Noticing how under-utilised La Boite's performance space was during the day, an actor, Peter Morris, suggested the idea of a children’s theatre to Jennifer Blocksidge which would bring school audiences into the theatre during school hours. In typical fashion, she planned strategically for this new venture. Initial discussions with the Queensland Education Department led her to the conclusion that “pre-school children not committed to strict curriculum would most benefit from such a scheme” (The Courier Mail, February 26 1975).
Blocksidge targeted two people whose support would be crucial for the project to go ahead – Arthur Creedy, Director of Cultural Activities and Gerald Ashby, Director of Pre-school Education for Queensland. Her discussions with Creedy and Ashby proved fruitful and a grant was forthcoming to employ three actors for four weeks to plan and create two programs in-the-round for pre-schoolers. She received enthusiastic support for the idea from the Kindergarten Teachers Training College, the Creche and Kindergarten Association and the Directors of kindergartens around Brisbane. The pilot scheme, comprehensively evaluated by teachers, actors, Brisbane Repertory’s Council and the Queensland Education Department, was a success and gave Blocksidge the ammunition she needed to submit a plan and a budget for a year’s program to the Queensland Education Department and the Australia Council’s Theatre Board.
By March 1975 she was able to announce in her Director’s Report that the State Government had granted them $15,000 and the Australia Council $5,500 “to launch our first Professional Theatre in Pre-School Education”. That it was self-funding was important, as La Boite’s Council was wary of this Blocksidge-driven venture into professionalism. “The Council in those days said they could not in any way tolerate the existence of ECDP unless it was funded separately and completely self-supporting”, recalled Blocksidge in an interview with Jennifer Radbourne, July 17, 1978. The arrangement with the Education Department was that seconded teachers would have their wages paid by the Department.
Called ‘The Early Childhood Drama Project’ (ECDP) it was up and running in 1975 under the leadership of Phil Armit, a trained teacher from the early childhood sector. Its immediate success was heartening to Blocksidge who was able to proudly proclaim in her Director’s Report that after its first year of operations it was “the first true Theatre-in-Education Team to be working in Queensland and specialising in Pre-school and Grade 1 children”. ECDP’s early days were not free from detractors within the Repertory community however, and their concerns were largely related to the professional versus amateur debate already underway. Blocksidge responded:
Some of you have asked what the ECDP has got to do with Rep … It’s educational and we aren’t a school; and it’s professional and we’re amateurs. My answer to you is this. It has everything to do with Rep. – its professionalism is ensuring that the basic introduction that children in this community are given to theatre – and particularly this theatre – is as good and as sound as we can make it … Get ‘em young – and keep ‘em! (Director’s Report, March 15 1977, Fryer Library, UQ, Brisbane Repertory Theatre Collection)
Over the years, ECDP’s reputation for its touring and in-house programs grew, as did its team numbers and range of activities – “The work being carried out by this group is unique in Australia” said Michael FitzGerald in 1976, then the Australia Council’s Youth Officer (ibid.).
ECDP continued to be part of La Boite until 1982, employing many Brisbane actors and teacher-artists including Doug Anderson, Narelle Arcidiacono, Gaynor Ashbolt, Chris Burns, Brian Cavanagh, Tricia Circosta, Liz Ferrier, Robert Fitzwalter, Margery Forde, Monica Gilfedder, Margaret Goss, Paul Haseler, Graeme Hattrick, Christine Hoepper, Gillian Hyde, Lil Kelman, Desley Kirkegaard, Sally McKenzie, Warren Meacham, Sean Mee, Peter Penwarn, Roger Rosser, Linda Sproul, Helen Strube, Robyn Sutton, Delwyn Trigger, Penny Wissler and Joe Woodward. After 1982 it broke all ties with the Theatre and re-invented itself as KITE, a renowned company that continued, for many years, the work in early childhood drama begun over thirty years ago.
Writer: Christine Comans