It seems apt that the smallest suburb in Brisbane is recognised as the heartland of Queensland’s ‘Little Theatre Movement.’ Originating in Europe in the late 1880s, one of the main objectives of the Little Theatre Movement is to provide amateur actors and playwrights a platform to hone their skills in front of a live audience.
Petrie Terrace is home to the Brisbane Arts Theatre, which opened its doors in 1961 and became the first theatre company to operate within its own premises.
Similarly, the former La Boite Theatre at 69 Hale Street made history in 1972 as the first arena style venue to be built in Australia. Designed by prominent architect Blair Wilson, it was constructed for the Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society.
La Boite holds the title of Australia’s longest continuous running theatre company.
Both the Brisbane Arts Theatre and La Boite are well documented for their significant role in the development of the arts in Queensland. These important entities owe their longevity to the commitment of Brisbane’s fervent thespians, who followed their dreams to keep live performances active in an era when cinema was booming.
The following is a brief overview of La Boite and its place in Petrie Terrace’s history.
La Boite under the spotlight
Miss Barbara Sisley, born in 1878 at Streatham, England was the driving force behind establishing the Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society in 1925.
Barbara immigrated to Melbourne at a young age with her parents and two sisters. Her father Thomas Sisley was a civil service clerk and a qualified teacher of speech. He taught elocution in Melbourne and Barbara was one of his pupils. No stranger to literature and theatre, after completing her studies at Manuel College, Barbara pursued her desire to become a stage actress.
In 1916 the company she was touring with disbanded in Brisbane. Left on her own, she quickly rented a house in Petrie Terrace and took in boarders to help raise money. Making the most of her professional skills, Barbara approached Brisbane’s finest schools to offer her services as a speech and drama teacher.
She later opened a successful speech training and dramatic art studio in the city. Many of her students went on to become highly regarded drama teachers and actors. One of these people was Jean Trundle, who founded the Brisbane Arts Theatre with her husband Vic Hardgraves, but more about that a later date.
During the final years of World War I, Sisley set up the ‘Barbara Sisley Players’, with the aim to provide her students with the opportunity to perform in front of an audience. Another feather in her cap, Barbara was also instrumental in starting the ‘Brisbane Shakespeare Society’ in 1920.
By the early 1920s, Brisbane was a thriving cultural hub. Firmly entrenched in the live theatre scene, records show art patrons had more than 100 opening nights to select from. Some of the venues to take in a show included the Princess Theatre, Theatre Royal, His/Her Majesty’s Theatre and Albert Hall.
Wanting to further her studies, Sisley returned to England during 1923. Immersed in the British repertory movement and seeing productions firsthand, are believed to have motivated her to set up a repertory theatre in Brisbane.
In 1925, Barbara formed the Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society with Professor J.J. Stable. Their stated objective was:
“to stimulate public interest and to promote public education in the drama and to promote and encourage the study and development of the best in dramatic literature and art.”
(Sourced from La Boite website – Christine Comans)
Professor J.J.Stable, Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Queensland, President of the Queensland University Dramatic Society (Dramsoc) and passionate about Australian writing, took little persuading when asked by Sisley for his support in the creation of a repertory theatre company in Brisbane.
(Sourced from La Boite website – Christine Comans)
The Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society’s inaugural production was held on the 31st of July, 1925 at the prestigious Theatre Royal. Directed by Sisley, ‘The Dover Road’ by A.A. Milnes was a showstopper and paved the way for the ensemble’s success.
Sisley was an industrious senior producer, who directed 57 productions. She acted in many major roles, provided mentorship to others, arranged regional tours and was a respected General Committee member.
At the age of 67, Barbara was hit by a taxi in the city and tragically passed away on November 17, 1945.
Barbara Sisley is a celebrated pioneer of Australian theatre, who inspired others, especially women, to follow their passion for drama and to establish live theatre venues. Her legacy lived on through the Barbara Sisley scholarships, which were set up in 1947 by the Speech and Drama Teachers’ Association of Queensland.
Between Barbara and Professor Stable, they fought hard to keep theatre alive throughout The Great Depression and World War II. Unafraid to confront audiences with challenging topics, they welcomed contemporary works and supported local playwrights.
Queensland owes a great deal to Sisley and Stable for their unwavering investment in the arts community. They provided steadfast leadership, stability and personal drive to secure the future of the Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society.
Picking up the reigns, the Society’s president, council members and directors worked tirelessly to keep the momentum successfully rolling along. One change was the name, in 1946 it was slightly altered to the Brisbane Repertory Theatre.
Brisbane’s love of entertainment flourished, and plays continued to be performed in theatres across the city. Eventually the demise of performance spaces and the lack of affordable venues led the way for the Brisbane Repertory Theatre to source their own playhouse.
Receiving no luck with government funding, a premises fund appeal was launched in 1956, and by the end of the year had raised £300. Though it wasn’t until 1957, when Babette Stephens became the Brisbane Repertory’s Council President and a year later the Theatre Director, that things gained momentum.
Under Babette’s guidance, memberships improved, and the number of shows were increased. Now in a financially healthy position, in 1959 they acquired three adjoining houses in Hale and Sexton Streets. On 23 June, 1967, after converting one of the dwellings into a box-like performance space, the first La Boite theatre opened at 57 Hale Street.
A theatre-in-the-round, it offered an intimate 70 seat setting, with audiences on all four sides of the stage. The opening night production was John Osborne’s drama ‘Look Back in Anger’, directed by Babette. From 1967 to 1971 there were 38 productions.
Outgrowing the space, in the early 1970s Theatre Director Jennifer Blocksidge and her husband, Council President Bruce Blocksidge, initiated the idea to plan a new building.
The plan for an architect designed, modestly budgeted 200 seat theatre-in-the-round became a reality in 1971 with a generous Queensland Government subsidy. Architect Blair Wilson and his company headed the project and the new La Boite Theatre opened on 10 June 1972 with a gala performance of an Australian play, Rodney Milgate’s A Refined Look at Existence directed by Jennifer Blocksidge and starring Bille Brown. (La Boite website)
Blair Wilson – architect
Blair Wilson was a ground breaking and eminent Brisbane architect. During his career he was the inspiration behind numerous iconic buildings in Queensland. His works include the Greek Orthodox Church at South Brisbane, the Stanthorpe Civic Centre, Kindler Theatre at QUT and of course, La Boite Theatre in Petrie Terrace. He was also the President of the Brisbane Repertory Theatre from 1973 to 1976.
Blair was awarded the 1972 Clay Brick Award for the creative use of the distinctive dark brick. The irregular-shaped (reject) bricks were selected to help reduce building costs. Blair’s achievement featured in The Australian Women’s Weekly, June 6, 1973.
Brisbane heritage register
The building construction was financed by a dollar-for-dollar grant of $40 000 from the State Government in November 1971. The ‘dream theatre’ designed by Blair Wilson was originally costed at $100,000, but it was found possible to reduce this to the available budget of $80,000 and retain the original design. This was done by modifying some details, reusing lighting and sound equipment from the old building and reducing costs for materials and finishes. (Brisbane City Council)
Final curtain at Petrie Terrace
The theatre operated at 69 Hale Street for 30 years before relocating in 2001 to Kelvin Grove. True to Sisley and Stable’s intentions, it is a long standing platform for innovative, contemporary and challenging plays. Proudly, La Boite will celebrate its 100th year of operation in 2025.
Name changes over the years
Originally Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society
1945 – Brisbane Repertory Theatre
1967 – often referred to as Brisbane Repertory’s La Boîte Theatre (French spelling)
1977 – marketed as La Boîte
1993 to 2003 official title was La Boite Theatre (La Boite without the umlaut has been consistently used by the Company since the early 1980s)
Moving to Kelvin Grove in 2004 – it became La Boite Theatre Company
Barbara Sisley – Australian Dictionary of Biography
La Boite website
John Oxley Library – Vale Blair Wilson
Entertainment in Brisbane – Recollections by The President Norman S. Pixley
La Boite Theatre 1925 to 2003 An Historical Survey of its Transformation from an Amateur Repertory Society to an Established Professional Company – Christine Anne Wilmington Comans
Little Theatre: Its Development, Since World War II in Australia, with Particular Reference to Queensland – Jennifer J. Radbourne
Brisbane City Council – Heritage Register