Catherine Duncan

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CATHERINE DUNCAN (1915 - 2006)

Katie Duncan’s verse play The Sword Sung won the New Theatre League’s (NTL) 1937 playwriting competition. In the “living newspaper” style of Ernst Toller, it was staged in Sydney in July 1938 and by Melbourne NT in 1939. Her Soak the Rich was adapted by Rupert Lockwood as No Conscription. In 1940 it was performed at an Australian Labor League of Youth rally and banned on radio as undermining Australia’s war effort. Duncan's verse play Sons of the Morning set in wartime Crete (its main characters hoping for a future free of fascism) played at Melbourne NT in April 1945 then at Sydney NT in June 1945 with an ending changed from the original as by then the Allies were winning and an optimistic ending was needed. Winner of the Playwrights’ Advisory Board’s Three Act Play Competition, this was the first Australian play ever seen by playwright Alan Seymour who became friends with its author and kept in touch with her in Paris. Catherine Duncan scripted the film Indonesia Calling, financed by the Wharf Labourers’ Union and narrated by Peter Finch. In 1946 she and Finch won Macquarie Awards for best radio actress and actor.

Born in Launceston on 17 March 1915, Duncan was educated in private girls’ schools there and as a boarder in Melbourne. Her first paid acting experience was at age ten as a page in Alan Wilkie’s troupe when it visited Launceston. An Arts student at Melbourne University, she acted with the University Repertory Society. She joined Melbourne’s Workers Theatre Group (which had evolved from the Pioneer Players) and became a lifelong friend of Hilda Esson. After its banning in Sydney she directed Melbourne NTL’s production of Till the Day I Die barred from playing in Collingwood Town Hall but staged instead in February 1937 in Brunswick Town Hall. She co-wrote MNT’s 13 Dead about a mining disaster.

By the late 1930s Catherine Duncan was Melbourne’s leading radio actress. In 1941 she played in Melbourne and Sydney with the Marie Ney Company. As a writer for the ABC she worked with Frank D Clewlow and drama editor Leslie Rees.

In 1933 she married Roy Braddon Mitchell, a grazier’s son who went on to work with Radio Australia. After their divorce she married in 1937 New Zealand born journalist Kim Keane (he later married MNT member Shirley Robertson) who introduced her to left-wing ideas. Their son and daughter were cared for by Theresa a nanny/housekeeper who acted at MNT. Two years after the Keanes divorced in 1945, Catherine left her young children with her parents, went to Europe and in 1954 married a sea captain Roger Copillet (died 1971), moved to Paris and retired from acting and playwriting. From 1957-9 the Copillets lived in Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney.

More popular with men than women, Catherine Duncan died in Paris on 14 August 2006. Her son Michael Keane published Views from the balcony: a biography of Catherine Duncan in 2011. Her papers are held by the State Library of Victoria.