The Worker Players

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Novelist and Communist Party of Australia (CPA) member Jean Devanny took credit for setting up the WAC, modelling it on clubs she had visited while attending a Workers’ International Relief Conference in Berlin in November 1931.

Back in Sydney by February 1932, she lectured widely on her experiences and was in Broken Hill on 23 October 1932 when Sydney WAC was officially opened by Dame Sybil Thorndike, a pacifist and socialist then touring Australasia with Saint Joan.

The Sydney club lagged a few months behind Melbourne WAC which mounted an exhibition of proletarian drawings in April 1932 and a theatrical production of Ernst Toller’s anti-war verse drama Masses and Man in August.

At the time of Sydney WAC’s founding there were a number of workers’ amateur players and, like today’s co-ops, actors and directors – such as Nellie Rickie, Cleo Grant, Harry Haddy, Valerie Wilson, Cliff Mossop and Tim O’Sullivan -- moved among the various groups, as did elocution teachers Myra Leard and Montgomery Stuart.

An ALP initiative, the Theatre of the Hammer planned to build a hall in Newtown but the scheme seems to have come to nothing. Its Socialisation Drama and Art Group put on a double bill at the Bridge Theatre (later The Hub): Sean O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman plus a piece about coalminers. The performance suffered from paucity of material resources and actor training. “Despite encouragement from the back rows” two of the four players could not be heard. Carrie Tennant’s Community Playhouse in Forbes Street Darlinghurst premiered new Australian writing such as Leslie Haylen’s anti-war Two Minutes’ Silence.

The WAC’s biggest competitor for audiences was the Friends of the Soviet Union Dramatic Society (FSU), formally established in March 1932. The FSU and WAC often staged the same Soviet plays, and the latter was resentful of the richer organisation from whom it sometimes had to hire chairs and a piano.

Established in 1930, the FSU was well-heeled with a wide support base, had its own hall, and, until it was banned in 1940, published its own journal Soviets Today generously illustrated with photos from the USSR. Members of its drama group were encouraged to write for weekly agit-prop nights. Longer works were developed from overseas news stories such as the 1931 naval mutiny at Invergordon, and the 1931 Scottsboro case where nine Negro teenagers were convicted on charges of rape (comedian Groucho Marx supported the American Communist Party’s campaign for clemency).

Presented by the Roving Reds in Brisbane and several times in Sydney in 1933 was Albert Thompson’s The Moscow Trial of the Metro-Vickers Workers. Stalin’s Five Year Plans needed technical expertise and Metropolitan Vickers Electrical Company engineers were brought from England to work on Russian power stations. When some turbines were found to be faulty the engineers were charged with sabotage. Western powers denounced the proceedings as a show trial using despicable tactics. The FSU piece took the Soviet line, marking the scene changes with actors holding up placards accusing the imperialist Press of churning out slanderous lies.

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