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A short history of State Theatre

The story of State Theatre Company South Australia is an extraordinary one, told over 50 years and through more than 400 productions. In 2022, we celebrate fifty years since the 1972 landmark legislation established the company as the state’s leading theatre company. 

The story of State Theatre Company South Australia is “as much social and political as it is artistic and literary,” writes Adelaide journalist Peter Ward in A Singular Act, a documented history of the company.

“Its genesis involved an unusual, and indeed at times exotic, melange of Adelaide identities – lawyers, scholars, teachers, poets, publicists, theatre directors, actors, politicians and public servants.”

The South Australian Theatre Company was established in 1965, under the artistic direction of John Tasker. But it wasn’t until 1972, under the initiative of then Premier Don Dunstan, that the State Theatre Company of South Australia Act was passed by State Parliament, and the company took its current name.

Two years later, the company became the resident theatre company of the newly built Adelaide Festival Centre, performing mostly in The Dunstan Playhouse. At the time, we were the first state theatre company in Australia to hold its entire operations in one purpose-made building.

In 1977, Magpie Theatre was established as the youth arm of the company. It was lost in 1997, partially due to loss of funding after reconstruction of Arts SA.

Under the artistic direction of Jim Sharman, the company was renamed Lighthouse and acted as an ensemble theatre company with twelve actors: Robynne Bourne, Peter Cummins, Melissa Jaffer (replaced in 1983 by Jacqy Phillips), Alan John (also composer in residence), Gillian Jones, Melita Jurisic, Russell Kiefel, Stuart McCreery, Robert Menzies (replaced by Robert Grubb), Geoffrey Rush, Kerry Walker and John Wood.

From 1996 when she was artistic director, Chris Westwood subtitled the company Australian Playhouse, with the goal of presenting only Australian works until the end of the century. However, Westwood resigned under pressure at the end of 1997, and the company returned to a more orthodox season.

Through its many changes, the Company’s history charts the evolution of an arts organisation that is a vital part of the state’s cultural life.

Over the years, we have of course matured, grown and developed, building a legacy in collaboration with, and through the support of our audiences, donors and partners.

Our aim will always be to provide a platform for expression, opportunities for South Australian creatives and to make theatre that takes us outside of ourselves to shared moments in which we might recognise ourselves and think, “that’s me,” or at times, “I wish that was me.”

In 2022, we’ll be sharing many moments from the company’s 50-year history, and sharing in the celebration with our community of artists, supporters, partners, donors and friends.

Check out some of our memories of 50 years of State Theatre Company South Australia.