Gillian Arrighi – ‘A simulacrum of the cultural and historical process itself’: Newcastle’s vibrant, then abandoned, heritage-listed Victoria Theatre


Gillian Arrighi

University of Newcastle

‘A simulacrum of the cultural and historical process itself’: Newcastle’s vibrant, then abandoned, heritage-listed Victoria Theatre  

Built with the intention of eclipsing elite late-19th century theatre buildings in other Australian colonial cities in respect of its usability, comfort, and interior decoration, Newcastle’s heritage-listed Victoria Theatre (1891) is the oldest theatre in New South Wales and the third oldest theatre in Australia. When opened, it was a symbol and location of civic pride and a marker of Newcastle’s significance as a destination for international and national touring theatre companies and entertainers. Maintained as a commercial enterprise for seventy-five years, the Victoria’s historical layers are “a simulacrum of the cultural and historical process itself,” expressing Theatre’s function as a “repository of cultural meaning” (Carlson 2011, 2). Modernising renovations that equipped the theatre as a hybrid venue for both live shows and motion pictures responded to shifting production demands, cultural taste, and commercial imperatives. 1906 alterations removed redundant stage boxes and enlarged the proscenium to meet popular demand for musical comedies; 1921 renovations removed the cramped upper gallery, installing the infrastructure for moving picture projection and enabling the Victoria’s operation as a hybrid variety theatre and movie house. Subsequent alterations accommodated mid-20thC developments in cinema (cinemascope) whilst maintaining production of live performance. Deployment of the Victoria as a retail outlet in 1967 followed the impact of free-to-air broadcast television and the rising importance of government subsidy to the Australian arts sector. 

Using the detailed database of shows produced at the Victoria Theatre developed through the AusStage project (, this paper critically examines the Victoria’s popular repertoire across an extended period of time within the context of the city’s unique demographic and Newcastle’s cultural and industrial development.  The virtual reality (VR) experience of the Victoria Theatre (circa 1891), developed by researchers and IT specialists at the University of Newcastle, will also be available to conference attendees in conjunction with this presentation.

Assoc. Prof. Gillian Arrighi is head of Creative and Performing Arts in the School of Creative Industries, University of Newcastle, Australia. Her primary research interests are popular entertainments from the late-nineteenth century to the current day, acting theory and practice, and child actors. Her many refereed journal articles and book chapters appear in scholarly publications such as Theatre Journal, Australasian Drama Studies, New Theatre Quarterly, Early Visual Popular Culture, Theatre Research International, Theatre Dance and Performance Training, and in edited collections. She is co-editor of the scholarly e-journal, Popular Entertainment Studies (now in its eleventh year of publication), co-editor of the books Entertaining Children: The Participation of Youth in the Entertainment Industry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), and A World of Popular Entertainments (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars: 2012); editor of a focus issue on circus for the journal of Early Popular Visual Culture (2017); and author of the monograph The FitzGerald Brothers’ Circus: spectacle, identity and nationhood at the Australian circus (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2015). Her current book project, due for completion in 2020, concerns child actors performing on trans-national popular stages, 1880-1910. Her most recent publishing project is the Cambridge Companion to the Circus, co-edited with Prof. Jim Davis (University of Warwick), due for publication in 2020.

Jane Woollard – Now you see me, now you don’t: Gathering the stage ghosts


Jane Woollard

University of Tasmania

Now you see me, now you don’t: Gathering the stage ghosts

Theatre’s ephemeral acts of gathering can allow us to say ‘hello’ to the past. In my 2017 play Miss W Treads, the performer playing the ghost of nineteenth-century performer Eliza Winstanley magically appears. Sitting on the stairs above the stage, she is concealed by a black cloth, invisible even though she is in full view of the audience. On her cue to enter, the performer stands and throws the cloth from her head and shoulders. Through clever theatrical fakery, she is a vision of the past materialising, the ghost of Eliza now among us. This theatrical moment is emblematic, a troubling stone in my shoe, as I work towards a methodology of historical reconstruction. Had I created a ‘probable impossibility’ to ‘make the fantastic look real’? (Kessler and Lenk, 2019) Did I merely present a ruse – an elaborate trick of the eye? 

Through close reading of archival sources, it is possible to become familiar with the what-when of the past. But the how of historical events is elusive, open to interpretation, and as a theatre maker, I cannot help but imagine them, gathering the ghosts together from scraps, fragmentary descriptions and archival hearsay. Collaboration with a skilled performer, and an imaginative creative process brought the ghost to life. She was a fiction that felt plausible, a speculative yet material embodiment. In rehearsal and performance, the ensemble, myself and the audience came to believe in her as a version of historical truth. Surely she was like this? Could this have been how she looked and sounded? Bringing my imagination to bear on my historical knowledge, I invoked a ‘flickering suspension’ (Sleigh-Johnson 2018), an embodied version of the past.

Post-show, I continue to grapple with a mixture of astonishment at my own imaginative presumptions, and anxiety about the unknowable past. In this paper I will explore what we can know about nineteenth century performance through a mix of creative speculation and forensic historical research. 

Jane Woollard is a theatre director, researcher and teacher, and graduate of Melbourne University, VCA School of Drama, RMIT and La Trobe University. Jane’s doctoral research investigated the life and work of Eliza Winstanley, star of the early Australian stage. Jane has extensive experience as a teacher of tertiary Theatre and Drama subjects, having taught at Monash University, University of Melbourne, VCA Theatre and at La Trobe University. Now based in Launceston, Jane is Head of Theatre at the School of Creative Arts, University of Tasmania. Jane’s play about Eliza Winstanley, Miss W Treads, was presented at La Mama’s Courthouse Theatre in September 2017. Her most recent work is Ghosts of the Olympic Theatre, 2019 Junction Arts Festival.

Maryrose Casey – Experiential engagements with the archive


Maryrose Casey

Flinders University

Experiential engagements with the archive

This paper is about a project that is in a developmental stage. The focus of the project is find new ways to engage with the archive that aims to contribute to the decolonising of the archive in relation to the representations of events in the racialized context of colonial histories. 

The questions it seeks to explore are:

Can we change the way people understand historical events by creating immersive experiences that play with positionality?

Can Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (3 Dimensional) explore cracks in time and open up the landscape for other explanations of events from the past?

The aim is to recreate an Indigenous performance presented to a cross cultural audience in 1885 using mixed reality in order, through immersion, to make it possible to experience the different human dimensions of the live event. The intent is to revisit previous research in order to facilitate different understandings of the dynamics of the moment of performance. The pilot project will use VR, AR, animations, holographic avatars and soundscapes to enable the viewer to experience the position of the performer and the audience.

Maryrose Casey is Professor of Drama Critical Studies at Flinders University. She has published widely on Indigenous Australian theatre and performance. Her major publications include the multi-award winning books Creating Frames; Contemporary Indigenous Theatre (2004) and Telling Stories Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Performance (2012). She has had a strong relationship with AusStage since 2007.