed to change,’ he said. ‘Goodness gracious me. But it's the theorists, the academicians, the psychologists and all the others that I cannot abide’…Rising like lambent flame, his [Anderson’s] stature grew with the grandeur of his rage. ‘Above all else. I reject the cant, the jargon, the snobbism and commercialism of creative talent," he said.

And he did. That was Anderson all over – sharply acerbic and passionate about the arts.

Colin Anderson
Anderson directed 6 shows for Canberra Philharmonic between 1994 and 2001 in the big Canberra Theatre: “Les Miserables” in 1994 and the revival in 1996, which broke box office records when it was sold out before it opened its run; “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1997, “Carousel” in 1998, “Sweet Charity” in 2000 and the semi-staged "Jekyll and Hyde," 2001.

When I described his direction of the latter as 'manful.' He took it in his stride, laughing backstage, "well, girls, Helen Musa thinks I'm being manful."

Over the years, Anderson kept up not only his Canberra directing commitments, but directed David Williamson's "Emerald City" for Washburn University Theatre in in Topeka, Kansas during 1990, “Gulls” in Malta in 1998, where has hosted by High Commissioner Colin Willis (a Rep member) to work in the historic Teatru Manoel, and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” in Christchurch in 1999.

Long-time friend and historian Richard Stone, reports that he and his partner, the late John Thomson, arranged overseas trips to incorporate two of those overseas productions.

 Anderson’s achievements did not go unnoticed. In 1981 the Bryn Newton Award was conferred on him by his former alma mater, the University of Newcastle and in 1992 he was honoured with an honorary doctorate   from Charles Sturt.

At a large, joyous wake for Anderson in the old Customs House at Newcastle on Tuesday, July 15, friends, family, former fellow students from university and former pupils gathered to remember a man taken from everybody too soon.

Family members have told of Anderson's birth into a working-class, musically-inclined family in Newcastle. Early in his school life at Newcastle Boys High he became a DJ in a local radio station, a relief for him from school bullying.

A scholarship took him to the University of Newcastle during its fledging days on the Tighe’s Hill campus, where he quickly established a role as a theatre director. It was a time when students fought for autonomy from the University of NSW and Anderson was at the forefront of the protests, often done through revues full of his own outrageous lyrics set to hymns and well-known songs. Some of these revues also involved the legendary classics lecturer at the University, Godfrey Tanner, and the parents of Wharf Revue comedian Jonathan Biggins.

Later, during a stint in Sydney Anderson’s flat in Strathfield became the location for some outrageous parties at which he cajoled his friends into performing “water ballets,” where he was centre stage. In Sydney, too, he was in involved in university revues.

Anderson’s first proper job was an English teacher at James Ruse Agricultural High School on the outskirts of Sydney, destined to become Sydney highest-performing academic school. An improbable figure at an all-boys’ establishment, (now it has long been co-educational) as his former pupil Geoff Lawrence writes, "what he lacked in height, he made up for in volume." He rapidly introduced an annual Gilbert and Sullivan musical and became a legend among his pupils and a good friend.

A move to London in the late 60s refined his taste in theatre, as his Scottish cousin told those at the wake.

In 1972 Anderson was appointed as a lecturer in drama at the Riverina College of Advanced Education in a Wagga Wagga, later to become Charles Sturt University. He stayed 20 years and was credited with bringing “town and gown together,” as well as with instigating “great adventures.” 

After retiring to Centennial Park, Sydney, the theatre jobs started to run out so, until a bad fall and hospitalisation intervened, Anderson was left to enjoy his theatregoing, his friendships and the occasional enraged letter to the Sydney Theatre Company, one earning a sharp rebuke from director Robin Nevin, on which he dined out for months.

Anderson and I were regular theatre and dining companions. Even after the severe seizure he suffered several years ago, we went regularly to the opera and musical theatre in Sydney enjoying “Tosca”, “South Pacific” and “Love Never Dies” before he became too ill for outings. He was always mobbed by ex-students when we were on the town in Sydney.

There were many sides to Colin Anderson. A brilliant teacher, a wit, a director and a humanitarian, he was, those at the wake agreed, taken from  us too soon.

Helen Musa, July 2014