Chris Hay – Hello, Training: Early Misfires in Australian Actor Training


Chris Hay

University of Queensland

Hello, Training: Early Misfires in Australian Actor Training

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the establishment of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) on the campus of the University of New South Wales in 1958 marked the beginning of institutional actor training in Australia. Even the multiple distractions on this path – the last-minute renaming, the relocation from Melbourne to Sydney – are oft-cited. But like all origin myths, the fabled story of NIDA has grown in stature to obscure the many mis-steps that led to establishing “a training school where new talent can be developed” (AETT, 1954). 

In August 1947, the University of Melbourne officially approved the development of a Diploma of Dramatic Art under the leadership of Keith Macartney, now best remembered for founding the graduate Tin Alley Players. The Diploma was a truly unusual development for the time, as the Board of Studies mandated the inclusion of practical work – including speech training, choral speech, movement and mime, acting class, make-up, and practical work in the history of drama. “The policy,” according to Bernard Heinze, “is to encourage a professional habit of thought by training students to carry out their responsibilities to their fellows (in the preparation of productions) as they would expect to in the professional theatre”. 

The University’s courses in Dramatic Art, though, never came to fruition. Throughout their development, those involved stressed that “this is a novel venture for an Australian university” (J. T. Burke, Professor of Fine Arts), and indeed its novelty may well have been its downfall. In this paper, I will use the mis-steps of the Dramatic Art model at the University of Melbourne to complicate the pre-history of institutional actor training in Australia. In so doing, I hope to present the story of NIDA’s foundation as less linear, less of an inevitability, and it instead as a refined compromise. 

Chris Hay is a Lecturer in Drama and ARC DECRA Fellow in the School of Communication and Arts at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is an Australian theatre and cultural historian, whose work examines the rise of live performance subsidy and the institutionalisation of culture between 1949 and 1975.